A co-worker told me recently about a teacher who inspired him. He had visited his teacher once years later, and the teacher pulled one of his essays from a file and gave it to him. My friend was shocked and flattered that his teacher had kept his work for all those years. We spoke of sending our past teachers thank you notes and apologies.
I said, “I did that once. I’m sure I owe a few more teachers.”
My high school geometry teacher was elderly and kind. In retrospect, she was probably ten to fifteen years older than I am at present.
Back in my high school days, I took my socializing seriously for an introvert. I maximized my time in the hallway between classes, chatting with friends making eyes (or something like that) with my boyfriend. I would arrive at the classroom threshold as the bell rang. Mrs. Lee always stood there waiting with a patient smile. If I remember correctly, I asked her if I could go to the restroom almost daily as I arrived almost late. She always let me go. At some point in the school year, she just started taking my books for me, never with an ounce of exasperation. When I returned to class, my books waited for me on my desk.
When Mrs. Lee’s husband passed (He was my elementary school counselor who administered standardized testing and told us to bubble our answers “dark and glossy”), I searched for Mrs. Lee’s address. I found it and mailed my condolences, along with an apology from my former self and a note of appreciation from my adult-teacher self. Now I’m the one who allows restroom breaks when they might not be convenient and even when the students try my patience. I told her that, and you know what? She wrote me back, the kindest note in keeping with my memories of her.
In my twenty-first year of teaching, I still remind myself that kids are kids. We learn character, by witnessing character. I did anyway. Although I made A’s in my geometry class that year, I’ll remember what Mrs. Lee taught me about patience and kindness above all. And I’m grateful.
Do you have a Mrs. Lee? Someone who made a difference that might not even know?
My friend asked the question, “If you could tell your younger self anything, what would you say?” And so here goes:
Dear Little Crystal,
Be true to yourself and live your God-given purpose. Be honest and courageous, proud, confident, and unapologetic. Keep your body, mind, and spirit strong. Love wholly and forgive fully. Don’t let anyone shut you up or down. Maintain boundaries for bullshit and remember you can do hard things.
Your Bigger, Wiser Self
And as a follow-up, “If you could encourage yourself in any way today, what would you say?”
Be kind to yourself, progress is progress, and don’t ever forget your own best advice. I love you!
P. S. Today I’m celebrating women’s achievement, raising awareness against bias, and taking action for equality. For more information go to InternationalWomensDay.org.
Last Sunday morning, my neighbor and I were walking toward each other in the street. He walked south. I walked north. I don’t know this neighbor, but I see him around. I know which house is his. I think I talked to him once before on the night of the hurricane three years ago when a group of my neighbors gathered right in front of my house to watch the water rise. That was a dark night. Literally. The streetlights had gone out, and the sky poured buckets. He said, “I’ve lived here since 1960. I’ve never seen anything like this.” I have some images seared in my memory from that night and one of him walking away, back to his house, shaking his head.
Last Sunday as we approached each other, I took my headphones off. Maybe I left an earbud in my right ear. Anyway, I didn’t exactly hear what he said. I just sort of felt like he said, “Have a good day!”
I slowed my pace to a stop, nodded at him, and said, “You have a good day.”
This man is eighty something I’m guessing. Because he has white hair and looks older than my dad, who doesn’t look eighty at all, however eighty looks. Age aside, the man said again, what I thought was, “Have a good day!”
I smiled, feeling awkward, and just repeated, “You have a good day!”
Then he laughed out loud, slowed his statement, and enunciated each word. “No. You have a good gait.”
Then I slapped my knee and laughed because no one had ever complimented my gait. “My daddy always told me to stand up straight,” I said. I never call my dad “Daddy,” but for whatever reason that’s what I said.
“He must have been military,” he said.
“No, just short.” I smiled at my own bad joke. This man was not much taller than me, and I’m 5′ 4″.
“I’m short, too,” he said.
I don’t know if you just had to be there, but I’m still tickled about the exchange. At the end of our conversation we officially wished each other a good day.
Later in the week, Friday, to be exact. I received an audio message via Instagram from my blogger friend Eliza who lives across the pond. She went out of her way to use her voice to say, “Hoping you’re having a really good day!” Again, I was tickled. By her beautiful British accent and just by the kindness. So much that I taught myself how to use my Instagram microphone and started wishing my friends and family really good days. And in this way, I entertained myself without making phone calls, and hopefully I brightened somebody else’s day.
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 Best—No 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.
*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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Do you love it?
Do you use it?
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.
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.
I have this quirk. Okay, I’m sure I have more than one, but today I only admit to this—I count. Not as in I matter. Of course, I know I do. We all do. I’m talking numbers here. Sometimes in ascending order. Sometimes descending. Compulsively and obsessively. I find myself counting the number of essays I have left in my grading stack, even when eleven remain, I’ll grade the next, forget the number eleven, and re-count. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. I find myself counting the stairs to the third-floor room at the La Quinta. Almost daily. Two flights of sixteen equals thirty-two. I find myself counting the stairs to my second-floor room at school. Two flights of eleven equals twenty-two. When I walk at a brisk pace, I find myself counting off my steps by eights. I attribute that to sixteen years of dance lessons with five life-shaping instructors: Charlene Blackmore, Gayla Smith, Billie Grabeal, Norma Ansley (God rest her beautiful soul), and Claudia Winters. If any of you are reading, when the music is good, I still dance. Anyway, speaking of five…I passed the five-week mark of second semester and the five-month mark at my beloved La Quinta. I use beloved sincerely. These past five months I’ve learned minimalism and grown content here, where I sit on a king-sized bed, propped up on pillows, with my man and my dog in approximately 300 square feet. These past five months when I call Kody after work each day, I’ve learned to conjure Ricky Ricardo and say, “Hi Honey. I’m home.” Home. It’s where the heart is. And each day Rain, the sweetest eight-pound dog in the world, proves that maxim at the door with her big smile and waggedy tail. And each day, Kody and I try to prove it to each other with understanding of each other’s moods, a caress, and an unexpected kiss when life tries to stand in the way of our good time.
Daily I drive past the homeless stationed by the traffic light near the overpass, not far down the access road from our temporary home: the Hispanic man on crutches with an amputated leg and a smile, selling M and M’s, a tall, thin African-American man who washes windshields for spare cash, an aging white man with John Lennon glasses and a long, grizzly beard, holding his cardboard sign, “Disabled Vietnam Veteran. Anything helps. God Bless.” I give away my cash when I have it, and these people of the street without fail will look into my eyes and say, “God Bless You.” A few dollars for a blessing from God. I wish I could do more. Some will impart their wisdom, and I find the words of a man with a deeply tanned and weathered face echoing in my memory. With his pale blue eyes locked on mine, he said, “Happiness is a choice. You can wake up each day and choose to be happy.” Then he turned to Drew in the car with me on our way to see his doctor. “Stay in school, young man, so this doesn’t happen to you.” I think to myself, he saw right through me, and I ponder his attitude against all odds. I know he’s right. My dad always said the same thing. I think about the tent under the overpass near home and wonder how many of those familiar faces huddle there at night as temperatures drop. No doubt they would be grateful for five months with a roof over their heads, a dry room with a heater, a bed with pillows to spare, a hot shower with soap and shampoo, a complimentary breakfast with hot coffee. I feel fortunate—and grateful.
For anyone new to my blog, Welcome and let me fill you in! And to all of you reading, thank you for your interest in my excerpted life. I’m humbled by over 2300 views since September and readers who have stumbled upon my words from all over the world—Romania, the United Kingdom, Ireland, India, Indonesia, Russia, China, Malaysia, Australia, Japan, Ukraine, Cameroon, Moldova, Vietnam, Indonesia, Canada, and the good ol’ USA. I see you, like the homeless man saw me. And like him, I pass the torch of his message to you in hopes you keep the fire alive and pass it forward. I wish I knew his name. If I see him again, I’ll let him know he is making a difference from the streets of Houston.
On August 27, we evacuated to the pet-friendly La Quinta when the flood waters of Hurricane Harvey invaded our Houston home, and well, rebuilding takes time. And—so does mold remediation. These past five months, after many-a-bleach treatment, four mold tests, removing all remaining items from the house, including all cabinets, the bathtub, and the shower, knocking out more walls and the ceiling in places, cleaning the air ducts, pouring a new concrete subfloor throughout the house, and painting all studs within the exposed walls with a mold barrier—WE PASSED OUR MOLD INSPECTION!!! In five months’ time, I’ve watched my androgynously short hair grow less androgynous and my over-sized ass shrink in size in the mirror before my eyes. Growing and shrinking takes time, and you know what else takes time? Settling with our insurance company. Soon after the flood, our insurance adjuster had flown in from the east coast to assist with the influx of claims in Houston. He inspected our home when it still had floors and cabinets and bathroom fixtures, all of which ended up curbside in a moldy mass after his visit. Early on our insurance company shot us a ridiculously low-ball number to settle, and we hired Kelly, an experienced public adjuster to help us battle Lloyd’s of London, who holds our flood insurance policy. We compiled a massive itemized list of our losses and tracked down proof of purchases where we could. Lloyd’s countered again with a number twice as high as the first number, but still less than the cost to cover our damages, so we requested to have another adjuster come out to the house. A little over a week ago, that meeting happened with Kody, Kelly, and the new Lloyd’s guy. Kody told me later, “I just kept my mouth shut and let Kelly take care of it, but it went really well. This guy was local, so he knows what people have been through and sees it all the time. He feels it. Our first adjuster mis-diagrammed the house, and this guy found other mistakes and agreed with a lot of what Kelly said. He said they would let us know something as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, we wait and hope and proceed the best we can. Kody and I received an advance from our to-be-determined insurance settlement, and we have taken out an SBA loan for work to progress at home. New electrical—check. New plumbing—check. Insulation and drywall in progress. We selected Sherwin Williams colors and painted the outside of the house: the bricks Neutral Ground, the siding and garage door Dorian Gray, the trim Urbane Bronze, front door to be determined. From the street our home shouts, “Look! My people gave me a makeover, but I’m still mid-mod at heart.” We plan for new outdoor lighting and landscaping once construction is complete. Photos to come, but don’t hold your breath. Rebuilding takes time. Yet I see the light at the end of the tunnel and much excitement ahead. As I count down the days to our sixth month at the La Quinta and check off the days of the upcoming sixth week of the second semester, I look forward—to cooking in my own kitchen, to sleeping in my brand-new bed, to showering in my brand-new shower, to relaxing in an actual living room, oh, and to Spring Break.
From the mouth of my dad, “You can choose your attitude.” From the mouth of a homeless man who reminded me again on a dark day, “Happiness is a choice. You can wake up each day and choose to be happy.” And about that 5, it represents what I would like to call my past tendency to obsess over the things I cannot control and my new intention to stay focused on the following five: Faith, Gratitude, Peace, Hope, and Joy. I choose all five, and I will continue to practice.
I’m not saying this would work every time, and I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have dealt with a mall parking lot robbery in this way, but apparently my daughter Lauren has a gift for dealing with purse snatchers.
On December 24th, Kody, Drew, and I packed our bags, loaded my Mazda, and dashed up I-45 from Houston to Dallas. We swung by Lauren’s house to pick her up, looking all adorable in a little black dress with wedged ankle boots to match, and we were almost on time for the 3:30 Christmas Eve candlelight service at my home church, Chase Oaks. Merry Christmas to me! One of our traditions, our family together for carols and a Word in the presence of God. (The sixteen-minute sermon is linked, just click on Chase Oaks).
Afterwards, Kody and I would run to the grocery store, so we dropped Lauren at her home and car so that she could make one more run to the mall. Little did she know that she would need her tennis shoes. Lauren found what she needed as the mall closed, and back at her car, a girl approached her and asked, “Do you have a dollar?”
Lauren said, “No, I’m sorry. I don’t have any money, just my debit card.” And with that the girl snatched my daughter’s purse, her Louis Vuitton with her new iPhone inside, and ran. I suppose Lauren looked like an easy target in her cute dress and heels, but a competitive soccer player in her day, her instinct kicked in and said, “Oh, no, you didn’t.” Lauren chased the thief through the parking lot in front of oncoming traffic, and talk about a foot race—in her wedges—she ran as fast as she could. The other girl was bigger, and Lauren knew she would outlast and catch her in a matter of time. Lauren also knew she couldn’t fight her.
When the crook could run no more, Lauren said, “What is wrong? Why are you doing this?”
The other girl said, “I’m just going through a really hard time.”
Lauren said, “We all go through hard times, and I’m crazy, too, but I would never snatch anyone’s purse. How can I help you? Do you need a ride? Do you need a hug?”
And that’s how Lauren retrieved her purse from a thief. On Christmas Eve, Lauren showed this girl forgiveness and kindness, and she got her purse back.
And yes, Lauren did hug the girl and give her a ride, which wouldn’t have been my instinct, but maybe I will rethink future interactions gone wrong. This purse snatching worked out, and I couldn’t be any prouder of my little girl or any more thankful for the angels watching over her.