Closed Schools, Open Hearts

I’ve said it before and I’ll stay it again. If you are looking for a job that continually shatters your heart and then puts it back together again, teaching might just be for you. That seems especially true today in the wake of the announcement that in-person instruction has been cancelled for the remainder of the school year.

I walked into my classroom for the last time on Monday, March 16th. The announcement had been made on Friday, March 13th that schools would be closed for in-person instruction the following week. Monday had been declared an in-service day at my school for teachers to prepare for the rapid transition to remote learning. I walked in on that in-service day and turned on my SmartBoard before realizing that no students would be walking in the door that day. I looked at the weekly calendar I had so optimistically posted before the Friday announcement was made and erased it before it could taunt me anymore. I opened my desk to see my stack of #MathCrushMonday mathematicians looking at me, knowing that my usual group of students that would pick out who to display that week wouldn’t be walking through my door. I looked at the clock at 7:45 and realized I didn’t need to get to my door to greet students because no students would be walking through my door that day. Or that week. Or for the rest of the month. Or for the brief moment I allowed myself to think it, maybe the rest of the year.

My heart breaks for the big things for my students: Prom, sports, banquets, inductions, graduation as they were originally scheduled. But it also breaks for the little things. No more conversations in the lunch room. No more jokes in the hallways. No more seemingly trivial conversations. No more inside jokes with your whole class. No more routine interactions with a consistent and caring group of adults. Smiles and greetings, a familiar face on a challenging day. Meeting up with friends after the final bell of the day.

This week, I was interviewed for the school newspaper, in part because of a teacher Instagram account I started as a way to stay connected with students. For the last question of the interview, the journalism student asked me if I had any messages for my students. Of course I do, and brevity has never been my strength. But upon my reflection, I said:

I miss you all so much and can’t wait until we are all back together at school again. These have not been easy times, but I’m continually impressed with how resilient, caring, creative, and hard-working you all have been. I know the future can seem so uncertain right now, but I find a lot of comfort in knowing you all are our future.

I also want to tell my students that even though the building is closed, the hearts of their teachers are still wide open. None of us went into teaching because we were overly passionate about the quadratic formula (contrary to what my students might tell you), Romeo and Juliet, punnet squares, or the Industrial Revolution. I didn’t get out of bed every morning because the thought of teaching students how to factor made me giddy (okay, maybe a little bit). We never taught because we were trying to increase standardized test scores, receive a certain teacher evaluation score, or even to have two and a half months off in the summer. We do what we do because we stinking love kids. We believe that education is the key that opens so many doors for students. We believe that students have the capability to create the world that they want to live in and we want to enable them to do just that because we want to live in the world they will create.

My school has a student vision statement prominently displayed outside of my classroom that says, “WCHS students are critical thinkers, problem solvers, effective communicators, ethical, life-long learners.” The only addition I would like to add is that “WCHS students are loved,” but hopefully they know that and feel it every day without it being on a banner. I try to take to heart the vision statement in all things I do with my students. I have had the realization that remote learning is a really incredible time to let this vision drive what I do. I might not be able to get through my usual curriculum the way I would in a physical classroom, but that doesn’t devalue the rest of the year. My students will look back at 2020 for years to come. It will be something they share stories about with their own children some day. Although they probably won’t remember my stellar video lesson on reference angles, factoring, or arithmetic sequences (although they will be archived on YouTube for all of eternity), I hope they remember the value they found in education. I hope they can reflect on this time during future tough times and remember how they persevered through challenging circumstances before so they know they can do it again. I hope they have a renewed appreciation for the simple, routine days in their lives. Most importantly, I hope the remember feeling seen, cared for, and most of all, loved.

I end the year telling all of my students that once you’re my student, you are always my student, giving handwritten cards to my seniors, and a posting of the wise words of Mr. Feeny from Boy Meets World, the classic 90’s sitcom that my students are officially too young to understand:

Believe in yourselves. Dream. Try. Do good…I love you all. Class dismissed.

It’s not the last day of school, but it is the last day of thinking we might have a typical last day of school, so I think it’s important to share today as well. It might look a bit different than usual, but teachers are going to continue to do what we do best. We will continue to be passionate about students and the value of education in their lives. We aren’t working towards the end we had in mind, but we are still working. Learning doesn’t look like what it used to, but it is still happening and it is still meaningful. We aren’t with you in person while the school is closed, but we are still loving you with our hearts wide open. So kiddos, sorry I’m not sorry that class isn’t dismissed quite yet. You are stuck with me and my bad jokes through the end of the school year. So on Monday morning, it still won’t be factoring that gets me out of bed, but rather the chance to interact with you, greeting you with a “Happy Monday!” Maybe I’ll even wear my math dress.

The Final Countdown

I used to have a countdown app on my phone. It would tell me how many days until the next thing I was looking forward to: graduation, Winter Break, Spring Break, summer, my next trip, the next time I’d get to see family or friends. I loved seeing those days tick closer, feeling like I could get through whatever stood between me and that countdown reaching zero, as long as I knew there was something to look forward to.

The day that my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer was the day I deleted that app. I held down the app on my iPhone until the app was shaking as much as I was and said good riddance. I did not want to see that each day I was getting closer to Spring Break or summer because that also meant that I was one day closer to losing the woman who gave me life and filled it with so much beauty, wonder, and joy. I suddenly had a very real reminder that each and every day was so precious and I did not want to see them tick away. I felt a pang of guilt for all of the days that I had wished away in the past.

In that moment, I made a very conscious decision that I did not want to live a life where I was only looking forward to what was to come. I never wanted to live a life where I was just killing time until the next thing that made life exciting. I never wanted to live a life where I was just going through the motions to get to a part of life that I was excited for. I never wanted to look back and see that I was just going through the motions to get to the “good stuff.” I wanted to see the good stuff in every day.  I wanted to live a life where every day was a reminder that I was glad to have that day.

I went through a phase where I thought that in order to do that, maybe I needed to quit my stable job, sell all of my belongings, jump out of a plane at least once a week, definitely stop sleeping at night because who has time for sleep when there’s a lot of living to do, and see a new country every week. The type A personality in me realized that would be a logistical nightmare. The my mother’s daughter in me realized that living a full life also entailed a lot of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, that life happened in the little things just as much as the big things.

A full life happens in the big and small moments. Driving to a job you love on a Monday morning. Pursuing opportunities that fill your soul. Buying that plane ticket. Taking on things that challenge you. Going back to school. Sitting in a quiet coffee shop. Completing your 200 hour yoga teacher training. Taking a nap on a Saturday afternoon. Trekking across El Camino. Sitting with a friend in the tough stuff. Road tripping across the country. Walking away from the things that no longer serve you or cause you to get lost in the mundane. Taking a long walk. Stepping outside of your comfort zone Having a kitchen dance party. Doing some soul searching. Feeling all your feels. Watching The Bachelor with your friends. Pausing every now and then to be thankful for all of it.

Believe me, I still look forward to what is to come. In a few weeks, I look forward to a break from a job that I love but that also drains me to travel to Florida with my precious family. This summer has a big, exciting trip in store for me. Someday I’ll be done with my Master’s. Looking forward to those things isn’t wrong. I just don’t want to miss all the living happening between now and then.

29 Things That Make This Life So Sweet

On my 27th birthday, I compiled a list of 27 Thoughts, Feeling, Musings, and Questions on 27 Years. I like the idea of compiling a list every year for my birthday. What can I say? I’ve been exposed to too many BuzzFeed lists in my (almost) 29 years. So here, on the eve of my next journey around the sun, I’ve decided to complete a list of 29 things that make this life so sweet (in no particular order):

  1. Donuts
  2. That moment on a Saturday morning when you realize that you slept in well past when your weekday alarm clock goes off and your internal alarm clock let you
  3. The first warm day at the end of winter that gives you hope deep down in your bones that good things are coming
  4. The feeling you get deep down in your soul when you see a song that gives you all the feels live
  5. A really good cup of coffee that is just the right temperature
  6. Meeting new people and feeling like you’ve known them all your life
  7. That feeling you get right before your plane lands at the beginning of a trip when the possibilities for adventure are endless
  8. An uncontrollable, tears down your face, belly laugh
  9. Being around people who feel like sunshine
  10. A couch nap on a Sunday afternoon
  11. The right song coming on exactly as you need to hear it
  12. Doing something that scares you and getting so much more out of it than you ever could have hoped for
  13. Students bursting at the seams to share exciting things with you
  14. When your online order arrives earlier than you expected it to
  15. When you quietly get to witness just how gosh darn good people really are
  16. When you have people in your life that are willing to sit with you in the tough stuff
  17. And those same people dance with you in the good stuff
  18. Craving something and having it be even better than you imagined it being
  19. Digging into a really good book
  20. Opening your mailbox and finding something that is not spam or a bill
  21. When you step out of a yoga class and you feel so mentally and physically ready to take on the world
  22. Finding the perfect piece of clothing that is majorly on sale and in your size
  23. When you quote a TV show and know someone knows exactly what you are talking about
  24. When you give someone the benefit of the doubt and in time you see that was absolutely the right thing to do
  25. Looking back at something and seeing that things worked out exactly like they were supposed to
  26. The way the open midwestern sky looks as the sun is setting
  27. When someone does a thoughtful act that restores your faith in people and makes you want to be a better person
  28. Opportunities to stop and smell the roses and remember life is made up of lots of little things that make up the big things
  29. People who appreciate your heart and sense of humor

Here’s to hoping that someday I have to think of 100 things to list. Now taking suggestions on what my 30 year list should consist of.

Reevaluating What’s Important

I am in my first year at a new school this year, which among other things, means I am being formally evaluated for the first time in a while. I like to think that there is no difference in who I am as a teacher between the years I am being evaluated and the years that I am not. In the years I am being evaluated, I just talk (and write and document) about what I am doing a bit more. I am also a little more likely to give a side eye when an evaluator is in my room to the students who might be more likely to utilize some of the mathematical cussing that I may or may not have taught them. Oh shift, they can be some real asymptotes sometimes.

I have sat through many pre- and post-observation meetings, discussing my strengths and weaknesses. I’ve analyzed the language in the Danielson Framework for Teaching and broken down each of the domains. If you are ever having a hard time falling asleep at night, I highly recommend reading up on the Danielson Framework. You’ll be out before you finish 1a) Demonstrating Knowledge of Content and Pedagogy. I’ve collected the data, analyzed it, and completed formal write-ups. The math teacher in me secretly loves the data part of it just a little bit. I’ve debated 3’s and 4’s, proficient and excellent. I’ve questioned what I can do better, do more of. I’ve self-evaluated my strengths and weaknesses. The former straight-A student in me spent a few hours of my life that I’ll never get back realizing that the only way to get that allusive “Excellent” across the board is to give up sleeping, eating, socializing, and probably just take up a full time residence in my classroom.

Now don’t get me wrong. I think evaluating, reflecting, and remembering that there is always room for growth and improvement. In year 6 of teaching, I see how far I have come from year 1 and how far I could go. I would do a thousand things differently, but I also recognize all that I have done that I am proud of in my classroom. Heck, that’s a part of 4a) Reflecting on Teaching!

However, reflecting on the evaluation process has me reevaluating what is most important in my classroom. Sure, my students better be learning a heck of a lot math. While they are doing that, I hope I am helping them become critical thinkers, problem solvers, effective communicators, and ethical, life-long learners. But sometimes I need to remind myself that some of the most important things in my classroom can’t be checked off of a to-do list. They don’t show up in one of the four domains. They are little, unmeasurable things that can’t fit nicely into a rubric. That might make them all the more important to do.

I am repeatedly reminded that I have the opportunity to show my kids kindness, compassion, grace, and patience. And I’ve never once regretted embracing that opportunity, even if it has been really hard to do. Teenagers are the most human bunch of humans to ever human. What I mean by that is that they are far from perfect. However, they are in the midst of really figuring out what it means to be human in this world, which every full grown adult in this world will tell you is a never ending and truly challenging thing to do. I take several very deep breaths throughout my day. I have plopped myself down in many a coworkers classrooms at the end of the day and started with, “YOU’LL NEVER BELIEVE WHAT THIS CHILD DID THIS TIME” and not in a good way. However, every chance I have the opportunity to be cruel, I try to be kind. When I have the chance to be cold, I try to choose compassion. I try to choose patience, even when it is tested. Sometimes I can’t see the big picture and I wonder if it really matters. It could be so much easier to do the opposite. It also seems that in those moments, that’s when a memory, a note, a trinket, a visit, or a message from a former student appears, reminding me that embracing those opportunities every time I could was absolutely the right thing to do, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. There’ll be plenty of times where the world does not show them kindness, compassion, grace, and patience. I don’t need to add to that. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll extend the same courtesy the next time they have the choice too.

Sometimes I feel like from 7:45am-3:15pm, I don’t get a moment to myself. Every once in a while, that can be a bit challenging. We all need a moment, especially if I’m going to recharge my patience. However, I’ve recognized that there is something special about a student spending even a moment more with you than they need to. Whether it’s a quick good morning en route to their class, a goofy wave on their way to the bathroom from another class, the “I’ve got a story to tell you!” when I’m trying to get to the bathroom, checking to see if I’ll be at their play/concert/game, the “I don’t know what to do with my life” lunchtime freakout, the before class “CHECK OUT MY DONUT SOCKS! I KNEW YOU’D APPRECIATE THEM!” or “I’ve had the worst day ever” after school slump, I am reminded that it is wild that I get to be a person these students want to share these things with and it must mean I’m doing something right.

I read something once that said students learn best from teachers that they like. Although I think there is a lot of truth to that, I think students learn best from teachers who like them. Nowhere on the evaluation rubric do you get to discuss liking your students. Every year, people ask me how my students are. Every year, regardless of the course I’m teaching, the environment I’m in, the grade level I have, I find myself saying, “I’ve got a really good group this year.” It’s never a lie or just what I’m supposed to say. Every year, I just feel like I get to spend my days with the niftiest group of humans. Some days it is a little more obvious than others, but at the end of the day, I just like them a whole bunch. I have been known to sit down with my class rosters at the end of a particularly rough day and go through student by student and think of something nice to say about each and every person in a class. It’s always easier than I think it will be. I also make a deliberate effort to send positive emails home where I just tell families how nifty I think there child is. At the end of every email, I find myself typing “I’m really glad I get to be their teacher.” I made a rule with myself that I’m not allowed to send those emails unless my heart is really in it. It can’t be something I need to do to cross off of my to-do list. I’ve noticed that since I’ve started doing this, it’s easier to see the good in every student on a daily basis.

So I’ll finish this formal evaluation cycle. I’ll continue to fill out the forms, have the conversations, side eye my students into good observations, collect the data, and so on and so forth. However, in the midst of all of that, I won’t lose sight of evaluating what really matters in my classroom and beyond.

 

Homecoming

Last week was Homecoming Week at my school. Not only the school I teach at, but the school I went to. It was my first Homecoming since, well, coming home. They even threw a parade in my honor! Oh wait, they do that every year… The week was filled with excitement and silly themed days. I was reminded that next year I need to find a P.E. teacher for Twin Day so that I have an excuse to wear sweatpants to work. I was inevitably scheduled for a routine meeting with my principal on Pajama Day. If you think that would stop me from wearing my favorite flannel pants and Nama-stay in bed t-shirt, you clearly don’t know me very well. In between the chaotic moments of Homecoming week, I thought about who I was the last time I was here, and the journey that led me back.

Last January, I found myself in the ER on a snowy Wisconsin Sunday with a broken tailbone and a nasty concussion. Once I was released, I was under doctor orders to take some time off work, refrain from using screens, and avoid doing anything that required me to use my brain. So basically I had to sit around and do nothing. But please do remember that my butt was also broken so sitting was not a pleasant experience. I had wished for a snow day and this was a prime example to be very careful what you wish for. I kind of got my wish, but it was much more painful than the cozy snowed in Netflix binge I was hoping for. It also involved being yelled at by the ER doctor when he caught me on my phone sending sub plans after he specifically told me my scrambled egg brains needed to stay far away from screens.  I joked that maybe nine years of Wisconsin winters were enough for me, maybe it was time to leave. Except after making the joke, I realized that maybe there was something to that thought. Not so much avoiding winter, but the leaving part. If I could survive the Snowpocalypse of 2010, the 2014 Polar Vortex, and a snow induced knee injury in college (spent some quality time in the ER with that one, as well), I could handle anything Wisconsin winter threw my way. But I couldn’t help but feel like maybe I was supposed to be elsewhere. I just wasn’t so sure where elsewhere was. I was surrounded by great people. I had a job that both challenged and fulfilled me. I had coworkers and students who made me excited to go to work each day. I had more access to cheese than I ever could have imagined. I had a great apartment, access to awesome food and live music, and my yoga studio just up the street. I was on a first name basis with all of the employees at nearby takeout places. What more could I want? Then it started creeping into my concussed head. What if it was home that I wanted?

I didn’t mention these thoughts to anyone at first. After all, I had been told to not make any major decisions until headache, fatigue, and confusion subsided. I had always said I would never go back home (but I’m pretty sure that a lot of people say that because they think that is what they are supposed to say). I decided I would give it some time and hope that the universe would give me a sign.

Since I wasn’t allowed to look at screens but suddenly had a lot of time on my hands, I decided to put a show on Netflix that I had seen so that I didn’t have to actually watch. I could just listen. I settled on Parks and Recreation and giggled while staring at my ceiling. There came an episode where Ron Swanson was giving Leslie Knope some wisdom about Pawnee being her home. She was debating whether or not she made the right choice by staying in Pawnee, when good ol’ Ron told her, “You’ll get a lot of job offers in your life, but you only have one hometown.” I may or may not have gotten a little emotional. It is important to note, however, that I was experiencing severe mood swings with my brain injury. I may or may not have also cried for no reason three times throughout the same day.

I was back at work (and teaching with the lights on because fluorescent lights no longer made me feel like my brain might explode!) when the thoughts started creeping into my head again. I did a quick search during lunch one day about job openings near where I grew up. I checked in to see if my Illinois teaching license was still up to date. I still didn’t tell a soul what I was thinking. I was driving home from work and pondering what the future might hold for me, really wishing I had a crystal ball. When I parked, I looked at my phone and had a message from a former English teacher. My old school would be posting a position for a math teacher, and I should be ready to apply. This isn’t the first time I had been notified of a position in my hometown. It was the first time I didn’t respond with an “lol, nope, never, thanks for thinking of me though!” I had been looking for a sign, and this was one that couldn’t be ignored. I looked at what I needed to have ready to apply. I updated my résumé. I told a few people that I was thinking about it so I could say the words out loud. I asked for letters of recommendation, swearing everyone to secrecy.

Soon after all of my materials were submitted, my phone started to give me a sign. My phone will display a “Next Destination.” Usually it would tell me how long it would take to get to work Monday-Friday, to get to my apartment, to get to my regular yoga classes, and my favorite take-out places. Then suddenly, my phone constantly told me how long it would take to drive to good ol’ Washington, Illinois. It did not matter the time of day or where my usual routine would have taken me. Three hours and fourteen minutes to home.

Soon I did follow my phone’s lead and head home for a job interview and apartment hunting. All of the pieces started falling in to place. I had to have really tough goodbyes and lots of exciting hellos. I eventually packed up a classroom and an apartment and headed home. It was a long time coming.

I believe so firmly in the timing of our lives. The time I spent away made me the person who was ready to come back. It was the right decision at the right time. I taught in two very different environments that both helped shape me into the teacher I am today. I encountered so many people who shared a piece of themselves with me and shaped me into who I am. I made a life for myself in new and unfamiliar places. I learned a lot. I will carry those things with me always and they will influence all I am and all I do, no matter where I am.

Since returning home, a lot of people ask what it is like being back. Well, it sure feels a lot like coming home. When I first moved to Wisconsin, my mom printed out MapQuest directions (for any youngin’ reading this, MapQuest was a website that we used to get directions before smartphones and Google Maps existed) that took me from the door of my dorm building to my family’s home. She wrote “HOW TO GET HOME” at the top in her beautiful handwriting and tucked it away in the glove compartment of my car. I dug it out the first few times, but eventually they got buried under registration forms and receipts. I always knew it was in there though, and found a sense of comfort in knowing that, even if I no longer needed the turn by turn directions. By the time I got a new car and cleaned out that glove compartment, I had a smartphone that told me how to get anywhere, but I still tucked them away into my new glove compartment, just in case. Deep down in my heart I think I always knew that I didn’t need a map to get me back, but rather that life would lead the way. Well that, and my iPhone.

Dear Seventeen Year Old Me (And All the Seventeen Year Olds I Spend My Days With)

Every year, I try to take a little time to put myself in the shoes of my students. Not literally, as 10+ years, a job where I’m on my feet for 8 hours at a time, and a post-fractured foot mean that I’m well on my way to a nice, fashionable pair of orthopedic shoes. I try to take some time to remember what it was like walking in to high school the first time, the hundredth time, the last time, and all the times in between. I go back and look at old pictures. Ah to be young again, taking duck faced selfies on a digital camera. I recognize that all of my babysitting earnings went to making sure I had yet another shirt that said “Hollister” across it. I made some regrettable fashion choices that thanks to the rise of Facebook during my time in high school, will be immortalized forever. Bless my parents for always letting me march to my own beat, but maybe they could have suggested that I either choose to wear a dress or jeans but maybe not both at the same time? I read through old journals that I used to keep, that are mostly lyrics from Dashboard Confessional and Taylor Swift songs. I remember the highs and lows, the good times and the bad times, feeling on top of the world and feeling like I didn’t quite belong in the world. I remember feeling invincible and terrified of the future all at once.

Freshman Year
A younger LG, on her first day of high school. Peep that choker!

I feel especially nostalgic this year. I’ve gone back to high school every year for the past five years as a math teacher. I usually have a lot of the same fears and feelings. What if none of my friends have my lunch? What if I trip and fall in front of everyone? What if I don’t know what I’m doing? After five years of teaching in another state, I’ll be walking in to the high school I graduated from. Instead of a locker, I have my very own classroom. I’ll be colleagues with so many of the teachers who inspired me to teach in the first place. A new adventure in an old, familiar place. I can’t help but think back to who I was when I first stepped foot in the building in 2005, who I was when I walked across the stage in 2009, and who I’ve become over the past almost 10 years. I’m not who I was, but I’m connected to that youngin’ for good. I wouldn’t be who I am if it was not for who I was.

I spend this time reflecting because it helps me walk in to a classroom and face my teenagers. It helps me be more patient and compassionate. It helps me remember that as much as I think it should be, my class is most likely not their top priority. It helps me remember that I have an opportunity to help them through a weird stage of life because I’ve been there before. It’s also good for me. I have a feeling 37 year old me will look back and have some wisdom for 17 and 27 year old me. I don’t believe one bit in living in the past, but I do believe that the past can help guide your future. So here is what 27 year old me would tell seventeen year old me:

  1. Love your family. And not like Instagram post love your family, but truly love them fiercely and embrace every chance you have to spend time with them. Love them when they make you angry. Love them when they annoy you. Love them when they just don’t understand. Maybe your parents will live to 100 or maybe you’ll lose them tomorrow. You only get so much time living under the same roof as your parents and siblings. Embrace those silly moments in the living room, stop grabbing food off the table on your way out the door instead of sitting down to talk with them, and if your mom wants to spend her whole Saturday at your speech tournament because she wants to support you, let her.
  2. Never say never. I spent four years of high school saying I would never, ever return. Well, joke is on me, because after moving three hours away for school and work, I eventually wanted nothing more than to return home. Life might take you all sorts of places with all sorts of people in your life. You might come back, you might never leave, you might never come back. That’s your journey and that’s fine. But always recognize that you were shaped by where you’re from and it’ll never leave you
  3. Love the people in your life. You know that girl who kind of annoys you? She might be the person who shows up in your twenties to pick you up off the floor at the lowest point of your life and is by your side celebrating all the best things with you. You know those friends who you can’t imagine life without and you are convinced you’ll be the best of friends forever? You might run into in to them at the grocery store and realize you don’t have that much in common anymore. There are people you haven’t even met yet that will fill voids in your life you didn’t know you had until they walked in to your life.
  4. Keep all the doors open to you. At seventeen, I was starting to think that maybe I would become a teacher. I was also thinking that I still might get my own Disney Channel show, become a stay-at-home dog mom, own my own business, meet a prince who falls in love with me and makes me a real life princess, or rule the corporate world. Even now with a college degree, a few years of experience, and a deep love for my job, I have no idea what I might be in the future. My education is what has always kept doors open for me. You might not feel like what you are learning in school is important right now, but you should embrace all that you are learning knowing that it could keep a door open for you. I’m a math teacher. If  I had a nickel for every time a student asked me when they would need to know what I’m teaching, I could buy that lighthouse and open my dream dog-friendly coffee shop/bookstore/yoga studio/bed and breakfast. None of us know what the future holds and I’m going to try my darnedest to make sure you’re prepared for it.
  5. Know that the things that make you weird now will make you cool later. Your obscure taste in music, the ability to march to your own beat, your desire to spend time alone when it feels like you are supposed to always be surrounded by people. Cool also eventually becomes way less about what others think about you and way more about what you think of yourself. Things might also no longer be referred to as “cool” but rather “on fleek.” You’ll eventually stop trying to keep up.
  6. You will never know what the future holds, and that’s okay! It feels really scary and overwhelming right now. Let me tell you, you will never know! That part doesn’t go away. But eventually, you start to get used to it, and with enough practice, you might even start to embrace it! Once March hits, I usually lose my lunch, prep, and all free time before and after school to what I lovingly refer to as “Seniors Sobbing in My Classroom” season. The big, bad, rule the school seniors that roamed the halls in September have suddenly become frazzled walking, talking, balls of emotion. I personally very vividly remember removing my fake nails post prom and losing it on my poor mom because I was convinced that my future roommate would try to kill me, my friends and family back home would all forget about me, no one in college would like me, and I would fail out of all of my classes, never find a job I loved, and be alone forever. Teenage me definitely deserved that Mid-Illini Dramatic Duet Acting Champion award I received.
  7. Nothing is permanent. Well, except for if you make a major destructive decision or the tattoos that people decide they must have on their 18th birthday. Make a choice, go with it, and if it’s not what you want it to be, then reroute yourself. Who you were is not who you are. If you were not the person you want to be today, remember that tomorrow can be a fresh start.
  8. Be useful and be kind. I saw an interview with Barack Obama where he shared that this was the advice he gave his daughters as they were figuring out what to do with their lives. So simple and yet so profound. My kiddos frequently come to me and ask me what they should do with their lives. I can’t answer that question. They feel pulled in a thousand directions. School? Work? Military? Whatever you do, be useful and be kind. If at the end of the day you’ve done that, you’ve done good. Don’t forget to also be kind to yourself.
  9. Make good choices. I often say goodbye to my students with this. Now I know I teach humans (and teenage humans at that). There are going to be not great choices throughout your life. That’s the fastest way to learn! However, there are not good choices that can change your life forever. You are going to make bad choices, both deliberately and accidentally. Embrace them, learn from them, and try to make better choices next time.
  10. Listen to people who want what is best for you. Knowing seventeen year old me, she probably would not have listened to any of this. Recognize that it might go in one ear and out the other. Recognize that there are some things that only time and experience can teach you, and that’s okay. But when you learn those things, carry them with you. Remember that you are who you are because of who you were.

 

Senior year.jpg
Seventeen year old me on the first day of senior year
Year 5
An older, wiser, almost 27 year old me on the first day of teaching year 5.

June 29

My mom and I loved the show Gilmore Girls. Well, I loved it and eventually she got sucked into watching it with me. In the show, there is a character, Luke, who has a “dark day” every year. It marked the day his dad died. He was cold to those who cared about him and would isolate himself. I never understood how one day could effect someone so much. Sure, losing a parent would be hard, but I did not understand the weight of the day you lost them. That is, until I had my own dark day, the anniversary of my mom’s death on June 29, 2015.

The whole month of June is pretty difficult actually, especially this week. June 21, 2015 was the Sunday my mom didn’t recognize me momentarily, thinking I was her nurse. June 22, 2015 was the day I camped out on the floor of my mom’s bedroom because she couldn’t be left alone for a moment. That evening was when we called the home health nurse and rushed to the emergency room because we couldn’t provide for her needs at home. In that car ride, we pulled away from our house and I had a sinking feeling we might not walk back in together. That evening, the ER doctors pumped her full of fluids and chose to admit her. The nurses made sure we had a cot so we could be by her side and they showed me where the really good coffee could be found. That Tuesday was when they gave us 48 hours to prepare for what came next if she didn’t show improvement. June 24 was the Wednesday I held her hand all day and wished I could bottle up her sweet squeezes when words failed her. That Thursday was the day they gathered us in that awful room to be informed there was nothing else to do and it was time to come to a family decision about what came next. Worst family meeting ever. That Friday we filled her hospital room with so much love and laughter.

That Saturday was the day the doctors unhooked her from so many of the things keeping her body going and switched to only the things that would make her comfortable. The transport team came to take her to the hospice home. I held her hand all the way to the elevator, where my dad would continue on with her. As the doors closed, she looked at me and gave me the biggest smile, and it was in that moment I knew she was at peace, glad to be leaving the hospital, and that although she was unable to give us her opinion verbally, we had made the right decision for her. I then walked back in to her hospital room to gather our stuff where, pardon my French, I lost my shit. I had cried plenty in the past three months, But for the first time since her diagnosis three months ago, I knew that this was the end. We were no longer fighting. We were accepting the inevitable. This acceptance involved me sobbing, screaming, and collapsing on the floor. The nurses who checked on me, but then allowed me to have my moment were saints. We got situated in the hospice home. I cannot say enough good things about hospice. The staff did just as good of a job of taking care of my mom as they did taking care of my family. Saturday was filled with a steady stream of visitors. My mom was visibly more comfortable and at peace than at the hospital.

By Sunday afternoon, June 28, visitors had come and gone. I vividly remember this sense of peace that I hadn’t felt before as my mom, dad, brother, and myself soaked up the stillness and the opportunity to be just us for a moment. In hospice, they talk in terms of weeks to months, months to days, and days to hours. When we first arrived, they talked to us in terms of months to days. Sunday they talked to us in terms of days to hours. I had a moment with my mom where I told her that I never wanted to say goodbye, but when she was ready, I was ready. She had filled my life with so much love and light that I would find a way to be fine. My brother and I made plans for what time we would arrive to in the morning, said goodnight to my mom and my dad.

In the very early hours of Monday, June 29, my phone rang. As soon as I saw that it was my dad, I knew. I woke my brother up and he knew what this wake up call meant. He drove us to the hospice home. We went home, tried to get a little sleep, and then spent the rest of the day making arrangements. While we were looking at headstones, my dad looked at one and said, “Well this one is nice, but we’d have to change the name on it.” I laughed. And I still laugh thinking about it. And I remember feeling relieved to know that I would laugh again.

Is it hard to write this out and relive so many of the moments of what is referred to as “hell week?” Absolutely. But I have found that it is harder to try to suppress the memories. I also have this fear of forgetting it all. As awful as so many of those feelings were, it was also one more week where my mom was by my side. As time passes, I fear forgetting pieces of her. Although I want the memories of her life to shine more brightly in my mind than her death, it is important to keep them all near. I also find it strangely therapeutic to walk through the last week of her life.

June 29th now carries the weight of reminding me that I have made another journey around the sun without her by my side. The day where life with my mom ended and life without her began. There are other days that are tough, sure. March 13 was the day she was diagnosed. Mother’s Day. Her birthday. None carry the weight so great as June 29th, though.

I don’t remember lots about the 1st anniversary of her death. We had gathered as a family a few days prior to be a part of the dedication of a memory garden that she helped make possible. The day of, I think I stayed in bed and slept a lot in an attempt to avoid feeling much of anything. On the suggestion of a dear friend though, I did eat ice cream for breakfast, which was one of her favorites. I invited family and friends to do the same in remembrance of how sweet her life was. My heart was mended by all of the pictures I received of everyone enjoying their ice cream breakfast. Last year, I was in Belgium on June 29th. I actually contemplated not going on my European adventure because I knew how hard the 29th would be for me. Instead, I embraced the life my mom would want me to live. I enjoyed some ice cream for breakfast. I pushed the thoughts out of my brain for as long as I could through the day. After suppressing my feelings all day, I found myself sobbing on the floor of a hostel bathroom that evening. The thought of wasting a whole day being sad, especially when I know just how precious each day is, seemed ridiculous, but I am learning that you’ve got to feel the feels when you’ve got them though.

Life without my mom is often sad and a bit lonely. But the fact that I lived a life with her in it, exist in world where she existed, will always be one of the greatest blessings of my life. Three years without her feels like an eternity and also the blink of an eye. Her death has taught me a lot and shaped who I am today, but not nearly as much as her life did. I don’t know what tomorrow will have in store for me, but I do know I’ll start my day off with some ice cream, live in a way that would make her proud, and embrace all of the good, the bad, and the ugly emotions that come on my dark day, knowing that the light that was my mom will guide me through it.