Cheaters

Photo by Bryan Schneider on Pexels.com

The winter break approached, exam stress visible on the faces of the students. Of my four sections of Advanced Placement Language and Composition, one class tested Monday, one on Tuesday, one Wednesday, and one Thursday. On my white board I wrote: Happy Holidays! Do your best! Be your Best! The underlying message—Don’t Cheat! I would be naive to believe that students wouldn’t try. Yet I want to trust them, really I do.

Monday’s scores were consistent with student averages and other tests taken throughout the semester. Tuesday’s test had two paradoxically high scores, but the students missed different questions, so I didn’t think too much about it as I was still grading my brains out with essays, which would comprise 50% of test scores. By Wednesday after walking in on five girls just hanging out in my office, which connects to two other classrooms besides mine, I knew in my gut that my test had been compromised. There was nothing I could do in the minutes leading up to the test that day.  

After passing out Wednesday’s exam, I noted the darting glances from “Felicia.” Every time I looked at her, she met my gaze, and even though this test consists of reading passages and comprehension, “Felicia” failed to even fake read as she bubbled her answers. I monitored like a hawk. She wasn’t copying off of anyone. However, after tests were submitted, I discovered four more inconsistent scores including Bad Faker “Felicia” and three of her friends who had seemingly coordinated well enough to miss different answers.  

So (1) there was the situation with unsupervised students in the office where tests were not visible but also not under lock and key. And (2) I did not physically collect phones or Apple watches during this testing season though none were visible. And (3) normally I give more than one version of any test, but this time, with keys having to be entered into an unfamiliar computer system and too much to do and too little time, I did not. This time I stapled a cover sheet on top that either said Form A or Form B and copied Form A in white, Form B green. Lame, I now know.

So on Wednesday after school with one semester exam to go, I assembled a new test and made copies with the same cover sheet, Form A in white and a green Form B.

Before the test on Thursday, I made eye contact with every single student as I handed out scantrons. To each one of them, I said something like, “Good luck today” or “May the force be with you” or “I’m thinking of you as you test today.” Some of them probably thought/think I’m creepy, but most of them were amused. I added a new note to my white board next to Be Your BestNo Cheating. Before distributing tests, I didn’t mention anything about the suspected cheaters or the new test, I just said, “It’s been my pleasure to be your teacher this year.”

“What? Aren’t you coming back?” they asked.

“Of course, I mean, 2018 has been great, and I’ll see you next year. I hope you all have a wonderful break. Are you ready? Do your best! Please keep your eyes on your own test and keep your answers covered.” Then I passed out the test and proceeded to walk up and down the aisles for two hours.

Immediately I recognized two scantrons with the same bubble pattern—A, B, B, D—the answers from the original exam. These two students weren’t even trying to read and see if those answer choices made sense, and they weren’t keeping their answers covered either. However, I had left one clue that this test was different. The first test had 37 questions, and this one had 39. I kept my eyes on the two, and about an hour into the test they both exuded an air of defeat—heavy exhales, eyes rolling, corners of mouths turned inconsolably down.

Fast forward to the scantron machine that sounded off like a machine gun and left six scantrons bleeding red. Six. Six students had stuck to the familiar A, B, B, D pattern, their scores to the tune of 10-20%.

Skip ahead once more past me telling some co-workers and my dean. Our math teacher had a similar cheating scandal, and I heard many a conflicting opinion on dealing with my cheaters. If I gave these six kids zeroes, they would all fail for the semester, and six more whom I suspect also cheated, but couldn’t outright accuse, would get away with it. If I gave my little cheaters their 10-20% and averaged that score with their essay scores, they will still pass for the semester.  The math teacher and I both entered zeroes into our grade books and left the school that Friday, December 21 for a two-week respite. Grades would not be officially due until our January return.

In the meantime, I’ve reflected on the times I’ve cheated in life. I remember my freshman year, still in junior high. It was just math homework. I’m sure I was too busy with my ninth-grade life to worry about school, so I borrowed the homework of a very smart, kind, and well-respected friend who had diligently completed hers and whose name I will protect to this day. I proceeded to copy her assignment in my history class, and my teacher Mr. Watkins, also the dad of one of my classmates, walked over to my desk, picked up both papers, scrutinized the names, and handed them back to me without saying a word. And I felt ashamed of myself. That’s not to say that I didn’t find a way to cheat my way through business calculus in college, and I don’t relay my own dishonesty with pride.

I say this to illustrate the imperfection of humanity. I realize that the pot should not call the kettle black, and I ask myself, “What would Jesus do?”

I remember the story of a prostitute kissing the feet of Jesus and anointing them with perfume and her own tears and wiping them with her own hair.

I remember Simon saying, “If this man were a prophet, he would know this woman was a sinner.”

I remember Jesus saying to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven…go in peace.”

(It’s all in Luke 7:36-50 with a powerful parable in between*).

There will always be Simons who say, “Let them fail. Teach them a lesson.”

There will always be Jesuses and Mr. Watkinses who teach lessons in other ways.

There will always be people, like me, who choose wrong from time to time, but continue to try to be better than who they were before. Isn’t that what we all do in January? Resolve to be our best selves?

When I go back to school, I’ll give my students credit for their essays and say little, maybe even nothing like Mr. Watkins, and like Jesus, I’ll forgive with grace and peace for new beginnings in the new year.

Photo by Jonathan Meyer on Pexels.com

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*Luke 7:40-43, New International Version, biblegateway.com

40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”

“Tell me, teacher,” he said.

41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.


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…

 

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.

I Feel the Urge to Purge

For two months shy of a year, I called a hotel home. The experience forced me to evaluate my space, examine my priorities, and submit to a crash course in minimalism. And now—upon reuniting with my reconstructed home and bringing my remaining belongings out of storage, I’m remembering our downsize two years ago when we moved from Dallas to Houston. I’m remembering how we sold our former home before we bought our new home. I’m remembering how movers packed our last house and stored our things while we lived in a furnished apartment courtesy of Kody’s company for a few months. I’m now remembering how we were at the beginning of about seven months of renovation phase one when the movers arrived for the unload…how so many things did not have a place inside the house during the remodel as walls were coming down and new floors were being laid…how the garage had stored unopened boxes from floor to ceiling, wall to wall at the time of the flood that washed away much.

And now—I’m opening boxes of surviving personal possessions, some of which I haven’t seen for TWO YEARS—things I have not missed. And now—I recall an article I once read on the topic of decluttering and purging. At the time, three fool-proof rules seemed simple enough to remember forever.

  1. Do you love it?
  2. Do you use it?
  3. I can’t remember, but I found a replacement via Google. Would you buy it again today?

Now the problem with the third rule lies in the so-many-things that I didn’t buy—gifts and memorabilia collected over the course of a middle-aged lifetime. What’s a person to do with boxes and boxes of stuff? Do I keep things because of the contentment…the joy…the nostalgia they bring, or do these things represent obligation…guilt? What about giving these things a new life in a new home? What can be recycled…what is trash? As I survey the big picture, I find myself thinking, If I were gone, who would deal with all of my shit? As I open each cardboard box and each plastic storage bin, I look at each item and ask myself, Do I love it? Do I use it?

Packed away somewhere, I have copies of handwritten memoirs from my grandmother, my dad, and my mom. Upon reflection, these are important…beyond price…they embody the family who has shaped me…they lessen the pain of loss. Am I a little sad about the loss of my grandmother’s flooded Van Gogh print—A Vase of Roses?  (A rhetorical question). On the back, the $2.00 John A. Brown price tag still stuck. In the days after the hurricane, I had tried to save the sopping piece of art, as if I were saving my grandmother. The masterpiece dried out on the driveway in the Houston sunshine and outlasted round one of the post-flood purge. Ten months later when pulled from the POD, I found the frame a survivor, the print severely warped and water-stained. The time had come to let go of Van Gogh, and there was freedom in the act of tossing A Vase of Roses high into the air, watching it spin over the 8’ walls of the rented dumpster in the driveway, hearing the gentle whoosh of the cradled landing amid tree clippings and cardboard boxes. I will remember the image always, and no longer having this relic doesn’t lessen my memories or my love for my sweet grandmother.

Van Gogh Roses

Van Gogh’s A Vase of Roses. I saw the original in NYC at the Met, an experience I’ll never forget.

As far as other things go, I have too many that don’t adhere to rules #1 and 2, and because someone else might love them or use them more than I, I find myself frequenting the Salvation Army donation center, where I’ve made a friend named Ontario. We are on a first name basis. Each time I drop off a donation, he smiles a big smile and says with a booming voice something along the lines of, “Well, if it isn’t the lovely Crystal. How are you today?”

“I’m great,” I say, “three more bags in the car. How are you?”

“Oh, you know, always finding a little razzle dazzle in my day.”

I smile in response, exhaling a three-syllable chuckle, and why wouldn’t I keep taking donations to the Salvation Army?

“Do you need a receipt?” he says.

“No, I’ll just add these things to the last one. I’m sure I’ll see you again soon.”

As I leave, his farewell is always similar, “Oh, and FYI…” He always pauses with a little drama, waiting for eye contact, and when our eyes lock, he continues, “Have an OUTSTANDING day!”

“I will, Ontario. YOU, too!” And I can’t help the smile that creeps across my face, the one I notice in the presence of people who feel like sunshine. If I can only keep up the pace of my purge, I just might soon and for the first time ever have a clutter-free home.

people who feel like sunshine
“Oh, and FYI…Have an OUTSTANDING day!”

Mental Health Recovery : A Marathon Not a Sprint

When I compare each year to the previous one, I measure our progress and remind myself that the road to recovery is a marathon not a sprint. After three months of three separate hospitalizations from the fall of 2010 through the spring of 2011, Drew continued to deny his diagnosis and refuse medication. For about three years, we spun our wheels, going nowhere fast, and our family bus broke down. In the summer of 2014, Drew agreed, as a condition for continuing to live at home, to see a psychologist weekly. In the fall of 2014, with some arm twisting of another kind, Kody accompanied me to the 12-week NAMI Family-to-Family class. By January of 2015 with encouragement from his psychologist Dr. Hanna (which I may have instigated), Drew started a NAMI class of his own, 10-weeks, Peer-to-Peer. The wheels on the bus went round and round and forward once more.

Each Tuesday night, I drove Drew to his class at a hospital about fifteen miles from home. He attended. I waited. A teacher by day, I had transportable work, papers to grade, books to read, and I tried bonding with Drew during the drive time.

Receiving a weekly e-mail reminder about the class, I looked forward to the class when the attendees would tell their stories (even if I would be hanging out in my car). I wondered how Drew would describe the last few years of his life, especially as I consider my own version. More than anything, I wish I could completely understand and accurately convey Drew’s perspective, but I can only give you mine. Mine is a story of a mother’s heartbreak and hope in the face of mental illness, a story of navigating the rocky road to recovery with my son and trusting that the pavement will smooth out ahead. It hasn’t been easy for any of us, but Drew NEVER talks about it, living an isolated, non-communicative existence in his bedroom, leaving mainly to eat and smoke. No one would choose a life like that. It’s not that I don’t think Drew can do more, but making him do more is a full-time job, and I work full-time already.

While going to my own NAMI class, one of the teachers e-mailed a CNN video link of Anderson Cooper taking part in a schizophrenia simulation experiment. He wore headphones to simulate hearing voices while going on with his day. If you have five minutes, please watch.

Uncomfortable, right? This is mental illness. How would you react to voices commenting on everything you do? Criticizing you endlessly?

I cling to the hope that through the doctor and the classes and forward momentum that Drew will gain insight on brain disorders…that he will come to an acceptance of his “new normal”…that he will seek further help…that he will someday contribute to society…that maybe one day he will enjoy and maintain relationships once more. These are the things that I wanted to say to Drew during our car rides to and from Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas on Tuesday nights. After the Tell-Your-Story class, I said, “I saw the e-mail that said you all would be sharing your stories tonight. How did it go?”

“I just listened.” And that was that. Our conversation usually consisted of Drew asking, “Will you turn up the volume?” And when I did, he would usually say, “Not that loud. Turn it down.” Pause. “A bit,” followed by a “Thanks for driving, Mom.”

And after class, I would usually ask, “Are you hungry?”

And he would usually say, “I could go for some burgers.” And we would drive through McDonalds, and he would say, “Thank you. I love you, Mom.” And I appreciate that. I really do. I just want so much more for him.

One night after class, Drew and a young lady emerged together through the hospital doors. She stood in the spotlight of the entryway as Drew’s backlit silhouette approached the car. He opened the passenger side door and leaned in to ask, “Could we give Rachel a ride home?” Rachel lived in Rowlett, a Dallas suburb, not exactly on the way home, probably forty-five minutes to an hour out of the way. As much as I didn’t see Rachel’s transportation situation as my problem, Drew wanted to help out his new friend, and I want Drew to have friends, so in the darkness of winter, I found myself driving Rachel toward home.

Rachel talked up a storm, but I welcomed the break to the typical silence. She told me about her family, her high-school experience, her church, her job. I wondered about her diagnosis, not that it matters. Her cheery, chatty demeanor just differed so dramatically from Drew’s. On the way toward Rachel’s house, her mom called to say she could meet us at Collin Creek Mall, which would just be a stop on our usual way home. Around 9:30, we pulled into the empty JCPenney’s parking lot about five minutes ahead of Rachel’s mom.

Drew said, “Will you pop the trunk?” and I did as he hopped out of the car.  From the trunk Drew grabbed his banished backpack, unable to contain the stench of his glass water pipe inside. He loaded the bowl with organic Natural American Spirit tobacco and smoked under the halo of parking lot lighting.

Alone with Rachel, I seized my opportunity, “So Rachel, does Drew say much during class?”

“No, he’s pretty quiet and doesn’t say a lot.” She paused, “He doesn’t laugh at the same things that the rest of us do.”

His affect is off, the neuro-psychiatrist’s words echoed in my thoughts. “Hmm, I just wondered because when I ask him about class, he doesn’t tell me much either.” I hesitated, “He doesn’t really believe he has an illness, so he refuses to take medicine even though he has been hospitalized a few times.”

“Maybe he hasn’t found the right one.”

“Yeah, he has tried quite a few, and he was doing really well on one, but he said he had a seizure, so he quit taking it. A doctor told me he didn’t think Drew would know he had had a seizure, so we don’t know for sure, but now Drew believes the medicine is poison.”

I felt myself overstepping my bounds. After all, I had just met Rachel. I didn’t really know much about her relationship with Drew other than he had gone to dinner at her house once.  I wasn’t sure if she might say anything to Drew about this conversation, and I didn’t want to make him mad, an ongoing concern. Then she asked, “What was the medicine?”

I had to think. The “seizure” had been four years earlier, and while I tried to remember the name of the medication, Rachel said, “I think Andrew has some anger issues.”

That’s interesting, I thought, wondering what had happened in front of Rachel.  “I think you are right. He sees a therapist,” I said, and we sat in silence for a moment, my mind racing. Do Dr. Hanna and Drew discuss his anger?  I silently cursed HIPAA. I should call Dr. Hanna and mention the hole Drew punched in his bedroom wall and the one in our kitchen pantry door, the yelling and mocking, the “Fuck yous” and gibberish behind the closed door of his bedroom.  Even though Dr. Hanna can’t discuss Drew with me, he’ll listen. He always doesAbilify. I suddenly remembered. “Abilify.” I said. “That’s the medicine that made the biggest difference.”

“Oh,” Rachel said as if she didn’t have any personal experience with Abilify. She went on to tell me about how well her medication worked and how her “commanding voices” had gone away.  “To be honest, I kind of miss my angel a little bit. Just the parts where he would touch me gently and kiss me on the forehead and things like that—the nice parts, not the horrible chains and fire and things like that.”

“Right?” My nonsensical response was cut short as headlights flashed in my rear view mirror, and Drew opened the car door, rejoining us.

Rachel’s mom had arrived, and Rachel said, “Thanks so much for the ride. Nice to meet you, Mrs. Byers. See you next week, Andrew.”

Alone with Drew again, I said, “I like Rachel.”

He responded with silence, and I waited.

“She likes to talk.” There was another pregnant pause. “Are you hungry?”

“Yeah, I could go for some burgers.”

marathon not a sprint

Postage Stamp Turned Spa

Overall, a downsized home has worked for us. Upon relocation to Houston, Kody and I purchased a fixer upper. We opened the kitchen to the dining and living spaces by knocking down four walls, efficiently adding space for storage and food prep and entertaining. Our newly acquired ability to watch the big screen TV while cooking was amazing…for about four months…until Hurricane Harvey came along and literally rained on our parade. The bathrooms had remained on our makeover list, and let me tell you—it’s so much more fun to say goodbye to the old and hello to the new rather than blowing money on more new to replace the damaged-beyond-repair new. 

The master bathroom, true to the 1960’s, was scarcely larger than a postage stamp. Notice the past tense. Behind the original shower wall stood a hallway closet. Past tense once more. We robbed Peter (our closet) to pay Paul (our shower), and voila, our 30” x 30” shower grew to 42” x 6 ½‘ with a built-in bench. Our vanity space grew a couple of feet as well. In our last few homes, we’ve kept future home owners in mind. We don’t plan to live here forever, but we’ll fix it and love it, and the TLC will show when we eventually sell. No doubt a future owner will appreciate the maximized space, the modernized amenities, and the minimized commute.

As a collector of inspiration and ideas, my favorite hunting grounds for design include restaurants and their restrooms, perfect since I’ve been kitchen-less for more almost eight months, not to mention another six for the original kitchen remodel.

Did you know that subway tile dominates the entire world?  Seriously, look around. Echoing the style of brick, it’s a safe aesthetic bet, inexpensive, too. When I need more specific designs, I search the Googler and Houzz and Pinterest. With ideas in my head and phone, I drive to Floor and Décor, stroll leisurely, and keep my eyes peeled.

The Kitchen Before
This is the old-new kitchen. The new-new kitchen will be nearly identical with different floors. We are currently missing the lower cabinet to the left of the refrigerator. The re-ordering took four weeks. Did you know that you can’t install countertops without cabinets below?

I like a flow from kitchen to bathroom. A little matchy. Not too much matchy. For the kitchen, we chose gray shaker style cabinets, black for the island, with a white 4” x 10” subway tile backsplash and white and gray marble-look, quartzite countertops. We warmed the space with oak floors and open maple shelves to match the structural ceiling beam. Then that pesky Harvey flooded our floors and lower cabinets beyond repair, and then the walls came tumbling down. However, eight months later, walls and cabinets, floors and baseboards, doors and casings are re-appearing, not completely installed or painted, but I see them waiting patiently (which is more than I can say for myself). The soon-to-be-completed house is looking like home again. I often hear, “How soon will you be able to move back in?”

Good question—one that I’ve been answering wrong for a couple of months now. “Hopefully, by the end of March…hopefully, by the end of April…hopefully two more weeks…surely sometime in May.” The hallway bath gray shaker vanity is on backorder (unless my contractor ordered it right after I asked him about the status yesterday). Once installed, the marble-look quartzite will top the vanity with a backsplash to compliment the tub, which is finished (minus the fixtures). 

Hallway Bath
The white subway tile carries on the theme from the kitchen. Horizontal bands of iridescent blues anchor the niche to surrounding walls.

One day while on a Floor and Décor expedition, a new tile spoke to me—an 8” x 20” vintage mint green subway tile with a wavy texture, priced at $1.89 per square foot. This tile evokes the days of my childhood at my grandmother’s 1950’s home—her hallway bathroom, vintage mint green. Kody accompanied me that day. I picked up one tile, cradling it like a baby, remembering my youth, forging forward in search of an accent for a niche and coordinating tile for the shower floor. For the niche, we found a sparkly, diamond-shaped glass mosaic with silvers and baby blues and beiges. For the shower floor, we found a river flat pebble stone mosaic with muted tones of green and grays, off-whites and beiges. I had a vision in my head, inspiration in my phone, and Kody liked it. We agreed. Done deal. You see what we did there? Larger-sized subway, different color, definite flow.

Master Bath
To be grouted and the hanging light, temporary. I’m betting a plumber won’t come out until our sinks are installed. Did I mention we are waiting on vanities?

I can’t say that we never gave the vintage green a second thought. At Floor and Décor and with future buyers in mind, the hue felt a little risky. At home and on the shower walls, the current Byers feel proud of the choice. Postage stamp turned spa. Reflective of the 1960’s. Color and glitter? Yes, please. If only it were grouted, fixtures and shower door installed, ready to go, and me—living there. I remind myself to be grateful and not to wish my life away. The house will be completed in time. I need to start using that line when someone asks, “How soon will you be able to move back in?”

“The house will be completed in time.” See, I’m practicing.

For now, I dream—of living at home once more, new from top to bottom, of starting each day in my favorite shower ever, a fresh and clean beginning in so many ways. Until then, life goes on. Postage stamp, spa, or La Quinta, I’ll still be fresh and clean, and I can choose my attitude wherever I go or wherever I may be.  

the present

Lessons from an Alabama Rain

Langston Hughes Rain
From “April Rain Song” by Langston Hughes

As a soft April rain kisses Houston, I recollect another cloudburst or two, one in particular. An Alabama Rain, singing me a lullaby, eleven years ago.

*****

I stepped off the plane in Mobile with my friend Martha. As we descended the escalator to claim our luggage, our friend Mona waited, waving from where she stood next to the carousel. Through the airport windows, dark clouds covered the Alabama sky, and raindrops fell. With bags in hand, we dashed from the airport to the car, the rain drenching us all, our spirits remaining high and dry. However, the rain was relentless throughout our five-day stay.  The three of us, Martha, Mona, and I, went out to eat in the rain, we shopped in the rain, and just hoping the sun might show its shining face, we drove by the beach in the rain.

One day after shopping in picturesque downtown Fairhope, we hopped back into the car and Mona said, “I wanna take ya’ll to this new little country store between here and home.  The two girls who opened it are too cute, and so is their store.”

At the store, a two-story, clap-board house with wrap-around porch, nestled amid enormous Live Oaks and backing to Mobile Bay, we met the owners and browsed. With a note of Southern charm, one of the ladies said, “We were thinkin’ about havin’ a wine-tastin’.  Would ya’ll like a glass of wine?”  I couldn’t refuse hospitality like that, and neither could my friends. With beverages in hand, we moved outside to the covered front porch to sit a spell and watch the gentle rain.

About that time, a precious, tiny black puppy, pranced up on petite ballerina feet, flipped-up tail wagging, collar connected to a leash held by her foster dad. We admired the cuteness, and the man struck up a conversation. “This little girl was found walking in the rain,” he said, “so we named her Rain. I’ve kept her for the past week, and she’s a good girl, but I have three dogs. These ladies here at the store are going to take her picture and put her up on their bulletin board to help me find her a home.”

Meanwhile, I picked up the eight-pound, eight-month-old Chihuahua/terrier mix, and she licked my face. Martha laughed, “Crystal, I think you need that dog.” She continued, “I think you need to fly her back to Dallas….I’ll dog-sit whenever you need me…”

I grew up with a dog, but my kids had missed out on that experience. Drew would be starting his senior year, Lauren would be a sophomore, and she had been angling for a Yorkie. A dog consideration rested on the table, and this one did need a home. No doubt, she was adorable.  So I took the man’s phone number, thinking, If I wake up tomorrow, thinking about that dog, I’m going to take her home.

Well, not only did I wake up the next morning thinking about the dog, I couldn’t sleep at all that night, the puppy on my mind had wiggled its way into my heart.  Martha was right. I needed that dog.

Like Martha said, I brought the puppy home to Texas from Alabama. Evoking my inner Paris Hilton, I carried Rain in my newly-purchased dog purse right onto the plane and stowed her below the seat in front of me. She was that tiny and that perfect.

Rain 2007
My Rain loves the sunny spots, 2007. Look at that face.

The breeze has blown Rain and me from state to state, city to city. Still an excellent traveler, always up for the next adventure, always ready to “go.” Eleven years later, she has survived the rising waters of a hurricane and homelessness more than once. Rain loves hotels, awaits me with her waggity tail each day, and continues to teach me a lesson or two about being happy anywhere, as long as I have my people.