What Is Normal?

It was the day after Halloween when my classes read David Sedaris’s narrative essay “Us and Them.”

You know how when you’re young, everyone else seems weird because they do things differently than your family? Before the students started the story, I proposed the question written by the textbook company:

What is normal?

My seniors talked within table groups and then shared out with the whole class. Several people said something along the lines of “Being normal means not being weird.” Often in school settings, when one student has an opinion, others will jump on the bandwagon rather than form their own.

I can’t stop thinking about the girl who said:

“There’s no such thing as normal because everyone is different. So being different is normal.

Sedaris’s third-grade self spies on his neighbors, the Tomkeys, and he passes juvenile judgement on their lives. The Tomkeys don’t watch TV. They talk during meals. They even slap their knees laughing at each other. They trick-or-treat in homemade costumes. On the wrong day. The day after Halloween.

At the insistence of his mother and with dramatized reluctance, Sedaris must give away his own, hard-earned Halloween candy. Along the way, he pokes fun at himself for being human, judgmental and greedy.  

And I’m still thinking about what it means to be normal.

For Everything There Is a Season

Tuesday was the day. The much-anticipated day.

For the past few months, I’ve followed doctors’ orders. On a medical trial for the purpose of eliminating the need for breast cancer surgery, I’ve taken the endocrine therapy intended to shrink my small malignant tumor, and I’ve waited. On Tuesday, a slew of tests and appointments awaited: an ultrasound, a CT scan, an MRI, blood withdrawals, a COVID examination, and a visit with the radiation oncologist.

Sure enough, the real-time sonographic imaging measured a 20% decrease in the volume of my irregular hypoechoic mass with indistinct margins. The medicine that I’ve hated for blocking my hormones has finally done me a favor. It shrunk my tiny tumor, which means no surgery for me. Why can’t I say that with a little extra enthusiasm? This is such great news. Oh wait, my hormones. Going, going, gone. I wonder if I will ever feel like myself again.

For now, I stay the course with the medicine. I tell myself no feeling is final…words have power…God has my back. On Wednesday, I start my radiation, five rounds, every other day. The end. Over and done. And then I wait. Again. I let it all happen and just keep going.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. 

Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8

30 Seconds Inside My Brain

Just today, a part of my brain said, “It’s January 12. You are behind schedule.” Emphasis on you and behind.

I said, “Who’s schedule?”

***

When the new year commenced, I didn’t make a single promise. Not one. That’s unusual for me.

For the last number of years, I’ve had a reading goal on Goodreads. A Word of the Year. Various other resolutions and goals. Despite the fact I didn’t set any blogging goals last year, at some point, I settled into a once-a-week post.

This year. I’m too tired for resolutions, but we are twelve days in. I reserve the right to change my mind. Maybe February will be my month. I am open to the possibility of miracles. I’ve resolved to be kind to myself.

When my inner dialogue started harassing me about writing a little something for the blog, I took offense. I don’t like to be told what to do. Even by myself.

***

I wrote the post anyway. Then remembered why.  

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

❤️

My All-Time Top 10 Blogs

Bloggers will tell you they don’t care about the numbers. Perhaps this is true for some. I, for one, like to see how my posts and years fare against each other. I’m always rooting for the underdog.

What I’ve Learned Through 5 Years of Writing Blogs

  • My most popular posts are more vulnerable.
  • The more I post, the more views appear.
  • As for categories and tags, use them. I can’t explain it, but more people will find your blog.
  • WordPress Bloggers are the best! Thanks for taking time to read today!
  • The blue links below are clickable.

10. Butterfly, Butterfly (2020)

A love note from my second-grade self to my mother.

  • Blogging Categories: Alzheimer’s, Family, Love
  • Tags: None

9. My Beautiful Miracle Baby (2022)

Just one of the reasons I believe in miracles.

  • Categories: faith, family, miracles
  • Tags: None

8. Tale of the Unwanted Letter Jacket (2020)

The time my letter jacket met its demise.

  • Categories: introverts, writing
  • Tags: None

7. Rejection Is God’s Protection (2018)

The time I crashed and burned at an interview and didn’t get the job I thought I wanted.

  • Categories: Faith, God, gratitude, peace, hope, strength
  • Tags: #teaching, #learningneverstops, feeling good, Life Lessons, my grandmother’s pearls, Nina Simone, rejection

6. I Am Fearless and Therefore Powerful (2022)

A 2022 newcomer to the all-time top ten list and a little lesson from Anne of Green Gables.

  • Categories: Books, Gratitude, Inspiration, Literature
  • Tags: Anne of Green Gables, Anne with an “E,” coming of age

5. I’ll Be Okay (2022) and When God Speaks (2022)

Two 2022 posts took a flying leap into the top ten and tied for #5. “I’ll Be Okay” details my recent breast cancer diagnosis.

  • Categories: Faith, Gratitude, Health, Hope, Peace
  • Tags: Breast Cancer

“When God Speaks” contains a confession.

  • Categories: Believe, Breast Cancer, God, Peace, Prayer, Progress, Walking
  • Tags: Mom, Philippians 4:6-7

4. Five Years Before I Said, I Do (2017)

The prequel to my marriage.

  • Categories: Faith, God, Gratitude, Hope, Inspiration, Love, Peace
  • Tags: None

3. That Time When I Met Harvey (2017)

The time when a hurricane flooded our home and the piece that compelled me to start a blog.

  • Categories: Faith, Gratitude, Hope, Inspiration, Peace
  • Tags: None

2. Writing Better (2022)

The top post of last year was just 16 views short of usurping the all-time #1 spot, and I don’t know why. A short piece about the steps to writing better: reading, writing, and revising.

  • Categories: Blogging, memoir, writing
  • Tags: None

1. Making Macbeth Memorable (2019)

The first time I taught Macbeth I posted this on a Facebook English teacher page where it continues to bring viewers.

  • Categories: High School English, Learning, Life Lessons, school
  • Tags: Shakespeare

Happy Blogging in 2023 everybody!

Cheers to Year 53

Photo by lil artsy on Pexels.com

I count my years by December 30ths. Cheers to Year 53, and Happy Birthday to Me!

In the last days of December, I like to reflect and adjust. Or try to adjust. Why not enter the New Year with my mind right? Except in recent days, the more I turned the events of ’22 over in my brain, the more I heard nothing but crickets. I drew no real conclusions. Wasn’t it Socrates who said something like “The more I learn, the less I know”?

My thoughts from a year ago:  

“In fact, there’s no better time than a new year or a birthday to let bygones be bygones and let it go. A gift to myself. Peace. I Believe our struggles strengthen us. I suppose that’s my 2021 takeaway. Strength. Perseverance. I made it. You did, too. As for 2022, I choose Hope. Maybe we’ll all be surprised.”

Crystal Byers

Perspective from my barely-younger former self, the girl who feels all the feels, but reaches for the bold.

As for 2023, I’ll stuff my pockets with the necessary ammo and wish you all the same:

Faith + Gratitude = Peace + Hope

Belief, Strength, Perseverance, Honesty, Courage, Progress, and Grace…

Happy New Year to You and Yours!

On GRACE

On January 2, I wrote, “I suppose, if I have one goal or one word for myself this year, I’m leaning toward GRACE. GRACE when I want to beat myself up. GRACE when I want to beat someone else up.”

The words “I suppose” sound half-hearted.

“If.” Noncommittal.

“I’m leaning…” Not quite there.

Perhaps, I needed a plan. Perhaps, more prayer.

Sure enough, by October, my word of the year had escaped my otherwise-preoccupied mind. I searched the blog and discovered these few lines toward the bottom of my first post of 2022.

“I’m leaning toward GRACE. GRACE when I want to beat myself up. GRACE when I want to beat someone else up.”

And what have I been doing to myself these last few days?

Beating myself up.

On housekeeping, on Christmas shopping, on my inability to move from the couch after work, on my not checking in on friends and family.

Then there are the fantasies of throwing throat punches. On the road, in the grocery store, even at school.

Then the anger melts to tears.

And suddenly, finally, I hear GRACE in the back of my head. In a velvety smooth voice, she says, “Honey Child, what would Jesus do? ‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another’ (John 13:34).”

And that’s GRACE—

Feeling the love and paying it forward, understanding we’re human and flawed, extending ourselves GRACE and love and time for honesty and patience for what we cannot control, knowing God will get us through if we just lean in.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays and LOVE and GRACE and PEACE to you!

The Future of Writing

In the last couple of weeks, I stumbled across two articles from The Atlantic,The College Essay Is Dead,” the byline: “Nobody is prepared for how AI will transform academia,” and then “The End of High School English.” Part of me feared reading what I already knew. With artificial Intelligence, who needs intelligence? Who needs teachers? If technology can do the students’ work, why would I waste my time grading it? And how would I even know if students are doing their own work unless all writing is completed in class, handwritten, no devices? Where’s the grading app for teachers? The whole dilemma is above my paygrade…

I’ve joined the revolution. First, I signed up for ChatGPT and told it what I wanted. Within seconds the app spit out an 18-line poem, not exactly a sonnet, but with the time saved in creating the thing, I could easily delete one stanza to fulfill my own request.

My apologies for wasting your time with bot-created poetry. I for one have little patience for wasted time…

Next semester I’ll have 191 students writing research papers, which I will grade. Heavy sigh. Anybody care to guess what percentage of my kids will use this new technology? I’ll ask for their honesty in May.

Hot Cross Buns

When I was in the second grade, my music teacher introduced our class to a plastic wind instrument called the recorder. We each received our own in a bag to take home and practice and keep forever.

My friend Robyn, a tall, quiet blonde with good grades, lived up the street and around the corner. One day she invited me to her house for after-school practice. This is where the details become a bit fuzzy. After playing “Hot Cross Buns” an indefinite number of times, I clearly remember wielding my recorder like a weapon, completely unprovoked, and cracking my friend on the top of her blonde head. Hard. From the bedroom doorway, I heard a gasp and turned to see Robyn’s older sister, eyes wide and jaw dropped.  

End scene.

I can only imagine Robyn’s sister saying, “Crystal, I think it’s time for you to go home.” I don’t think Robyn cried. I don’t think anyone reported me to Robyn’s mother. I don’t remember saying, “I’m sorry.” I do remember Robyn eventually moving to Texas and losing track of her over time.

In 2009, I found Robyn on Facebook and apologized for the time, forty years earlier, I hit her over the head with my recorder. I’m not sure she remembered, my apology now another distant recollection. Why had this brief memory haunted me through the years? I’m quite sure I was even meaner to my brother when we were kids, but that was mostly retaliation.

Humans are imperfect. We randomly act without thinking and hurt others without malicious intent. We often beat ourselves up for mishandled situations while judging others for their shortcomings. At other times, we don’t own up to our own roles in our own dramas. Life is complicated. Apologies, forgiveness, and understanding are not exactly simple. Sometimes, however, we owe ourselves peace. ‘Tis the season.

Photo by Jonathan Meyer on Pexels.com

A Teacher’s Vacation

It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving at 9:48 pm. I had just decided that I would be going to school underprepared on Monday when I received the following email:

Dear HISD Community:

Due to the Boil Water Notice issued by the City of Houston late this evening, all Houston ISD schools, offices, and facilities will be closed Monday, November 28, 2022. HISD will closely monitor the situation and provide additional updates regarding operations tomorrow.

Signed Sincerely by the Superintendent

Hallelujah! I said to myself.  

Don’t get me wrong. I am super thankful for my school, my salary, my sweet students, my week of vacation. But is it a week of vacation if I brought 44 AP Literature poetry analysis essays home for grading? Seriously. On Monday, I would’ve needed to grade the last 5 during my conference period and lunch. Of the other 117 essays, there were a smattering of A’s, even 100’s, but too many did not show understanding of the critical parts. I planned to pass them back for revisions. Three. The thesis statement. One topic sentence. And one body paragraph. (With smoothly incorporated evidence and commentary in connection to the prompt.) Okay, maybe a revision of half of the paper, but some targeted instruction and 40 more minutes should work wonders. Time is ticking. Two and a half weeks until semester finals. I need to finish my fall grades before 2023. Then suddenly May arrives, and my kids take their AP tests, essays included, for college credit and graduate. Ready or not, I feel some responsibility.

Instead of torturing myself with those last five essays or preparing for Monday, at 10 pm on Sunday, I finished Dead to Me Season 3 on Netflix, stayed up past my bedtime, and didn’t set my alarm. What an unexpected treat! Never mind the fact that I might need to boil water.

On Monday, I graded my AP LIT poetry essays, 4 of them anyway, uploaded a previously written recommendation to Julliard, wrote another recommendation for another student, graded some English IV personal narratives online. Granted I slept later, went for a walk, and indulged in some leisure, but by 4:25 pm I was still working toward being prepared for Tuesday. I know the time because I received an automated voicemail from HISD:

Houston ISD will resume normal operations Wednesday, November 30. The citywide boil water notice has been lifted and HRV personnel have begun servicing all equipment with waterline connections. The district does not anticipate the need to make up the prior two days.

Whoop! Whoop! I slid my laptop underneath the couch and continued binging Season 3 of Cuckoo and Season 1 of Wednesday on Netflix.

On Tuesday morning, a to-do list was in order. I notice that everything takes me longer these days, and I’m a little extra scattered. Focus, Crystal. Focus.

To Do:

  • Edit essay for student who politely asked for help with a college application essay.
  • Create overhead agenda slides.
  • Continue grading due English IV personal narratives. 16 to go. 19 missing. 68 total.
  • Identify students with work past due/missing and failing. 27 of 191 = 14%.
  • Check e-mail for students who may have e-mailed missing assignments. 0.
  • Enter grades in gradebook.
  • Add upcoming assignments into gradebook.
  • Type sample research paper found in Writing about Literature, for a digital example of content, MLA formatting, and Works Cited.
  • Prepare to teach The Importance of Being Earnest (for the first time).
  • Create revision assignment with a checklist and examples of a thesis statement, a topic sentence, and a body paragraph with embedded quotations and commentary. Upload to Canvas for student submissions.
Today’s agenda for English IV students. I teach on a block schedule and see kids every other day. If I’m ready for today, I’m ready for tomorrow.
Today’s agenda for AP Literature. Q1–poetry analysis essay. TWIST—tone, word choice, imagery, style, and theme.

My vacation is officially over. Muah. Muah. But I’m ready to see the kids. That’s the easy part.