Recently I told wrote a story and later realized—There’s no way that’s true. Honestly, I believe my Grandma convicted me from on high.
My mother has Alzheimer’s, and do you know how often I wish I could ask her a question? Do you remember a time, let’s say, in your twenties, when you were all consumed and your mother told you something, maybe even something important, and you have no recollection of it at all? The older I become, the more I need help filling my own memory gaps, and my mom can’t help me anymore. I just have to trust myself.
It’s about my grandmother’s pearls. At some point in the 90s, I can’t pinpoint when, my mother gave me a box of costume jewelry including a strand of real pearls. Did it come from her mother, my Grandma? Or did it come from my dad’s mom, my Granny? Or was it some sort of combination? I don’t remember, and I don’t think anyone else knows. At some point, I started wearing the pearls and calling them my grandmother’s. It would’ve been true either way, but without knowing for sure, I attached the pearls to Grandma. I don’t know why.
After I told wrote the story, I started thinking.
I’m not so sure that Grandma had pearls, AND she had seven granddaughters. How would I have been selected from my older sister and all my cousins for Grandma’s pearls? I believe my Grandma planted that thought. I don’t know why.
Granny had three granddaughters and a jewelry stash. Suddenly, I realized my pearls belonged to Granny.
But I picture my grandmothers together and smiling down on me. I picture them sharing whatever they have with each other, and so my pearls now represent them both. My Grandma’s dignity and kindness. My Granny’s wisdom and sass.
For the last few years, I’ve picked a word to guide me. In 2018, the word was hope. My house had flooded in a major way, I lived in a hotel for ten months, and I hoped for the best. In 2019, the word was believe. Home again, I believed in better for my son who battles illness and for my entire family. In 2020, I picked two words—honesty and courage. This year I’m writing a memoir, but not without honesty and courage. And I felt convicted to tell you the truth of my grandmothers’ pearls.
A week or so ago when I pulled the hatbox from the top shelf of the hallway closet, I found a photo inside of Dad with my 4’11” Granny. It was the early 90s. She was 80ish. My dad 50ish. Granny wore a necklace, a long gold-plated rope chain with an oversized owl pendant. The owl’s eyes suspended, dangling rhinestones. My Granny’s eyes sparkle, too. Her smile warm and true.
When my Granny passed in January of 1999, I inherited her owl necklace, and I didn’t need anything else. She was born in November of 1911 (11/11), and she was 87. I’ll always remember her love of books and her seemingly endless collection of Louis L’Amour, her love of animals and her tiny Chihuahua Chip, her talking cockatiel Bird and her calico cat Calileo. I’ll always remember how she asked about my grades in school and after my report how she would say, “That’s my girl!” I’ll always remember her ability to stand on her head into her 60s and the way she took a stand when it came to other people’s shit. The owl symbolizes wisdom, in the Greek tradition the owl was also a protector, and mine will forever stand for my Granny.
I appreciate you for taking time to share my memory of Granny and for supporting my first A-Z blogging challenge! One more favorite Granny story is that time she sprayed the neighbor boys with a water hose when they were all dressed up and going somewhere, church, I think. I’m sure my Dad could supply the missing details. From what I remember, the boys started it. Granny ended it.
Out of the clear blue, this message popped up on Instagram from Monique, my sophomore student eleven years ago. Eleven years ago I didn’t know that she had failed almost all of her freshman year classes in California, and I didn’t know she would only spend one year in Texas. All I knew was that she had an amazing gift in the written word and that we shared a love of English. Now she works as the Head of Community Relations for Get Lit Words Ignite in Los Angeles and empowers young people to use their authentic voices. Monique is a freelance writer and an agent for social change. She teaches writing workshops globally, speaks at conferences, and leads seminars. Her hustle landed her in Houston to close out the March for Our Lives summit.
Maybe you have heard of March for Our Lives?
In Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was the site of one of the worst mass shootings in American history. Seventeen students and teachers were killed and seventeen more were injured. In the aftermath, a group of students channeled their sadness, pain, and rage into action, and created one of the largest youth-led movements in history. Monique would be a guest speaker closing the summit. Her topic— “Dealing with Trauma in Healthy Ways.”
In 2018 Monique spoke to the California senate influencing their decision to pass Senate Bill 933, a $50M arts education bill. As her proud former teacher, I just happen to have a YouTube clip. Meet poetry-in-motion Monique Mitchell, or as I like to call her, the next Maya Angelou.
When I met up with Monique in the lobby of the Houston Airport Marriott at George Bush International, she embraced me with an energy of love and light.
We sat down in the hotel restaurant, perused the menu, and ordered a drink. “It’s been so long. Tell me. What’s going on with you?” she asked.
If you happen to have me in an intimate one-on-one setting and ask me how things are, I will tell you without the gloss. It just so happened when Monique said, “Tell me. What’s going on with you?” I laid out my truth—the current shit show of my life, Acts I-V with the grand finale of me quitting my job the week before. (That blog post remains unpublished and password protected).
And you know what? I believe in God’s perfect timing to bring people into your life when you need them. Monique counseled me with her radiant joy and the insight of a licensed professional, and she made me feel like the thousands of students I’ve taught over twenty years stood behind me cheering me on. “What are your Wildly Improbable Goals?” she asked.
Most people my age stop talking about goals, not that I don’t have any. I just keep them to myself, you know, in case I fall on my face. “Well,” I hesitated, “I have been accepted into graduate school. It’s an MFA program in Creative Writing. I have to figure out the money part. I don’t like the idea of student debt at my age, and the university is private.”
“That’s awesome! Don’t let the money stop you. You’ll find a way. So what will you do when you graduate?”
“Well, I hope to publish at least one book.”
“No,” she cut me off, shaking her head back and forth. “Don’t use those limiting words. Instead of ‘at least one,’ you should say ‘the first of many.’” The student had become the teacher. “And where do you see yourself ten years from now?”
“Well, with my masters, I could teach Creative Writing at the college level. Before we moved to Houston, I taught Creative Writing at my last high school, and those were my favorite classes ever.”
Monique sat for a moment processing all the words that had passed between us. “Tomorrow is the new moon,” she said. “A new moon represents the ending of one cycle and the beginning of a new one. For a while I’ve been writing out my intentions on each new moon. You can google the dates. I had been wanting to move to Africa and spend time writing a book, and I wrote down my goal on a new moon, and a path opened up for employment in Ghana.”
I stared at her halfway disbelieving, simultaneously knowing of her upcoming move and contemplating all of her success stories. “Are you serious? That’s amazing!”
She searched my eyes and found the connection. “When you set your new moon intentions tomorrow, open your journal entry with ‘I now declare all of this or something greater for my highest good and the highest good of all involved.’ Speak in the affirmative like ‘I now receive’ or ‘I am thriving in my master’s program.’”
Before we parted ways that July day, Monique hugged me one more time and said, “We are blessed to be here. The world needs your voice. I love you!”
And oh my gosh, I love that girl, too. On 12/12 she heads off on her next most excellent adventure to Ghana, which reminds me of a wildly inspirational memoir I just finished—The Heart of a Woman, by the wildly talented Maya Angelou, who had one wildly improbable goal after another. Her story begins in 1957 Los Angeles, hosting Billie Holiday in her home, and ends in 1962 Accra, Ghana. Coincidence? I’m telling you, Monique Mitchell is the next Maya Angelou.
And as for me, I received a little scholarship, applied for financial aid, and found my way. I’m now officially registered at Houston Baptist University for classes that begin with a retreat to Galveston on January 5, in the new year, the new decade, seven days after my 50th birthday. How wildly improbable!
Speaking of wildly improbable, you’ve reached the end of my 75th post. Thanks so much for reading, supporting me, and sharing in my formula: Faith + Gratitude = Peace + Hope
(If you have another few minutes, I happen to have one more short film produced by Lexus for the holidays starring the wildly talented Monique Mitchell. Grab a box of tissues.)
“Happy Friday, you guys!” I say as each class begins.
A chorus of voices, practically singing, respond on cue, “It’s
Fun Fact Friday!”
Fun Fact Friday just sort of happened this year. One Friday
during the Fall semester, I said, “Fun fact,” and in the pause, all eyes spun
toward me, and I had a captivated audience. I proceeded to tell my students a
little something about my life. They loved it, and now every Friday their
voices ring out, “Fun Fact Friday!”
Last Friday’s Fun Fact:
“So this is my twentieth year to teach,” I said. “I have a
fact from about twenty years ago during my first few years of teaching when I
was young, right?” I try to make eye contact with all of them as I speak. “So
when I first started teaching, I taught seventh graders for five years. Then I
taught freshmen for a couple of years and sophomores for most of my years, and
this is my third year to have juniors. Anyway, do you remember having really fun
assemblies back in middle school?”
A sea of heads bobbed up and down.
“Well, at my school, we had a traveling trampoline show with four or five trampolines in the gym, and music, and people jumping really high and flipping. It was the best assembly ever. The kids loved it. Anyway, at the end, they asked for volunteers to come down and flip.” I raised my hand as if to portray how a person volunteers.
“And so I did. I ran down from the bleachers and jumped up
on the trampoline. I’m not sure the last time I had been on a trampoline or the
last time I had flipped, but I was a gymnast when I was younger, and twenty
years ago I was still young, right? So I took a couple of bounces and went for
it.” I paused to add a little drama. “And do you know what happened?”
Their faces conveyed expectation.
“I landed on my face.”
“Awww!” They responded in unison, mouths twisting, heads shaking back and forth, half-way disbelieving the horror and fully empathizing.
“This was a big middle school, and I fell on my face in
front of about 500 students AND teachers AND administrators.” I shook my head
up and down to verify the truth. “But
do you know what I did?”
“You quit your job?” One boy jested.
“No.” I laughed and shook my head back and forth. “No. I got up,” I said pointing first at myself and then upward. I looked at my kids looking at me, I felt my face flash red reliving this embarrassing moment, and I resolved to use it. “I got up,” my number one finger punctuated those words, “and I did it again, and do you know what happened?”
Their faces bore uncertainty and fear of the worst-case scenario.
“I landed that—.” I censored myself before I said shit, at the same time cut off by a thunder of student cheers. “And that’s what life is all about,” I continued, caught a little off guard by their response, louder now, “You will fall down on your face throughout your life, but you have to get up and try again.”
Let’s face it. Motivation doesn’t come naturally for most of us. I reached this conclusion while lounging in my bed this past, overcast, 40 ̊ Saturday morning. With the weekend luxury of sleeping later than usual, I awoke to the pale gray light of day, thanked God for my cozy room, and reached for my phone on the nightstand while maintaining my horizontal position. Scrolling and reading, I stumbled onto an Instagram post from @SilverDisobedience aka @DianGriesel, an ageless supermodel and behavior journalist. Look her up, (or click the link above), and be inspired. Anyway, she wrote about focusing on the positives—in people, including ourselves, and our situations. She said, “If you’re not the ruler of your thoughts, who is?”
As a collector of deep thoughts, I tapped Dian’s words into a note on my phone, and then I tapped in my own: “If you’re not behind your own actions, who is?”
I considered my own thoughts and promises to myself and actions taken in 2019. Four weeks ago, I joined a boxing gym, which is completely ironic since I had quietly turned my back on all-things-cardio for almost a year and a half. Anyway, I promised myself a workout there three times a week for three months, and Saturday morning would make my third time for the week. I wasn’t exactly trying to backout on myself, but I can’t say I bounced out of bed with glee. I dressed with a little reluctance for the 11 AM kickboxing class. But—I did it. I went to a class for the 12th time in four weeks.
The Saturday morning instructor Salatu is a beast. I mean, if I had a six pack of anything other than beer in the fridge, I would show it off, too. During February, he is challenging us to do 500 crunches every day, and his classes meet the intensity of that challenge with lots of spinning jumps and jumping kicks and jumping squats, with approximately thirteen minutes of reverse crunches to finish us off. Salatu sets the bar high, and on cue when I want to quit, he yells, “Bring the energy. Bring the Chi. Bring the energy. Bring the Chi.” And so I do my best. The best I can do is show up and try and head to the water fountain when I’m feeling asthmatic. And you know what? Each time, I’m a little stronger than before. And I have to admit, I feel quite amazing.
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.”
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.