Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ta! Dah! An Award!!!!!

A blog I recently discovered is entitled Mamawolf. It contains life lessons from a Mom, Teacher, and Citizen of the World. She has been kind enough to read my blog and to comment on it. I always feel great gratitude for those who choose to read my postings and to follow my blog. Thank you all. And please be sure and read Mamawolf’s blog today to discover seven fun things about her.
            Ta! Dah! Ta! Dah! Trumpets please—Mamawolf has honored me today with the Versatile Blogger Award. This is a delightful way to introduce you to several blogs I read that you may not have heard of yet. I say, “Yet,” because today I’m going to award each of these blogs a Versatile Blogger Award for being exceptional. The seven I’ve chosen deserve more readers. I hope you will visit them and will enjoy these enlightening, funny, supportive and inspirational bloggers as much as I do! Here they are:
                        Flying into the Light
                        The Writing Life
                        SoulComfort’s Corner
                        Stalled at 12
                        Loving people with less
                        Marginal Considerations
Fr       The Rules after accepting the Versatile Blogger Award are as follows

       Thank the person who gave you the award and link back to them in your post.
       Share 7 things about yourself.
       Pass this award along to several blogs you’ve recently discovered. 

Now here are seven things about myself that past postings haven’t revealed:

  1. 1.     In September I will have been a vegetarian—not a vegan though—for thirty years. My favorite vegetable is eggplant. My favorite fruit is a peach. My favorite protein is a Boca burger. And my drink of choice is tea! When in doubt, drink tea!
  2. 2.     Since moving from Minnesota to Missouri I have gained twenty-five pounds. (Yes, read it and weep.) Mostly this comes from eating comfort food. Translation: carbohydrates. I’m trying to lose weight by watching my portions and walking.
  3. 3.     The only award I’ve ever won—before today’s!!!—is the writing award for the Diocese of Kansas City way back in 1949. The contest was to write an essay on why comic books were a bad influence on “the youth of America.” I bought into the party line and really criticized the very comics that monthly took me to a world where I was powerful—a great incentive for reading them.
  4. 4.    I believe that if J. K. Rowling gave an award to the adult who reread the Harry Potter books the most times, listened to the audio cassettes again and still again, and viewed the movies over and over and over again, I’d win that trophy hands down. I am a great fan—dare I say “the greatest fan” of all things Potter? I enjoy watching him realize the power within goodness and the courage that comes from that.
  5. 5.     When I was in the fifth grade, my best friend and I giggled so much that I frequently wet my pants. The whole scenario got so bad that ultimately the school bus driver wouldn’t let me sit on the seats because I stained them. He invited me to stand in the stairwell. We visited all the way to my bus stop. He was a dandy driver and an interesting human being.
  6. 6.     Most people think I came from Boston because of my speech, but I was born and raised in the Mid-West. The peculiarities of my speech come from having an auditory learning disability. I can’t easily replicate some consonant sounds. Because of this, I’ve met some really delightful people. They comment on my speech and we get to talking about dialects and the conversation goes on from there.
  7. Finally, I am a lover of poetry. In the fifth grade at St. Mary’s Grade School, a nun visited our class each week and introduced us to a new poem. We’d memorize it the following week and then recite it for her. Those poems have stayed with me—The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat, The Owl and the Pussycat, Casey at the Bat, and many others. Poetry continues to help me discover the essence of being wholly human.
Thanks to Mamawolf for recognizing my blog. Tomorrow—Thursday—I will continue my ongoing account of seemingly being abandoned when I was five.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Comforting Memories

(Continued from last Saturday . . .)
During that kindergarten school year, I often cried myself to sleep. But some nights I simply lay remembering my mommy and daddy and little brother. Many memories comforted me.
            I remembered Daddy sitting on the floor with me. On a big sheet of paper, he’d draw a house—the one we were going to live in someday. He’d carefully add a door, a chimney, and two windows with shutters. Then he’d scissor open the shutters so I could fold them over the windows. He’d cut around three sides of the door, and I’d walk two of my fingers through it and pretend to be a little girl going into my new house.

            Each night he’d sing to me before bedtime. “Dream train, please carry me back. Dream train stay on the right track . . . ” And I’d sing along with him. Then Mommy would read to me. I became friends with Ferdinand the bull, Madeline, Peter Rabbit, Raggedy Ann, the Velveteen Rabbit, the Little Engine, Babar the little elephant, and Ping. Afterward, Mommy and Daddy would kiss me good night and turn off the lights.
            During those kindergarten days, I’d remember Mommy singing in the kitchen when she made our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. She sang, “I Get a Kick Out of You” and danced around the kitchen table. She told my baby brother and me she was “shimmying.”

            Throughout each kindergarten day, I missed my two-year-old brother. He and I had often gotten into mischief together. That past Christmas, I’d pulled him into the closet, shut the door behind us, and showed him how to punch a hole in all the wrapped Christmas gifts so we could figure out what they were. Mommy didn’t think this was funny and ordered us not to open that closet door again.

            He and I also played outside in the winter in a bathroom tub that had ice in it. We’d chip away at the ice with kitchen forks and spoons on our trip to China. Then we’d stand on the iceberg and pretend to be polar bears.
            Mommy didn’t think this was a good idea either. “You could fall and bang your heads open,” she said. I thought maybe seeing a banged-open head would be interesting. She disagreed.
            She ushered us inside, swirled a blanket over the card table, and played house with us. We ate our lunch underneath the covered table, munching our sandwiches and getting a milk ring around our mouths. The three of us sang “Dream Train” and “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “I’m Back in the Saddle Again.”
            Mommy and Daddy and my little brother were gone, but I still had Gene and Champion and Dusty for companions. I played with them each day. No more campfires in the hallway. Instead I played on the neighbors’ front porch. Sometimes I rode my tricycle up and down the sidewalk. I missed giving rides to my baby brother.

            When I got tired, I’d sit on their front steps and look up and down the street to see if maybe my daddy’s car was coming and my family would love me again. When the neighbor lady—whose name I can’t remember—called me to supper, I’d get up and trudge into the house. They hadn’t come, but maybe Grandma was wrong. Maybe they’d come tomorrow.                                                       
                                                                         (to be continued on Thursday . . .)

PS:     For this week and next, my postings will be about this time in my life. The time of abandonment. Then I’ll post for two or three weeks about my life in the convent. I invite you to journey with me as I write this online memoir. I greatly appreciate your thoughts and comments. It is so gratifying to  know that my words and my story touch you in some way. Thank you.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Naughty Child's Questions

(Continuation of Thursday’s posting . . . )
Mommy and Daddy took my little brother and drove away. Days passed and they didn’t come back. Grandma told me they didn’t love me anymore. They’d deserted me. Left me with “no-account” neighbors.
            I now lived in a house with different smells, different people, and different ways of doing things. I became a solemn, quiet, reserved, unsmiling child, fearful that anything I did would make people desert me. Grandma. The neighbors who fed me. My kindergarten teacher. My playmates.

            Each day before I ate, dressed, talked, sat, rose, pee-peed, drew, listened to the Cisco Kid on radio, knocked on Grandma’s door, I questioned myself.
            Am I doing this right? What if they don’t like this? Will they desert me? Will Grandma lock her door and not open it when I knock? Who will let me stay with them if the neighbors don’t want me any more? Who wants a naughty, little girl?
             No one.
            Mommy didn’t. Daddy didn’t. Who would?
            After I summoned up the courage to do or say something, more questions badgered me: Did I do that right? Did I talk too loud? Did I wheeze too much? Too loudly? What if they don’t like little girls with asthma? Did I eat too much?
            Am I pretty enough for them to keep me? Did my school story make them laugh enough? Am I funny enough for them to keep me? Do I need to learn to dance? Maybe then they’ll keep me. Maybe then they won’t lock me out. Will they? If I smile bigger, will they like me more?
            I worried day and night. What if the neighbors with whom I lived said, “Get out, Dodo, we don’t want you anymore.” Where would I go? Where would I sleep? How would I get food to eat? What if I wore dirty clothes to kindergarten? Would the other kids laugh at me?
            Could I sleep in the church? In a pew? Could I eat candle wax? Could I become a beggar? Mommy had showed me one over on Main Street. Could I sit on the sidewalk and hold up my Easter bonnet for money? But where would I sleep?  
            And what would I eat?
            The kindergarten teacher seemed to like me. She gave me milk before our nap. But what if I did something naughty? What if I swung too high? Talked too loud? Colored too long? Slurped my milk? Would she tell me to leave the room, close the door behind me, and never come back?
            I lived for the whole of that year and for years and years and years afterward, analyzing everything I thought and did and said. Did I do something wrong? Did I say something that would make a friend desert me? Would they throw me over with no explanation? Would I end up with no friends?
            I didn’t understand why Mommy and Daddy and my little brother get mad at me and drove away. I didn’t know if they’d ever come back.
            “What did I do?” I cried into my pillow at night.
            So many things we do each day. Which of those had been the reason they abandoned me? I was confused. Sad. Lonely. Sure that no one loved me anymore. What did people want? Mommy? Daddy? Grandma? These neighbors? My kindergarten teacher? Playmates? What did they want? What? The “whats” hurt my head.
                                                                        (to be continued on Tuesday . . . )

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The World Turned Upside Down

The summer after my fifth birthday—the summer of 1941—my idyllic life collapsed around me. One day I lived with my parents and little brother. The next day they’d gotten into a car and driven away. They left me behind with the next-door neighbors. I stood crying, waving good-bye to the car. The neighbors took my hand and shooed me inside their house.
            I remember little about those neighbors. Did they have children? What did they do when I had an asthma attack? Did they accompany me to my first day of kindergarten? Did they like my crayon scribbles? I don't know. Mommy and Daddy and my baby brother, who was two, were nowhere to be found. I was alone. And lonely for them. My world was upside down.
          Why would such loving parents leave their child behind?
           Years later, Mom told me Dad got a better-paying job in a munitions factory in Parsons. They’d had to live in a refurbished chicken coop.
            “That would have been the death of you,” she explained. And she was right, it would have been. I had asthma and was allergic to all but nine things the doctors had tested me for.
            Did she explain before they left? I don’t know. I remember only that I was without the world I’d always known. My family. The movies. The bedtime songs. The porridge for breakfast. Our visits to the zoo.

            For the first time in my life, I was without my parents. Totally confused. My head dizzy with questions: Didn’t they love me anymore? What had I done? Were they ever coming back? Would I ever sing to my little brother again? Why did they take him and not me?
            Once a week during the following year, I walked the three blocks to my grandma’s house for tea and shortbread cookies. Grandma always said the same thing. She hammered it into me.
           “Your shanty Irish mother made him move,” she complained. “He’d never have left me if she hadn’t gotten her hooks in him.”
            I remember the tone of shanty Irish and hooks. Why was she so mad? Why did she look at me that way?
            It was Grandma who taught me the words abandoned and deserted.
            “They’ve abandoned you, Dodo. Just like your father abandoned me.”
            Her words sounded mean and I wanted to go home. Where was that? Mommy and Daddy and my little brother were home. Where were they?
            “Well say something! They’ve deserted you. Left you here with those no-accounts next door. Probably your mother’s doing.”
            “What does desert mean, Grandma?”
            “It means you’ll never see your Mommy and Daddy again. They’re never coming back.”
             Tears trickled down my cubby cheeks.
            “Stop that crying! I'm only telling you the truth. They love your brother more than you."
             I loved my brother too. He had curly yellow hair.
             "Do you want to know why?” she asked. "Why they love him more than you?"            
            “Why, Grandma?” I managed to ask.
            “You’re naughty, Dodo. You’ve a naughty little girl and no one loves you.”
            I sat silent as we drank our tea and ate our cookies. “I’m going to take a nap now,” she said when we’d finished. “You'd best go on home.”           
            I left. I didn’t cry. Maybe crying was why they’d left me behind. Maybe that’s why they’d deserted me. Maybe it was because I giggled. Maybe it was because I didn't have yellow curls. 
             Once I’d used crayons to draw in the book Mommy was reading. Maybe that was why they’d deserted me. Once I hid Daddy’s lunchbox. Maybe that was why.
            Three blocks. At one end was Grandma’s house and she was always mad. At the other end was the neighbors’ house and they sent me away to school each day and didn’t look at my drawings. Deserted. Abandoned. That’s what happens to naughty little girls.
                                                                        (to be continued on Saturday . . .)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

An Idyllic Childhood

Last week I posted three “nun” stories. One concerned the life of a postulant. The other two explained why I ultimately left the convent. The second posting clearly revealed my immaturity.
            Why was I so immature at age twenty-two and throughout the rest of my twenties, thirties, and  forties? I’d romped through the first five years of my life. Any of you who’ve read my "Growing Up" postings will know what a happy child I was. But that carefree childhood ended the summer after my fifth birthday.
            For the next few weeks, I’ll explore that time in my life and how it catapulted me into years of insecurity. By the time I turned six, I’d become a solemn, quiet, reserved, stoic child. I forgot how to giggle. I'd lost the linchpin of my life. 
        My self-assurance as a young child came from the security of being greatly loved. My parents often told me that they’d had to wait eight years to welcome a baby into the family. They'd hug me and say, “Dodo, you were worth waiting for.”
            Their delight in me didn't keep Mommy from scolding me when I was naughty. Like when I ran away or lit a fire in the hallway. But I had heard her tell Daddy more than once that even though I was an “imp,” I made her laugh. I learned early in life that I liked making people laugh.

Of course, that could make trouble for me too. The summer after I turned three, I trotted out into the front yard of our apartment building, waved to my daddy and the other men eating lunch across the street at the public water works, pulled down my panties, squatted, and peed.
            The men hooted and slapped Daddy on the back. I waved some more, pulled up my cotton panties, and did a little rain dance around the puddle that was seeping into the ground.
            Just then Mommy hurtled out the front door. She grabbed my hand, pulled me into the hallway and up the steps to our apartment, took down a curtain, and smacked my bottom with the rod.
            “You’re an old meanie,” I cried.
            Mommy hugged me afterward. “Honey,” she said, “you don’t pee in front of people. That’s something you do in the bathroom.”
            After work, Daddy said, “Dodo, you made the guys laugh today.”
            I nodded. I’d heard them chuckling.
            “But there’s a time and a place for everything. You pee in the bathroom from now on.”             
            I got the message. If I could “hold it,” I peed in the toilet.
            Yes, my childhood was idyllic. I never doubted my parents’ love. Probably most children don’t just as they don’t think about the air they breathe. They simply accept the world in which they live. And I lived in a world in which my parents treasured me. Day and night, I basked in their love.
            That all changed the summer after my fifth birthday. I entered the time of abandonment.
                                                                        (to be continued on Thursday . . . )

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Where and What Is Home?

(Conclusion of Thursday’s posting . . . )
The morning of Christmas Eve 1966 dawned. My last day in the convent. The bell summoned us to prayer and Mass. Afterward, I ate in the refectory and went to the Mother Superior’s office for her blessing.
            Then I walked the long hall from the convent into the college administration building. I wanted to say good-bye to the nun who’d mentored me during my four years in college. When I entered her office, she stood and looked pityingly at me.
            “What ever happened to the bright and shiny star you were?” she asked.
            The convent happened.
            But I didn’t say that. I faulted myself more than she did. Others stayed—over six hundred of them. A party of five nuns had traveled there by river over a hundred years before. Only a handful of women who’d made final vows since then had ever left. What was wrong with me? Why did I have no stick-to-it-ive-ness?
            I said nothing to this woman whose nurturing in college had steadied me. I merely went out the door to where my parents waited for me in their rusty Chevrolet. They tucked me between them in the front seat.
            Mom held me all the way home, brushing back my cowlick, wiping the tears that dribbled down my cheeks. Dad kept murmuring, “It’s okay, honey. It’s okay. We’ll take care of you.”
             Mom muttered, “I knew that place would do you in.”
            My parents didn’t know that three hallucinations sat in the back seat, bullying me: Anna. Dodo. Dolores. For the entire trip home, all three kept telling me just what they thought of my decision to leave and where it might lead me. Anna attacking. Dodo consoling. Dolores arbitrating.
            For the next three weeks all I did, day and night, was stare at the television, my mouth gaping, mute. Mom began to wonder if I could talk. She wondered also if she should have me admitted to a mental ward. Here I was—nearly thirty-one years old and incapable of stringing two coherent thoughts together, much less uttering them.            
            A phone call from a convent friend got me talking again. At grad school, she’d met a Dayton publisher who needed a curriculum writer and editor for a weekly Catholic publication. The firm would fly me to Ohio for an interview if I were interested.
            Once again my acting ability served me well—or unwell, depending on how one looks at the years I struggled to appear normal. The company had me take the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. Its results surely showed my psychotic tendencies, but the boss was a kind man. I think he took pity on me. He probably thought I was a little eccentric, but harmless.
            In the years that followed, I saw four psychiatrists, two spiritual directors, and a counselor. These five women and two men, plus a drug that balances my body chemistry, brought me to today.
            Entering the convent, I felt I was finally home, among kindred spirits. As the years passed, I realized I’d been running away from the past. The convent had been an escape, not a home for me. The question “Where and what is home?” has occupied me ever since.
            Today, I’ve come to some certainty: Our lives work out despite, or maybe because of, the mystery of darkness. It’s taken me a span of years to answer the rapping of authenticity with “Here I am, Holy Oneness, ready to enter into the mystery of my own life.”

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Why I Left the Convent

(Continuation of Tuesday’s posting . . . )
In the beginning of my convent years, I often felt joy, as sudden as freshening breeze. Yet a certain restless was also present during those eighteen months in the novitiate and the seven years that followed. I strained at the lack of independence. I struggled with responding to bells summoning me to each task of the day. Every minute accounted for. Every moment tied up with obedience. So few choices.
            I longed for the creek that ran through our farm. The creek where I had lazed away my youthful summers. The creek that had no timetable. The creek whose gurgling water summoned me into being.
            Strangely, as the convent years passed, I felt I’d forgotten how “to be.” I became what was expected. Willy-nilly I let go of myself. A coldness settled around me. I felt no emotion. Joy disappeared.            
            Eight and a half years after entering, I left the convent. What happened to all that joy? To living within the holy? To my deep desire to pray?           
            The easiest answer is that I didn’t do well with obedience. I’m stubborn. But the answer to my leaving is more complicated than that. In the weeks and months ahead I’ll explore those convent years.
            Some stories will be, as they were then, laughingly humorous. Other stories have a poignancy that still echoes in me, some forty-four years later. For today, it’s enough to say that I grieved, but I didn’t know for what.
            I first asked to leave just nine months after entering. “You were born to be a nun,” the Novice Mistress protested. No ifs, ands, or buts. “If you leave, you’ll never be happy. In fact,” she added, “you’ll be miserable for the rest of your life.”
            I took her at her word. She was older and, I thought, wiser than I. Who was I to know what was best for me? That thought alone could have been the first clue that I was immature even though I was nearly twenty-three. But did I listen? No. I simply accepted someone else’s tally of me. I’d been doing that my whole life. And I continued doing that for many years afterward.
            It took me eight more years to finally walk away from the security of that convent. Those years hold the stories we’ll share in future postings. Today, I’ll simply address the actual ending.
            During my eighth convent year, I began to hallucinate three women who yammered at me constantly. I taught in high school that year, and whenever I spoke to a student, these three figments listened and commented. They stood in three of the corners of whatever room I was in.
            “What a dumb thing to say,” Anna would scold, her voice so strident that I had a hard time hearing what any student was saying.
            Dodo responded, “I liked it.”
            Dolores chipped in with “Leave her alone. She’s doing her best.”
            Daily they tormented me with opinions. Trying to listen to the students above the din within wore me out.
            Anna never stopped censuring me. I always measured up short for her.
            Dodo couldn’t recognize a mature thought or emotion if it tangoed for her. 
            Dolores tried to arbitrate, but Anna’s know-it-all voice riveted her too.
            In the beginning, I knew hallucinations weren’t “normal.” So I was careful not to show I heard voices and saw invisible, but multiple, Dees. I’d observed others for years and knew what was taken for normal. I produced it now.
            That acting depleted me. I lost considerable weight. Became gaunt. I wasn’t sleeping. Communal prayer was a trial of endurance.
            So I left the convent, wary of others realizing how far down the path of madness I’d already traveled. Wary also that the Mother Superior would cart me off to an insane asylum and I’d be lost in the system. Other nuns were there, soon I might be also. I was surely crazy enough.
                                                                        (To be concluded on Saturday . . . )

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Seeds of Doubt Amidst Great Joy

Most of the women in the convent I entered back in 1958 taught in Catholic schools. Each August they traveled by car or train to the mission where they’d spend the upcoming nine months.
            The postulants, I among them, stayed home, living in the novitiate. It housed eighteen postulants, sixteen novices, the novice mistress, and her assistant. On Mondays and Tuesdays, all of us did the laundry for the convent and the adjacent college. On the following weekdays, we attended classes in the novitiate and did our other obediences.
            During the eighteen months I spent in the novitiate, I learned to live with silence so as to be open to the Spirit.  Each evening, however, the schedule allowed for forty-five minutes of recreation. All the postulants and novices talked, laughed, sang, played games, relaxed.
            Everyone practiced silence during our communal meals in Lent and for breakfast throughout the rest of the year. On big feast days, we celebrated, chattering at every meal. Those celebrations were joyous occasions. Much laughter. Delicious food. Glorious singing.
            No postulant was allowed to speak unnecessarily with those nuns—both scholastics and professed—who’d made vows. This was because they might unduly and unwittingly influence our decision about whether to stay or leave.
            Those eighteen months separated us from the world. We saw no television. Read no newspapers or magazines. Listened to no radio. My family could visit only once a year. I could go home to visit only if there were a death in the family or a severe illness. Once a month I could receive and read letters from the “outside world.” The Novice Mistress handed us these letters on the first Sunday of the month and gave us salutation. That is, she gave us permission to talk.
     The task of the Novice Mistress was to teach us how to embrace and live a life of poverty, chastity, obedience, conversion of morals, and stability—the five vows that I was preparing to profess. The history of these vows and the meaning of them appealed to me. I wanted to live a life of poverty, to live unencumbered by “stuff.” A life of chastity meant I could devote all my time to serving others. The nuns became my family. The students I would teach would be the children I would never have.
            Conversion of morals meant I was going to open myself to wholeness. Stability meant I was making my vows in this particular Benedictine convent and would stay there for the remainder of my life.
             Eagerly, I embraced the theory of those four vows.
            Obedience, however, was problematic. I willingly obeyed the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict, written in the sixth century. But newer rules troubled me. They often seemed foolish. This reluctance to put aside my will watered the seeds of doubt that grew within me for nearly nine years.
            As postulant and novice, I studied the history of the Order, learnt what the vows meant in practical and spiritual terms, discovered the beauty of the liturgy and the Divine Office, and gradually grew in gracefulness. I practiced prayer and work. Ora et labora—the Benedictine motto.
            Prayer was both praise and labor. Work was both labor and prayer. Through the example of the professed nuns, I learned to welcome each moment and baptize it as holy. To live, as the Buddhists say, in mindfulness.
            Through daily silence, work, and prayer, I endeavored to sacramentalize—make holy—the day. It became a praise offering to God. A thanksgiving for Graciousness. Each night when we met in the choir chapel for the last prayer of the day, I felt gathered into the embrace of a God who was giddy with love for me.
                                                                       (To be continued on Thursday . . . )

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Thank You One and All

The comments on the stories I posted last week about teaching in New Hampshire back in 1972-1973 have prompted today’s blog. It’s long and you may want to read it in a couple of sessions with a cup of reviving coffee or tea!
            First, let me thank you for reading those postings and for commenting. You complimented me profusely on my teaching style and I appreciate your kind words.
            Second, today I’d like to explore three things: (1) the students in those New Hampshire classes, (2) teachers today, and (3) teachers who help us believe in ourselves.
            (1) None of what I did or tried to do in that classroom would have worked if those students hadn’t been ready for change. They were eager to learn and open to the possibility of themselves. The ground of their being was fertile. Once they accepted my belief in them, they trusted me and were willing to explore the wonder of their own answers, questions, and experiences. They became excited about learning.
            When a teacher reached out to them, the students were ready. They gifted me with their trust. That is the marvel, to me, of those three stories.
            (2) Each day of the school year many fine teachers reach out to students. Those students respond or not—depending on whether their life experiences have let them retain a seed of trust in what adults say to them.
            Some of those teachers—like Deb and Sandi—read this blog. They are, I think, thoughtful, compassionate, patient teachers who respect and encourage their students. Who believe that each new year brings them the opportunity to touch the lives of others and be touched.
            (A sidebar here: All of us teach. Most of you reading this blog are mothers or grandmothers or aunts or uncles. You teach each and every day. In your blogs I often read about your respect and patience and compassion and unstinting support and care for the children in your lives. These stories always inspire me. Reading them, I stand on holy ground.)            
            My mother always said to me, “Dolores, if you look for good in the world, you’ll find it. And if you look for bad, you’re surely find that too.” Most teachers do this. They look for the good in their students.
            When I talk to young people today—the young man who mows my law, grandchildren of friends and family—I learn about the teachers who inspire them and believe in them. So many fine teachers.
            And yet we all know that some teachers are weary and impatient. They seem to look for the bad in others. They themselves bear the scars of not being valued and loved. And so they cannot bring to the children what they do not have. They may see teaching as just another job, not as a calling.
            But my firm belief is that if any child can have just one teacher who believes in her or him--just one--that child has a cherished memory to hold onto for the rest of life.
            (Another sidebar: And that teacher can be mother, father, uncle, aunt, neighbor.)
            We never know what we might say or do or be that touches a child’s life. We can only live, as I said last Thursday, with the attitude that we are on hollowed ground when we engage with others.
            (3) When this happens we can do wonderfully fine things. I’ve had such teachers. The reason I taught well is because I’d been taught well.      
            Sister Corita in 3rd and 4th grades helped me come to grips with asthma. In grades five through seven, Sister Mary McCauley made learning fun. Sister Marian taught us in 8th grade. She read to us each day. I can still remember the book Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan, which she read to us the winter of 1949-50.
            In high school, Sister Mary Edith made Latin II exciting by using the chalkboard to map out the thrust and parry of Caesar’s wars. Sister Mary Rosaria taught us how to engage in conversations on any topic so we could elicit the thoughts of others.
            In college, Sister Scholastica taught me how to write. Sister Juanita shared her love of history and made kings and commoners come alive. Sister Jeanette honored my dreams. Sister John Marie seemed to have a bubble of happiness within in as she taught. Learning became delight in her classroom.
            All these women valued me as a student and as a human being. It is because I was open to their promptings that I became the teacher of last week’s postings. And of course, I had my mother and father who always said to me, “Dolores, you can do anything you set your mind to.” They were my first teachers.
            So today I want to thank you for all your compliments about my teaching. And I want to ask you two questions:
            Which teachers influenced your life for the better?
            Which teachers have reverently touched the lives of your children and grandchildren and neighbors’ children? 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Box Sprung Open

Earlier this week, you met 250 “C learners” in a New Hampshire mill town in the school year 1972-1973.  Today I’d like you to meet the 18 “D and F learners.”
            My mandate from the English department chairman was to keep these young men in school. “We all know,” he said, “they’ll ultimately drop out and get minimum wage jobs. But let’s keep them here as long as possible.” He was a benign man. He meant no harm. But he didn’t believe in those eighteen juniors.
            I was to teach them how to fill out the necessary forms they’d encounter throughout life. The teacher who’d developed the class had retired in May. She gave me two extremely helpful gifts—a number of board games and a stack of forms.
            Some were applications she’d collected from community businesses. Others came from government agencies, banks, and credit card companies. I took seriously her suggestion to follow my instincts. In fact, I felt she wanted me to teach outside the box.
            The box popped open in early September when I overheard Lon say, “My birthday’s tomorrow. A school day too. Bummer.”
            That evening, I bought a cake, ice-cream bars, soda pop, cookies, candy bars, caramel corn, paper plates, napkins, utensils, a candle with a battery, balloons, and crepe paper. As you can see, I aimed for treats a teen-age boy would wolf down.
            The “D/F” class was the last of the day. Between bells, I placed the food and decorations on my desk. The students entered the room, saw the pile of goodies, and asked, “What’s up, Ms. Ready?”
            “What’s going to be up is decorations,” I said, grinning, “for Lon’s birthday!” 
              We draped crepe paper, blew up balloons, laughed, giggled, sang to Lon, ate, and played board games. We told jokes and shared life stories.
             It was then I learned that this was Lon’s first birthday party and first birthday cake. Into my stunned silence, one student tentatively whispered, “Ms. Ready, are we goin’ do this again?” All eighteen looked at me as if a “yes” would be way too much to expect.
            “Yes. Everyone gets a birthday this year.”
            They sat bemused until one asked, “What about summer birthdays?” I assured him we’d celebrate the summer birthdays one by one during April and May.
            They drew a collective sigh and sat, satisfied with their lives in that brief moment.
            Of course, we did more than party that year. The chairman had provided a generous budget for books. I bought nonfiction, novels, and comic books at the bookstore. A few of the eighteen took a book home each night to read. Others asked if I’d read to the class. They listened avidly each day when I read for fifteen minutes.
            During the remainder of our time together we kept busy. We read poetry. Played board games. Tic-tac-toe. Hangman. Talked about jobs. Drag racing. Their shop projects. Hunting. Fishing. Their hopes and dreams. We traded recipes for French toast and brainstormed ways to channel and express anger in safe and harmless ways.
            We created class stories. As they fashioned these stories, they’d argue about how to build suspense. They’d debate the one or two details that really described the characters. When they felt satisfied as a class with each sentence, one student would transcribe it. Then they’d craft the next sentence. Later, I’d duplicate these stories for them.
            We did all that, filled out those forms, and . . . we had birthday parties.
            The last day of the school year, each of them individually made a special trip to my classroom to thank me for his birthday party. Such a little thing for me to do—celebrate their lives. And yet that opened them to learning that year.
            Who then is “D” or “F”? They no longer claimed those identities and definitions. They were the class and the young men who celebrated one another’s birthdays. They knew their worth.
            We all deserve to be celebrated. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Holy Ground

Conclusion of Tuesday’s posting . . .
In November 1972, the New England juniors hesitantly ask if I’ll help them learn how to answer essay questions. They’re the reason they often do poorly on tests. Rejoicing that they’re claiming their own destiny, I say, “Let’s start next Monday.”
             Within days, I obtain fifteen copies of old essay-question exams from their subject-matter teachers. Using these, I divide the questions into five basic types: analyze, compare/contrast, discuss, define, and describe. To devise answers to these and to others questions that might begin differently, the students will have to think critically. That will be my task—to help them develop this skill by using the experiences they already have.
            Monday rolls around and our new adventure begins. We spend two weeks on each type. We begin to learn the difference between “discuss such and such” and “describe so and so” and “compare this and that” and “contrast these and those.”
            For the next eleven weeks we have a set schedule: For the first part of each daily fifty-minute period we study American Literature—the subject area of our class. During the second part of the period, we study one type of essay question.
            On the Friday of week one, the students write answers to a question representing the type we’ve studied that week.  I assess these and hand them back on Monday. For the rest of the second week, we study what’s been done well and how to improve what needs more work. We proceed to devote two weeks to each of the five types of essay questions.
            Ten weeks of study progress in leaps and bounds of understanding and growing confidence. Monday of the eleventh week, I distribute a list of fifteen sample essay questions about American Literature for the exam they will take on Friday. They have three days to consider their responses. On Friday I give them an exam made up of ten questions from Monday’s list. I ask them to choose five—one from each of the five types—to answer.            
           During the weeklong break, I evaluate their work. They’ve done brilliantly, and I find myself both smiling and crying as I look at their words. I have supper with my roommates and babble on and on about these wonderful juniors who set a goal and met it with grace and fortitude.
            When I hand the exams back to them, with their grades on the final page, they begin to grin. Giggle. Slap their desks. Shake hands across the aisles. Cheer themselves. Finally they break into song. Their smiles could have lit our room for the rest of the year.
            Soon, their other teachers take me aside to tell me how interested the “C learners” have suddenly become in learning. How well they’re doing. How enjoyable they are.
            In June, they ace their final exams, surprising everyone, even themselves. Their faces glow. They have come so far. I encourage them to take delight in their accomplishments. To be proud of themselves.
             Later, a friend asks me to describe my philosophy of education. I really don’t know that I have one. Well, maybe one—Respect students. In the Holy Oneness of All Creation we are each gifted. With those students in that classroom I was Moses before the burning bush and I took off my sandals because I stood on holy ground.
            That’s how I think we need to go through life. Within our heart, minds, spirits. Within our eyes, words, souls, we need to stand barefoot and awed before the holiness of each person we meet. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Two Roads Diverged

I left Dayton in August 1972 to teach in a New Hampshire school that had formerly been college-prep. There I taught American Literature to 268 juniors: a remedial class of 18 and five classes with 50 students each.
            Thinking these particular juniors couldn’t learn much, the administration had labeled the students in the five classes as the “C learners.” The “D and F learners” made up the remedial class.
            I set out to prove to the powers-that-be that they were wrong.
            The beginning was rough because I believe that the answers to most of our questions lie within each of us. If we search, we’ll find them. What this means practically is that when students ask questions, I direct the questions back to them.
             “What does this guy Frost mean when he says that one road made all the difference?” a junior asks.
            “What came to your mind when you read that?”
            “I asked you first.”
            “What do the rest of you think? What difference can a road make?” I ask, looking around at their young faces.
            No response.
            “Think beyond the poem,” I suggest. “What’s a road for?”
            No response.
            “Think about something that takes you somewhere. Can anyone name some roads you’ve been down in your life?”
            No response.
            The students are stuck in what the administration believes about them. A few days later, the superintendent calls me into his office. A group of juniors has complained to him about me. He describes the meeting to me.  
            “What don’t you like about Ms. Ready?” he’d asked them.
            “She’s dumb. We know we’re dumb, but how can we get any better with dumb teachers?”
            “What makes you think she’s dumb?”
            “She doesn’t know any answers. She asks us what the answers are.”
            Another junior, clearly incensed, shouted, “She’s supposed to be teaching us.”
            When the super reports this to me, I feel like crying. These kids know their worth. They’re desperate for someone to value them. I immediately realize the mistake I’ve made—I neglected to explain to them that they have answers within themselves. Dah.
            I try to explain to the superintendent what I’m doing, but he cautions me to be practical. “They’re only C learners,” he points out. “Don’t aim too high. You can’t expect much.”
            Angry now, I retort, “I can expect a lot. There’s gold in them there hills!”
            He shakes his head. I recognize the gesture. Even though I’ve been out of the convent only six years, I’ve already discovered that in doubt, many men simply shake their heads. Automatic reflex or something.
            “They’ll surprise all of you this year,” I tell him.
            “Don’t be disappointed if that doesn’t happen,” he says, turning to his paperwork.
            Well it does happen. Next day, I explain to each of the six junior classes why I don’t answer many questions. I stress that many, many, many answers lie within them. I express my belief in them. I challenge them to be true to themselves.
            They respond whole-heartedly.
            Their absentee rate goes down dramatically. Each day, the 268 shoulder their way into my classroom, eager to hear the inventive answers their fellow classmates come up with to their own questions.
            The next thing that happens delights me. . . .
                                                             (to be concluded on Thursday)