The Gun Post

On Wednesday, February 14, Valentine’s Day, once again, another normal school day erupted into tragedy. Seventeen families lost someone they loved. Social media devolved into fractious shouting matches slinging words like hand grenades as they turn away, cover their ears and protect themselves from the fall out. Few stop to mourn. Fewer still pause to calmly gather the data, listen to the stories, evaluate the evidence and make the changes this reflection prescribes. Beneath all the noise lies the truth, a harder yet ultimately more comforting truth than many are willing to face. The answer to violence is never more violence. Only when we stop selfishly clinging to our own lives and misguided imaginings will we be able to confront the evil in this world most recently manifested as a troubled 19-year-old boy returning to his former high school and taking seventeen lives.

Our misguided imaginings take shape through manipulated facts and logical fallacies. These misguided facts fall on both sides of the debate. For example, an article has circulated declaring that in the first seven weeks of 2018 there have been 18 school shootings. Many conservatives leapt on that article, quick to point out that some of those incidents included things like an accidental fire when a third grader pressed the trigger of a school security officer’s gun and unrelated shootings such as a robbery that happened to occur in a school parking lot. Those on the other side take the number and distort the facts by letting others assume that “shootings” mean incidences of mass casualties, like that which happened at Parkland. The group that collected the data defined their criteria as “any time a firearm discharges a live round inside a school building or on a school campus or grounds.”.

Other fact distortion comes with incomplete evaluation of the data. For example, one article I read harped on the fact that 30 years ago students brought their guns to school for target practice and nothing like this happened because society and their parents taught them well. Leaving aside the logical fallacies which I will address in the following paragraph, this particular article presented an incomplete argument through distorted facts. First, the article’s author includes photos from the 1960s and 70s. Thirty years ago was 1988. Columbine occurred merely eight years later. Second, the author drops in the sentence that automatic weapons like the AR15 were available back then before walking away leaving the reader to fill in the pieces. The author makes no mention of the specific availability of the weapon, the design of weapons available at the time or any other specific data. The reader ends up filling in the gaps with personal knowledge and assumptions.

The distortion of facts leads quickly to logical fallacies aided by a refusal to listen and participate in civil discourse. I have encountered a couple of examples of these fallacies. First, many rush to the generalization that we must arm teachers because the reason these lunatics target schools is because they know that schools are gun free zones. This line of thinking perfectly exhibits the peril of hasty generalization. People who indulge in this fallacy fail to consider the fact that these perpetrators, for the most part, are not spree killers. These perpetrators choose these targets because they have been bullied or have some other sort of grudge, some other offense has been perpetrated against them in their mind. They have a motive for choosing the school.

Second, I personally encountered an attack from someone in my church, on social media, via the logical fallacy of a false dichotomy. This person asked if I would not be willing to protect my students after I stated that I would never carry a gun or use one to take the life of another person. I responded that I would indeed protect my students even if that meant sacrificing my own life. This person’s next response presented the false dichotomy by asking if they had missed the part where I said that I would be willing to shoot the gunman who burst into my classroom. The false dichotomy is this. Either I carry a gun and shoot the gunman to protect my students or I do not protect them at all. When one runs to the extremes, you cannot possibly accurately reflect on the situation because you cannot see the whole picture.

That leaves my reality. My reality takes shape based on the following inputs: my profession, my education, and my beliefs. First, I teach in a public middle school. We have security procedures in place, procedures put into place after previous terrible incidents. People ask what I would do if the gunman burst into my classroom. The reality of the construction of the building, including the locked door, makes that scenario highly unlikely. Do we have a response for the pulled fire alarm scenario of Parkland? Not yet. I have confidence that that will be addressed. Additionally, I know the approximate developmental level of my students. They do not have the ability to make logical, reasonable decisions. Even if I were suitably trained and the weapon secured, I would not want that additional responsibility in addition to the ones I already carry.

Second, I have education as a historian. This education compels me to research the entire story before I draw a conclusion. I love statistics, as many historians do, and because of this love, I know how easily statistics can be manipulated and also wielded as tools of manipulation. Before I rush to judgment, I need to know the context of the information with which I am presented. I mentioned a few examples previously.

Finally, I believe firmly in the value of every human life, value derived from the fact that God created man in His own image. For this reason, carrying and using a gun will never be the way that I choose as defense. I will fight with everything in me to protect all those in my care. I will not, however, sink to taking the life of another human being. Sin makes me just as reprehensible in God’s eyes as this troubled young man who chose to take the lives of seventeen people, something that he will never be free from as long as he lives.

That leaves one question at the end of all this. What should be done? How can we prevent something like this from ever happening again? My first answer tends toward the pessimistic. As long as sin exists in the world, man will continue to inflict tragedy on other men. A true pessimist would throw her hands in the air and give in to the inevitable. I refuse to accept that response. No, if we hope to effect change for good, we must first grieve for those lost, grieve without letting that grief become obscured with hot, angry shouting. Next, with deliberate, yet determined calm, we need to gather the data and place that data within the appropriate context. Then, we need to be willing to set aside personal opinions, open to the fact that something we once held dear may be wrong. Only a fool persists in that which has been proven ineffective. Once that has been done, cool heads must come together, evaluate the evidence, reflect upon the effectiveness, and make the hard decisions that must be made.

A 2017 Retrospective

As I reflect on 2017 and reread my three, yes three, goal posts from the beginning of that year, I am struck by how appropriate my theme for 2018 really is. If I had applied that theme to my actions in 2017, I believe that I would have had greater success.

For this post, I will reflect on each goal in the same general format in which I published the original posts: running, finances, health and nutrition, reading and writing, and finally, teaching.

Before I reread my post on my running goals, I was sure that I had outright declared that 2017 would be the BQ year. (I did that in 2014 and learned my lesson.) Instead, I saw that I acknowledged that 2017 may not be my year but I would certainly try. As I documented, Chicago, while an awesome race, produced a time much slower than I expected or hoped. I know, looking back, that I shortchanged my training. The training plan I used called for specific paces and other techniques on the long runs. I took the easy route and executed exactly none of them. I should not have been surprised that I produced such a lackluster performance. I fI bothered to write out this plan, why did I not bother to execute it properly? Too hard. I considered it too hard or not something I wanted to bother with that day. That will change.

Of all the categories, I had the most success in the financial category. I have become much more intentional with my spending while avoiding the path to financial miserliness. (Been there. Done that.) Although I did not succeed in raising my savings rate to 40%, I did manage to raise it from 24% to 34%, a 10% increase. I managed this by increasing my income halfway through the year after submitting a change of action for my teaching certificate. I now earn a salary reflecting a Masters+30 instead of simply a Masters. (The +30 comes from my 2013 MA in History.) I also revamped my classroom rewards system which decreased the amount I spent on teaching related expenses. I spent $250 less on teaching related expenses in 2017 when I taught two semesters than 2016 when I taught one. I could continue into the minutiae but I will refrain.

My results for my health and nutrition goals were a mixed bag. I swung back and forth on things like drinking enough water (thanks to a schedule change for this school year) and consuming too much sugar, especially lately. I have also fallen into a food rut which has increased the tendency towards unhealthy eating. I plan to continue to work on this as part of the deep dive. One of the areas that directly affects my running performance is how I fuel, not just during the race but during training both during training runs and in daily life to prepare and recover.

When it comes to reading and writing, I have had success, especially with reading, but when it comes to writing, I have not been as successful as I hoped. I could discuss individual aspects of this goal that I set out in the initial post but those are specific surface habits I hoped to establish. Since they do not speak to the deep dive, I will not spend time discussing them now. I have, however, had success when it comes to writing. With the exception of two Tuesdays last year, missed because I failed to schedule the post, not write it, I have posted an essay each week, much more than I have regularly written, especially in nonfiction. I want to dive deeper though. I want to stretch myself and not only increase the volume but also the quality. This applies to my journaling as well. I came nowhere near my stated goal of daily journaling. I believe this will help significantly with all three of my chosen deep dives.

Finally, there’s teaching. (I’m skipping photography since I abandoned this goal shortly after making it.) This goal drives my theme for 2018. This goal typifies my grand planning which lacks proper execution. I can wax eloquent on what I want to do and even sketch out a plan for accomplishing those goals. My execution comes woefully short. I realized late last calendar year that I too easily succumbed to apathy. At the very end of the semester I realized that my observations of the inefficiencies (euphemism alert) led me to apathy. Instead of figuring out how to game the system for the sake of the students, the reason I am there after all, I gave up. I went through the motions, met the bare minimum required while chafing under the intense, and often unjustified scrutiny. This will be my main focus area for 2018, the area I struggled with the most in 2017.

2018: The Deep Dive

With the start of the new year comes a preponderance of resolutions, anti-resolutions, intentions and every shade in between. I have found myself in many of those camps. I have made specific resolutions. I have made goals, goals upon goals. Last year, I set up some intentions which I will revisit in next week’s post. I have even contemplated abandoning goals for the year altogether. So, where does this leave me for this year?

This year, I have chosen a theme, a specific thought to keep in mind throughout the year to focus on. The biggest reason that I chose a theme rather than specific goals strikes right at the heart of the theme itself, the deep dive.

Just weeks ago, I finally figured out something that has plagued me for as long as I can remember. I have a lot of grand ideas; I like to make big, audacious goals. Many times, however, those audacious goals morph into things easily accomplished by surface activities like reading a certain number of books or taking a bunch of pictures.

I have some big goals that I have yet to accomplish, like qualifying for Boston or publishing a novel. I will not go so far as to say that my reluctance to dive deep has kept me from accomplishing those goals. It is, however, a significant factor.

This tendency to approach the meaty, significant work like a magnet approaching another similarly charged magnet has affected my teaching. Over the past year and a half, I observed how relatively easy it has been for me to knock out grading or formatting as compared to data analysis or unit planning. I desperately want to change this.

Thus, my theme for 2018 is “dive deep” in three specific areas: teaching, writing and running.

How will this work?

The main thing I plan to actively do this year is consistently remind myself to dive deep, keep going even when the going gets hard. This means that I will prioritize those three things over other things that I like to do such as reading and cross stitching. I do not plan to cut those things out entirely, simply reprioritize them.

I do not expect that this change will occur overnight. These habits have grown for nearly htree decades and will take a bit of time to reform. This theme also serves as my goal, my intention, for 2018. I want to look back on 2018 and see quality experiences in those three areas and more. When I read a book, I want to slow down and dig deep, really comprehend and glean significant information from the book. When I write, I want to dig deep as I put pen to paper, crafting narratives that address reality in real, quality ways. When I run a race, I want that performance accurately reflect all the effort that I put into training. When I look back at the two semesters of the year, I want to see performances from my students that reflect teaching molded and modified to best reach the students where they are so that they can succeed on the arbitrary high stakes tests.

Part of me wonders if I have bitten off more than I can chew. That part still clings to the idea that I will be able to achieve this depth and maintain it while still balancing my achiever tendencies regarding the ideas of “read-all-the-books” and “complete-every-cross-stitch piece” and, well, I could go on. This tendency will be the tendency, or in other words, habit, which I will strive to change in 2018.

From breadth to depth.

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.