Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Lessons from high school: Please wash your hands immediately after

I came across the name of one of my high school teachers last week. Although my parents are still in Seattle, I have resided elsewhere since I moved away to college. I thought of this teacher years ago while writing a blog post about an incident I appreciated more in the retelling vs. actually living through at the time. Recently, I kept seeing his name popping up on FB and curiosity led to the discovery he has been diagnosed with cancer. My first thought was, Cancer? Really? Isn't he only 30 years old? Not that cancer checks ID or cares about age. Well, this is an example of practicing what I call 'Hometown Math'. Hometown Math is when you remember a person at the last age you saw them or when they were most prominent in your mind and you simply don't add any additional years to their life. So in the same way I was surprised when I saw an old friend this summer and her daughter was leaving for college, I thought, isn't your daughter only ten? I remember this teacher as he was back in the day: strong, larger than life and 30.

It also made me realize as children we give our teachers very limited dimension. Who is Mrs. Chambers? She is the reading teacher. Who is Mr. Black? He is the math teacher. Who is Mr. G? He likes US Government. We don't think Mrs. Chambers, Mr. Black and Mr. G have entire lives outside of school.  We don't see them this way so we don't realize the layers that create them. Maybe they go boating or fishing on the weekends. Maybe they listen to Creedence Clearwater or Steve Miller and drink Manhattans or red wine. Maybe they meet their college buddies once a year for a long weekend when they reminisce about college girlfriends and the time they were front row at the Supertramp concert.

As children, we often don't realize or fully comprehend the primary reason these people became teachers was to enhance the lives of kids. Their entire career choice was one of impact and dedication. Teachers were graded on our own internal scale of 'easy' to 'hard' to 'impossible mountains of homework.' They were narrowed down to a tiny scope of either "Cool" or "Sucks" and believe me, we, with our abilities to recite facts about WWII, spelling skills and a firm handhold on how to solve algebra problems with grouping symbols felt totally capable of deciding what qualified whether a teacher made it into the "Cool" or "Sucks" categories. With our limited views of the world, we weren't really capable of fairly making these distinctions but it didn't stop us.

We also fail to realize these teachers might also discuss us and as a result, hold strong opinions of who we are as people. Maybe those conversations sound like this: This one? Smart as a whip. This one? Gifted but lazy. This one? Misguided but responsive to leadership. This one? Punk. I think these teachers dedicated themselves to making a connection with every type of student from superstar to punk because if they could find that thread, the way to sync, they could reach inside a child's mind and influence it to greater heights. There is a post on his get well page from a former student: Mr. G, After college I joined Teach for America. I became a teacher because of you. WOW.

Mr. G was tough in school. He had high expectations and a forceful demeanor. He was a competitive athlete (hence the story to come) but those high expectations and that fundamental tenacity is what he demonstrated to his students. Those that paid attention benefited greatly. As an adult now 20 years out of high school, I don't know anything about him present day. He was honored earlier this year for his leadership and civic focus but that I gleaned from an alumni article. Maybe he likes lacrosse. Or listens to Steve Miller. Maybe he has a spouse or kids taking the news quite heavily.

I do know there are many, many other people from our hometown who when given the occasion to think of him would recall He was a great teacher and then realize it is a sentiment we have never shared. It is an appreciation holding even deeper meaning to me now that I have a tiny child in school and what constitutes a good teacher has more relevance and complexity than ever.   Mr. G., I am sending heartfelt sentiment and prayers to you for fast healing and a healthy road ahead. And I should have told you long ago you were a really great teacher.

PS: This story is likely one you don't remember but trust me, I will never forget it.


Back in the day, one of my junior high classes was tasked with the well known “informative speech.”  I wanted to do something more interesting than How to grow a Chia Pet or How to do the moonwalk.  I loved athletics  so I looked to that genre. Casting aside our daily sports of tennis, football, volleyball I opted for something more exotic: lacrosse. Lacrosse was not as common in the PNW (Pacific Northwest) so I set out to learn as much as I could. Do you know Lacrosse? I think the Iroquois (from which the sport derived) translation means: have fun getting your ass kicked. Between lacrosse, hockey, and rugby, I am not certain  which crew is tougher. Or crazier.

One of our teachers at school, Mr. G,  played in a league. It occurs to me now that after a day with hundreds of  8th graders, many an adult might need to run with a stick and smash people but I digress.

Mr. G was happy a student had an interest in the sport and offered to loan me all of his equipment for my speech.

I was first to present so after fetching the equipment from Mr. G’s car, I displayed it on a table next to the podium. I proceeded to deliver in a humorous fashion all the little lacrosse tidbits I had prepared. The history, the field, the players, the lingo. Then I proceeded to show the helmet, the stick , the gloves and pads. Inside the helmet, Mr. G had stored the lacrosse ball in its container. This was placed on the table as well so I lifted it up and showed the ball (or cookie as it is called) in its triangular case and explained this was the ball, and the ball holder.

The girls in the glass have no reaction. They don’t know lacrosse well either, and because they, like me, are innocent doves. Most of the boys in the class giggled quietly because I merely said the words “ball holder.” A few boys in the class, laughed out loud but I had no idea why. Later, two of my male friends in class came to give me the business.

Smirky McJerky: That was a riot about the ball holder. AND you held it up.
Me: I was showing the equipment.
 Smirky McJerky: You showed the BALL HOLDER.
Me: Juveniles ( or more likely: I am SO sure. SHUT UP.)
Smirky McJerky: Wait, you really don’t know what that was?
Me: The plastic ball holder? DUH!
Smirkey McJerky: HHHHHAAAAAAAA. Falls down laughing with our other friend. It is for balls all right. But not the lacrosse ball.

Me: Blank stare and fuming face about to go full tilt. I sense something very embarrassing to me is about to occur. 

Smirky McJerky: HHAHAHAHAHAHA. It’s Mr.G’s CUP. For his balls.
Me: I hate you.  And whaaaaaaaaaaaat? 

So he explains to me what a "cup" is and how it is used. 
I followed this with some OHMYG___ and yikes!!! and SICK!!!!! ! and OHMYG___.
Did I really just stand in front of my entire class and our male teacher and show the plastic protective device Mr. G placed on his manly bits? Did I really just display it so proudly and with more flourish than Vanna White? Did I touch it with my bare hands? Was I one degree of separation from Mr. G’s nether region?  

My older brother played sports but I had never seen such a device. I saw a jockstrap once prior to this moment and thought it was an old school sling shot.

I attempted to avoid hyperventilating as I scurred away to wash my hands a dozens times and scrub them with steel wool. And a warning to anyone else interested in giving informative speeches on lacrosse: If you are handling the sweaty equipment worn the night before by a male you are not married to or raising, the triangular plastic device is NOT what you think it is.  You probably don't want to touch it let alone snuggle up to it like the Hope Diamond. And if you DO hold it a little too closely, please wash your hands immediately after.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Why dogs are the superior animals

A cold morning here in Atlanta, tucked in the house reading the news online when I came across this and loved every word of it. This is why dogs are the superior animals. No, not because I believe they can actually text. But if they DID, this is what they would say. Our boxer, Nixon, was a sassy spitfire of a dog so I found these a much better read this morning than how Joe Biden screwed up traffic in Atlanta last night for hours.  If you are a dog lover AND you love to laugh, enjoy this as you kick off your Friday. From Sad and Useless.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Reading about war and sacrifice is not the same as living it...

In honor of this day and the individuals impacted globally, I am sharing a poignant memory of meeting a soldier. Again, there are thousands of people willing to go and do what I am not willing to go and do. Reading about war and sacrifice is not the same as living it. For those that stand up, suit up, show up and brave up, I am thankful. I am not brave enough to do what you do. Happy Veteran's Day.


Excuse me, ma'am," he offered as he nodded toward the window. I didn't notice until I stood to let him pass and he tucked into the seat next to me. The lower half of his leg built by cosmesis rather than what he was given at birth. He wore his standard issue fatigues but the pant leg on one side revealed an artificial limb. His persona seemed old soul. And the fatigues and limb would lend an older, more seasoned appearance than his face ever could.

He didn't look old enough to buy cigarettes. We were flying to Seattle from Atlanta. He had recently returned to the US from a third consecutive tour in Iraq. This time, with a permanent injury coupled with an honorable discharge. As we shared a conversation, I was astounded at the level of calm and ease he used to talk about the real-life scenarios that seemed brutal and surreal to me. When he revealed he had just turned 22, I sensed the formidable sadness in his voice that his "career" as he hoped it would develop, was terminated. It wasn't the loss of part of his body that disenchanted him, but that commitment to the Armed Forces had been prematurely disrupted. His willingness to serve, to stand, to sacrifice could no longer be engaged by the United States Military.

 I asked him how he maintained not only the enthusiasm to rise to be assiduous every day in such an extreme environment, but also the belief that the war was the right action in the grim and very real face of death. He said everyone doesn't. War and the caustic realizations of what it truly means is not the same as reading about it in the news. But he felt he had no alternative.

Once you enlist, you are committed for life. He followed with, "Or until you have no choice," indicating his leg. I certainly could not compare notes or offer anecdotes about "I know how you feel." My greatest imagination could not conjure up what a single and real day in that environment would be like. "How do you feel about returning home?" I asked. He was contemplative before answering, "A little lost." Death could have taken him. Another name on a long roster that goes beyond this war into every corner of every country. While he did sacrifice a limb, he certainly never forfeited his valor, or his ambition. And hopefully that ambition would become bigger, and broader to help him navigate his way. A way beyond feeling irrevocably displaced.

 In baggage claim at SeaTac, I saw her before she saw him. The face washed with what only comes from holding your breath for three tours of duty. The look of impatience and searching superimposed over a very real foundation of frantic. She could only be at peace perhaps when she could see him, and hug him with her own arms. When she saw him, she pulled on the arm of the man with her. He couldn't get to the boy fast enough. His son.

When he introduced me, I saw in his parents the awe of having their child back. They were proud. And they were relieved. And the force of it made me relieved for them. A force I would not even begin to appreciate in some microcosmic way until I had a child of my own.

Yesterday was Veteran's Day in the US. Originally called Armistice Day in 1919, the day intended to recognize WWI vets. The holiday changed to "All Veterans" in 1945. And this holiday is pertinent to almost 30 million veterans in the United States. I have my own opinions about war, and its cost. But the freedom that affords me to have and vocalize such opinions was freedom paid for by people willing to go to war. And I have gratitude for that gift.

At 22, Corporal Foster was the youngest veteran I had ever met. Wherever you are, I hope you are finding your way.