Word of the Month: Gratitude

A couple of years ago, before we moved to Houston, one of my favorite students gave me a gratitude journal and wrote on the inside cover, “Because you have truly taught me to appreciate the joys of life, no matter how small. Thank you.”

Gratitude Journal

Copyrighted by Chronicle Books with text by Catherine Price, the introduction speaks of our tendency as humans to be consumed by our problems and how to combat this inclination with a happiness strategy called the “three blessings” approach.

The first prompt says, “PICK OUT THREE THINGS IN YOUR DAY THAT ARE BEAUTIFUL. Take time to notice and appreciate them in the moment; then, when you get home, jot them down in your journal.”

 I completed my first entry on a day when I desperately needed to shift my focus…

 Aug. 27, 2017

In the midst of Hurricane Harvey.

Today Kody, Drew, Rain, and I were rescued by HFD on an emergency truck with sixteen people including our neighbors and first responders and seven dogs. Water shin deep flooded our house when we left. Our yard was submerged to my knees. I’m thankful for being able to communicate via cell phone and Facebook. I’m thankful for those who have prayed and continue to pray for us. I’m thankful for the La Quinta and breakfast and a room, actually a suite, and space for Drew and for a shower and dry clothes and for our next-door neighbors Boaz and Megan (also sheltered here) who brought us water and snacks and for the restaurant at the Hilton across the street that had wine!!

********

Looking back, I only grabbed what I needed for an evacuation and packed what I could carry in an over-the-shoulder bag. I suppose in that moment I realized I needed God and gratitude.

Flash forward fourteen months to November 2018. We have a place to call home again, and this month I renew my commitment to gratitude and my journal. Admittedly, I’m behind, but I like the idea of focusing on the little things and journaling three a day.

The next blank page of my gratitude journal says, “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”                               —Marcel Proust (1871-1922), French novelist

Gratitude

 Would you like to join me in my gratitude practice? Let’s call it a happiness experiment.

Are You a Good Communicator?

Each Monday in homeroom advisory, the students and I answer a couple of questions as a team-building exercise. One at a time, we relay a detail or two about our weekends and practice the art of communication. Some say more than others. Some endeavor to entertain. Everyone participates. The school dictates the other query through a leadership class for senior students in charge of facilitating activities for the 9-12 homeroom.

Last week as advisory started, a soft-spoken senior named Diego wrote on the board, “Are you a good communicator?” He turned to face the class and proceeded, “I’m not a good communicator…,” followed by his why. Something stuck my heart as he spoke.

From my rolling chair at the front of the room, I rolled left and right for the ultimate vantage point, listening to my twenty-three kids, digesting their responses to understand, and preparing mine to note my observations. I perceived a clear division between the extroverts and the introverts. The extroverts expressed satisfaction with their abilities while the introverts beat themselves up, half of them echoing Diego, “I’m not a good communicator…,” followed by whys. Each time my heart sank a little lower.

Student after student said things like, “I know what I want to say. It just doesn’t come out of my mouth,” and, “I just get nervous and end up not saying anything,” and, “When I work with a group, the loud people take over, and I might have something to say, but I miss my chance,” and “It takes me awhile to think, and I usually think of the perfect thing to say later” and “I just don’t care enough to say anything.”

After the tenth or eleventh time of hearing, “I’m not a good communicator,” I contemplated the purpose of the activity as well as my heart condition for my fellow introverts: Have I been the kid who’s hard on myself due to failed conversations? A thousand times, Yes! Do we really want kids to leave here feeling terrible about themselves? No! No! No!

I carefully crafted my conclusion to change the course. “I communicate better in writing than verbally,” I said, pausing for eye contact. “I’m a quiet person, too, and I like to think before I speak. As I listened, I was up here thinking that I have a problem with this question.” I hesitated with a purpose. “I don’t think any of us should beat ourselves up over a personality trait.” I took another second or two to let that sink in. “Some people love to talk. Some don’t. Doesn’t communication go two ways?” At this point I became aware of some approval in the form of nodding heads. “It seems we could’ve talked about the meaning of communication first. Some people are really good at conveying their ideas, but they might not be as good at listening. I think all of us have room to improve.” And from there, I chatted about my weekend…but the question bugged me all week.Effective communication

 

“Are you a good communicator?”

 the-single-biggest-problem-in-communication-is-the-illusion-that-it-has-taken-place-quote-1

Then Fall, Mrs. Byers!

It was a day like any other day—me, teaching the next generation, returning their graded memoirs, explaining the meaning of revision and the next phase of the assignment while traversing every inch of the classroom.

“Just because I marked up your papers doesn’t mean that they are terrible,” I said as I as I handed students their work.

Passing back the first essay of the year always breaks my heart. Their faces reveal disappointment, so I try to soften the blow. “I enjoyed reading your stories. We can all improve our writing—I know I can. Overall, we need to work on more action verbs, so I marked your ‘Be’ verbs—am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being. Oh, and get, got, getting, gotten, which are informal verbs. We tend to overuse them when we could be more specific. I want you to listen carefully. We will never ‘get rid of’ the word ‘get’ in our daily language. Did you hear what I said? I said, ‘We will never ‘get rid of’ the word ‘get.’ That’s just how we talk. But listen again. We can eliminate—the word ‘get’ in our writing.” I slowed down the word ‘eliminate,’ enunciating each syllable, pausing with some drama and a small smile in hopes they processed my point. “Did you see what I just did? ‘Eliminate’ and ‘get rid of’ mean the same thing. ‘Eliminate’ sounds more sophisticated, which is what we want as juniors in high school, heading to college, right?”  

A sea of heads bobbed up and down in agreement as I continued passing out papers.

“Many of you wrote about some heavy, life-changing events that could be really nice college entrance essays. Universities want to know who you are and how you have become that person, so I want you all to have essays saved that are your personal best. That’s why we are revising. To revise means ‘to reconsider’ and ‘to alter.’ Some of you may have written four pages, and by the way, college entrance essays usually have a word limit, but a memoir should be just a moment in time. I want you to work on showing me versus telling me. Some of you could cut quite a bit and then explode the details of one moment.”

Speaking of a single moment, my left foot stepped on to a backpack which started a slow-motion slide across the tile floor, my foot along for the ride. All of my weight shifted, and I heard myself saying in rapid-fire succession, “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” as if I had stepped on a child. I could do nothing to prevent the fall. I remember my unsuccessful attempt at catching myself and the soft thud of my right knee making contact with the hard tile. I remember sitting on the floor wondering why ‘sorry’ in triplicate had issued forth from my mouth and wishing for wittier words mid fall—“Et tu, backpack? Then fall, Mrs. Byers.” I remember feeling thankful for wearing pants that day and wondering how I could gracefully stand once more and continue teaching.

My class very politely stifled their laughter, as I gathered my composure and rose as if on wings with strength and dignity. The owner of the offending backpack said, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I said on two feet once more, papers still in hand.

I remember another student making eye contact and saying, “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I said. “All but my ego. Thank you for asking.”

Somehow I carried on. It was the last class of the day, and somehow I didn’t die of humiliation. Somehow I made it home, where I examined my knee for a bruise and found none. I would be okay.

A day or two passed before I finally told Kody, and as suspected, he burst out laughing, the hearty, contagious kind that made me giggle, too. “You’ve gotta admit. That’s funny as shit,” he said.

Okay, I admit it. 

vince lombardi

Here’s one more for a Monday morning…

 

When the Worst Is Laughable

Can I tell you the worst part of my new job?

**********

My new identification badge—is the worst, the very worst. Ever. If nothing else, the photo provides a good laugh, and for a minute I thought about posting it for your entertainment. On second thoughts, I would prefer not to be my own worst enemy. Allow me to paint you a picture instead.

Due to the backwards tilt of my head and hunched shoulders, my face and throat seem to be equal in proportion forming a column atop my torso. With said head tilt, my nostrils flare like a horse’s, and my hair resembles a mane. If I turn my badge upside down, I might be smiling. My teeth are bared, the corners of my mouth pulling down when right-side-up. A severe glare reflects the photographer’s flash on my glasses, and my teeth are orange. Orange, I tell you. I wore a Lancôme lipstick called Bewitched that day, but I know for a fact that it wasn’t smeared all over my teeth. I assume the same guy who took the terrible picture prematurely pulled the ID from the machine, smudging the colors in the process. I normally give people the benefit of the doubt, but I blame this guy for everything—especially for not giving me an opportunity to preview the photo. I received my badge a week or two later. A do-over isn’t worth the hassle.

When I showed my husband my new ID, he almost busted his gut. “What the ____?” he said between cackles. “Nobody could’ve thought that was okay.” He’s right. It’s completely and utterly ridiculous, but if my badge is the worst part of my job, then I think I’ll be okay. At least I no longer share a staff restroom with men.

Bojack Horseman (2).png
Imagine BoJack Horseman with a strained smile, a blonde mane of 1970’s Farrah Faucet hair, glasses with a glare, and this is my new badge.

School portrait day happened a week or so ago. Never in life have I so much appreciated the school portrait photographer and his expertise in telling me, “Chin down. Tilt your head to the left.” After the first shot he said, “You have a glare on your glasses. I’m going to take another one.” I had to laugh on the inside, but my smile this time was genuine. He even allowed me the courtesy of approving the photo before I returned to class—classy.

Recently I read a Business Insider article about “Snapchat dysmorphia,’ a form of body dysmorphic disorder and a disturbing new phenomenon where people seek cosmetic surgery to look more like their filtered selfies. I found myself shaking my head, but at the same time, I wondered—Is it the flawed reality of my badge that bothers me the most? I consider my own question. Although I have no plans to see a surgeon, I realize that I, too, have succumbed to the allure and the societal norm of the filtered photo. For the past year at least, all of my profile pictures on social media are selfies, all taken via Snapchat to soften the flaws and enhance what God gave me. Magazines, advertisements, and professional photographers have airbrushed photos for years, so I’m not sure where I’m going with this. 

Will I quit using Snapchat?

Doubtful.

Will I stop taking selfies?

Probably not.

Would I want people to know I filter my photos?

Sure. Why not?

Keeping Up Appearances

We all keep up appearances, and why? Because who we are isn’t good enough? Or because we have secrets to hide? Because we have a point to prove? And to whom? Others? Ourselves?

I don’t have all the answers, mostly more observations and more questions:

Don’t our flaws make us human? More relatable? More empathetic? When the worst is laughable, is it really that bad? And when the worst is cryable, isn’t it healthier to share the burden?

 

Ms. M.

At my new school, Ms. M. sits behind the desk in the front office, where I sign in each morning. With a genuine smile and a voice like honey, she says things like, “Baby, you just let me know if you need anything,” just like I’ve known her forever, never mind it has just been a few weeks.

Words Have Power

It was Friday morning, the end of the first week of my 20th year as a teacher, the end of the first week back after summer vacation for students. As I documented my time and penned my initials, Ms. M. perched behind her desk, a few other teachers milled around, and a dad stormed into the office, setting a laptop case in front of Ms. M. “The idiot forgot his laptop,” he said.

Ms. M.’s eyes darted toward us teachers, then back to the dad, “Sir,” she said with complete composure and calm, pausing, possibly gathering her thoughts, or now that I think of it, probably censoring them. “Don’t call him that.” She looked him square in his eyes. “At this school, he’s a good kid.” She punctuated the statement with emphasis on good kid, and she didn’t leave it there. “Do not call him names.” The pause grew as the father’s cheeks flushed. “He’s your son, and everyone makes mistakes. I’ll make sure he gets this.”

everyone makes mistakes

He stammered some, not quite apologizing, definitely at a loss for words, and then sort of slunk away.

And on that day, Ms. M. showed me exactly the person she is, the person I aspire to be.

Be Somebody
Everyday is a fresh start.

 

The Things We Carry

My eyes are bleary, and my head is spinning. The feels of a teacher heading back to school—a new school with two new, advanced preps and new technology—a teacher hired late and cramming the summer reading, cramming the planning, doing the best she can without a user ID and password, hoping to give all of her students a fighting chance of passing advanced placement exams in the spring and earning college credit, hoping to have access to her grade book by day two.

I’m exhausted, I still have so much to learn, and students start today.Teacher PhotoMy future students were assigned Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried to read over the summer. I hadn’t read this novel before, and honestly I hadn’t read anything about Vietnam or any other war, but now I categorize this book as a must-read. In 1968 O’Brien was drafted into the Army’s 46th Infantry and sent to Vietnam, and his seemingly autobiographical work of fiction sheds light on the war from a soldier’s perspective. O’Brien’s narration begins literally with the items that each soldier carried, introducing each character and setting up subsequent chapters, which read like short stories, all connected through mutual experience.

On day one after introductions and expectations, my new 11th graders will write about something they carry, an actual object or otherwise, now or in their past. I’ve reflected upon how I would respond if I were the student. While reading, I began to understand that Tim O’Brien has written over and over about Vietnam, book after book, because of the emotional baggage he carries. Each of his characters experiences compelling and transformative trauma, and theirs triggered mine.

It was a year ago today, August 27, 2017. I’ll never forget sloshing through the rising waters inside my house, opening my front door to a wave of more, wading through the flood over my knees to the evacuation truck, and trudging from the drop-off location another mile or so to a hotel where we would live for the next ten months. I would like to say that Hurricane Harvey is now behind me, I would like to say my ordeal in no way compares to those of a Vietnam veteran or any veteran’s trauma, but in the weeks preceding the one-year anniversary of Harvey, the memories continued to flood my thoughts—in the middle of my professional development sessions, in my car while driving around Houston, in the grocery store while sorting through the tomatoes. You would think my brain would be otherwise occupied, but no. The hurricane still spins with everything else I’m learning and thinking and adding to my To-Do list.

As I read through a veteran’s lens, I saw in those soldiers my friends, my classmates K-12 and co-workers and husbands and kids of friends and cousins of mine and my uncle, all who have served. I couldn’t stop thinking of so many good people I know, veterans, and their untold stories. I especially couldn’t stop thinking of Kenny Perrin, my classmate who always appeared to my left in our yearbooks, our names listed alphabetically—Kenny Perrin, Crystal Petty. He lost his life, just this summer, to illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the things he carried. Rest in peace, Kenny. I will never forget you as a friend, and I will never forget the sacrifices you made in the name of duty.

Brain Scans
Who are we to judge illness and injury and the things people carry? Images of a healthy brain vs. classic post-traumatic stress disorder vs. classic traumatic brain injury vs. both.         Source: PLOS One at https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0129659

As I carry my own past and the intimidation of an unknown future, I remember a beautiful, smart, athletic former student named Peyton. She messaged me via Twitter this summer in appreciation of giving her “extra confidence” in her writing abilities and coming to work with a “great attitude” and so many kind, kind words. And she remembered “like it was yesterday” walking into class in a cute outfit and me saying, “Peyton, I love your style.” I want to say that she wore white that day, maybe a jean jacket, maybe a blazer, looking super sophisticated as a sophomore. And in her message to me she said, “It’s the little things that give a girl confidence when she needs it most.” And that. That is what I choose to carry with me into this new year at a new school with new preps and new kids. Peyton, whether she knew it or not, gave me a little confidence when I needed it the most and reminded me to keep doing what I do. She reminded me that everything will be okay, and today I pay it forward to you and to my new students and right back to Peyton if she is reading up in NYC between her classes at Columbia. Everything will be okay.

We all carry things—literally, emotionally—some we wouldn’t choose and some we can’t necessarily drop, but we can choose some good to carry along. You know, to balance it all out.

Rejection Is God’s Protection

Once upon a time, I swallowed the bitter pill of rejection. Okay, probably more than once, but most recently, back in May, I interviewed for a job that seemed ideal. Said interview was a fail.

BACKSTORY:

Having taken the initiative to seek out the English department chair at a well-reputed high school three and a half miles from home via website, I introduced myself as a potential colleague via e-mail. After several pre-interview e-mails back and forth, I had established a rapport and had one foot through the door. I thought. The next thing I knew, I had a date for an interview. An opportunity arose to quit the job I had, so I did, effective at the end of the school year. I felt confident the new job belonged to me. Maybe I should say overconfident.

On the day of the interview, May 9, I taught. Actually, that’s not true. I monitored students. It was a standardized testing day for public schools across Texas. On this particular day, freshmen tested in my classroom, so my sophomore classes took place in an alternate location. At the time, my students were reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Instead of carrying a class set of books from my room to another, I planned a day of film clips and discussion, but the best laid plans often go awry. The technology in my room-for-the-day flopped, plus a number of students were absent due to re-testing (the Texas Education Agency says students must pass these tests to graduate), so I gave the remaining students a free-day, and I babysat. By the end of the day, I sort-of felt like I had been run over by a train.

After babysitting, I drove to my post Hurricane Harvey La Quinta home where the elevator was out of order, trudged up the three flights to room 310 where Rain greeted me with her waggity tail, hooked my dog to her leash and jogged back down the stairs and outside in the 90 ̊ sunshine for necessary doggy business, then plodded up the stairs once more to leave Rain and freshen up.  There I realized that I was feeling low and thirsty. The only beverage in my mini-fridge was an apple cider, and I may or may not have downed a cold one. I definitely tried to think positive thoughts and relax from my day, not to mention my nine months of life in a hotel. I brushed my teeth and hair then took the stairs for the fifth time that day to depart for my interview.

Other than looking presentable, I had totally neglected to prepare—no pre-thought to potential questions or answers, no extra copies of my resume, and worst of all, not even a note-pad or a pen. I thought of these things after checking in with the receptionist, and I knew going in I had made a grave mistake.

At four o’clock on the dot, the principal himself walked through the door, greeted me, shook my hand, and led me into a room with a hiring committee of nine people. Nine. Never had I interviewed with so many people at once. They started with introductions, which I abruptly forgot, and then the first question: “Tell us about yourself.”

I froze. My words conveyed little, or possibly they spoke volumes. If the interview could’ve gone worse from there, it did. At some point, maybe after, “Tell us your strategy for teaching vocabulary,” or “Tell us how you would motivate an at-risk student,” I gave up trying to impress them at all. By the way, this past year, I had over one-hundred students labeled at-risk of dropping out, and I concluded that I couldn’t reach them all. On this particular day, my attitude was like a volcanic eruption, and once the lava flow started, I couldn’t contain it. I spewed pessimism, the type of negativity that will take a person nowhere in life, and I know better.

I didn’t receive an offer, and I wasn’t surprised, but the rejection still stung.
Rejection is God_s Protection

Pamela, one of my bestest, wisest friends, offered her empathy. “I heard this one recently,” she said over the phone. “Rejection is God’s protection.” Surprised I hadn’t heard saying before, I chose to believe. Pamela’s words reminded me of what my mother would have said, “Everything happens for a reason.” It took forty plus years, but over recent months, I had started to understand the reason. Our struggles strengthen us.

everything happens for a reason

FAST FORWARD:

All summer long, I have applied for new jobs, and I have waited. I’ve declined an interview or two based on the school’s reputation or location. Houston is huge and traffic is fierce.

Last week I landed an interview that seemed promising. The dean on the other end of the line said, “We need you to bring copies of your resume, your cover letter, and a lesson plan that you would teach for either AP Lit or AP Lang.” Clear direction from the administration. I love that. I can do this. And so I prepared—like no other interview in my life.

I looked back over ancillary materials from past Advanced Placement workshops attended. Even though I had never taught this lesson, I knew the one I wanted. It was an introduction to poetry analysis and tone, a comparison of Nina Simone’s 1965 “Feeling Good” with Michael Bublé’s 2010 version. If students misinterpret the tone of literature, they risk misinterpreting the meaning. The lesson involved student collaboration and a presentation. It was perfect. Thank you, Sandra Effinger (mseffie.com)!!

While researching the school, I discovered it to be a small 9-12 public high school, housed within a community college less than five miles from my home. Students who attend this school have to apply for the program. They want to be here. Again, I prayed for the right fit.

FAST FORWARD:

I wore my grandmother’s pearls to a very comfortable interview with a panel of four, and I heard Pamela’s words once more, “Rejection is God’s protection.” By the end of the day, after reference checks, I received a call for a second interview with the principal.

Two days later, I met with a lovely soft-spoken woman, the principal, and it was like having coffee with an old friend. She started with, “I’m sure that they bragged about our school on Monday…” She listed off the accolades, and we continued to have a conversation about teaching philosophy and what to expect in my classroom. As the interview officially concluded, she wrapped it up like a gift. “Our students are amazing. It really is teacher heaven.”

“That is so good to hear,” I said, “and I really hope you have a spot for me. Before our relocation, I came from teacher heaven, and I prayed to God I would find it again.”

She replied, “Every year I pray to God for teachers to show up for graduation.“

“I can be there,” I smiled. We shook hands. I felt at peace. Later that day, I received an offer I couldn’t refuse, and next week I will have a fresh start—year 20 in the classroom, this time in teacher heaven. It’s a new dawn, a new day, a new life, and I’m feeling good. Thank you, God!!

Our struggles strengthen us.