Tag Archives: teaching

Remembering Kindness

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I didn’t think I’d make it through that Tuesday. There I was, sitting in my car as the Fremont Bridge was opening to let a yacht pass through. This was not an occurrence I had planned on, as I’d never known the bridge to open on a winter morning in all the years I’d taught at Seattle Pacific University. And it meant I’d be late to class.

I hate being late, so much that it rarely ever happened. Still, the few times that it had, I’d been able to keep my cool. This time, though, was different. I screamed and cursed at the bridge, pummeled my fists on the steering wheel, felt like crying. I’d become a discombobulated mess.

Perhaps this is understandable. I was teaching twelve credits that quarter and was enrolled in a nighttime master’s program, burning the candle at both ends. I’d spent the weekend prepping for my teaching, grading a massive pile of papers, reading and writing.

Then, on Sunday afternoon, my son called from college to say he’d been injured playing Frisbee: “No big deal, Mom, just a hernia. It happened a few days ago—sorry I didn’t call sooner—but the doc says the procedure is routine and he scheduled the surgery for tomorrow. Can you drive up? You’re off on Mondays, right?” Right. I just teach six hours on Tuesday, have a paper due on Wednesday, and was counting on Monday to work.

A son, though, is a son.

I will spare you a detailed description of the series of fiascos that was Monday, except to say that my son’s surgery was delayed for many hours (although it went fine), the surgery center had no cafeteria, and I drove home four hours through a blizzard in the middle of night. When the Fremont Bridge went up on Tuesday morning, I’d been foodless and sleepless for a day. I was dying for a pre-class snack and coffee, which the bridge had snatched from me.

I reached my classroom several minutes late. The students’ eyes were upon me as I pulled my book from my briefcase and stripped off my coat. My stomach was growling wildly and I felt unsteady on my feet, but I’d have to make due: the class was three hours long, our goal to discuss the whole of Night.

Night is the Holocaust memoir of Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who in the story is the adolescent Eliezer. Beautifully written, painful to read, replete with insight, Night was among my favorite books to teach.We dove right in, discussing each segment: Eliezer’s childhood in Transylvania, his initial deep belief in God, his family’s deportation to Auschwitz, the brutality the prisoners endured, Eliezer’s waning faith.

We came to a part of the story that was among the most moving to me. Eliezer, underfed and weak, is forced to work at a concentration camp warehouse overseen by a volatile Kapo. One day, for little reason, the Kapo jumps on Eliezer and proceeds to beat him. Eliezer crawls into a corner, bleeding and broken. Just then, Eliezer feels a cool hand wipe his brow. It belongs a forced labor deportee—an Aryan girl from France who has never spoken to him. She smiles at Eliezer, looks into his eyes, slips him some bread, and says some soothing words in German, as he doesn’t speak French.

At this point the story flashes forward. Many years later in Paris, Wiesel is reading on the Metro. He looks up and sees a woman with beautiful eyes and suddenly recognizes her—the French girl from the warehouse. The two go to a café and Wiesel confirms what he’s long suspected: the woman was really Jewish and had worked in the warehouse on forged papers. By speaking German to Eliezer, she’d risked her cover and her life.

I asked my students: “Why would Wiesel choose to break the flow of his story and jump to the Metro scene? We’re far into the book, and he’s never flashed forward before.” The students regarded me thoughtfully, then one suggested: “The scene was important to Wiesel. His book is about not forgetting the evil that people are capable of. Maybe he wanted to show that a simple kindness is a powerful thing that should also be remembered and oftentimes is.”

Yes. That’s why I loved that scene.

We moved through the remainder of the memoir. When class was over at noon, I dashed out the door. My next class would start in ten minutes, the room was far across campus, and I was more desperate than ever for a snack and coffee. I stopped in the Subway in the quad, but the line was a serpent, so I tried the Starbucks. The queue here too was long: a trio of students at the front, a couple of professors, a lone male student, and a quintet of female students right before me.

The barista wasn’t speedy and the orders were complex: a tall, nonfat latte with caramel drizzle; a grande, iced, sugar-free, vanilla latte with soymilk; a triple, venti, no-foam, soy latte.

I looked at my watch as the barista processed the professors. Five minutes to go before class. At this rate I wouldn’t make it. I considered approaching the male student and offering to pay for his order as a way of bypassing the girls, but guilt struck immediately, so I gave up the idea. The boy ordered, received his drink.

I checked my watch. No choice: I’d have to bolt and starve.

Then I heard a voice. “Can I treat you to coffee?”

I turned. It was the first of the five girls before me, about to place her order.

“Excuse me?”

She smiled, looked into my eyes. “I’d like to buy you coffee.”

No, I’d not experienced a holocaust. No, the girl hadn’t risked her life. But the coffee that she offered helped me make it through the day, and I will remember her kindness for many years to come.

First published in Good Letters.

Dodging Bullets

 

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They arrived as strangers—freshmen at Seattle Pacific University who’d come to take a course in college writing: A tall girl with a flowered backpack and blond hair fishtailed to one side. A brawny boy with a knitted cap and a ready, brilliant smile. An elfin girl in a madras skirt whose black bangs fluttered with her lashes. A lanky boy in soccer shorts whose green eyes lit his freckled face.

Within days I learned some names and habits: Peter* always strode in early and grabbed a seat by the window in the back. Kaitlin routinely said “Good morning!” and sipped a caramel latte during class. Pilar daily sat before the lectern and lined up sharpened pencils on her desk. Abdul was almost always late and bowed when he slipped into the room.

Within weeks I came to know much more—their sufferings, blessings, worries, hopes, weaknesses, and strengths:

Lindsey had mangled her arm when her boogie board was thrown on Maui sea stacks. She hoped to become a doctor, strove to be on dean’s list, and wrote meticulous papers that were somewhat tedious to read.

Yoel had fled his native Eritrea by perambulating deserts through the night. English was his second language, which he spoke with a lovely lilt. His dream was to become a Christian rock star. Writing essays made him anxious, but he loved crafting spoken-word poems.

Justin had spent some time in Haiti constructing dorms for orphans. A youth leader at his church, he planned to become a minister. His essays were passionate and insightful, though a bit disorganized.

Sarah had found her friend’s body in a bed with a suicide note. She suffered from frequent nightmares. Her goal was to become a counselor who worked with troubled teens. She volunteered for a hotline and wrote gripping narratives.

What wonderful young adults—full of life, heart, experience, potential. It’s no wonder that over the quarter, I grew to love every one of them.

Still, at the end of our last class, I had to say goodbye. I praised them for their learning, wished them a good summer, watched them walk out of the classroom, drove home feeling sad.

When I reached my house, I checked my email as a message was arriving:

!! SPU-Alert: Campus Lockdown: Hello Jan Vallone—Emergency! A campus lockdown has been initiated. This is not a drill. If you are on campus, find the nearest available room and lock the door. If you are on campus, but locked outside a building, seek shelter off campus immediately. If you are not on campus, stay away.

A strange mix of emotions swept over me—confusion, panic, numbness. Wanting more information, I clicked the Seattle Police Twitter line:

Police have found two victims with gunshot wounds @ scene of @SeattlePacific shooting. One suspect in custody. Vics at Otto Miller Hall.

Turning to my TV, I found the breaking news. Onscreen was the campus I’d just left, leafy Seattle Pacific, brick buildings under blue skies.

I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. The street by Otto Miller Hall was clogged with ambulances and police cars. Gurneys were queued on the sidewalk. Medics and officers were running all about.

I couldn’t understand what I was hearing. A reporter said six people had been shot, a gunman detained. Police were searching for another suspect who was still on campus and armed.

A student who had exited the building said she’d seen some injured students in the lobby and one who appeared to be dead. All were sprawled on the floor, which was strewn with bullets and blood.

“Oh my God!” I screamed at the TV. Where were all my students—Pilar, Justin, Lindsey? Were they dodging bullets, or were they already dead?

The Seattle Pacific shooting wasn’t the first to shake me. In 1993, a disgruntled client entered 101 California Street, an office of my husband’s law firm. He shot nine people dead. Like my husband, I was a lawyer, so I feared for both of us.

In 2006, a gunman who claimed he hated Israel entered the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, killing one woman and injuring five. I was then teaching in a nearby Jewish high school, and we worried we’d be next.

In 2012, a shooter known for angry outbursts entered Café Racer in my neighborhood. He murdered five and maimed one more. My daughter works at a nearby Starbucks, and I fret for her every day.

Who isn’t edgy about shootings? They’ve occurred in so many venues, no place now seems safe—not the theater, mall, supermarket, temple, church, train, playground, street, restaurant, stadium, or museum. In schools alone there were thirty-seven shootings during the first half of 2014.

At Seattle Pacific, the facts soon cleared. A lone gunman had wounded two students and killed freshman Paul Lee. None of my students was harmed, though several had been in Otto Miller. A few were Paul’s close friends, and many knew him. All were traumatized.

The gunman at SPU didn’t know any of his targets. His profile is common for mass shooters. With a history of mental illness, he complained he was lonely and unloved, said he just wanted to kill.

I wish shooters could understand that the strangers in their crosshairs are Kaitlins, Peters, and Yoels—people they could grow to love who could grow to love them back, people who could help them fill the void that makes them want to kill. It takes only time, attention, interaction.

If shooters could comprehend this, they’d discard their bullets. But they either can’t or won’t. Something inside them is broken. They aren’t going to change; it’s the rest of us who must.

The causes of violence are complex, but that doesn’t excuse our longtime inaction. Together, we must modify our statutes—be they mental health, gun, commerce, or free expression laws—to make killing sprees less likely. Individually, we have to  compromise.

We can’t accept a life of dodging bullets or death on a shooter’s whim.

*Names have been changed.

Oasis: An Observation from The Way of Saint James

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I almost passed it by.

When the offer came in January, I was too busy teaching college writing. Too busy mentoring a student group. Too busy reading for three book clubs. Too busy writing for a blog. Too busy marketing my memoir. Too busy caring for my family, cat, and home.

Maybe I could do it in the summer. More realistically, maybe in the fall.

But the director of the Mental Health Ministry persisted. She described the new program she envisioned at Seattle’s Saint James Cathedral and hoped I’d facilitate: a weekly creative writing workshop for people suffering from painful life events—the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the effects of abuse, disability, or disease. A workshop where participants could share their stories, order their thoughts, release repressed emotions, begin to heal their grief. A workshop starting February sixth.

To be honest, the prospect was intriguing. For years I’d longed to teach creative writing, something I’d earned a Masters in, something I’d done when I taught high school. How I’d loved teaching teens to write their stories. Doing so had been more priceless than rubies, more rousing than sunshine, more comfortable than fleece.

The high school students and I became close through our writing endeavors—reading, critiquing, affirming, revising until the stories sang. We became a community of colleagues, one that delighted and fulfilled me, one I’d not found a substitute for in the six years since I’d lost that job.

Maybe the cathedral writing group could fill the chasm in my heart that loss had cleaved. But at the time the opportunity was offered, I was overextended, my days packed with obligations from which I couldn’t extricate myself.

Maybe in the summer. Maybe in the fall. The timing simply wasn’t right to make my way to Saint James.

In fact, I’d just made my way to Saint James, although in a very different manner, one not involving teaching in Seattle, but instead perambulating Spain.

El Camino de Santiago—the Way of Saint James—is a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, where according to tradition, the apostle James the Greater is interred. Each year 200,000 pilgrims walk there on a variety of routes. The most travelled is 500 miles long and starts five miles from the Spanish border in the Pyrenean foothills of France, but some pilgrims walk from farther points—Paris, Rome, Munich—others from spots nearer Santiago—Burgos, León, Samos. Last September my husband and I joined them, trekking 200 miles from León.

Walking the Camino is a metaphor for living life. Head sheathed from blazing sun, blisters burning in boots, back bent under heavy pack, to succeed you have to strip possessions to essentials—a single change of clothes, a sleeping sheet and toothbrush, sunscreen and a pair of sturdy shoes—and you have to limit each day’s tasks to a necessary few—walking scores of miles, eating, washing underwear, bathing, sleeping, repacking your bag.

With little to distract you on the way but the crunching of your soles on gravel and the susurration of your breath, you synchronize with an inner rhythm you likely never realized you possessed. That rhythm hypnotizes you. You become so high on endorphins, fresh air, exhaustion, that your mind seems to detachfromyourbody,rise above your head, andhoverinthe ether, enabling you to observe yourself.

You learn that the mistakes you make on the Camino mirror those you make generally in life. And you begin to understand how to avoid them.

Or so it was for me. Take, for example, our first day, when we walked from León to Hospital de Órbigo, a distance of twenty-three miles, a trek of ten hours.

We began early in the morning on Puente Río Bernesga, a Roman bridge that spans a river running through the outskirts of León. After winding through the city suburbs, we came to the open countryside known as the Páramo Leonés. The topography of this region is one of the flattest in Spain, having been generated by alluvial deposits millions of years ago. Hot, dusty, desolate, these dry grasslands bereft of trees and breeze extend as far as you can see.

By the time we’d walked six hours on the trail, my skin was sunburned, my tongue was parched, my legs and back were collapsing. I wanted to quit the Camino. But suddenly we came upon a cornfield traversed by an irrigation channel that brimmed with brightly babbling water. It looked to be everything I needed, a perfect oasis edged by wildflowers, buttressed by a low stone wall, and shaded by a broad Holm oak.

“Mark,” I said to my husband. “I need to sit and rest.”

He looked at his watch. “It’s not time yet. Half-an-hour more. You can do it. It’s only two thirty.”

He was right. We’d scheduled our break for three o’clock. So I heaved my pack higher on my shoulders, grunted, and trudged on.

A mistake I often made in life.

Thirty minutes later, we took our break, the oasis far behind us. Squatting on a dusty roadside in the scathing sun, lizards darting over my boot-tips, flies buzzing round my head, I sipped some water from a plastic bottle and pictured the verdant spot we’d bypassed. I began to cry.

Which is why I decided to teach writing at Saint James beginning in the dead of winter. No, the timing wasn’t perfect. But if I’d waited I’d have missed the chance to do work that’s proved delightful. If I’d delayed I’d have missed becoming part of a group that’s growing close. If I’d passed it by I’d have missed an oasis that’s refreshed me for my other tasks.

Once a man met Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. Jesus said to him, “Come with me,” but the man said, “Let me first go bury my father.”

I hope the man avoided that mistake.

When you encounter an oasis on the way, stop and set down your pack.

 

 

Sleeping Beauty

ImageThe following is an excerpt from Pieces of Someday: One Woman’s Search for Meaning in Lawyering Family, Italy, Church, and a Tiny Jewish High School

The classroom door blew open as I packed my briefcase to go home. A cold gust of air rushed in, blowing the papers from my desk, chasing red and gold leaves across the threshold so they swirled and settled at my feet.

Kalindah whirled in with the weather. With black-sweatshirted arms, she gave me my daily hug—nubby, slightly dank and fusty—then plopped on the top of a desk, pulling legs akimbo beneath her skirt. “Ms. Vallone, life’s so unfair. All my friends have boyfriends but me.”

Braces, Janis Joplin hair, Kalindah was a freshman when I first began teaching high school English. Another teacher had warned me about her: “Make sure you watch out for that one—she’s a time bomb waiting to explode, bipolar without her medication. You’ll see, one day she’ll draw a knife.”

During my first few weeks, Kalindah sat huddled at the back of the classroom, silent, impassive, gray-eyed. Was she sedated? Not till I scheduled a quiz did I see any sign of life. After class she came up to my desk: “I stink at tests.” Then she walked out.

Sure enough, her score was 47. When I lay the quiz on her desk, she glanced at the grade, hands stuffed in sweatshirt pouch. “Told you.” I studied the dandruff in her part. “Take it home and do it over. You can use your book and raise your grade.”

Metal smile trapping sandwich morsels. “Really? That’s awesome!”

Tests weren’t Kalindah’s only problem. For weeks I pumped and prodded: “I’m still waiting for your narrative. Are you planning to turn one in?”

Her response: a shoulder shrug. But one day she came to class early, dropped some rumpled sheets on my desk. “Ms. Vallone, I know it’s really late, but I wrote the story.”

In the story, the penguin Galápaga wants to cross a river, but she’s an orphan, so no one’s shown her how. She tries to use her wings as eagles do, but finds them too stubby for flying. She tries to hop across on river rocks, but her legs are too clumsy for leaping.

Galápaga uses a fallen tree trunk as bridge between the two banks. But the trunk is very narrow, mossy, and high above the water. Though penguins have good gripping toenails, midway across she slips.

Plummeting from her perch, Galápaga is desperate. She impromptu somersault tucks, plunges in the frigid water. Sinking to the bottom, she begins to pray: O God / Fear and trembling come upon me / Oh, that I had wings like a dove! /I would fly away and be at rest.

Then a strange thing happens. Panic-beating her wings, Galápaga rises through the water, discovering she can swim. So she breaststrokes across the river, climbs out, and waddles toward the woods.

I laughed reading Kalindah’s story, wrote A at the top, Great job! In Italian calinda means lark. So I hope you understand you can fly even though penguins can’t! Next day when she read my comments, Kalindah smiled and leaped at me, gave me the very first hug.

But what could I say about boys to a girl only sixteen? I gathered the papers from the floor, slipped them into my briefcase, sat on a desk facing Kalindah. “I know it stinks not to have a boyfriend, but someday you’ll have one, really. Remember when you thought you couldn’t write?”

“Yeah, but I’m not pretty. I wish I could be someone else!”

When I was an adolescent, I wished to be my cousin Angela, three years older than me. Angela, the Italian word for angel. Angela, who as a child wore the prettiest pinafores, dark hair thickly braided with ribbons. Angela, favored as beautiful, while I was anything but. Aunt Lina said my eyes were beady. Gramma told me I needed a perm. My father hinted I was chubby.

In high school, it was Debbie Schein I envied, a twin for Zeffirelli’s Juliet—chestnut hair tumbling to her waist, blue eyes, and dancer’s legs. If I were Debbie, every evening Michael Goldfarb would scale the lamppost on the corner. He’d peek inside my window as I braided my hair for bed, maybe even whisper to himself: But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Jan is the sun.

But as long as Debbie was alive, Mike would never look at me. Nor would Gary, nor Mitchell, nor Jeff.

It’s not that I came from bad stock. My mother had curly hair, twinkling eyes, a heart-shaped face. And oh what a figure in the photo, bathing-suited at age eighteen, a Sophia Loren on a rock, sunning at Kaaterskill Falls. So it was for my Aunt Marie and my cousins Marianne and Celeste. Of all the females in my family, only I lacked the magic genes.

I remember when I was sixteen. Angela sat me on the pink counter of our grandmother’s tiny bathroom, my back towards the mirror, legs dangling. She pushed my hair behind my ears, perused my face with her kohled golden eyes. Bubbling in her Brooklyn brogue, she broke into a glossy smile, “I’ve got it!”

She unzipped her floral makeup bag with a flick of her bracelet-trimmed wrist. Out came a bottle of foundation muddying up my face. Out came a tin of eye-shadow blizzarding blue my lids. Out came a mascara spiral coating my lashes black. Out came a sparkling swivel-stick staining my lips cherry red.

When she was finished, Angela stepped back. She lifted my face with a finger, turned it right and left, called, “Gramma, come see!”

Pots clanging in the kitchen, pitter-patters up the hall. Gramma squeezed into the bathroom, squinted at my face. She nodded, “Much bedda.”

My heart bloomed a rose.

Then Angela stirred her fingers in her makeup bag, pulled out a rhinestone-trimmed mirror. “Okay—now you can see.”

She held the mirror before me. But Juliet wasn’t reflected there.

Instead, I saw a clown.

In my twenties, it was Holly Brown I longed to be. We two were medical lab techs then working at UNC. Every morning she’d sashay to her bench, flicking her Farrah Fawcett mane: “Good mornin’ y’all.”

As jasmine-gardenia perfume gusted from Holly’s curly halo, the male techs would look up from their microscopes, dropping jaws to gawk. In my corner, I’d reach for the radio, turn up the volume of Bruce Springsteen: Show a little faith there’s magic in the night / You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright.

But I wasn’t all right. So I spent a few days’ salary to reinvent myself as Holly. As I sat before a salon mirror, Jean Paul pumped the swivel chair, raising the object of his art. He shampooed my hair in awapuhi—wafting ginger scent—parted it into sections, paper-wrapped each around a rod. He squeezed on glycerol monothioglycolate, plastic- capped my head. He helmeted me with a dryer and toggled on the heat.

My scalp prickled and crawled. My ears sizzled like bacon. But the dryer drone fired my fantasies as I flipped through an issue of Vogue: Maybe the lab crew will realize I’m a dove and Holly’s a crow.

Jean Paul rinsed my head to stop the process. He cut and blew dry my hair. Then he swiveled my chair towards the mirror—voilà: Christ, I have a fro.

I’m embarrassed to admit that in my thirties, my desire was to look like Princess Di—the ultra-toned body, bright smile.  The lash-brushing bangs and royal rose-petal skin. So I went to aerobics, tried Pearl Drops, scrubbed my face, cut my hair Diana-style.

But somehow I contracted the chickenpox, pox upon pox upon pox. They healed leaving scars on my chin, causing me to turn from every mirror. The marks seemed to shout from my jaw, “See how repulsive she is!”

What would Princess Di do about such horrid imperfections?

I made an appointment with Dr. Fleisch, a well-known dermatologist. He suggested dermabrasion. If I elected the surgery, he’d give me medication to relax. Then he’d cleanse my face with antiseptic, apply a spray to insta-freeze my skin. That done, he’d use a rotary tool to sand off several epidermal layers.

Post-op, the site would be raw, requiring pain relievers. My face would take three months to heal, need sun-shields for six to eight. Luckily, side effects were few—infections, fever blisters, scars, thickened skin, splotchy pigmentation.

I squirmed as Dr. Fleisch disclosed the details, asked if many patients chose the surgery.

“It’s a commoner procedure.”

So I knew that Di would never do it; I’d have to research something else.

Why should physical beauty be the object of lifelong yearning? Trigger decades of envy and grief? Prompt cosmetics, surgery, false hope? And why, even into my forties, did I still pine to be a dove among the crows?

How I fussed on a trip to Palermo, Sicily, before visiting my step-grandmother. The last time I’d seen Mimma, I was barely into my twenties. Now she was eighty-six and I a wife, the mother of two teens. Still, I slathered my wrinkles with creams, bleached my teeth, tinted my hair. I wore capris to mask my thighs, long sleeves to hide my arms.

And what did Mimma do when we showed her a Polaroid we’d taken after she’d scaled two flights like a jilly-goat to fetch her brother for lunch? After she served us a four-course meal she’d cooked and served herself? After she toured us around the apartment she still dusted, swept, and mopped? She shook her head at the photo and covered her image with her hand. “O Dio, I old.”

A short walk from Mimma’s apartment is the Convento dei Cappuccini. In 1599 the monks noticed something strange: their catacombs released mysterious vapors that mummified the dead. When the monks announced the discovery, they set off a public frenzy. People clamored to be buried there to preserve their beauty after death.

In the catacombs’ long dank corridors rest eight thousand corpses. Each is suspended by the neck like a lamb hanging at the butcher’s, each wearing Sunday’s best clothes. A monk hovers in a cassock, penance rope around his neck. A woman wafts hoop-skirted, wielding a parasol. A soldier sentries in uniform and a wide three-cornered hat.

There’s a special section for children. The last catacombed corpse was a girl who died of croup in 1920. Frocked flouncily in pink, ringlets gathered in a bow, she rests in a transparent casket.

The monks call the girl Sleeping Beauty, but there’s little beauty in the crypt. Sleeping Beauty’s skin is doll-waxy, her hair faded, dull, limp. And the flesh of the corpses around her is either mummified or gone. Many faces grimace, some mouthing Edvard Munch screams, the husks of their decaying bodies coated with decades of dust.

But I couldn’t tell Kalindah about the catacombs.

Or that Debbie went skating with her boyfriend on a lake near her college dorm and drowned falling through the ice.

Or that Angela discovered stage three cancer and lost her breasts and hair.

Or that my mother developed a neuroma that twisted and paralyzed her face.

Or that Prince Charles divorced Diana, who died in a car crash shortly after.

Or that when I thought about the women whose beauty I envied all my life, I closed my eyes and thanked God for my wrinkles.

Instead, I pulled a snapshot from my wallet—my family in the Sicilian sun. “Kalindah, you’re fine just as you are. Look, let me show you something. These are the people I love most in the world: My husband—we’ve been married twenty-three years. My daughter—she’s your age. My son, who’s two years younger. And Kalindah, when I was sixteen, I didn’t know a single one of them.”

Kalindah took the photo from my hands, studied it a moment, looked up. “Your daughter’s really pretty. She looks a lot like you.”

 

 

A Single Share

 

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Eleven years teaching writing. The best years of my working life.

The writing teacher is confidant. The writing teacher is mentor. The writing teacher is cheerleader. The writing teacher is the center of a community composed of people striving to reach others, the facilitator of human connection.

My students figure out rather quickly that their teacher is an idealistic and sentimental person. I tell them their goal as writers is to enable readers to live vicariously and gather insights about life. I explain that writers can’t reach this goal unless they block imposter voices—the voices of teachers, parents, friends and others that whisper in their minds and tell them how and what to write, smothering the unique perspectives they alone can share with readers.

I urge my students to write from their hearts. They must let their writing be inspired by what moves them, both intellectually and emotionally. If they do, their work will impact other people.

I assure my students that if their work stirs, enlightens or comforts just a single other individual or prompts the tiniest positive change, it’s a success.

I’ve meant what I say to my students, and most seem to believe me. Take, for example, Zach. For a high school class I taught, he wrote a memoir about his brother’s death and then submitted it to a contest. After winning, he reflected:

Winning is fun but not exactly a soccer game; the thrill of winning is not the same.

But my story will be published. If just one person reads my story and is consoled or gains an insight from it, then I will have done what I thought could not be done: bring hope and optimism out of something I thought could only be sad and depressing.

Knowing that, the excitement of winning becomes secondary to the idea that I might be able to help someone who otherwise may not have been reached.

Lately though, I’ve lost track of my own words, lost tract of Zach’s echo of them. I’ve entered the blogosphere.

When I first wrote a blog post, I practiced what I preached: I wrote from the heart, trusting that someone would read my essay and be moved. That single imagined person would make the work I’d done worthwhile, rendering it successful.

The day my piece was posted, though, I noticed something curious. At the end of the piece appeared a row of icons: F Share, Tweet, Email, Share, F Like, Google+. And above every icon was a number: 23, 1, 20, 71, 15, 0.

Since I’m a baby boomer, this took a moment to process. Where these statistics counting people who’d found merit in my essay? Inwardly, I smiled. Success: 130 shares.

Then I made a mistake: I checked the number of shares other contributing bloggers had earned for their posts that week:

Post 1: 249.

Post 2: 179.

Post 3: 1573.

1573?

I was a terrible failure, the uncontested loser of the pack.

A few weeks later, I tried to write a second post, but I couldn’t focus my thoughts. Imposter voices were rampant, relentlessly babbling in my brain:

Write about something in the news; that should prompt prolific sharing. A music post might lead to even more.

Chuck the idea about prayer; it might turn off secular readers. Ditch the yoga concept; it might hinder Christian shares.

Compose a sophisticated essay to capture erudite readers. Better yet, write a witty, chatty memoir to trigger millennial Tweets.

Passing gargantuan gallstones would have been less painful than writing that post.

On the publication date, I checked my post as soon as it went live: 7:00 am: 3 shares. Not a propitious beginning, so I checked each quarter hour of the day:

10:00 am: 21.

Noon: 83.

5:00 pm: 149.

I frowned at the computer screen. Come on, can’t you make it 150?

All throughout the day, I tried to ignore the blog site, but it was a mammoth horseshoe magnet and I a tiny metal flake. I berated myself at bedtime because in the race with that week’s bloggers, I was in only third place.

Recently, I vacationed in Austria. High on a hill overlooking Salzburg sits Hohensalzburg Fortress. From 1871 to 1918 it housed Archduke Rainer’s 59th Infantry Regiment, branded the “bravest of the brave” for its exploits in World War I. Visitors to the fortress can see mementoes of the regiment’s life and work: uniforms, helmets, boots, buckles, military musical instruments, regalia and flags.

While exploring the fortress, I was captured by an exhibit of the brigade’s medals of honor: badges with red and white ribbons and dangling metal coins, crosses, wreaths or birds. Above the display cases were photographs of the regiment, each man with a row of medals pinned upon his puffed-out chest. Among the photos were scattered paintings of the regiment in battle, men bleeding and dying in the snow, their badges still appended to their breasts.

Had these soldiers squandered their lives seeking a row of ribboned medals?

Was I misspending mine pursuing a row of blog post shares?

In one of my favorite parables, a man going on a journey calls his servants and entrusts his possessions to them. To one he gives five talents, to another, two.

Then the master leaves. The servant who received five talents trades them, making another five, and the one who received two makes another two.

When the master returns, his servants bring him what they’ve earned, and he says to each of them: “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Come, share your master’s joy.”

The master didn’t distinguish between the servant who presented ten talents and the servant who presented only four. Each talent had yielded one more. Each talent had earned just a single share.

Yet the master was satisfied.

The next time I post a blog piece, I hope to remember what Zach did: a single share is enough. A single share should suffice to occasion gratitude and joy and render work a success.

Isaac Unbound

CollegeParent

 

Deborah* sat across the café table, cappuccino growing cold, tears brimming, lower lip trembling.

“Jake’s situation isn’t improving. He just got a fifty-seven on a pre-calc test despite the daily tutoring I arranged for him. And before I registered him, I checked the instructor on Rate My Professors. He’s supposed to be the best. Jake just doesn’t put in enough time. He tries to compute in his head to cut corners, and that equals mistakes.”

Deborah often talked to me about her twenty-one-year-old son. Jake had attended a noted East Coast university, but flunked out sophomore year. Now, he was taking summer classes at the local community college.

“So, the question is whether I should have him drop the course, take a W and audit what’s left, or enroll him in an online college pre-calc course and hire a qualified tutor to get him through.”

I shifted in my seat. “Sounds confusing, Deborah.”

She leaned toward me across the table. “It seems like I’m always trying to fix a never-ending academic fiasco when there’s no progress. I just long for the tiniest forward motion, anything to give me hope.”

I tried not to turn away.

“But after four semesters of disasters, optimism comes hard. The other day, I had a long talk with the vocational psychologist and Jake’s tutor, and at this point I think Adderall could really help.”

At this, I winced reflexively, and she noticed it.

“Oh, I don’t like the thought of medications either. But Jake’s on the verge of failing everything again. You know, it gets me so upset. The pot, the booze in the backpack, the total disregard for college tuition.”

Now her tears were flowing, her voice catching in her throat. I grasped her hand. “Deborah, I know it’s hard.”

And I did.  Because the story I was hearing was one I could have told about my son Sean and myself: Me choosing his college, filling out the application, editing his essay. He receiving early acceptance and a scholarship.

Me steering his course selection, packing his belongings, setting up his dorm room. He smoking pot on campus, skipping his classes, being suspended.

Me pleading with advisors, managing to cinch a medical withdrawal and readmission option. He bolting from a counselor’s office, moving out of state, becoming a ski bum.

The grief. The desperation. The compulsion to intervene more.

Deborah and I aren’t alone. Recent studies show that during the last decade, fierce competition for prestigious college slots and jobs has boosted parent involvement in college students’ lives.

One report shows that technology has made intrusion easy: eighty-six percent of college freshmen report having frequent, sometimes daily, electronic contact with their parents, who often initiate the exchange.

Another study shows, though, that despite their best intentions, parents who run their college children’s lives do more harm than good. The surveyors asked 297 college students about their parents’ roles: Are they involved in selecting classes? Do they contact professors about grades? Do they meddle in roommate disputes?

The study also asked the students to report their own levels of contentment, depression, anxiety, and self-determination pursuant to the theory that all humans need to feel autonomous, competent, and connected in order to be happy.

The conclusion? While parents may think it helpful to phone their children’s professors to haggle a B+ to an A–, doing so causes their children to feel depressed and anxious by undermining their ability to develop problem-solving skills and become autonomous, competent, connected, happy adults.

I can’t tell you how difficult it was for me to have Sean living in another state, skiing away his early twenties, tying my hands. Or how painful it was for me to hear that he wouldn’t be home one Christmas because he had to man the slopes. Or how surprising it was for me to receive his phone call Christmas Day:

“Mom, this job sucks. No skiers showed up today for lessons. It’s Christmas, I’m bored and lonely, and I haven’t earned a cent. I really need to do something to get the hell out of here.”

The hard lesson for me: Hard lessons benefit children.

The hard lesson for Sean: College is worth the hard work.

Shortly after that Christmas, without prompting by me, Sean researched universities and found one that suited him. He completed a transfer application, wrote an honest essay, was admitted to the school. He negotiated transfer credits, changed his college major, found a part-time job.

This September Sean will be a senior.

Hopefully one September Jake will have discovered his direction too.

Meanwhile, every September, the story of Isaac’s binding will be read in synagogues worldwide to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It’s a narrative I now surmise is about an over-zealous parent much like Deborah and me.

In the story, God puts Abraham to a test. He tells him to take his son Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah and offer him as a burnt sacrifice. Abraham saddles his donkey, takes Isaac to the designated spot, builds an altar and stacks it with firewood. Then he binds his son, places him on the woodpile, and whips out a knife.

At this moment God’s angel says to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy…now I know that you fear God, since you did not withhold from me your son…and in your descendants all nations…will find blessing, because you obeyed my command.”

The test, most theologians say, was to ascertain Abraham’s willingness to lead his son to the precipice, then bind and murder him. Perhaps though, this isn’t the case. Perhaps God was teaching Abraham that parents must guide their children to heights where burning is a risk, but that’s the easy task. The test is to unbind the children despite impending dangers and to trust they will survive and ultimately be blessed.

Do I claim to know when Deborah should stay her hand and unbind Jake?

No.

But I suspect she’ll figure it out, though the lesson will be hard and put the twosome to the test.

*Some names and minor details have been changed and consents obtained to protect the privacy of the people mentioned in this essay.

Peripheral Vision

3443136727_e5ae4b0e93_zNot long ago, I had surgery. I suppose that in the vastness of creation, the precipitating problem wasn’t much; with age I’d lost peripheral vision due to drooping eyelids. For several years I’d lived in shadow, sight obscured by canopies of flesh.

My ophthalmologist prescribed blepharoplasty coupled with an endoscopic brow lift. If I chose to have the surgery, he’d put me under general anesthesia, incise along my eyelids’ natural creases and in several places in my scalp. He’d remove excess skin, muscle, and fat and close the gashes with myriad stitches. The procedure would take about two hours, healing, four to five weeks, after which—he hoped—my field of vision would appreciably improve.

When I woke up in recovery, my body tensed with terror, my eyes and head pulsed with pain. I could scarcely press open my eyelids—was anybody there? I felt my husband’s hand in mine, heard a nurse calling my name, but saw only an under-ocean swirl—searing light, floating glow-spots, miasmatic silhouettes. Had my surgeon blinded me?

The first few days at home, I lay supine on the couch—inert—ointment in my closed and crusted eyes, pads on my livid lids, bandages round my throbbing head, heavy icepacks on my face. And for some reason I still don’t understand—anesthesia, pain medication?—I lost control of my thoughts, which tumbled into pondering my past, spiraled into panic for the future, pummeled me so relentlessly that my physical black and blueness paled before the bruising of my heart.

For the previous several years, I’d been teaching writing as an adjunct professor at a college. There, I’d given my all to my students: I’d worked fifty hours per week, developed multiple curriculums, written numerous student recommendation letters, counseled students outside of class, led a Bible study cadre, been a reader for senior projects.

Still, I’d been fired by mass email every June, rehired last minute each quarter, paid less than baristas earned at Starbucks, offered no office, meeting invitations, health insurance, or other benefits. And just before my surgery the college had informed me that a brand new PhD would take over my favorite writing class.

So I brooded: How could the college discard me? Had I done something wrong? Was I a terrible teacher? Was the problem my age? I was twice as old as my replacement, who wouldn’t need blepharoplasty till I was in my grave.

Curled up on the couch, I wept through my ointments and dressings, tears coursing into my ears. In my blinded and mummified state, I couldn’t shake my melancholic thoughts. So desperate was I to divert them, I flouted my surgeon’s orders; I picked up a book from the coffee table though he’d forbidden me to read for at least a week.

Straining to open my eyes wide enough to see, I turned to a meditation by the poet Scott Cairns, who wrote of hiking through Utah’s Arches National Park. Having gone only a little way along the trail, he was awed by the endless blue sky, enormous canyon spaces and tremendous arches and towers of incredibly red rock. He stopped to look down. A flash of vivid color caught his eye, held it, and he was startled to see a brilliant, deep magenta cactus flower on a prickly plant whose scarred, paddle-shaped appendages seemed more dead than alive. He wrote:

And then, having noticed that one flower…my eye was thereby led to another just beyond the first, and then just beyond the second, another…brilliant flowers dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see. They had been there all along, but until I had seen the first I’d been oblivious to their presence, blind to their broadcast beauty.

I lay the book aside, realized my eyes no longer ached that much and neither did my heart. For the first time in several days, I got up from the couch and began to look around. Out the window, in the park, was a boy flinging a Frisbee, his dog springing like a pogo to catch it in its teeth. On the front porch up against the door was a fragrant crate of oranges with a get-well note from a friend. And in my computer inbox were some emails that had come in during the week:

From a student who’d just finished my writing course:

I have loved taking the writing class with you this quarter. I loved seeing your smile every Tuesday and Thursday : ). I feel like I have grown a lot as a writer because of your class.

From a student I’d taught in high school:

I just completed my first script and turned it in! What a rush! Thank you for inspiring me all the way to graduate school!

From the head of the English department at the college where I teach:

I just wanted to let you know that, if you’d like to teach writing next quarter, there’s an afternoon slot that’s opened up. And I want to let you know right now that I will have 1-2 writing sections per quarter next year available, if you’d be interested in signing up for teaching then too.

A leaping dog, sweet oranges, encouraging emails. This trio of brilliant cactus blossoms had been within my field of peripheral vision, but I’d let my umbrage at life’s prickles completely blind me to them. Now my eyes were open. And I knew that if I kept on looking, I’d find still more flowers on the trail.