Teacher Spelling Bee 🐝 (Lucky Me!)

The last time I stood upon a stage and spelled words before an audience, I was twelve years old. I could spell decently. I mean, I was no Ashley Adams, champion year after year, competing her way to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, in Washington, D. C.  But, I did enjoy spending time with my dictionary, perhaps more than the typical child. And, I could spell my way out of my homeroom and onto the stage with the other Academy Elementary finalists. Go me!

And thirty-six years later, I found myself on a stage once more, bright lights in my eyes, teachers in a line to my left and to my right, an audience of students before me. Stepping up to the microphone for my first word, the cheers drowned out the word uttered by the student judge. Flattered and taken by surprise with the audience response after a semester at my new school, I turned to the judge sitting stage left and asked, “Will you repeat the word?”

“Decordicate.”

“Decordicate?” I asked with a grimace, brows furrowed.

“Decordicate,” he affirmed.

I turned back to the audience. “English teachers don’t know all the words,” I said into the mic before proceeding. “Decordicate.” I repeated, looking again to the two judges, who nodded in agreement. “D-E-C-O-R-D-I-C-A-T-E.” I spelled.

“That is incorrect.”

Okay, so I wasn’t so lucky. With disappointment, I crossed the stage, descended the stairs, and slumped into a front row seat, clapping for co-workers still competing and internally spelling their words while trying to remember mine. With my iPhone back in my classroom, I would have to wait to look up “decordicate.”

The next teacher had to spell “chocolate,” by the way, and the next “paranoia” and the next “scenery.” The winning word was “reminisce,” a favorite pastime of mine. I can spell those words. Oh well. This spelling bee supported two causes: an Engineering Club fund-raiser, $2 a ticket with a few hundred kids in attendance, plus a canned food drive, one item per student for our local food banks. A win-win. I can’t be bitter.

Once back in my classroom, my student Cheyenne who represented my advisory class in the recent student spelling bee asked me, “Was it D-I-C?”

It took me a second to understand her question. “I have no idea,” I responded with phone in hand. “Let me look it up,” and I Googled.

“Showing results for decorticate,” said Google.

“Enunciate,” said my inner dialogue. No one was there to hear. 

“D-E-C-O-R-T-I-C-A-T-E,” I spelled for Cheyenne, emphasizing the T while reciting from my screen. “I missed the T. I heard D.” Her smile revealed empathy as she left for lunch. 

I read on. According to the U. S. National Library of Medicine at medlineplus.gov, “Decorticate posture is an abnormal posturing in which a person is stiff with bent arms, clenched fists, and legs held out straight. The arms are bent in toward the body and the wrists and fingers are bent and held on the chest. This type of posturing is a sign of severe damage in the brain.”

According to The Free Dictionary, decorticate means “to remove the bark, husk, or outer layer from; peel.”

Anyway, I learned something new. I hope you did, too.

A Thanksgiving Episode

Sunday morning of Thanksgiving week included my parents and my sister, Philippians 4:6-8, and a blood-stained sock.

Philippians 4 6-7

After breakfast, Dad drove, and I rode shotgun to Mom’s memory care home, where she sat alone with the Christmas tree in the community living room. Dressed for church, she was ready for the day when we arrived, and her eyes lit up like the tree at the sight of us. Dad grabbed a brush from her bedroom and demonstrated his skills as a stylist. I attempted small talk. Alzheimer’s is a thief, stealing more all the time from one of the kindest people to ever walk the earth. Dad helped Mom stand up. He helped her with her coat. He helped her to the car and buckled her in, and together the three of us took a Sunday drive to kill some time before church.

In the sanctuary, Mom, Dad, and I found spots at the very back, where friends stopped by to say hello and check on my mom before the service, and my sister slipped into our row next to me. The graphic design on front of the bulletin read, “…in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God,” and the minister spoke on the same theme for another few verses. The words of the apostle Paul turned over in my head and resonated with me. I remembered my mother’s voice. I remembered times gone by when she spoke these same words. I realized the meaning had stuck. I realized that every meant every. Pray with a thankful heart in every situation. I heard my mother’s voice, now silent. I heard God’s voice, “Peace…which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts” and “if anything is excellent…think on such things.” Leaving the sanctuary that day, I felt thankful for the message, for my safe trip from Houston to the Oklahoma panhandle, for a week of vacation and time with family, for more time with my mother, and for the peace I carried with me.

Dad and I took Mom back to the nursing home. I helped her change tops and took off her shoes to help her change pants, and that’s when I spotted the blood stained sock. Mom’s toe had been bleeding obviously, and I’m not good at this type of thing. “Um, Dad?” I said. He was hanging up her church clothes. “I think Mom’s toe is bleeding.”

I stepped away and let Dad take over. He rolled down Mom’s compression sock and pulled it off her foot. I caught a glimpse of the horror. Dad left the room to find a nurse. Mom’s toenail stood perpendicular to her nail bed, bleeding. It seemed as if the nail had caught on the sock when they had gone on. Then the foot had been shoved into a shoe. My stomach still turns, four days later.

A nurse showed up promptly, filling a pink plastic basin with warm soapy water and submerging Mom’s foot to soak for awhile before the inevitable toenail removal. I’ll skip the details. “Now, are you her daughter?” The nurse darted a glance at me from her position on the floor before further examination of my mother’s toe.

“Yes,” I replied as my mother made a funny face and laughed with unrestrained joy. I looked back at Dad, sitting directly behind the nurse and caught him mid-face-contortion. Mom cackled some more.

“Does that tickle?” The nurse asked Mom, oblivious to the mostly silent comedic flirtation of my parents.

“No, they’re making faces at each other,” I replied for Mom.

“I love seeing them together,” the nurse said. “They really have something special. You just don’t see that very often. She looks at him with so much love.”

I always knew my dad hung my mom’s moon, but over the last year or so, I’ve come to realize that Mom hung Dad’s moon, too. And these excellent things, I will think upon.

Philippians 4 8

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!!

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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?

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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.