Friday, May 14, 2010

For Those Who Teach

I realize that Teacher Appreciation Week was last week, however, my Auntie Buttercup just sent me this gem written by my Grandma Jan after her first year of teaching at age 21 in 1932. Unfortunately, I never got to meet her as she died from colon cancer before I was born.

Grandma Jan's paper painted such a picture in my mind and I know it will for you too. So, to all those who teach - a heartfelt thank you for the part you play in the lives of children each day. I hope you will enjoy reading this as much as I did!

A thought: How interesting it would be to actually find someone out there who might still remember Miss Dawson today...hmmm...I think they would be in their mid to late eighties now? Now that would be something.

Jan Dawson
1512 South 11th Street
Chickasha, Oklahoma
Why Do We Do It?
Scarcely had the commencement music faded from my ears and the tears of the departing graduate been shaken from my eyes, before I found myself plunged, unsuspecting and guileless, into the whirlpool of a small, wind-swept, Oklahoma prairie village, where I was to be one of the new school "marms" for the coming year. It was considerable of a jolt to unawakened eyes, accustomed to the calm serenity of a college background and activities, to view for the first time the mud-soaked, rutted streets, the countless pigs rooting about doorsteps, the small town, brick-fronted main street, the highway sign proclaiming proudly to a tourist world, "Prairie Town, Population 587", the cow pastures used as school playgrounds,-- the inevitable, small town outlook stamped upon every red bluff, brick and pig.
Stowing my bag away in my neat little room in a white bungalow on the highway and making arrangements to eat with two other teachers at "Auntie" Brown's, two cow pastures up the steep path leading to the water tower, I "girded my loins", so to speak, and made ready to tackle this school teaching game.
It was hot that fall, as only an Oklahoma September heat can be. The cotton trucks and low-swung wagons, creaking past the school buildings on their way to the cotton gins, stirred up the dust in clouds which settled on our desks and clothes and persons. Negro and white vagrant cotton pickers, sacks slung over shoulders, wended their sweating ways down the hard highway. The buildings were stifling. The classrooms, closely-packed, smelled sweaty and badly in need of air. Through the long, hot, sleepless nights, I could hear the "giant-strides" clanking on the playground near by, reminding me of the day to come as I lay, tired and aching in every bone from the day before.
The sounds of cars and heavy trucks humming swiftly through the town touched off my gypsy wanderlust, and it was a temptation, those hot autumn days, just to "thumb up" sometimes crossing the paving and hie ("Hie" is an expression meaning "get thee to" -- sort of Shakespearean) me away to new and greener pastures.
But when the first cool breeze of October came creeping down the Washita and rustled the cottonwoods along its banks, my days began to click off with a regularity that was amazing, and I found myself settling into the routine of my "job" with all the finesse and familiarity of an old hand.
It was a busy existence. when the long, blue school trucks lurched in early in the morning, unloading shouting, care-free farm children, lunch baskets and books in hand, upon the playgrounds, and the eight-thirty bell began tolling its summons, I would hurry out the back door, pick my way gingerly through the tall weeds by the roadside, scuttle across the highway, glancing wistfully at some new, shiny car speeding down it, leap the water in the ditch on the other side, grin at the yells from the see-saws of "Hello, SCHOOL teach-er!" as I crossed the playground, and emerge, breathless from the climb of three flights of stairs, in the office on the top floor of the ramshackle grade building to "sign in".
Lingering there with some of the other teachers on like mission, we would discuss how pretty Miss Evans' collar looked this morning, or how funny Mr. Frederick looked yesterday chasing those boys out of the gym, or pick up the latest bit of gossip from one of the truck drivers, until the sleek, oily approach of the principal would scatter us to our various posts and duties like tumbleweed before an approaching storm.
At nine o'clock, after checking off the last tardy from the seventh grade roll, I began the day in earnest. In their various turns, I taught the sixth, seventh and eighth grades reading; I taught them English, realizing that in spite of my arduous training, to their young minds it would still be, "The school bus ain't came in yet"; I taught them art, training scrubby fingers to become the future Rembrandts of Oklahoma; I trained them in programs and plays for assembly hours; I trudged across the cow pastures, (neatly dodging the old sow and her family of five little pigs), to the high school, where I introduced Longfellow, Washington Irving, Mark Twain, and various men of letters to a grinning American literature class; and at three-fifteen came the mecca of each day,-- my public speaking class. It was here that I unleashed the talents in which I had been trained. It was here that I taught shy, awkward boys and girls to stand up straight and face their fellowmen with poise and dignity. It was here, aided by twenty-six interested students, the cares and troubles of the day rolled lightly from my shoulders and I gained fresh hope and courage for the coming problems.
Save for a slight recess at noon, when, with the other teachers, I hurried up the path to eat "Auntie" Brown's boiled meat and greasy salad, which that good old soul, in a faded wrapper and flapping, men's bedroom slippers, her grizzly gray hair sticking out on each side of her face coquettishly, served to us, thus ran my day from eight-thirty until four.
But the day did not end there. The teachers were expected to attend all church revivals, the town's main form of amusement, all box suppers, all "rassling" matches and basketball games, the high school's athletic outlets, and always be on hand to help with a Sunday school party or any other form of frivolity in which they indulged.
Of course, we had our fun. There were our countless domino games on rainy afternoons; there was the joy of going to the post office for mail, the walks to the river bridge to hold "spitting" contests from the rickety railing, the rides in the hearse with the village undertaker, the climbs to the water tower to "see what we could see"; there were the long afternoons another teacher and I lay on our beds and spun yarns which made Baron Munchhausen hide his head in shame; there were the baseball games with the neighbor's children in the cow pasture, the wiener roasts, the picnics,-- it was fun.
And for this, I received each month as payment a warrant, marked carefully "Funds Not Available", for seventy-five dollars. I am still holding two of those warrants. In the spring, when the school doors closed for the last time, we had not received any pay for the past three months, and I scarcely had enough to buy a bus ticket to my home city, eleven miles away.
For this, I was educated. For this, I spent long hours in grammar and high schools and followed an elaborate, specialized course in college. For this, I spun dreams and molded my steps toward a career during adolescent years.
And yet, somehow, as I turned my back for the last time on the pigs, the red bluffs, the water tower, the wide main street, the cow pastures, the ramshackle school buildings, there was no feeling of regret in my heart.
For I had, as payment, the memory of the expression on cotton pickers' ragged little children's faces hearing for the first time the wonder and glamour of an Arabian Night's Tale, or changing with Cinderella from rags into riches, or following an enchanting Pooh Bear through his rambles in the 100 Acre Wood. I had the incredulous delight of intellectually starved youngsters doing for the first time a puppet show of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. I had the cherished picture of telling to little Davie in the sixth grade the story of a man of whom he had never heard, Jesus Christ.
I had the respect and friendship of high school students,-- students, many of whom rose at four in the morning to milk cows and do farm chores before coming to school,-- for teaching them what little I knew of stagecraft and acting. They received the thrills of professional Thespians as, in make-up and costumes, they did, in spite of the expensive royalty, a really "good" play. I shall never forget the look of pride on their sun-tanned faces as they placed in the state contest with a one-act play and how carefully they polished the plaque they received as reward.
There were mothers' and fathers' words of simple, honest praise ringing in my ears,-- enough to make a teacher's heart light as the prize cake at the last church social.
We may be penniless, we may darn our stockings until they resemble patchwork quilts, we may make over last year's clothes, we may work our tongues out for no material gain, we may be fools, -- but in touching simple lives, reaching back into plain, colorless backgrounds, in shaping destinies, in serving as we do, we have our reward. That's why, I guess, we do it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Mother I've Been, The Mother I Am

There is a running tally, on a loop it seems, playing inside my head " up on Mommy Mistakes, we'll be taking a trip down memory lane to remember all of the times we made selfish choices..." I take full ownership of all of them.

I have three beautiful children - and let me clarify that when I refer to them as beautiful, I am referring first and foremost to the unique and beautiful spirits that all children possess. Of course I would be lying if I said wasn't biased in thinking so! The age difference between my oldest and youngest is a couple of years more than the age difference between my son and me.

It won't come as a surprise then to hear that my parenting skills at age 18 vs. age 36 (when the second was born) are slightly different in comparison. Maturity and stability were just two of the very important elements missing during that first chapter of motherhood. Of course, at the time I thought I knew everything like most 18 yr. olds do.

I have been lucky enough to have open and honest communication with my son and truly believe him when he assures me he understands and forgives me for the circumstances surrounding those days. While I take some comfort in that, I cannot just wash my hands and say "well, there now" is often much harder to forgive ourselves.

Now, as I watch his two little sisters grow, each milestone is a reminder of something I missed, something I should had been there to witness first hand twenty years ago - to log into my mommy memory bank for safe keeping. Like I said in "Breaking the Cycle", it hasn't been a perfect journey.

What I know now is that I was lacking three essential qualities at that point in my life: Love for myself, Respect for myself and Self-esteem.

Fast forward 18 years to the birth of my daughter. Better, healthy choices made - in life and in men. My life is stable and calm. I am pleasantly surprised when she arrives at how instantly we bond and think I couldn't be more in love - I had been so scared thinking what if I'm still not good enough? I quickly realized that I could relax and enjoy her.

My own mother had a nervous breakdown after I was born and was, for many reasons, just not able to cope. I used to be afraid, afraid of the genetics which can contribute to cycles of dysfunction and how that might affect me as a mother - and there were a couple of folks along the way who tried to plant that tiny "you might be just like your mother" seed - but it turns out I had less to fear than I thought!

I am feeling now more than ever that Mother's Day is an opportunity for me to take stock of where I've been and where I'm going as a mom and to be thankful for lessons learned along the way.

In the great words of my sweet sister-in-law "The days are long. The years are short." This has become my Mommy Mantra.

Wishing everyone, and especially all of the women (there are many) who have played Mother roles in my life, a very heartfelt Happy Mother's Day.

Always with love...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Well Adjusted, An Excerpt

There is not a cloud in the sky on another sunny day in Southern California's San Fernando Valley where I live with my Gram. When I hear the low and slow drone of a small airplane overhead, I believe it is a sound the sky makes on a sunny day. I am 7 years old and the proud owner of a vivid imagination.

I am the only child of Tom and Lana and they are divorced. This doesn't really bother me one way or the other because I have been with Gram ever since I can remember. The apartment complex where we live has many buildings, maybe twenty, arranged kind of like a square within a square. There are four units in each building, two upstairs and two down. We are upstairs in Apt. C'. There are meandering walking paths throughout the complex which all lead eventually to a beautiful center courtyard lined with rose bushes of every color. The great pine and eucalyptus trees are home to lots of squirrel and bird families, who chastise and chase, and sing us sweet songs. The lawns are perfectly manicured for playing or having a picnic. This is my very own little world, safe for exploring and letting my imagination run wild. Gram has taught me to notice the little things in nature that most people pass by every day and never see.

Our apartment has two bedrooms and a big room that Gram calls the "front room", which is sort of a combination living room/dining area. There is a big bay window on one side looking out into the courtyard. On the small square coffee table in front of the sectional couch, there are neatly arranged National Geographic magazines, a few books, the current TV guide and a deck of cards. Gram plays a lot of solitaire and has taught me to play too. The slipcovers she made for the couch out of light green and yellow sheets are pinned in strategically hidden places and then topped with a green and white coverlet. It is the coziest, most wonderful piece of furniture I have ever known. This is home sweet home.

To say that Gram loves the color yellow is an understatement. Our kitchen is painted a happy shade of yellow. She also painted the sink and tub in our bathroom yellow once, but it peeled off pretty quickly. The wallpaper in there is black and white with old-fashioned toilets printed all over it. It is not a big bathroom, but Gram has managed to squeeze a little bureau in - also painted yellow. It is filled with all sorts of fun things, like hair coloring solution, clips, combs, lotions and potions. I am not exactly sure why, but when I am in there alone, I imagine what it might be like if I lived in this little room. I imagine making a bed in the tub and putting my dolls and drawing things in the bureau, etc. I am sure that in some grave situation I could definitely survive in the bathroom.

One of my favorite things to do is to stand on the coffee table and sing along to Gram's Charlie Rich records. I know all of the words to "Behind Closed Doors" and "If You Happen to See the Most Beautiful Girl in the World" Sometimes I have a beach party with my Barbie dolls. We "swim" in the tub and then lie on beach towels and soak up the afternoon sun that comes in through the big window in the front room. I am also a great explorer of the outdoors, especially on the rare day that it might be rainy or gray.

I have plenty of friends in the complex and I don't seem to notice or mind that they are a bit older than me. They don't seem to mind either. Most everyone who lives at the Knolls is over fifty and I am one of the only children. I can usually find a cool glass of lemonade and a game of Chinese checkers with the Goldmans, and Mrs. Martinez is teaching me how to crochet.

I have a pretty nice life here with Gram. Sometimes she'll take off from her job as a bank teller and we'll go on little adventures with my Grandpa, or “Gramps” as I like to call him. Although Gramps does not live with us, and by the way, this also seems perfectly normal to me, we see him often and it's always a good time. There are brunches and dinners at very grown-up restaurants where everyone seems to know him and they take very good care of us. There are car trips and sometimes even airplane trips. He takes me to the track to see the horses being exercised in the early morning. Some of them are his and Anne's, the nice lady he lives with. It is very exciting to see a race. One morning as we were walking around saying hello to all of the horses, Gramps shared his coffee with me. It had lots of milk in it and I felt very special. On the way home, once we were in the alley in front of Gram's he let me sit on his lap and take the wheel! I'm sure Gram would not have approved, but he was so fun and carefree like that.

I will never forget a trip the three of us took to San Diego. On the way down, Gramps was going on and on about his horse 'Irish Mafia' having a chance to run in the 4th race at Hollywood Park. He was very excited about her chances.

"We'll have to think 4th race girls" he said.

That night on the way back, we stopped at a restaurant in Laguna for dinner. There was a line and while we were waiting, I noticed a boy behind me standing with his parents. I thought to myself I've got to let this kid know about Irish Mafia. Somehow I felt this was important information that needed to be shared. After careful consideration, I walked up to him and said in a low voice and kind of sideways out of my mouth,

"Irish Mafia runs in the 4th."

Whew, I did it. I was quite pleased with myself and my grandparents were laughing out loud. That was one of our best times together, just the three of us.

Most Fridays my Dad picks me up from school for the weekend. We usually visit my other Grandparents for dinner at their house and then go back to Dad's apartment. It's not quite as cozy as Gram's. For example: his bed is a mattress on the floor and he regularly heats soup in a glass coffee pot on the stove. We don't spend a lot of time there.

Saturday mornings we go to breakfast at King's where Dad always orders a pancake sandwich and a large tomato juice with lemon. This amazing creation is two pancakes with two sausages and two fried eggs (over easy) in between. He lives for it. I stick with the short stack. After breakfast we go model airplane flying, usually with one of his buddies. Dad is very serious about this hobby. He builds his own planes and everything.

Dad is a man of few words unless he is talking about his work. He loves to work, but I think he might also be in love with a lady name Patty who I've been hearing about. Supposedly I will get to meet her soon. She is divorced with three kids. I wonder if they will get married... and if this means I will have new brothers and maybe even a sister. The idea of this is very exciting to me.

Mom comes to visit me at Gram's occasionally and sometimes she spends the night. I worry about her though because she often doesn't feel well. One time Gram woke me up in the middle of the night because we had to take her to the hospital. Gram drove and I sat in Mom's lap. I'm not sure what was happening but she was breathing in and out of a paper bag. She was crying and telling me not to be afraid.

I don't see much of Mom, but I talk to her on the phone and I know that she wants to be with me, but for some reasons that I don't fully understand, she just can't. What I do know for sure though is that she loves me. She calls me her little monkey and when we are together we go shopping and out to lunch. When she picks me up in her little red VW Beetle she says,

"Ready for take-off?"

We put the windows down and play the radio loud. Looking over at her I think she is the most beautiful lady in the whole world.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Breaking the Cycle

I mentioned earlier that I would be sharing some of my Gram's personal writings, which I stumbled upon after her death in 1996. The dysfunction in my family goes way back. My Great Grandmother Martha "Dee Dee" Titmus found herself alone raising six girls after the sudden death of her husband during the Great Depression. To say that she did not have the time or maternal tools to give them what they needed would be a huge understatement...

"A tiny beautiful baby boy entered my life. Wondering, hopeful, trusting, innocent, and I didn't know what to do. How totally he gripped my heart and I didn't know how to show it. Why was I always so afraid? A perfect little soul to guide and help grow and I didn't know what to do. I had something to say. Why was I afraid to say it? Babies don't just grow into happy, well adjusted adults. Each moment, each day, leads them to a life that can be lived to its fullest, or one of fear and insecurity. I did not know how to guide my trusting, loving son. To be so blessed and lose, I did not deserve to have him for even the short time God let him be with us.

God, can I thank you for leaving my girl with me? I do not deserve her either. My beautiful, sharp baby girl! She knew that I didn't know how to give her the right answers. She knew even before she could talk. I still see her eyes...knowing I did not know."

There is so much more to this story, the story of how my Gram was somehow - and thankfully so - able to give to me what she was unable to give to her own children. If you haven't read any earlier posts, I spent the first eight years of my life with Gram and, in my mind, they were blissful. She played a pivotal role in shaping my life...I am so thankful for her, yet sad that she carried so much heaviness in her heart.

It is because of our bond in life that I still feel so spiritually connected to her now. I believe she is an angel watching over me always and when I see a lone yellow butterfly flutter by, I say hello.