Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A powerful lesson

I taught Leonardo in 1998.  I can still see him now.  He was a cocky young Hispanic boy who defiantly sat in my 7th grade classroom.  This was the first year that his father got a job at the canning factory near Rochester, MN, making it the first year that he was in the same school for the entire year.  The normal track was to attend school in MN from September - October and return in April when the fields were ready to work again.  To say his attendance was sporadic would be an understatement.

He came from a migrant family.  The oldest child of six, Leo opened my eyes to many things.  His mother deserted the family when he was in elementary school.  His father worked hard, but there were so many things lacking.  At the tender age of 12, Leo was a pseudo-parent.

In school he wore his tough façade proudly.  So many people let him down.  He was labeled as a troublemaker, a year older than everyone else in his class because he was held back.  The system didn't hold a lot of hope for him.  Other kids were a little scared of him.  He had a sharp mouth, and quick fists.

It's easy to judge that, isn't it?  It's easy to make assumptions about him and his future.

He sat in the back of the room and just watched me.  I was young, energetic, and working hard to engage my students.  I encouraged inquiry, discussion, and non-traditional projects.  I sat on the floor, read aloud, and pushed my students to embrace learning.  The first couple of weeks we circled each other - testing the waters, sometimes engaging in a quick jab, pulling back. 

I'd never taught someone like Leo.  He wasn't easy to engage.  I let it get to me - being inflexible was my mistake.  I remember arguing with him about joining us on the grass outside do participate in a class activity.  He refused to sit.  He told me I was stupid.  He wanted to be sent to the office.  I can still seem him standing proudly in the sunlight in his white pants, blue tucked in shirt. His eyes dared me to release him from the torture of being with my class.

But I still didn't really SEE him.  I didn't SEE the white pants.  I was too involved in what I wanted to listen to what HE was really saying.

Later that week I saw him driving across town.  Yes, he was 13. 

I met him at the door the next day.  "What were you doing?  You can't drive.  Something could happen to you."

"Laundry," was his simple reply.  "Someone had to do it. We don't have a machine."  Something clicked.  I remember asking him, "Is that why you didn't want to join us on the grass?"

He couldn't look at me.  He just whispered, "yeah.  Those were new pants."  New didn't happen very often in his family.

Fortunately I listened to the words behind his simple "yeah". You see, his life experience was so vastly different from mine.  So many pieces of the puzzle flew into place.  At that point I apologized.  I apologized for my insensitivity.  To this day, I still feel like a heel.  It wasn't that he didn't want to be a part of us, he just didn't want to ruin his hard work over the potential of a grass stain. 

I'm not sure that anyone had ever apologized to him.  His smile lit my heart.  It was the shift in our relationship. 

Leo was responsible for a new vision for me.  This 13-year-old boy challenged me to put my money where my mouth is and truly see every child sitting in my room.  It opened my eyes to the fact that life happens outside of my classroom that impact what happens in my classroom every single day.  Leo gave me a large dose of flexibility that I've never forgotten.

I'm grateful every day for him. 

Leo grew in leaps and bounds that year.  He passed all of his classes, had one office referral (yes, it was the pants day), and closed the gap in reading comprehension and writing.  He scoured poetry, found books that intrigued him enough to give them a shot, and learned to ask questions.  He started to find his voice. He started to find his confidence. His classmates started to look at him differently.  He emerged as a leader and kept others on task.

At the end of the year he wrote me a note:
"Miss W taught me a lot this year.  Sometimes she made me so mad that I wanted to poke a pin in her to make her pop, but mostly I just wished she was my mom."

Humbling, isn't it? 

After that year I moved to the Twin Cities, then to Texas, Kansas, and now Tennessee.  I spent a decade raising my own children, taught ELA to over 1,600 kids, and I lost track of Leo.  For the first year or so I'd hear that he was doing well in high school, then I lost touch with my contacts in the district.

It's been 17 years since I met him.  He's around the age of 30 now. 

Through him I learned about the power of relationships, looking behind the façade, listening to the true words and insecurities that kids cannot voice.  I learned about grace, found a new level of compassion, and focused less on my goals and more on what my students need. 

He taught me to make sure that every child who sits in my classroom sees his worth, to make sure that child knows that someone cares, and to keep an extra snack in her cabinet for days when there wasn't enough lunch, or breakfast, or dinner.

He was a smart young man. 

Thank you, Leo.


"Faith is taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

When I was thinking about this weeks topic ~ FLY, I ran across this quote.  It wasn't new to me, but for some reason I was able to look at it from a different angle.  It stopped my aimless wandering through Twitter and spoke to me.

After all, isn't it the first step into the unknown that really gives us the ability to fly or reach beyond what is comfortable?

Because comfortable isn't exactly what life is about.  Comfortable can breed an attitude of complacency.  The definition of which is a person who is satisfied with himself.  That is exactly what God doesn't intend for us -- He intends a life that is full of growth.

After all, He isn't finished with me yet.
This is good. 

It kind of sounds like I'm wishing for difficult times, doesn't it?  I'm really NOT, because, well, I'm human.  However, I can step back and see how it's during those difficult times when I embraced faith and kept trudging forward that I was allowed to reach heights that I never knew were possible.

Which teaches me a lesson within itself.  It's when I cling to faith that I focus on what He wants and not me.  It's when I trust Him that he shows me new ways.

His ways -- not mine.

At 20 I would have laughed at you if you told me that at my age I'd have four children, be teaching 8th grade, and living in Tennessee.  My plan was to have my doctorate, be a college professor, and be a strong voice in the field of education.

Yet I'd be missing out on so much wonderful - the overall beauty of my family, the strength of my love, my passion for teaching the exact kids who sit in chairs in my room every day.  I'd miss out on the beauty of the sunrise, the mystery of the fog that walks through the fields on my drive to work, the laughter of my daughter giggling with her friends at lunch.  I'd miss out on being in the exact place, the exact spot that God intends for me to be.  It is so much better than I imagined at 20.

I find it's so much easier to fly when I let go of my control and give it to God.  The Father who has plans for me, who knows me, who loves me despite my shortcomings. 

Therefore, it's with his help that I will use this year to fly.  I want to serve as He needs me to serve.  I want to listen.  I want to learn.

Thank you, Michelle, for giving us this topic to contemplate. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


I'm not always good at listening. 

I'm good at knowing what I want.  I'm good at figuring out ways to explain it.  I'm good at moving forward with what I think is best.

But listening sometimes takes a back seat -- yet it's one of the most important things I can do.

When I hear negative words - words that scream, "This is stupid. I hate this. Why are you torturing me?" it's easy to react.  It's easy to fuel the fire, to belittle, to shift into outrage.  As a human, it's a natural reaction to say, "Hey, you NEED this, so just do it."

However, if you listen instead of react, you can be surprised at what is really being said.  "I don't know how to do this.  I'm afraid of feeling stupid.  I need you to show me that it's going to be okay."

That creates a vastly different scene.  It causes a different outcome.  It has the potential to change a future.

It's not always easy.  In a society bent on doing more, being more, the quiet whisper of true words often is trampled.  It is so easy to get caught up in it all.  To worry, to rage, to do, to be, to rush, etc.

Therefore I need time to stop myself - to get centered with my relationship with God - to put things on an even keel again.  To listen.

Because even though I try and figure things out for myself, what I can achieve alone is, well, nothing.  It's material - temporary - fleeting.  What I can achieve through God is so much more than I can ever imagine. 

I don't pretend to understand why things happen.  Horrible things do happen - to good people even.  Instead I need to focus on listening to His will and reaching out with the skills that He has loaned me.  I have to drag through the horrible with a focus on Him.

I will tell you this, it's always easier when it's with a listening ear.  When I'm focused on what He needs me to hear, life is happier.  It makes more sense.  Even in the middle of the horrible, He gives me hope.

Of course I need to go through this process a few million times.  I'm pretty slow.

So tomorrow I challenge myself to listen more - to hear the true words being said.  I challenge myself to listen more -- to focus on others instead of myself.  I challenge myself to listen to Him.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The beast behind the screen.

"Nobody likes you."

The words flickered across my phone screen.  They sat there from an unknown number.

Ugly words, aren't they?

To me they say a lot about the speaker.  The words were designed to hurt, tear down, make someone doubt her contributions in life.

As an adult, I can deal with that.  I know that not everyone will like me, but I'm plenty secure enough in my own worth to laugh at this pathetic attempt to bring me down. 

But it didn't stop there.  You see, this wasn't intended for me at all -- it was intended for one of my children.

What does that do to our kids?  During an age when social acceptance means so much, when they are navigating the world of figuring out their place, their style, their voice, how do we expect them to have the maturity to deal with nameless attacks?  How do we give them the confidence to find their voice and know that words like are worthless?

Especially when the attacks that may be the reality of what they fear the most - that they have nothing to contribute.

We've all heard the adage - "Sticks and stones may break my bones . . . "

But words CAN hurt.  Words have power.

Somehow I feel that with all of the benefits that social media brings to our table, it also invites a new kind of monster.  It allows people to say or do things that they would never do in public.  It allows a new kind of screen to hide behind.

I was witness to this on Twitter this week.  Many nearby districts decided to cancel school because of extreme cold.  Ours didn't.  Now I like a good snow day as much as the next person.  It a gift because all of the sudden a large load is lifted off of my plate and replaced with something unexpected.  However, I also know that our superintendent will make his best call for the district.  My voicing of the fact that I wanted to have an unexpected day off would do nothing to his decision.  In fact, it was a little selfish on my part. 

The pleas started early.  When he told them that we would have school on time (actually we opened early to make sure no one was left out in the cold, busses were started early, etc.) it started to get ugly.  It became a mob mentality - who could outdo the last post.  The Twitter community was on fire - names were called, relationships were hurt.

As if bullying the superintendent would change his mind.  It didn't.  We had school.  I had a great day with my students.
So how do we face the monster we are creating?  The fact that people can "lose their filter" when it comes to posting something for all to read?

As an adult, my first responsibility is to look at my practices on-line.  There is little I can do if I don't follow my own advice.  Do I post things that are designed to hurt, designed to encourage ridicule, designed to make someone else feel "less than" me?  If so, that has to change.  After all, it is personal to someone.  We all have moments that we don't want chronicled and broadcasted to the world.   Instead I choose to encourage.

Even if it is a stranger - the stranger has important contributions to share with the world.

As a teacher, my responsibility is to teach my students about digital citizenship.  What they post has the potential to be out there forever.  They live in a world that is so different from the one I grew up in -- when I fell on my face in high school, only those around me saw it.  Today it could be shared with the world - open to the comments of strangers who delight in judging behind their screens.  Today students navigate pressures from many sources - a stupid decision can linger.  This makes it more important than ever to examine consequences of on-line bullying.

After all, every student adds a unique contribution to the world. 

As a parent, my responsibility is to help my child navigate on-line situations.  Conversations are important.  As much as kids may complain about talking about their day, keep having conversations.  Listen.  Then when something comes up, they have a place to go.  Share books with them that deal with problems, read with them, discuss what you think the protagonist should have done in that situation.  Love them.  Remind them of this often.  Share perspective - will this be important in 5 years?  10 years?  Does this person mean something to you?  From that point you can help your child see possible solutions/perspectives.

After all, your child is important to the world.

As a human it is my responsibility to remind myself that I cannot control the actions of others, I can only control my reactions to things.  Therefore, I will choose to not post in anger, choose to post in a positive tone (as much as possible), choose to be respectful, and choose to be a source of joy.  When make mistakes (and I will), I choose to apologize, choose to make amends, and choose to learn from those mistakes.   The hardest part for me is this last one -- I choose to not give power to others through comments that are designed to hurt, belittle, or steal happiness.

Because I matter to the world as well.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The power of a single word.

My students would probably roll their eyes at my opening.

Words are power.

I say it all the time.  They have the power to heal, to love, to share, to encourage, to inspire, to contemplate.  They also have the power to hurt, to cause destruction, to build walls, and to isolate. 

Words are one of the most powerful tools - and weapons - that every human being has access to in life. 

I love to savor words, the images they create, try them out in new ways, to play with them like the toys I had as a child - carefully.  Intentionally.  After all there are ones that cause lasting scars.

Therefore, my words are rarely chosen in haste.  Last year I chose to focus on the word perspective.  It changed a lot of things for me.  Instead of giving in to the moment, I chose to look at things from a different angle, step back, allowing me the opportunity to find grace as well as celebrate joys.  It allowed me to see an angry child from the perspective of having an uncertain home situation - perhaps a shift in family, a potential move, a job loss - and gave me the opportunity to change lives instead of insist on my way.  Perspective provided many lessons along the way - it humbled me completely and allowed me to grow.

After all, we can choose to grow when we're humbled, or we can choose to stew.  Personally, I don't think stewing gets you far in life -- instead it causes you to become overcooked and burn.  (I know, it's a bad analogy . . . but it's the connotation in my mind.)  This is another lesson perspective showed me.  It's often a choice to grow.

I remember asking students, "I know you're devastated about ______ today (grade, friendship, etc.), but will it be important to you in ten years?  twenty?"  Often that helped them see it from a different angle; it diffused the situation.  It provided calm.  It soothed.  It worked for me as well -- allowing me to focus on the areas of my life that were truly important.

Alas, it's 2015, and it's time for a new word -- one that may not seem as comfortable at first, one that will teach me.  I've read so many blogs with great words --  intentional, inspirational, engage, listen, grow, etc.  I've been toying with all of them in my mind.  Each one has a unique and powerful statement.  I will use them all.  I look forward to seeing how each writer will change as a result of his/her word.  How the power of those words will work both beauty and opportunity into the lives of the author and those he/she touches. 

I wanted to be ALL the words - which sort of defeats the purpose of the activity.  Therefore I kept searching in my heart.  I prayed that the right word for me would pour from my fingertips.

It did.

This year my word will be spark. 

I love it . . . spark.

You see, I have goals to spark within myself as well as to spark others to achieve new goals.  I want this year to be less about me and more about how I can bring light to others.  How the darkness can be extinguished through the power of positive words. 

Like a candle, ignited by a single spark, can be shared to bring light to an entire room.

There are so many ideas behind the word - to encourage, to ignite, to inspire.  I cannot wait to see what paths it will lead me down. 

Because I'm confident there will be paths that I haven't traveled - bumpy, beautiful, scary, calming. 

I'm confident that spark has many lessons to teach me.  That it will provide new opportunities for teaching, learning, and growing.  Lessons that will echo in the minds of both me and my students for years to come.

Yes, words are powerful.  They should be savored and explored. 

Happy 2015.

Thursday, January 1, 2015


I'll be honest, I've had a hard time writing the last few weeks.  I'm not sure I can really put my finger on why, other than I was struggling with being positive.  I'd write words, erase, try again, erase, and walk away - not sure my ranting was productive in any way.

My family is doing well. We are full of love.

I believe I'm doing the work God intended for me.  I love my students.

I have many friends who make me smile, laugh, wonder.

So why was I having this difficulty?  This darkness that was making me bitter.  I was accepting words designed to hurt.  I was comparing and finding myself lacking.  I was always thinking of the things I needed to do instead of focusing on what I was accomplishing.

All of those things make it hard to breathe sometimes.

Then today's spiritual journey topic crossed my Twitter feed. (Thank you Holly for providing such an awesome support system #spiritualjourney has really helped me keep my focus on what IS important.)  Light.

Light - my first though was how do I think about light when I feel dark inside?  What can I offer about light? 

Then I thought about Christmas Eve -- one of my favorite moments is when the congregation takes a single light and passes it to others and brightens the entire room.  The power of one single light to make a difference in the dark. 

And I was humbled.  Again.  Deeply.

You see, that light lives in my heart.  It's bright enough to banish the darkness -- overcome my feelings of inadequacy, the words and actions of others, my work compared to God's work.  Once again, it was a subtle nudge from God to stop listening to the world and instead listen to Him.

I will never be perfect. 

However, with my light, I will always be enough.

Happy New Year!