Thoughts to Share

Revisiting Room 4408–Bed B

In 2005 I was 37 years old, the mother of eight-year-old twins. I experienced many health concerns that year which culminated with a hysterectomy. I felt very young for such a procedure but trusted my doctor as we made the choice to move forward with surgery. The skilled hands of Dr. Rebecca guided the team taking care of me, and the surgery was deemed a success. My recovery in that hospital room, however,  revealed an even bigger purpose.

As I drifted in and out of consciousness on the night after my surgery, I heard their voices. They were there to comfort and to protect me. Although I did not fully awaken until much later, I knew that my husband and my sister were there with the nurses who were caring for me. When I woke up the next morning, my blurry eyes adjusted to a typical hospital room: drab blue walls; the brown pull-around curtain for visual, but not auditory, privacy; the hanging TV; the metal pole with plastic tubing connected to me; the adjustable hospital bed. Even through my hazy vision of the room, I knew that people who loved me were very near.

A short time later, I realized that I had a roommate. Bed B was occupied by a 79-year-old named Helen who obviously had pretty glasses because everyone kept talking about them. They also talked about her surgery—gall bladder removal because of stones. From the conversations about pain medication and limited movement, I gathered that I was feeling better than she did even though Helen’s surgery was the day before mine. I felt fairly strong and ready to go home, and by noon, I was unhooked from my tubing and pain pump. However, she was not. 

When the nurses left us for a while, she began to talk. She had no family…she was the widow of a man with thirteen siblings…all of those brothers and sisters were now gone…she had no siblings of her own…she had no children. Essentially, at that moment, she had me. We learned each other’s names because the nurses used them, and so our talks began. She was funny and kind, with always a sad hint in her voice. We shared pain stories from our surgeries and talked of going home. 

Early on the third morning, my parade of visitors started with a flourish. My husband arrived early and, right on his heels, a basket of flowers. Then came my parents, my pastor, some church friends (carrying bath and body soaps!), another minister, my mother-in-law bringing my children (with more flowers and homemade cards), my sister, and my brother-in-law. My whole day was spent trying to be a hostess from a hospital bed. Exhausted, I kept up my end of the conversations and basked in appreciation for my stream of well-wishers. Through the whole day, though, I realized that Helen had no company.

When mine came, she grew silent and listened. When they left, she asked me who they were and directed me to be grateful for them. The strangeness of that brown curtain that separated us came over me. It created a physical wall while there was also an invisible force that kept us apart because I simply could not understand the depth of her loneliness and because she did not want to take away from my company. I heard her tell a nurse that she had no one at home to help her, and a neighbor would pick her up because she had no family. My mind wandered to my visitors and to “The Schedule” hanging on the fridge at home detailing all of the people who wanted to help me take care of life as I recovered.

She and I were both eating solid food for supper, but the mystery meat made my stomach turn when I looked at it. We both refused to eat. She giggled like a schoolgirl with a secret, a bond of rebellion between us. As the evening grew nearer, our doctors made their decisions about letting us out. She could not go without help at home. I was released into the care of my husband and sisters.

I felt horrible to leave her. Would her next roommate talk to her and share the miseries? Before I left, I inched past the brown curtain to see her for the first time.  Helen’s thick and flowing white hair framed her pretty, but pale, face.  Her eyes sparkled behind those glasses…very striking pink frames. They were huge circles with rhinestones on each side, and the lenses seemed to also be tinted pink. As she looked at me through those rose tinted lenses, she smiled. Helen told me to take care of myself and to enjoy my beautiful twin babies. Her voice had the ever-present hint of sorrow, but her shine of a smile surprised me. She had grace and beauty and an understanding that made her seem very special.

As I rode home, I knew that a large group of family and friends waited for me. They wanted to baby-sit, help with the laundry, bring home-cooked meals, and pray. Helen was still at the hospital. Being alone was so frightening for me that I saw much bravery in her smile.

Even though I never saw her again, she reminded me of an important lesson.  I knew to be thankful for a protective husband and children, for hovering parents, for bossy sisters. But more than that, as I look back now to that time 17 years ago, I learned to reach beyond life’s brown curtains to find beautiful souls who, through rose-tinted glasses, touch and need to be touched. This lesson creates a struggle for me now because pandemic life has highlighted a part of me that loves solitude. If I were in Room 4408 now, would I be so quick to engage? The thought makes me sad because I’m not sure. The line of visitors would not be allowed in a hospital room now, and, by my own choice, my open nature has closed because of life’s events. Revisiting Room 4408 encourages me to open my heart again and follow God’s command to love others. Jesus said this commandment is the most important one, and my rose-colored-glasses friend reminds me even now to be thankful and reach beyond a curtain hung by people or by a pandemic. 

Written October 22, 2005 and January 17, 2022

A Year to Elevate

Seniors walk through my door in August knowing that they have chosen a difficult class and a substantial amount of work for themselves. As a subject area, students view English with many preconceived notions, and part of my job is to help them see the connections between my content and their lives. Language, communication, metaphors, and many other literary devises surround us in this world. In our hands we hold screens that allow each of us to publish and consume both spoken and written words. We need to know advertising and persuasion ploys so that we don’t get too caught up in the next-best-purchase. Analysis and applying a lens to a subject emerge as vital skills for my students because these abilities allow thinking adults to approach a subject or a problem with an open mind and contemplate the meaning from different points of view. When my students can perform these literary and analysis tasks, our community becomes a smarter and more compassionate place.

Still, when they enter my room in August, my seniors are not yet truly seniors. Honestly, they aren’t really more than juniors with a tan. In the beginning they still want to get the “right” answer, and I watch as they hesitate to explore ideas with confidence because they still want to be assured of accuracy. Most of the new seniors won’t take risks with their ideas as we move into the difficult readings and new analysis concepts. Once students realize how to trust their own voice as they lay out the plausibility of their argument and thesis, many thoughts open to them. They might still have to fight down the senioritis monster, but they can form and craft ideas, not just sit and wait for a theory to magically pop into their minds.

Not only do I see growth with academic work, but I also watch their behavior change through the year. Being the oldest kids in the building isn’t a guarantee that my students will make the best choices or be the most mature. As we move through the senior year, I still see improper behavior in class at times. Oh, the stories I could tell!

Thinking back on your own life, you can certainly see the moments when you had to move from one level of maturity to the next. Senior year is one of those times. Suddenly, the students must make decisions about college applications, scholarships, and future career choices. They are expected to be the leaders in their extra-curricular events, and most of them are also working jobs in the world. To step into their place as seniors, the immaturity of past years must change.

I see many signs when my students become true seniors. They can still whine and complain about work, but they do it. And, they do it well. They can stay more focused in class without horseplay or distracting others, and they prepare for class. They wear sweatpants and go without makeup because they have learned a self-confidence, allowing them to not be so concerned about what other people think. They aren’t trying to impress anyone or match anyone else’s standards. They walk away from drama, or for the ones who still struggle with it, at the very least, they finally hear a little voice in their heads warning them that they are stirring up the drama. They say thank you and mean it. They appreciate all the work that goes into raising them and teaching them.

The future will bring many more growing-up moments for my seniors. Once they enter college, the first couple of years will be full of change, but also fun. When they finally get to the level of digging in to their major field of study coursework, they will have to step up to a new level of understanding and maturity. Students going into the military or the workforce also will have a bit of a honeymoon period where they will be guided on how to behave and new expectations for responsibilities. Then, they will begin their jobs in earnest. They will be making decisions based on data and working toward goals in their organizations. The same big leaps of maturity will happen if they marry, become parents, step into supervisory roles, and begin developing ideas instead of just learning them.

My students in August have miles to go before they are ready. But, here we are in May. At this point in the year, they have taken their place as the oldest, the leaders, the responsible ones, the seniors. Through this journey, one word emerged as my go-to for summarizing all that growing. Our word applies to writing, making choices, behavior, setting goals, and life. I hope that when my seniors come to each new step, they will hear my voice and remember the word. I know they have the ability.

Elevate.

From the moment they first walked into class, I’ve watched them elevate through decisions, disappointments, difficult work, immaturity, and a pandemic. I am so proud of them, and I give my gift of words to the Class of 2020.

Elevate

A Poem Dedicated to the Class of 2020

A Word for Teachers

Dear Auspicious Teacher,                                                                                                                     

We didn’t see this one coming, did we? The committees who worked to organize one-to-one formatting for schools, to solidify the eLearning plans, and to inform the stakeholders didn’t realize that their research would lay the groundwork for our response to a pandemic’s shut down of the educational system. My heart was first broken for the students, so I wrote them a letter. Then, I could see the parents working so hard to make the “next few weeks” work well; I wrote them a letter, too. After a week of online instruction with my own students and listening to stories from friends both near and far, I need to share a thought with my fellow teachers. One word. Simplify.

I know that you love to learn, and I do, too. The new technology that we have all been forced to not only incorporate, but also use as the basis for our classroom processes is a challenge, and I can see you all meeting the challenge in amazing ways. We teachers are moving lessons to Zoom and Google Meet rooms. We are using software that companies have placed in our hands as free resources for us and our students. We are making packets, creating slide shows, sharing our screens, opening conversation threads, writing new content, and possibly, rekindling a fire for creativity and excitement that we haven’t felt in a long time. We are experiencing a new sense of appreciation as many parents and public figures are openly thanking us for our work. It’s good to be recognized, right? Still. Simplify.

You have your own family to love and support during this time. Please, get your nose out of the book and the screen to go cook and play and paint with them. I know how you feel about your students. I am fiercely protective of mine, too; however, look at the faces of the ones in your home. Have no regrets when this is over. Just like you are telling your students and their parents to have a routine and plan times for each event during the day, you should do the same. We are used to taking home HOURS of work each night and weekend, but now isn’t the time to spend locked away planning or grading. (I’m talking to myself here, too, guys.) Set your schedule and follow it, including a time to put down the pencil and close the laptop. Simplify.

Also, I urge you to realize that as we all are learning new skills and trying new and exciting methods, we can’t let our students become our test subjects. Whether you are planning all the topics for your 28 elementary kids or planning your four preps for your 128 high schoolers, dial back the amount of work. I’ve heard many stories in the last week of kids working several hours a day just to keep up with all the work being assigned. Our students deserve better than that. We must remember their mental stress load as much as we remember our own. Get to the heart of your fourth quarter plans and focus on those basic concepts. Introduce new content if you must but slow down your pacing. No students should be working on the same class for several hours every day. Simplify.

You and I both love our students. No doubt. We both also love learning and the buzz we feel from creating good content for our kids. Just remember to go slowly to keep from overwhelming your students and yourself.

Simplify.

Blessings to you, my friends.

An Open Letter to Parents about Virtual Learning

18 March 2020

Dear Auspicious Parents,

Bless your hearts. We teachers see you and appreciate you.

In these days of forced eLearning, you are stepping into the gap for us. I know that you might not have a full cabinet of supplies at home and that you will be meeting your own work responsibilities while you are now also sitting with your students. Suddenly, you will be the teacher, disciplinarian, tech support, cafeteria staff, recess monitor, librarian, and janitor. I know that you will be doing your best for your children, and I encourage you to not accept all of these roles for yourself.

From the youngest to the oldest students, your children can step up to help you. Let them make their own lunch and clean up their own messes. After the novelty of this situation wears off and they try to procrastinate and push their work to the side, stay strong. Teachers spend many hours developing classroom management tactics to ensure smooth communication about responsibilities at school, but you have parenting experience on your side. No one knows your children as well as you do. Meet them at the table each day to do the work. You can find many helpful, age appropriate resources that will offer suggestions about setting up a schedule and keeping students focused on their learning.

Beyond those, here are a few suggestions for your older students:

~Find the balance between using technology for school and for social purposes. Many of us teachers make your children put away their phones during class. Even the seniors. We do not allow social networking sites, games, or random “research.” Be aware of what your kids are watching online during school time. Very long, winding rabbit holes are literally at every click and will distract even the best of us. Be prepared to take away the phones. The students will question you but be resilient. You’ve got this.

~Keep the responsibility for organizing and learning squarely on your children’s shoulders. You are not on our class rosters, so you are not expected to do this work. We are providing instruction, and your students will have to be more independent now than ever before. This process can actually be beneficial for the students because they will be more skilled with self-learning than any group before them. Think about how much you’ve had to teach yourself in your adult life. Consider this on-the-job-type training for them.

~Stay out of the emotional arena. You love your kids more than anyone, and they know that. You all know exactly which buttons to push to make each other crazy, and honestly, I fully expect your children to try pushing those buttons before this whole event is back to normal. My best teacher advice for you is to not get emotional. When you show emotions of frustration, anger, confusion, hesitation? They win. It’s that easy. Thirty years of teaching makes me know I’m right on this one. Be stoic during class time. Make them figure it out and do the work. If you refuse to be emotional, their #1 weapon against eLearning will be taken away.

~Be fully interested in their subjects, even if you aren’t. The absolute best gift you can give your students is your full attention when they are explaining what they are learning. All teachers hear so very many stories each day about the subjects that fascinate your kids. The very best of us listen and engage completely in those conversations, making each student think we are just as invested in the subject as they are. Even if you don’t like science, watch and listen as your student completes a lab. Ask questions. If you have no idea what manga is, get comfy and learn. The most important piece you bring to this virtual learning experience is falling in love with the work that your students are doing. Your interest will spur them forward, and you will be amazed at how much they enjoy learning and teaching about their favorite subjects.

We teachers are trying to create lesson plans that will meet standards and allow your children to keep learning through this pandemic. While we are working on our end to learn how to develop and implement the eLearning processes, we have your children in mind. Please know that we miss them. We miss their humor and their ability to surprise us with such wisdom for young people. We are excited that you will get to see your children in this way, too.

Good luck with this new adventure. You can do this!

Blessings to you,

Van

An Open Letter to Young Adults

15 March 2020

Dear Auspicious You,

Springtime on campus should be full of fun and excitement as seniors look to the future, thespians prepare productions, athletes work to bring their best, courses peak with difficult content, musicians rehearse for concerts, and many students plan for a vacation to relax before the final push of the semester. I am so sorry these normal activities have been interrupted for you.

Friday the 13th brought closures, cancellations, postponements, and worries over basic supplies. Now, as I write to you on March 15, Shakespeare’s warning from the Soothsayer to Caesar to “Beware the Ides of March” rings in my ears. I wish I could reset this year and start it over for you. At this point, however, we must all keep doing our best to move forward.

I am so thankful most of you are young and healthy, so this virus shouldn’t harm you. I am also thankful you are smart and recognize that as a carrier of the virus, you could bring it to someone more vulnerable. Your classmates who might have pre-existing conditions and your older family members appreciate your understanding as the social distancing provides a stopping point to prevent their getting sick. My prayer is for our moments of social sacrifice to work so our country won’t have to decide which patients to serve and which to ignore because of too many sick people and not enough resources. I can’t imagine being the triage caregiver to make the decision about who lives and who dies. So, once again, I want you to know I am so thankful you are doing your part.
Still, I hate this for you. You must be angry and wondering about the events that mean so much to you. You have to be so sad for losing the chance to make memories and feel like a part of your life is missing. After all, the American schooling experience revolves around the classes and the events creating the rhythms and traditions of our lives. Rites of passage have been suspended or cancelled for you, and I know those losses matter.

Remember, though, 2020 will be the year you will talk about forever. Even though the memories you intended to make will not happen as you expected, you still have power inside of you to make these days stand out more than any others. You can offer to go shopping for your neighbors and family. You can babysit and step in to provide childcare while schools are closed. I know how observant and committed you are to making this world better, so you will find many ways to step into the gap for someone who needs help. Plus, you can relax. I have seen the stress and tiredness on your faces from the end of winter. Take care of yourself. Walk outside. Read a book.

You talk about how quickly the days pass as you have grown older. These days of social distancing will pass quickly as well. I pray that you can find ways to make this time memorable so your spring semester, while not at all what you expected, will be unique and meaningful to you. No one else can claim this particular season as their rite of passage, but you can. Embrace this different experience as wholly your own.

Blessings to you,
Van