Simple Living Aspirations

Anyone who knows me, knows that I rarely sit and do one thing at a time. While I read, I walk around. While I watch TV, I cross stitch. While I work on school-related things, I listen to podcasts. My grandma once asked me if my hands were ever still. Nope. As I mentioned before, I have a mild obsession with making goals and moving full steam ahead. How do I balance that with an almost equally strong desire to simplify, to cut out the extraneous noise and stress.

I will look at where I have been before looking at how that applies to decisions as I move forward. Most obviously, my desire to achieve has manifested as an obsession with making goals. Without a goal, even a patently obviously unattainable goal, I feel aimless and restless. I am the odd duck motivated by achievement badges that can be collected in obscure stretches of cyberspace for any number of different activities. For example, every year since becoming a member of Goodreads, I have set a reading goal and adjusted it if I surpassed the original goal or if it looked like I wouldn’t be able to complete the goal. I know of no other person on the planet who might care that I met, did not meet, or surpassed my goal.

This tendency is not without a dark side. I have seen myself pursue a worthless, completely unimportant goal at the expense of time spent on things that truly matter. For example, several times I have downloaded games like Mahjong, gotten hooked on passing each level with all three stars, looked up to discover that an hour had passed and only after weeks of this abruptly deleted the app because I could not wean myself from the arbitrary goals. It’s this that usually prompts my simple living aspirations.

I read blog posts about people who have eliminated many distractions and wonder what I could get done if I stopped habitually checking Facebook every time I have a free minute. Simplifying the noise that crowds my mind appeals to me. There comes the dilemma. I still think in terms of “what I could get done.”

How do I balance the two seemingly conflicting desires? How do I select the best of both worlds? How do I eliminate the damaging business of trying to do too much while preserving the deeply personally beneficial drive to experience life to the fullest through that which I accomplish?

Those are questions to which I have no simple answer. (Please pardon the pun. I could no resist.) This is where I believe that my simple living aspiration can be most beneficial. As I move forward, I hope to apply the desire to eliminate all stress to and properly prioritize the choices of how I spend my time. For me, I believe that diligent application of this concept will help eliminate negative stress as well as bring further clarity.

I hope to return to this periodically through the coming year.

Feeling Left Behind

As the oldest grandchild on both sides of my family, I accomplished a lot of firsts for the new generation. I was the first born, obviously, the first to go to school, the first the graduate from high school and then college. As I entered adulthood these firsts slowed until they now have trickled into nothingness. That has led to the subject of this essay, feeling left behind. Before I delve into the topic, I must disclose that I have no concrete answers, only thoughts and musings.

As a high schooler, I had plans, dreams about how my life would unfold. I have discussed this in previous essays so I will not repeat myself excessively. I bring up that point to place that propensity in context. These dreams frequently included all sorts of achievements I desired, things to cross off a bucket list before I became acquainted with the term. My dreams followed these activities to the furthest extent the activities could reach.

In reality though, I often shrunk back from actually pursuing that day dream, content to persist in the status quo for its familiarity. Perhaps I believed that reality could never approach the brilliance of that dream. Perhaps I assumed that these various amazing things would just materialize. I stuck with what I knew was achievable for myself while still dreaming of the impossible.

I write now just beyond ten years after graduating from college. Many of the life events I expected to happen have yet to occur. I expected that I would move out of my house when I married and purchased a home with my husband. In reality, I write this entry in my bedroom in the same house I have lived in since my junior year of high school. The room may have changed but the martial status of the occupant, single, has not changed. I expected that I would have at least two children, one of them a girl to whom I could pass on the middle name “Louise.” As I have not married, I do not have any children.

I think about the things I just described when looking at the lives of my cousins and other people I grew up with. I realized recently that out of the eight grandkids on my mother’s side, I am the only one that lives in the same house they lived in at high school graduation except the one who has not yet graduated. The next youngest cousin, age 20, got married this summer and recently closed on a house. Then I found out that another cousin and his wife are in the process of closing on a house that looks they hope to probably turn into an airbnb rental in a few years. By comparison, I look at my own goal of purchasing a house only when I can pay for the whole thing in cash and realize how far away it seems since I have yet to fully fund my emergency fund.

Then there’s the profound FOMO (fear of missing out) generator known as Facebook. Through Facebook I see long single friends become engaged and other former classmates announce pregnancies. The dangers of Facebook-generated envy could fill many pages of another essay.

At the end of the day I must face reality and the stark differences between reality and the dream. Occasionally, I give in to weakness and allow my thoughts to dwell on the differences and wonder why that long single friend can finally find someone to settle down with but I can’t. I feel miserable when I go down this path. That is no life, living for what could be and becoming bitter when things don’t go my way. That’s why, with God’s help, I have chosen a different path.

I am thankful that I do not have to stay in that bitter place. I struggle with how to express this while avoiding sounding trite and cliché. Now when these thoughts pass through my mind God reminds me that His plans are higher than mine, His thoughts far above anything my mind could imagine. I still feel left behind at times, wondering when my turn will come. Thanks to God, I do not need to stay there. He provides the faith and assurance necessary to continue stepping into the unknown.

Prone to Procrastination

Recently I noticed a proclivity for procrastination and negativity creep into my daily routine. If only “recently” meant the last week or two. Weeks past, I opened the door just a crack or maybe I just forgot to close it all the way. Like a persistent weed, this proclivity took root. Half-hearted attempts to change have succeeded only in removing the above ground stem and leaves.

Enough of the botany metaphor.

Before I sink my trowel into the dirt and remove the weed by its roots (okay, that’s the last time) I must identify and locate these roots.

I talked about this before, but I know that some of the trouble started the day I came back to school. It’s present in many or even most professions but it appears to be particularly endemic to the teaching profession, especially for those teaching in Title 1 schools.

I won’t go into specifics here. That’s been done before by someone else and done well. (I will add a link to the post if I am able to locate it again.) In fairly vague terms, I will say that many of the things that have happened this year, unfortunately, are not unusual for many Title 1 schools across the country.

We deal with inadequate administrative support when it comes to discipline. That support comes instead in the form of increased expectations on the teacher. “Rigor” has come close to becoming a four letter word for us. We have to deal with entirely inequitable student distribution between teams. As an ELA teacher at a school on the brink of failure, extra administrative support from the school and district has been “given” to me.

That barely scratches the surface. On top of the involuntary time commitments and expectations given to me, I have placed other things on my plate. I am part of Bike Club and Youth in Government, both of which require extra after school commitment. I am absolutely passionate about both of these. Then there’s my homebound student. I initially took the job to make up for a lack of afterschool income. However, after meeting and working with hi, I have become passionate about providing all the help, even if it is limited, I can give him.

All of this plays into the procrastination I find myself so prone to. At school, I often find myself talking to colleagues during breaks and afterschool. Unfortunately, most of these conversations serve only as a chance for us to get things off our chests. This feeds the depression. At home, I often arrive after 7 with things like grading and other work still left to do because meetings or class consumed my afternoon.

Even with all that left to do, each night I pop a bag of popcorn (not the single serve kind) and then plop down on the couch with my iPad. I tell myself that as soon as I finish the popcorn, I will get to work. Then I finish and look at the clock. So often, 8pm looms. The amount left do do mushrooms.

I look at everything I just wrote and everything seems hopeless. It appears that I have written a recipe for burnout. Without God, this would be a recipe to create a burnt out, bitter, two times education quitting woman. I am so thankful that God has been working in my life lately to take what humanly seems disastrous and turn it into beauty.

The bring back the botany metaphor, what will serve as the trowel I will use to root out the negativity weed? To most, my answer looks like a cop out. That “trowel” is God. I know that I am not able to do any of this on my own. I want to start by asking God to change my words, to help me not only avoid complaining but fill my mouth with encouragement to my students and my colleagues. Step two comes with asking God to mold my heart into a mode of receptivity especially with regard to administrative demands. Third, I am praying for God-given reminders to put myself last. To help shed the “I need chill time mindset” that infects more and more of my days.

Even in the light of tremendous adversarial odds, I have faith that God will provide the necessary strength and wisdom.

Connotation versus Denotation

As an English teacher and an author, words are my area of expertise, my happy place. My love for words goes way back. I often revel in the rich texture and complexity of words, the layers of connotation added by culture and personal experience.

Recently, I once again delved into discussions of connotation and denotation with my seventh graders. This concept often flies straight over their heads, the first time at least. Each time I teach this concept, I learn how to convey the information a little better. This year I related to my opening monologue and current mantra, “words have power.”

How do words wield that power? From what source comes that power? Simply put, words wield that power through connotation, the source of its power. We each bring our cultural associations and personal memories. When wielding that power we also need to be aware of the context in which we speak, deferring to our fellow human beings, whose story we do not know.

When teaching this lesson I asked how we would know the connotation of the words people speak to us. They correctly identified facial expressions and tone of voice. I then asked how we would know if those words were written down, not spoken. They struggled with this but gradually figured it out. We discern the connotation of a word based on what surrounds it, the context clues.

So many people struggle with understanding connotations, even adults, some may say especially adults. The day I taught my seventh graders briefly about connotation, my dad posted an article about the gentrification of Greenville. I happened to see this as I scrolled through Facebook and stopped to read the comments after a completely egregious response caught my attention.

This man made blanket, sweeping statements, as he often does, about a people group concerning the cause of their poverty. As I responded, I pointed out the connotations of his words and the logical fallacy of his argument. Each time he responded, he persisted in devotion to a distorted interpretation of the denotation of the word “most.” Not once did he acknowledge that other people have personal memories and emotions tied up in those sweeping racist aspersions cast under the cloak of the word, “most.”

I came away from that conversation full of pity and sorrow for this man I have never met in person. I have no idea what it must be like to live in a world devoid of color and meaning. This conversation, that at times brought me nearly to baldness, deepened my own understanding of connotation. When a person takes the time to pause and examine the context in which he speaks or listens not only will that person derive deeper, fuller meaning, but he will also develop compassion for and empathy with the other conversation participant, a fellow human being also made in the image of God.

By slowing down to ponder the connotation another person brings to the conversation, I lower myself. I do not persist in the fallacious belief that I have all the right answers. I do not push down others in an effort to prove that I am right by hammering others over the head with a dictionary. “Christmas” means a whole lot more than “the annual Christian festival celebrating Christ’s birth, held on December 25th in the Western Church” to someone who lost a loved one on that day.

It’s hard to build a relationship with someone if all you care about is proving your point. It is even more difficult to share the amazing grace of the Good News to a person who believes that you care nothing for their struggles. In the end, yes, connotation is a literary term taught in schools from upper elementary school through college. I could memorize what it means and even how to “use” it on a test to guess the meaning of a word. However, when I slow down and ponder its power and implications, I come away challenged to put others first, to listen well.

Words Have Power

The night before the first day of school I had my second brilliant eureka moment concerning this school year. The idea turned into a monologue that set the stage for what will no doubt be my best school year yet.

During our last teacher workday my principal held up a handful of pencils and told us that we would find some in our box the next morning to give to the students. Although those pencils failed to materialize, that comment planted the seed of an idea in my mind.

As I attempted to calm my mind enough to sleep, I started to imagine what I would say to each class after I handed them the pencils. I often daydream like this, perhaps it’s my overactive mind’s way of burning off all the excess thoughts spinning circles up there. What started as a half-formed thought became one of the most amazing moments of my teaching career so far, an experience repeated in each class period.

I introduced myself with a few pictures and then told them that I was about to introduce them to ELA. I walked over to my desk and picked up one of my own mechanical pencils.

“What is this?” I asked.

“A lead pencil,” many of them answered, unsure of where I was going with this.

“It’s pretty ordinary right? I could probably break it if I wanted to but I don’t; I like my pencils. What if I told you this is the most powerful tool in the world?”

When I paused for effect, no one answered. I had them right where I wanted. The feeling was so surreal. That level of engagement, which continued to deepen, nearly overwhelmed me. I have trouble thinking of another time that has ever happened in my classroom before.

I continued.

“This pencil can be wielded to write words and words have power. Take for example, my name. I’m sure that most of you thought it difficult to pronounce when you first read it on your schedule. Who has ever heard of Armenia?”

Unsurprisingly, not a single student had. When I asked if any had ever heard of the Khardashians, it was a far different story.

“Armenia is a small country to the east of Turkey. Remember Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire from social studies last year? Well, back during the time of WWI, Armenia was part of the Ottoman Empire, an empire that was dying. A new group gained power and decided that the way to fix their country was to get rid of everyone who wasn’t Turkish or Muslim.”

I had literal chills at this point when I looked out and saw the connections being made in the minds of my students, connections to history or perhaps even current events.

“Over the next four years between 900,000 and 1.5 million Armenians perished in what is considered to be the first genocide of the 20th century. My great-grandparents came to this country mere years before this started but I grew up knowing this tragic history by heart. My parents divorced when I was 10 so I grew up with my mom’s family, the Armenian side. I didn’t inherit the looks or the name but I wanted so much to identify with my heritage. I went to a lawyer, paid several hundred dollars and then my request went before a judge, all to change my last name. That’s just one word, right?”

“But words have power!” many of them responded.

“Yes! Words have power. That’s what ELA is all about this year, learning how to wield that power responsibly.”

I get chills just remembering that moment, that moment that carried outside of class when another teacher told me that a student had talked about the fact that words have power.

As I step back and reflect on those moments, I realize that this may have been the turning point for me, the point when I became passionate about the weighty prospect of teaching English Language Arts to these amazing kids. This year will, hands down, be the best year yet.

These words have power.

When Reality Intrudes – Homelessness

Every time I travel to San Francisco for the marathon, I encounter homelessness on a scale that I have not encountered any where else in my travels. Obviously, San Francisco is not the only city in the United States with a significant homeless population or even the city with the highest population. However, I see it prominently displayed in San Francisco, especially as we walk down Market Street.

At first this made me uncomfortable. I did not know what to do when I walked down Market Street the first time in 2012. Every few feet I saw another person lying huddled against the wall with a mound of belongings beside them. I did not know what to think about seeing a person pick through an overflowing garbage can. I had never encountered homelessness on a level like this before.

I wish that i could say that simple ignorance caused my discomfort. That certainly contributed. However, a large part of my discomfort came from many of the most common fonts of prejudice. I could list all of the individual fonts but they all stem from the fact that I did not view these people as individual people with unique stories. I saw them as “the homeless,” one large amorphous group where every aspect applies to everyone in the group. For instance, all homeless have drug problems or mental issues. All homeless are lazy and don’t want to get off their butt to pull their own weight. Even writing that now makes me cringe.

All of those terrible stereotypes have something in common. Each one of those statements places responsibility on the shoulders of the other person, the “homeless.” Those statements absolve the speaker of the obligation to help his fellow man. They give permission for the speaker to walk on the other side of the road like the religious leaders in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Over the past several years, God has used various circumstances and people in my life to help me learn how to value each person. Every human life has value. When you believe that, you can no longer view any person as an amorphous label. Labels cannot withstand such scrutiny.

Now when I go to San Francisco and walk down Market Street, the sight of each person both breaks my heart and makes me think. I wonder what their story is, what happened to them and what choices they made.

On this most recent trip, we walked past something I have never before seen in person. We walked down Market, heading to Honey, Honey Café for breakfast. I looked ahead and saw a small cluster of people sitting on the street side of the wide sidewalk. One girl had her arms raised while another guy leaned towards her. My first thought was that she needed some sort of medical help. Then we walked closer. You could say that the help he prepared to give could remotely be considered medical. As we approached and then walked past the pair, I watched him hold up a syringe filled with a dark liquid. I saw no more than that yet I couldn’t help but think about the stark contrast between the blatant middle class privilege we exerted as we headed towards brunch and their life, a life that clearly robbed them of dignity for their own life leaving them with nothing but that dark liquid.

Later that same day, we kept walking past people fast asleep, completely in the open. Mom commented several times that she could never do that. Ellis asked why. Mom stated that she would never be able to fall asleep out in the open like that with no security. That provoked serious thought. I’ve never thought about what it would take for me to be able to sleep. I remembered a time when I did not feel secure while trying to sleep. The first time I traveled to the UK, I ended up staying overnight on the last night of the trip in the Heathrow airport so that I would not miss my flight. One café remained open all night. Several other travelers hung out in this café for the same reason. I tried to sleep using my bag as a pillow with all my things bunched tightly under the bag figuring that if anyone tried to take something, I would wake up. I dozed periodically but slept anything but deeply or for any length of time. I had no security. I cannot imagine what it takes to lose that need for security.

We also encountered people suffering, in addition to a lack of a home and the security it brings, from some sort of mental illness. I often struggle with my response in these situations. Sometimes I am literally scared such as a few years ago in San Francisco. Mom and I stopped at a Subway on our way to packet pick up. At one point Mom left the table to use the restroom. A homeless man entered and wandered towards our table. He mumbled something about money. I never carry cash so I told him, “I’m sorry. I don’t have anything.” He cursed at me and walked away although he did not leave the restaurant. Mom returned. The man still did not leave. He continued to shout and curse at me. We hadn’t finished but we immediately got up and left, looking over our shoulders multiple times. We had no idea what we would do if he followed us. Thankfully, he didn’t.

On this trip, we observed a man sitting on a bench outside the Starbucks on Embarcadero. He carried on a vociferous, colorful conversation that made no sense to outside observers. This conversation drove away anyone else who thought about sitting on those benches leaving the man all alone. My heart broke for him. Mom observed afterwards that so many people say that “the homeless” need to be willing to realize that they need help yet some life that man, have no idea that they need help. How could they be the ones to seek aid? We need to go to them, to see their need and extend a hand.

While I know this to be true and want it to be true of me, I struggle with the application. While in San Francisco, I thought about this. I thought about the needs of the people I saw and how to possibly help them. I have no idea how to apply any sort of practical solution.

Perhaps, in the end, this is not my crusade. One human cannot solve the whole world’s problems. That’s God’s job. No, I go back to the observation that compassion begins with viewing each person as valuable; every human has value, created in God’s image. This is what drives my passion for the immigrant, for my students. At the beginning of the school year, this serves as a powerful reminder for those times when that particular student seems to have no redeeming value.

Bottom line, every human life has value. We should acknowledge, respect and promote that value.

Loss Examined

On Sunday, July 9th, my grandmother passed away unexpectedly. According to the doctors, she suffered a silent heart attack the day before. Her body simply could not recover.

Obviously, I am not the first person to write on the subject of loss, nor will I share any unique or profound insights. However, I feel compelled to write, to ponder the significance and ramifications.

I spent my childhood at the Enjaian house, Grandma and Grandpa’s house or G and G’s. They came as a package deal. After school, one of them would pick my sister and me up and take us over to their house. We hung out there until supper, after which Mom took us home. Every holiday and birthday celebration took place at their house. Immediate family to me meant mom, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, and my grandparents.

For as large of a role that Grandma filled in my life, we were never that close. I knew from a young age that she favored my cousins, her son’s children. My sister and I bore the subconscious taint of our father’s misdeeds. I knew it, resented it for a bit but then got used to it. Grandma and I showed love different ways. We shared few interests in common. Honestly, I barely remember what our relationship was like before my aunt first started her battle with cancer.

During my junior year of college, my aunt underwent the first of several significant, disfiguring surgeries to remove a rare, recurring cancer in her jaw. (It wasn’t bone cancer. It was more rare than that, so rare that I do not remember the specific name.) Over the next seven years I watched this battle strengthen my aunt’s faith while my grandma grew weaker both physically and spiritually.

From that point, Grandma sank into worry and negativity. It became difficult to be around her which nearly killed me because avoiding her meant not spending time with Grandpa, one of my most favorite people in the world. I never totally physically separated from her. In fact, in some ways I was the grandkid who spent the most time in her company. Emotionally though? A gulf grew even as I watched. I loved her but I didn’t really like her. I rarely admitted that though.

After Ruth died, Grandma continued her descent. As she aged, she faced many typical ailments like hearing and sight loss. She chose not to fight them, at least that’s what her attitude conveyed to me. As her mobility decreased, her walk became a shuffle. So many times when this first started, I remember wishing she would just pick her feet up and work to regain the mobility. I saw her shuffling gait as a manifestation of her defeatism.

These post-2012 years also saw the growing up and leaving the nest of her grandkids. One cousin married a wonderful woman and moved to Maryland and then Maine. One cousin joined the Marines. Another cousin joined the Air Force. My sister moved to Chicago, a city she has, justifiably loved for years. This whole time I stayed put, still living in the same house that I have lived in for almost sixteen years. I watched my grandma bemoan the fact that all her grandchildren were leaving and didn’t talk to her anymore. I fought bitterness in myself when she said this while I sat across the table from her at the table every Monday night and most Sunday lunches. God used this to strengthen my faith and help me learn from my mother’s tireless compassion towards her own mother who constantly told her how tired she looked or that she was working too much.

I failed many times. I often grew irritated with her ignorant or prejudiced statements and snapped at her. I fought, many times unsuccessfully, the urge to pull away from her smothering hugs and kisses. Mom helped me learn that that was Grandma’s way of showing love.

In the midst of failure came growth. Over the past couple years God has been growing me, pointing out my weak points and giving me the wisdom and strength needed to improve my relationship with Grandma. He has given me the ability to take what has been a sore spot, my singleness and her chagrin at my lack of a husband and turn it into laughter. How could I not laugh when she asked me if I saw any handsome men on my runs and chased them or did they chase me? I laugh every time I think about it.

Then came Sunday, July 9th. I had just found Hamilton Park and the dueling grounds after blasting the Hamilton soundtrack on the drive from my airbnb. My phone started vibrating. Caller ID revealed it to be Mom. I answered excitedly, planning to ask her if we could Facetime so I could show her Manhattan across the river. I never asked her. She told me that they were at the ER> Grandma’s prognosis did not look good.

Although I did not think about it then, later I remembered the other time Grandma had a heart attack. Mom called to tell Laura and me while we were over at Dad’s house for the weekend. When I found out back then I panicked. I couldn’t imagine life without my grandma. I did not react that way a decade and a half later.

After talking to Mom, I hoped that everything would be fine, that nothing would interfere with Mom and Ellis’ anniversary trip or with Uncle Stephen and Aunt Joanna’s family vacation in Maine or my own current trip. I kept going with my itinerary for the day with the news constantly present in the back of my mind. Mom promised to text me if there were any updates. By the time I reached Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, I had not received any. Before I started walking around the historic cemetery, I sent a quick text to Mom, “any updates?” I did not expect her reply. While I stood in the cemetery, I read the news that Grandma’s heart gave out; she died.

The irony of my situation contributed to the surreality of the whole thing. I had head knowledge that Grandma died but things felt distant, disconnected. I stood in a cemetery in New York, hundreds of miles away from home. I thought that maybe things would come into focus, take shape when I got back home. On some levels, it still hasn’t.

I immediately asked Mom if she wanted me to cut my trip short and come home then. Honestly, I did not want to; I still hadn’t gotten to Maine, to Acadia National Park, the primary inspiration for the trip in the first place. I would do it for Mom though. I would do anything for her. I asked her if I could help her by coming home. She told me I was sweet to offer and then asked if I wanted to cut my trip short. Later she asked if I wanted them to factor my trip into the scheduling process for the funeral. I felt conflicted. I did not want to go to the funeral. The ceremony did not mean that much to me. I wondered what that meant that I did not want to go to my grandmother’s funeral. I asked Mom if it was wrong for me to feel this way. She told me no. She’s been on the listening end of many “debriefs” after encounters with Grandma. I told her not to factor my schedule into the planning. I figured that the funeral would likely be held on Thursday, the last day of my trip, the drive all the way back day.

I ended up rearranging my trip, cutting out some stops in Maine and shortening the trip by a day so that I could arrive home in time. I’m so thankful that I did. All eight cousins were together at the same time for the first time in years. I kept thinking about how Grandma would be both overjoyed and also mildly annoyed that it took her dying to finally have all eight of us spend time with her.

We had an amazing time that day, from recreating old cousins pictures to an hours long Apples to Apples game that had us laughing until our sides hurt. I’m glad that I made the arrangements to be there, for Mom’s sake, for Grandpa’s sake, for the sake of having the family all together. None of these reasons had anything to do with Grandma. They had to do with the people left behind, the people with whom I share a close emotional bond.

On many levels, Grandma’s passing brings relief. Grandpa can finally return to repairing printing presses, his happy place. Aunt Kathleen no longer has to endure the stress of working full time and still putting dinner on the table promptly at 6pm. Ginger, the dog, no longer has to deal with being yelled out for being a dumb dog. (Okay, that’s stretching it a bit too far.) When looking for a vacation place, we no longer had to make sure that the house had a master suit on the first floor with a minimal number of stairs.

All of those reasons rest on the surface. I have no idea how Grandpa is processing this loss. He and Grandma would have celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary at the end of this month. I cannot speak to what Grandma’s death means to Mom or her siblings. They’ve had their mom around their entire lives.

Where does this leave me?

I don’t know.

Nearly a month has passed since Grandma’s death. Things will evolve as the days progress. I hypothesize that in a few months, when the first Thanksgiving and Christmas roll around, we will have to deal with the ramification of the loss of the one person for whom family would gather to keep up the traditions.

Loss presents differently every time. I cannot help but wonder how I will feel and respond when the next family member died. No one lives forever.

It’s hard to close a post without concrete answers yet that is what I must do.

Responding to the Thin-Skinned

In March of 2016, I made the decision to leave the Greenville Track Club. I detailed that in a post on my old blog so I will not rehash that here. I left with the intent and hope of being able to rejoin should the dysfunction improve.

As of this past Memorial Day, it had not.

This year the GTC launched a new race, the Freedom Flyer 2 Miler. I knew right away that I had to run this race because not only do I have a compulsion to run all the races but it’s a new distance, ripe for a PR.

I thought for sure that even though it was a new race, a good number of people would show up. As the day approached I kept occasionally checking the two registration sites to see how many people had signed up. Come race day, that number barely topped two hundred. The pessimist in me expected this outcome. The optimist kept hoping for the last minute sign ups that didn’t come.

The unexpected conflict began, even though I did not know it, my review of the tribute put on by the race director. I know that his heart was in it, that he wanted to honor the fallen servicemen and women. However, a few things like technical difficulties obscured his intent. Mom summed it up well when she called it awkward. I did not phrase it as diplomatically as she did. Hindsight is always 20/20. I whipped out the words without realizing how they might appear to others, especially people who are not inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt.

I posted the link on the official GTC page with a cheery tagline expressing my very real hopes that this race would last at least 40 years like Reedy River. After I posted the recap, I headed to a baseball game and then dinner with family. I disconnected from my phone and didn’t see the comment until a few hours after she had posted.

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(I obscured names for privacy’s sake.)

When I read her comment, my jaw dropped. This criticism blindsided me. I had no idea what she was talking about. I looked back at the race review portion of my recap and came away even more confused about the intensity of her comment. I responded without remembering the sentence from early in the recap itself. When the second person commented, I realized the inaccuracies of what I had said when I spoke in my own defense.

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I wished that I hadn’t goofed and given him that opening. I wanted so much to defend myself but instead thanked him for the correction. I even went one step further and reworded the offending sentences.

Their response? The page administrator deleted the entire post.

How do I respond to this or something like this? What I write next looks a lot different than my original intent. I thank Mom for that. On our way to Life Group, the night on which I wrote part of this essay, we talked about teh whole incident. Often talking things out brings about clarity and wisdom. Instead of becoming confrontational or withdrawing completely, I will continue to run GTC races. However, in the future when I critique the race in my race review, I will go out of my way to edit and review my words. I will choose to respond in love.

A Chance to Start Over

Today marks the last official contracted day of my first year back in the classroom. Tomorrow, I leave for a long-awaited trip to England and Scotland. The parallels beg for comparison.

Six years ago I completed my last contracted day for the school year with the prospect of a trip of a lifetime to London and Paris. On June 6, 2011, I packed up all my things, checked everything off the list, grabbed my name tag, turned in my keys and left. At the time, I thought that I left more than just the building. That day I left teaching. A huge weight rolled off my shoulders. I walked with my back straight, no longer bent under the strain of what felt like too much for me to handle.

I end this year with a feeling completely unfamiliar for me in my teaching career. This time around has been like a complete restart. I compare it to a video game. I have been through this level before but I died before making it out of the level. I restarted the level with complete knowledge of what I did wrong and armed with increased maturity and additional tools.

To better analyze this refresh year, I want to compare this year to my first year. I marched into that classroom with grand ideas for just how well I would teach and how well everything would work. I had nerves, of course, but I also had a false sense of confidence. Reality quickly set in. That confidence melted away in a flash flood. When I came back to teaching, trepidation weighed down every step. I remember starting to cry on one of the work days thinking about how ill-prepared I felt for the coming year; I didn’t want to fail, again.

God blessed me with an amazing veteran teacher as a cohort who reached over, gave me a side hug and promised that we would get through this together. Phend, if you read this, thank you! I will miss you so much next year.

The first thing that punched a hole in my boat that original first year was classroom discipline. I started teaching at 23. I assumed that I had plenty enough life experience. I also knew that I would be able to handle discipline in the public school system despite my personal history at a private Christian school; I completed student teaching at Lakeview after all.

That very first semester God placed a student with an emotional disability in one of my classes. This boy had explosive anger that absolutely terrified me. I had no idea how to handle this. I had no clue what to do a student – or multiple students – treated my instructions with utter contempt. My mind simply could not understand the fact that these kids would choose disobedience or defiance. Too often I reached the end of my rope and resorted to raising my voice, most often in threats I could not back up. The kids sensed my fear and capitalized on it. Each day I woke with dread.

This year I learned from the mistakes of the past. Things have not been perfect; I can look back and identify areas of improvement. The overall experience, however, has been completely different. This time, I was mindful as much as I could, to keep my voice on an even keel and to follow through with the procedures I established. There was a time with my sixth period lovelies that all I could see was a continued downward spiral into history repeating itself. The difference this year came in my cry for help. While things were far from perfect with that class, I know that the students have more respect for me and that I have a grasp on even more tools in my tool kit.

Another thing that left me feeling like I was hung out to dry my first year was the fact that I, as a related arts teacher, lacked a team on which I could rely. Granted, Beck, as an International Baccalaureate School, placed a heavy emphasis on language learning; every student took a language class each year. That meant that Beck employed 3 full-time language teachers: two Spanish and one French. Although we met fairly often, we did not plan together as my cohort and I did every week this past restart year. Rather, I spent countless hours preparing four separate lesson plans every week. I taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade exploratory as well as Spanish 1. That alone consumed hours of my evening and weekend time.

In contrast, this year I benefited greatly from a fantastic team, cohort teacher and co-teacher. I relied heavily on my cohort teacher and her twelve years of experience at Lakeview, especially at the beginning of the year. I cannot adequately express just how grateful I am for all her support and patience. I remember promising several times at the beginning of the year that I would start pulling my weight. She always responded with a smile and assurance that it was no problem at all.

Then there’s my team. We jelled from day one. We hit the ground running and proved as the only core team without a male teacher that women can more than get the job done. We took our school’s motto of TEAM – Together Everyone Accomplishes More – and proved it. Even though three out of the four of us started the year brand new to Lakeview and one brand new to teaching altogether, no one would be able to tell. I knew that I could rely on them. We made decisions together. This level of support and camaraderie exists rarely. I feel privileged to have been a part of it this past year and thankful for the prospect of another year working together.

I ended that first year with the plan to spend the summer digging into books on classroom management, desperately hoping to find a way to salvage my teaching career. I did not want to spend another year as exhausted, frustrated and burnt out as the year before. I dreaded the oncoming of another school year because no matter how much time I planned to spend preparing, I knew that I would not feel prepared enough.

This year, however, I end the year with satisfaction. I plan to spend my non-travel days this summer working on my teaching as a whole, taking the next steps in becoming the best teacher I can be. In between my four trips – yes, I like to travel – I will be taking two grad classes to obtain a GT (Gifted and Talented) Endorsement as well as working on my long-range plans for the year. (In fact, although I tried to work ahead, I will be taking grad work with me to London!) I am looking towards the upcoming year with anticipation.

At the end of this reflection, I have to acknowledge just how grateful I am to God’s work in my life over these past eight years. No other human explanation suffices.

Traveling on a Teacher’s Salary

So far in this blog’s short history, I have talked a lot about both traveling and personal finance. most of those posts have focused on the how. This post focuses on the why.

Why do I choose to spend a comparatively high percentage of my income on travel and everything that goes along with it? Why does the prospect of actually being in a place that holds historical significance fill me with nearly inexpressible joy and wonder?

As a child I temporarily satisfied my thirst for exploration with books. I read books from diverse settings in both time and place. While I read those books and often much after I finished those books, I lived in my imagination, personally taking the place of a beloved character in the events the author did not yet describe in the book.

As I moved into adulthood, simply imagining these places was no longer quite enough. As a newly minted eighteen year old, my traveling adventures began with a high school graduation trip, my first trip north of the Mason Dixon line, to New York City.

In stunned awe I took in the sights and sounds of the city, of things I had seen on Friends and in “You’ve Got Mail.” Places like Central Park and Times Square stunned me with their diverse beauty. I stood in silent reverence on the site of the former Twin Towers and signed my name to a remembrance wall for those who had perished merely twenty-one months before. I craned my neck to see Lady Liberty’s torch. I called my grandpa in giddy glee from Ellis Island to ask when his mother immigrated only to find out that she actually came through Boston. I ate lunch where Harry met Sally and slowly melted in the bleachers of old Yankee Stadium to chants of “1918” as the Yankees faced the Red Sox.

Many vivid memories remain from that trip. A lifelong passion found expression. For the next several years as I progressed in my education my father subsidized my travel. First came our trip to Washington, DC, a fitting trip for a recent Bachelor’s in History graduate. I reveled in the history that abounds in our nation’s capital from the Smithsonian Museums to Mount Vernon and Monticello. Two years later, Dad and I took off on a graduation road trip in which we visited twenty-five states in fourteen days. That trip included sites like Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, Jackson Square in New Orleans, the Grassy Knoll, the 6th Floor Museum in Dealy Plaza, the Oklahoma City Memorial, Pike Place Market and the original Starbucks, the Ingalls’ Homestead in South Dakota, Mount Rushmore and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois.

I could spend pages describing all of the places that God has given me the privilege of visiting. None of those descriptions would even approach being able to describe the thrill I felt, for example, when my tour bus first crested a hill and I glimpsed the iconic pillars of Stonehenge. These few paragraphs, however, more than prove my point.

One of my favorite financial bloggers, Frugalwoods, best describes how I have chosen to finance my passion. If your main goal is to travel the world, pause before you buy that diet Dr. Pepper and ask yourself whether you would rather spend that money on the drink or on traveling the world that God has created. (Obviously, I rephrased her point with examples more applicable to myself.) This question and my answers to that question have helped fund further adventures and have helped me better explain what drives how I spend my money.

I started thinking about this post during a recent department meeting. In that meeting one of the items on the agenda was determining the date on which we would gather in the summer for planning, an extra day for which we would be compensated by Title I funds. After I disclosed that I would be on a plane headed to London the day following the last teacher work day, everyone started considering the day before I left as the primary option. While that would be convenient, we would not get paid for that day because it was a regular contract day. I will also add that my disclosure of my London trip was met by the usual casually jealous comments. Those comments, which i hear all the time, quickly paled in comparison to a specific comment from another coworker. I asked if we could consider a non-contract day so that we could be paid like those from other departments will be. She told met hat I would not notice that $150 in my paycheck, not after all the taxes were taken out. It really wasn’t that much.

Many things went through my head then and also permeated discussions of that comment, which she made several times throughout the remainder of that meeting. Most of those thoughts initially centered on speculation that privilege on her part led to the comment. While that certainly factored in, I believe that there also may be a cultural norm ascribing privilege to all those who are able to travel, especially overseas. Many times the other participants in conversations about my travel wish that they had enough money for such adventures or wonder how I can afford so much travel on a teacher’s salary. Perhaps that factored into my coworker’s inaccurate statement. Perhaps she assumed that because I could afford a European vacation, I would not notice the extra $150 in my paycheck.

On the contrary, I can afford a European vacation because I pay attention to every penny in my paycheck. I have never earned a large salary in my entire working career. According to my Social Security records (which you can access by setting up a free account on their website), I have only twice earned above thirty thousand dollars in a calendar year and even then just barely. Those numbers do not scream privilege yet God has blessed me with no debt, a head for numbers and a steady, sufficient income.

Over the years I have made travel a priority. I am also debt adverse. Those two main motivations have helped me travel far more than many might think possible. Sometimes that meant postponing the trip because I had not yet saved a sufficient amount. Sometimes that meant choosing a less expensive attraction like the Chicago Symphony rather than Hamilton with Wayne Brady playing Aaron Burr. All the time it means planning and budgeting well. For example, that London trip? Both Mom and I contributed to saving for it. The final budget came out to $5100 for two people. So far I have spent $4100 of that budget with the only things left to purchase being transportation (like the Underground and one or two Uber rides), food, and a few small souvenirs. We will likely end up spending less than $5,000 for two people to travel to England and Scotland for a total of eleven days including travel time.

That is how I can afford to travel on a teacher’s salary. I prioritize my spending by reminding myself about my ultimate goal. I prioritize how I spend my time by planning ahead of time, both the trip and my budget. I look for ways to maximize experience while minimizing the expense. The next time you start to say that you can’t do something and give in to jealousy of someone who can, redirect that effort into finding what truly brings you joy and figuring out how, not if, you’ll get there.