Springing to Life (and Death)

Spring is bittersweet for me. Anyone who has spent any time with me recently knows I am straight up giddy about the longer days and warmer weather. My Chaco tanline is already making a solid comeback. I spend every moment I possibly can outside. In fact, I’m writing this on my balcony at this very moment. Everything feels new and filled with possibility after a long, cold, dark, cooped up winter. That’s the sweet part. The bitter part? My mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer as the last snow of the year was melting. When I first started driving home every few days to be with her and help with appointments, I was packing sweaters and boots. It wasn’t long before I was staring at my sandal wearing feet in the waiting room. As the weather is changing and spring is springing, I am constantly reminded of what life was like for me during the Spring of 2015.

Every year, my mom and dad spent hours planning and planting their gardens all around the house. They would pick out the most beautiful flowers and plant them with love (and in my mom’s opinion, too much fertilizer applied by my dad). The spring she got sick was no different. Although she could no longer drive because of the effects of the radiation, she would ask me to stop at the greenhouse after appointments. She would ask me which flowers I liked and explained which ones grew best in different conditions and which ones were her favorites. This wasn’t the first time she told me these things, but this was the first time I truly listened. I wanted to soak up everything I possibly could so that I could someday have my own beautiful gardens and carry that piece of her with me always. She was usually too weak and tired to do much of the gardening herself, but she loved to sit outside as the weather got warmer and tell us exactly how she wanted the flower beds planted. Every year, she tried to pick out a theme for all of her flowers. Once she asked me if I knew why she picked all red flowers that year. “Because the Cardinals are the best team in baseball? Because the Badgers made it to the National Championship game recently? Because my brother and I went to Carthage?” I asked. “Because I’m going to fight this thing like a bull,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. Only my mom would look at a garden theme as sending a message to such an ugly disease. She always told me to kill my enemies with kindness. Apparently she was going to use nature’s beauty to kill her cancer.

Before I left to go back to work one Sunday afternoon, she insisted that I plant my own pots to take back with me. I told her it wasn’t necessary, that I would be home again in a few days to enjoy her beautiful flowers with her. She insisted. She picked out what would do best on the balcony of my apartment. She helped me fill the pots with dirt and place the flowers just right. She gave me very specific watering directions. As I left our neighborhood, I took a turn too hard and knocked all of the pots over, spilling dirt and smooshing the flowers all over my car. WHOOPS! I cleaned it up, set the pots on my balcony, and honestly forgot about them. I was a bit preoccupied with life.

If we are being completely honest, I was also angry at flowers. And spring. And everything coming to life all around me as my mom was fading away. It almost felt like the greening grassy, budding trees, and blooming flowers were mocking me. Everything was being made anew and bursting with life while my mom’s was slipping away right in front of us.

My mom never felt that way though. She loved to sit outside and enjoy the world coming to life around her. Her and my dad would go to a lookout over the river when they had time between appointments. When she had visitors, she liked to sit with them on our back porch. She soaked in the changes happening all around her and saw the beauty in it all. She always was wiser than me.

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The first official day of summer came and she left us not long after. A new season was upon us and her flowers were everywhere to remind us of the beauty that remained in the wake of our overwhelming loss. When I went back to my apartment to pack up to move out in August, I went out on my balcony to bring in my outdoor furniture and I saw my flower pots. To my amazement, they were in full bloom. It had been hot and weeks since it had last rained. I had completely neglected them for months. And yet there they were, as beautiful as ever. I have to believe heaven has access to a watering can.

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So these days, spring is filled with giddiness, nostalgia, and sadness. I’m thankful for the new life springing up all around me, but I can’t help but hurt for the life that faded away as everything was blooming. The grief shows up like an unexpected spring thunderstorm. The dark clouds roll in and the thunder shakes me to my core. But the rain also gives me what I need to grow. And I’m reminded to take a page from my mom’s book and soak in the beauty all around me, in spite of what is going on within me.

Seasons

A few years ago, I saw a map of the United States that indicated where people were considered the happiest. The Midwest was indicated as the happiest, while just about anywhere with a warmer climate was considered the least happy. I thought this was strange because I am definitely at my happiest when I am warm, but maybe that is because I’m a teacher, which generally means if I am warm, I am also not spending my days with a bunch of teenage goobers.

So I came up with a completely unscientific theory that is backed with zero data outside of my own observations. That theory is that people who experience seasons where they live are able to apply the knowledge that seasons come and go to the seasons of their life, which makes them more resilient when things are hard. However, when I recently explained this theory to a friend who is from New Jersey and lived in Miami before making his way to Wisconsin, he informed me that he is pretty sure that people in the Midwest are happiest because of their proximity to cheese. If you are pretty sure that is the queso (see what I did there?), you should maybe stop reading here.

I suppose we first have to examine what happiness even is, and I don’t believe that anyone can actually summarize that and tie it up with a nice, pretty bow. To me, happiness is not having everything be perfect. In fact, it is far from it. My happiest moments, more often than not, stem from my hardest moments and most certainly, my hardest moments make me soak in my happiest moments when they happen.

“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.'” Kurt Vonnegut

The past few days, there have been record breaking temperatures in Wisconsin. After living here for eight years, I’m used to record breaking cold temperatures in the winter, but never anticipate busting out my emergency picnic blanket (yep, that’s a thing I have) before the annual nationwide ACT test day snowstorm (also a thing). I knew that the warm sun on my skin was fleeting so I made sure to soak up every possible second of it all and attempted to do all of my favorite warm weather activities. Morning cups of coffee on my balcony, long walks and talks (on the phone) with my best friend and my dad, and laying in the sun with a good book. Unfortunately, a winter’s worth of melted snow makes hiking trails a bit messy and no one puts their outdoor seating out when it’s going to snow in a few days, but it was a nice reminder that beautiful spring days aren’t far off.

“No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn.” Hal Borland

During the dark and cold days of winter, I think of this quote often. My opinion on winter? The first snow is magical. Snow on Christmas is mandatory (although Mother Nature often disagrees). I love a well-timed snow day. This year I used one to get my taxes done, like the real adult that I am. My closet is well stocked with boots, sweaters, and scarves. As soon as the novelty of all of those things wear off, though, the long, cold, dark days of winter weigh heavy on my heart, especially in recent years. There are times where it feels like maybe the warmth and sunshine might not come back, but it always does.

I have learned that this is how life goes as well. There will be dark days, days where you feel like the sun might not return and you might have to trudge through the murky snow with your heavy heart for the rest of your days, but just like clockwork, the days start getting longer, and you start feeling the warmth of the world again. During those beautiful, wonderful moments, you remember that the warmth won’t last forever and there will be hard days ahead, but there is a special comfort in knowing that those won’t last either.

I am glad to have been born and raised in the Midwest, where I’ve learned all about how to weather all sorts of storms, how magical the rebirth of spring is, the feeling of a hot summer day, and the clarity that the changing leaves in the fall always brings. I am also glad to have lived a life that has had heartache, loss, and personal storms. Because I have experienced those, I know just how very sweet the sunshine is.

Hi, My Name is Laura and My Mom is Dead

When your mom dies after a brutal and unexpected battle with cancer, you receive a lot of reading material on the grieving process. It comes from the hospice home, the cancer center, the hospital, your church, family, friends, and strangers. It’s in the mail and your inbox and on your doorstep. It’s a lot at first, and then it fades, reappearing on anniversaries and holiday times. Usually it’s pretty generic and if I’m being completely honest, ends up in the garbage, although don’t get me wrong, there is something comforting in knowing that it’s okay to still be grieving, and in some ways I hope that it all keeps coming until I’m old and gray. However, after a really rough second holiday season without my mom, I do offer a suggestion to the hospice home: send a week’s worth of anti-anxiety meds as the death anniversary approaches and another week supply right around Christmas. Also, it would be pretty great if they could include something about how to inform people that your mom is dead without being a real downer, because so far greeting new people with, “Hi, my name is Laura and my mom is dead,” makes me seem even more socially awkward than I already am.

I’ve come to realize that whether you lose your mom as a small child, a teenager, a quarter-lifer, or when you are collecting social security, it hurts like no other pain. A mother’s job is to prepare you for life without her, and it is expected that you will outlive her, but there is never a time where you are ready to do life without her, whether you’re 1 or 100. I happened to lose mine just shy of my 25th birthday. She saw me learn how to walk and talk. She sat front and center for all of my plays. She watched me walk across both a high school and college graduation stage. She comforted me when my heart broke. I got more time with her than a lot of people get with their moms, but not as much time as others.

A month and a half after my mom died, I decided it would be a really great idea to move to a new city and start a new job where no one knew that my mom had died, or even that she had been sick. It ended up working out really well for me, but I can’t actually say I would recommend it. The most natural question to ask a teacher at the end of the summer/beginning of the school year is, “SO HOW DID YOU SPEND YOUR SUMMER?!” The first few times I was caught off guard, and explained to complete strangers that I quit my job, moved home to take care of my sick mom who was supposed to live for years, but then died two weeks later, then I buried her and stayed in bed and cried a lot. It didn’t take long to learn that was a real mood killer, so I started telling people that I spent it with family and friends (I mean, they were at the funeral after all) and traveling (where I spent a lot of time crying in my best friend’s bed and on top of mountains). I’M TOTALLY NORMAL, BE MY FRIEND PLEASE!

I start the school year off with a “Getting to Know Ms. Grimes” slideshow. I have a whole slide devoted to “Dogs I Know.” I include a slide about how I like to spend my time, filled with pictures of family and friends, which includes a picture with my mom. I’ve decided that day one probably isn’t the best time to inform my students that my mom is dead, but she is such a piece of who I am that in some ways it feels like I’m being dishonest. I have decided it is not something I should feel the need to hide from students though, so if it comes up, I’m honest about it. Last year, a student asked what my plans were for spring break, and I responded that I was taking a trip with my dad and brother. A particularly difficult student who didn’t always think before he spoke asked me why my mom wasn’t going. I stared at him point blank and responded that she wouldn’t be joining because she was dead. A great way to get students to focus on math and get a student who is just kind of a jerk to stop for a bit is to MAKE THINGS REALLY UNCOMFORTABLE! I also shut down “your mom” jokes real fast.

Losing your mom (or any loved one, I’m sure) changes who you are to your core. It changes how you approach work, friendships, love, and life. It changes your priorities. It means sometimes you find yourself sobbing in the grocery store for no particular reason. It means that people complaining about spending the time with their family will make your blood boil. It means that you don’t want to waste one moment being unhappy because you know it goes so fast. It means that sometimes being around people is just a bit too much to handle.

Maybe the grieving materials don’t include information on how to tell people your mom died because there is no right or wrong way to do it, there is only your way. Some people don’t want anyone to know, other people write multiple blog posts about it. Some people keep it close to their heart, other people wear it for all to see. It is in no way all that I am, but it is a part of who I am, and I have to honor that. And fortunately for me, I’m surrounded by people who choose to honor it with me.

Things They Don’t Prepare You For

In college, I majored in Mathematics and minored in Secondary Education. I often complained about the fact that I felt the Mathematics degree was ridiculous because there is no way I would teach anything past Calculus, and yet here I was, taking lots and lots of classes way past calculus. You thought Geometry proofs were awful? Well let me tell you about Real Analysis multi-page proofs! Actually I won’t do that because I think even my dad would stop reading my blog at that point and Papa G LOVES my blog. I felt like I should be taking education classes that better prepared me to be the teacher I had dreamed I would be instead of theoretical math classes.

Well fast forward four (?!) years since its completion and the mathematics degree is one of my proudest accomplishments. The whole reason I decided to become a teacher was because math had not come easily to me, but with the help of some incredible teachers, I learned to love the struggle. And let me tell you, in the college level mathematics courses, the struggle was real. Here’s a shout out to the professors who didn’t slam their doors when they saw me coming, the people who let me join their study groups even though all I ever could usually contribute was snacks and the occasional math pun, and the strangers who didn’t stare too long when I was crying in the library.

It didn’t take too long in my education classes for me to figure out, for the most part, that they also were not adequately preparing me to be the teacher of my dreams. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my college experience and my education professors were awesome. But I think at the end of the day, there is no way to teach what happens in the classroom until you are in it (and probably over your head in it). Most of my education classes involved a heck of a lot of writing of formal lesson plans. Let me tell you, the last time I wrote a formal lesson plan was first semester of my senior year of college. We talked a lot in my education classes about an ideal school set-up with ideal students, all coming to school fed, bathed, and supported at home. I think teachers are an idealistic group of people and no one wants to crush that in college. The place I learned the most was when I was put into field placements with teachers who didn’t sugarcoat the business. I also had a professor who wanted us to know what we were getting ourselves into, and it was the best thing she ever could have done for her students (shout out Dr. S). She shared her own experiences from teaching. She had us read books about how awful some days, weeks, months, and years of teaching might be, but also how rewarding it could be. She put us in observation placements that would challenge us. She brought in former students who were now teaching to share the good, the bad, and the ugly. And she did it with a passion that got most of her students more excited about their future careers.

Even so, there was no way anyone truly could have prepared me for all that teaching would involve, although I appreciate all that tried, because they made sure I knew that there was truly no way to know what I was getting myself into.

I often say that I forget how weird my job is until I’m casually telling someone about my day and they ask if things like that happen every single day. In some ways, you become immune to the weirdness that is spending your days with teenagers. What I have yet to become immune to, and hope I never do, is the toll that teaching can take on your heart. But no one could have prepared me for it all or how to love kids through it all. If you’re looking for a job that repeatedly rips your heart out of your chest and smashes it on the ground, then teaching might just be for you!

My first real wake-up call with this was while I was student teaching. I completed my student teaching, as well as my first two years of teaching in an urban school district. It was a whole new world from where I had gone to high school. I was working individually with a student when she showed me her gunshot wound. The way she said it, it was almost as if she expected me to show her mine. She had been caught in the crossfire of two rival gangs when she was younger.

My first year of teaching was filled with wake-up calls of how truly blessed I had grown up. Many of my students were homeless, abused, orphaned. They had lost family and friends in tragic ways. I remember hearing about a young man in a neighboring town being shot, only to discover it was the friend of one of my students the next morning. No one can teach you what to say to make that okay.

The summer between my first and second year of teaching, I lost a student to suicide. I received the phone call on a Sunday morning and had never been quite so grateful that I didn’t have to stand in front of a group of teenagers the next day to try to provide them answers and comfort because I had none. No one can teach you how to do that.

After two years, I left urban education and accepted at a job in a suburb very much like the town I grew up in. There were lots of reasons behind the change, but one of the big ones was because my heart needed a break from the hurt. It did not take long for me to learn that no matter where I was, I would never truly be prepared for all of the things I would face as a teacher.

On the second day of school at my new job, the police thwarted a school attack plan and school was cancelled as they searched the school from top to bottom (twice) to ensure students and staff were safe. When we returned, staff had an emergency meeting, we read the district provided response, guidance counselors and a crisis team were in place, and we tried to resume activities as normal as possible. A few weeks later, we were put on lock down for a possible threat that fortunately turned out to be nothing. At the beginning of this year, we were again put on lock down for over an hour. The next day, I had a tough conversation with my classes about how they felt about an event like that. We had a big conversation about making sure we never accept our personal safety being threatened as “just a thing that happens.” I was proud of how they handled the situation and the mature conversations that they had, but I never want them to think it is commonplace. Nothing can ever fully prepare you to be teaching the quadratic formula one moment while being prepared to protect your students the next.

My students have lost parents, had loved ones diagnosed with awful diseases, and dealt with community tragedies. I have cried over my email and after conversations with students and staff on many occasions knowing how much my students hearts must be hurting, wondering how I am supposed to explain this sometimes cruel and harsh world to them and alleviate just a little bit of the pain for them in any way that I can.

I took classes on classroom management and child psychology. I’ve had enough professional development in Common Core and assessment practices to last me a lifetime. Wondering how to integrate technology into your classroom? There’s a workshop for that. However, there is no teacher preparation program that can teach you all about the ways the world will hurt your kids. There is no training about how to love on kids when life is hard and the world is cruel. There is no magical combination of words you can say to make things okay for them. All you can do is your best to be human and love them, and in my experience, I’ve learned that that is enough.

Thankful

Timing has never been one of my strengths, so it only makes sense that I write my Thanksgiving post five days after everyone has finished off their turkey. If I’m still eating leftovers, it still falls into the proper time frame, right? Don’t answer that.

Thanksgiving is maybe my favorite holiday. I absolutely love that there is a day completely devoted to eating and spending quality time with the people we care about in the middle of the week. Seriously, how cool is that? No pressure to find that perfect present or Clark Griswold your house. It doesn’t matter what your views on religion are. Pretty much everyone in the United States celebrates Thanksgiving in some capacity (unless you are Chandler Bing of course). Thanksgiving foods are some of my absolute favorites, especially my dad’s mashed potatoes. I think afternoon naps should be a staple of everyday, but I like that Thursday afternoon naps are expected on Thanksgiving. I also love taking time to think of all the things that I have to be thankful for.

I’m thankful for my family and friends, who know me and love me on my best and worst days. I’m thankful for a job that challenges, fulfills, and inspires me every day (and includes three months of summer vacation). I’m thankful for St. Louis Cardinal baseball and that Cubs fans were pretty darn kind to me this year. I’m thankful for live music and the feelings it gives me deep in my soul. I’m thankful for writers that give my feelings words when I have none. I’m thankful for opportunities to travel and realize how insignificant I am to the world. I’m thankful for a yoga, a practice that has taught both my body and my mind to be more flexible.

As I thought of all of the things I was thankful for, I realized how easy it is to list the good things. But then I started thinking that true gratitude comes from being thankful for for the tough stuff. I’m a firm believer in positive thinking, and the ultimate positive thinking is looking for the good in the bad. So that got me thinking about the tough stuff that I am thankful for.

I am thankful for my grief, because it means that I had something so special that the loss is felt so deeply. I am thankful for a former job that quite often threatened my sanity, because I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today without the experiences I had in that position. I am thankful for the people in life who have been unkind to me because it serves are a reminder that words and actions hurt, and I should always be careful with mine. I’m thankful for bad days because  they remind me to appreciate the good ones. I am thankful for the times I didn’t get what I thought I wanted, because it always led me to somewhere better and helped shape me into a better person.

Yes, this post is a few days late. However, Thanksgiving should not just be a day. It should be a way of life, copious amounts of feasting included.

You Are Here

Last week I was in a bit of a funk and was desperate to get out of it. I decided to check out a trail I have never been to before. I knew next to nothing about it, other than it was considered a “Hidden Gem of Dane County” and that dogs were allowed, so there was a pretty good possibility I could make some pup friends. I grabbed a water bottle, some snacks, and set off for an unknown adventure. I was hoping the fresh air and open trails would give me a chance to clear my head and get some perspective.

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I set off on the trailhead without much of an idea of what to expect. There was no map. I had no idea if it would be an easy trail or a difficult trail. Not a clue if it would be a long or a short hike. I didn’t know how many people I would encounter along the way. But off I went, optimistic about what I might find.

About an hour into the hike, I came across a literal fork in the road. It reminded me of that one time in the required speech class in high school that I had to memorize Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” If I could clear out the space that apparently still holds in my brain, I probably wouldn’t have a note on my counter that says, “I KNOW YOU’RE AN ADULT BUT DON’T FORGET YOUR LUNCH!”

Anyways, at this fork, there was a laminated map of the trail. Excellent! Except it had no indication of where I was. None. Nada. Zero. There was no landmark to point me in the right direction. No way of knowing how far I had come or how far I had left to go. There was no indication of what was ahead. In the corner, someone had scribbled “YOU ARE HERE” with absolutely no indication as to where here was. Apparently someone before me had the same feelings on the usefulness of this map, and I appreciated their sense of humor.

I chose a path and continued on. I couldn’t help but think about how that map was exactly how I feel about life. You are here. Wherever here might be. Try as we might, we don’t know what it looks like in the grand scheme of things. No one has a perfectly drawn out, detailed map for life. Not a single one of us knows how long our own path might be. We don’t know what kind of obstacles might be ahead of us. When we are climbing uphill, we don’t know if the hill will continue around the bend. No one knows what kind of view we might have. There is no telling whose path will cross with our own, or when they might veer apart (or cross again). There might be times where we fall and find it really hard to get up and continue onward. We might feel inadequate or unprepared for what the path brings us. Sometimes we feel like we should be in a different place on the trail after all of the work we’ve put in so far, and feel disappointed that we haven’t made more progress. WE will compare ourselves to the people traveling along similar paths. There will be time where we question if we chose the correct path. There may even be times where we feel like we’ve lost the trail entirely.

There will also be times where the view is so spectacular that it takes our breath away. There will be times where we look back and realize how far we have come from where we started. There will be times where the path ahead is clear and obvious. There will be times where it all makes sense. We will realize how important the people who have chosen to walk along beside you are. You are making the journey, and that in itself is quite the accomplishment. In the end, we’ll be able to look back and see just how proud of our journey we should be. We will be able to look back and see how it was all connected.

In the meantime, you are here. And here is a pretty spectacular place to be.

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Pieces Never Touched

I was talking with my dad the other day about how for some reason, fall brings a new batch of emotions when it comes to missing my mom. I can’t put my finger on why exactly. Maybe it’s because of our shared birthday month of September. Maybe it is the drastic changing of the seasons and the reminders of all the things that have changed since she left. Maybe it is the reminder that soon the beautiful leaves will fall to the ground and blow away in the wind, that nature dies just as humans do.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know there is going to be a Gilmore Girls revival this fall. A lot of people are very excited about this, but I have a feeling not quite as many people cry at every sneak peak or article posted online. Let me explain. I was late to the Gilmore Girls party and didn’t start watching it until there were reruns on ABC Family. I would come home after school, grab a snack, and work on homework while I watched. Soon my mom started joining me in the living room and asking questions about the characters. Before I knew it, she was also hooked. We had always had “our show” throughout the years, from Full House to 7th Heaven. We watched it throughout my high school career, would discuss it while I was away at school, and watch our favorites episodes together when I was home. When she got sick, there were hours in hospitals and chemo treatments and late nights of brutal side effects. I bought my mom and iPad and we watched hours and hours of Gilmore Girls together again. Big ups to Netflix for having all 7 seasons.

Whispers of a Gilmore Girls revival started when my mom was diagnosed. I had a sinking feeling that she wouldn’t live to see the day it happened. I was right. When the revival was officially announced, I sobbed. How unfair was this world that she didn’t get to see this? But then I also remind myself that at least she didn’t have to witness this election cycle.

I’m continually hit with reminders of the pieces of life that my mom never got to touch. I can neither confirm nor deny that I cried in the grocery store because there were caramel apples and my mom was incapable of going to the grocery store during the month of October without coming home with a caramel apple. Although plenty of people cry when reading Nicholas Sparks books, I think I’m only one of a few who sobs in the book aisle at Target when I see that he released a new book that my mom will never get to open (and eventually drag us to the mediocre movie based on the book).

I’m reminded that the only me she ever go to know was up to 24-year-old me. She never got to see what 25, 26, and all the years beyond had in store for me. She didn’t get to see me move to a new city, start a job I love with my whole heart, or give her two cents on how I should decorate my new apartment for Christmas. I live in a place she never saw and work with students she never heard of. I’ve made friends that she’ll never hear about or get to meet. I’ve traveled to places and gone on adventures that she would have listened intently for hours as I talked about every detail.

In May, my brother will walk across a stage in a gown she never got to steam for him. Someday I’ll marry a man she never met in a dress she never helped me pick out. Someday I’ll have babies that she never got to hold and kiss.

I’ve had thoughts and feelings and hopes and dreams that I will never get to share with her. Sometimes my heart gets so overwhelmed thinking about all of the pieces of my life that she’ll never touch that I can’t breathe.

When these thoughts creep into my head, I think of all of the things that she did touch that live on long after she left us. A favorite song of mine is Give a Little Love by Noah and the Whale, with the lyric, “What you share with the world is what it keeps of you.”

I think of the preschool she helped start at my childhood church, where friends now send their own kids. I think of the Change for Charity program she helped start at the same church, where once a month children enthusiastically collect change in containers I helped her make many years ago. I think of the wise words she shared with me that I’ve passed on to friends and students. I think of all of the blog posts that she inspired. I think of the funny stories I’m able to share about her. I think of all the places where she gave her time, talent, and energy and the difference it made in those people’s lives. I think of the people she raised my brother and me to be, and all of the potential impact we can have because she touched our lives. I think of the handwritten letters that so many people have told me they tucked away and look at when they are in need of inspiration. I think of how she taught my brother and me to value our education and work hard in all we do in life. I think of how she taught me to love selflessly and care for others, and those are things I will carry with me into marriage and motherhood.

So although it has been 16 months since she has been able to physically touch and experience so many things, and there will be so many things in the future that she will miss out on, because of how she lived her life, she will always be touching all aspects of not only my life, but so many other people’s lives. And there’s something very comforting in knowing that our lives touch the world long after our days are done.

 

I Hope My Kiddos Know

Well we’ve officially been back in school for a few weeks and the first (but most definitely not the last) common cold of the school year has made its appearance. At the beginning of the year, teachers spend a lot of time in meetings discussing what our students should know by the end of our course. I think this is fantastic. I am a very goal oriented person. I hope by the end of the year, my students have learned all sorts of things about transforming parent graphs, solving systems of equations, and graphing. I hope they walk out my door in June with their brains filled with all sorts of mathematical knowledge. I truly believe math is one of the most beneficial courses a student can take. After all, I say that my math degree makes me a professional problem solver (and mathemagician). However, I hope my kiddos have so much more than equations and formulas in their heads and their hearts when they walk out my door. At the end of the year, it was always more than an SLO, PPG, PDP, STAR Test data, ACT score, and whatever else has made its way into education. I hope they know so much more than math.

I hope my kiddos know they are so loved. I don’t know how parent’s hearts do it. I’ve only had these kids for less than a month and my heart bursts with joy when they share exciting news with me or I see them accomplish things. I am so thrilled to see the people they become this year and truly feel honored to get to be a part of it all. When the world seems dark and dreary, they give me so much hope that they can make it bright and beautiful. Sometimes I can’t believe that I get paid to love on these mini adults all day long. Anyone who has ever heard me talk about my students knows that I think they are the bees knees.

I hope my kiddos know that character will get you so much further in life than the AP Calc exam. I hope them know I want them to succeed in their classes, but at the end of the day, I want them to be good people. I want to see them lift up those around them. I want to see them be brave. I want to see them always try to make the world a little bit better. I want them to know their academic self is just a part of the much bigger picture.

I hope my kiddos know how to laugh at themselves. I hope I teach them this by laughing at myself. I also hope they know that they help me remember to laugh. And not just little laughs. They make me gasp for air laugh. They remind me it doesn’t always have to be so serious. There are many days where I sit at my desk at the end of the day and hope that other people have the opportunity to smile during their workday. They also make my Facebook friends laugh when I post about the funny things they do and say and we could all use a little more laughter.

I hope my kiddos know that we are all human (me included) and that we will make mistakes. There will be days where I am not my best me. I will be cranky, hangry, caffeine deprived, sad, or distracted. I try to leave all of that outside of the classroom but sometimes I fail. I hope that they learn humility from me. I hope they see that when I fall (sometimes literally), that I pick myself up, dust myself off, and continue on, you know, after I fill out the accident report because that may or may not have happened. I hope they see that I can admit when I was wrong, whether I forgot a negative sign or told a kid to put his phone away when it was actually his calculator (OOPS!). I hope they know that their mistakes from yesterday do not have to be who they are today.

I hope my kiddos know how to deal with people who aren’t their favorites. I’m realistic enough to know that not every student who walks through my door is going to be a fan of me. I’ve had a few come up with some rather creative ways to get their points across (on those days, I dig the kind words from students out of my desk and dig into my candy stash). However, I hope they know that I still have something important to share with them. I hope they learn to work with group members that they don’t see eye to eye with, because every adult will tell you that life is basically one giant group project, and you’re never going to be able to like everyone, as hard as you might try.

I hope my kiddos know to stand up to a challenge. Math is hard. High school is hard. Life is hard. I hope they learn not to give up on something just because it won’t be easy. Persevering through problem solving is not just one of the Mathematical Processes. It is a way of life.

I hope my kiddos know they inspire me. Everyday I see students face difficult situations. I see them balance their coursework, jobs, extracurriculars, family, friends, and the trauma that is being a teenager. I see them lift each other up. I see them aspire to live out their dreams. I see them truly believe they can do anything they set their minds to. When the news hurts my heart, they give me hope that maybe we aren’t all doomed. How could we be with such an incredible group of young people ready to take on the world?

I hope my kiddos learn about passion from me. I hope they can see it in my daily life. I hope they know I am passionate about them, about math, about my job, and about life. I hope it inspires them to find something they are passionate about.

So yes, I hope by the end of the year, 90% of my students are proficient at solving a system of equations. I intend on getting all of my seniors across that graduation stage, even if I have to drag a few of them. I hope their brains are filled with academic knowledge. However, I hope they know so much more about the things that no textbook could ever cover.

For Better or Worse, In Sickness and in Health

Author’s Note: A version of this post originally appeared on the CaringBridge journal I wrote for my mom. It has been added to, updated, and revised.

My parents were married on September 1, 1979 at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Washington, IL. They would be celebrating 37 years of for better or worse, in sickness and in health tomorrow. They met at Western Illinois University and my dad proposed at a Dairy Queen a few years later. He’s lucky social media didn’t exist back then or his proposal would have looked lame compared to the elaborate gestures people make these days! I justify my ice cream obsession as a “family tradition.”

I’m sure two 23-year-olds couldn’t imagine the trials, tribulations, and triumphs that life’s journey would bring them through. They went through the good, the bad, and the ugly in life hand in hand with each other, and it doesn’t get much uglier than cancer. Cancer can have a way of reminding you of all of the many blessings in your life, and in my case, my parents showed me a beautiful example of what marriage looks like long after the celebration of a wedding.11949367_10206239211356601_3637275680288201530_n

Love is sharing the dessert you wanted to eat all by yourself. Love is tracking down wherever my mom happened to forget her purse (which sometimes involved multi-hour drives). Love is sitting through yet another Nicholas Sparks movie, even though it is no different from the one your wife dragged you to a year ago. Love is my mom plucking my dad’s nose hairs for him. Ever since I was a young child, I thought this was the greatest testament of true love. (Sorry dad, had to leave that one in). Love is weathering the storms of disagreements, moves, job changes, and all of the uncertainty and confusion life throws your way.

In sickness and in health is not just something you include in your vows because everyone does it or it sounds good. Love is sitting in waiting room after waiting room, testing room after testing room, doctor’s office after doctor’s office. Love was working long hours to ensure you can be at appointments. Love was jumping into action without hesitation when the nausea kicks in. Love is assuring someone they wouldn’t have to face this ugly monster alone. Love is putting someone else’s needs in front of your own without thinking twice. Love is making each other laugh in the mist of this chaos. Love is mustering up every ounce of strength because sometimes you have to be strong when the other person is weak. A band named Death Cab for Cutie has lyrics that say “love is watching someone die.” Death Cab for Cutie has never been known for their upbeat and uplifting lyrics, but this one hits so close to home. Early in our hospital stay, my dad and I would take turns spending the night on a cot in my mom’s room. As the hospital stay grew longer and we transitioned to hospice, my dad stayed by her side every night, up until her last breath.

I have had the privilege of being the daughter of two incredible, kind, patient, forgiving, and selfless individuals who worked hard to create such a special bond with each other and live their vows day in and day out through all of the seasons of life. It was an honor to be able to witness that love for almost 25 years of my life. For the past year, I have been able to watch my dad carry the love he shared with my mom in a special place in his heart.

There truly is not a moment that goes by that I don’t wish my mom was a phone call away. I wish I could call her up and tell her my thoughts and fears and worries. I wish I could tell her when I had a great day or confide in her when things get hard. I wish she could remind me to laugh at really terrible dates, get me through break-ups, and remind me that nothing good gets away. I wish I could tell her about a really fantastic date. It overwhelms my heart to know that someday, way down the road, she won’t be able to be the first person I call when I decide to face the good and the bad in life with someone. I wish she was around to help guide me through that decision. What I do take comfort in is that I got to witness a beautiful example of what a lasting relationship looks like. I remember a late night conversation with her a few years ago. I was convinced that I loved my independence too much to ever truly allow someone in. I wanted to make sure I never needed anyone but myself. I asked my mom, who raised me to be so independent by example, how she made it work with my dad. She told me that love works best when each person puts the other’s needs and happiness ahead of their own. Then each person is taken care of by the other and everyone’s needs are met. She said when it’s with the right person, I’ll be able to do it. Those words have always stuck with me.

Although their time together was cut too short, they shared more love and laughter in their time together than most people could ever dream of. I am forever grateful that Mama and Papa G are the ones who showed me what love is, and it all happened because two people said “I do” to putting someone else first on the First of September, 37 years ago.

Beginnings and Endings

The other day, I was sitting on the porch, drinking a cup of coffee, basking in the beauty of lazy summer mornings, just minding my own business when a browning leaf landed in my coffee mug. How rude. If that isn’t a sure sign that summer days are dwindling, I’m not sure what is. As Semisonic would sing, every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

Don’t get me wrong, I know how very fortunate I am to have some built-in time off of work. However, one of my friends started volunteering with teenagers this week and after I asked her how her first night went, she responded, “I know why you always need a nap now.” No matter how much I love my job, absence (or summer break) will always make my heart grow fonder and well rested.

It seems like just yesterday I said goodbye to my seniors, put the final grades in the gradebook, miraculously got my inbox to zero, and hightailed it right out of that building. The beginning of summer was filled with excitement and anticipation. It would be filled with time with family and friends, travel and adventure, and ideally, tackling that really ambitious work to-do list I created.

I had decided to move home for the summer. 10/10 I would do it again. Huge shoutout to Papa G for making it the place to be, letting me sleep in as long as I wanted, leaving the AC on all day, sharing his beautiful back porch with me, eating whatever I wanted for dinner, and always having a good bottle of wine around. I learned in the most brutal of ways that our time with those we love will never be as long as we want, so I am so grateful for the meals, walks, and conversations I got to share with him over the past few months. I also got to spend countless evenings with my best friend Katie. For those of you who live near your best friends, I hope you never take for granted that “come over and eat pizza and do nothing in particular with me” text. My days at home were lazy and filled with good coffee, good books, good music, a bit of yoga, and lots of love and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

My summer was also filled with travels. Soon after school let out, I left for New Orleans with my dear friend Jackie, who is also a teacher. We joked that we were trying to get as far away from our students as possible (another reason I move home for the summer). Then I went straight from NOLA to Boston with my dad and my Aunt Lea. I got home, unpacked, did some laundry, said Happy Birthday, America, and then jumped on a plane to Spain. We also fit in an annual trip to St. Louis to cheer on my Cardinals, a weekend in Kentucky to visit my mom’s family, and we will cap of summer with a long lake weekend up north. I joked that my goal was to be in a different place every two weeks, and I think I truly accomplished that this summer. Which also led to a lot of napping when I did happen to be home.

By the end of the school year, I was averaging eight (large) cups of coffee a day. If I didn’t have enough coffee in my system, I turned into a real monster. In fact, one morning I was particularly coffee deprived, and my students could tell. They were talking about it in their next class and their teacher ended up delivering a cup of coffee to my classroom. The first step is admitting you have a problem. I knew attempting to cut down on coffee during the school year would be disastrous for everyone, so I held off until summer. I made a training plan to cut back my coffee consumption the way most people make a marathon training plan. I know, pathetic. I wanted to remember what a coffee buzz felt like again. After I got through the first few weeks of insane headaches, mood swings, super early bedtimes and multiple naps, I started to see improvements. The biggest was the drop in my average resting heart rate. Like 15 BPM changes in my average resting heart rate (thanks FitBit data). I’m down to one(ish) (large) cup of coffee every day. With school starting back up again next week, I don’t foresee that lasting long for the sake of my own sanity and the sanity of everyone around me, but hey, I’m proud it lasted as long as it did.

How about that super ambitious work to-do list? If picking out what I plan to wear on the first day of school counts as school prep, then I was very successful. To be honest, I sat down at this coffee shop today with the best of intentions of getting some work done, but hey, this blog isn’t going to write itself. I have had a few very productive spurts this summer. I attended some professional development this month and spent a few days setting up Ms. G’s Mathematical Wonderland (also known as my classroom). What I have done is a lot of reflecting on my work. It might not have been lesson planning or professional development, but it’s an important part of the work to do. It is what got me thinking about beginnings and endings.

Last year I began and ended my first year at my current school. Summer has come and gone. I’m about to begin a new year, and it is impossible to know what it will bring. I think back on my teaching last year and the relationships I formed with students and the ways I grew as a person and a teacher. I think about the things I did and what I would like to do differently. I wonder about the students who will be walking into my classroom next week and the yearlong journey we will embark on. I think of all of the students I’ve encountered in my three years of teaching. I can’t help but selfishly hope I cross their minds every once in awhile (for good reasons, not because they saw someone trip and it reminded them of that one time I fell on my face while teaching). I think about the hard days I got through and the lessons I learned.

One thing I really value as a teacher is the fact I get two new years. I’m more likely to make a “resolution” at the beginning of a new school year than I am on January 1. An activity I like to do with my advisory students is goal setting. I make them set goals for specific classes, the school year, their high school career, and beyond. As I’ve been reflecting and preparing for a new beginning, I’ve started to think about the goals I would like to set for this year. There will be more to come, but I have a few so far. Professionally, I want to be better at handing out the darn chapter outlines that I always forget about until a student inevitably asks for it the last week of the chapter. Personally, I want to work on immersing myself into my (now not so) new community and making friends. The introvert in me finds it really easy to not seek out socialization and often turns down social invitations. However, I think it is possible to honor the introvert in me while still building relationships in a new city. I have to remind myself that my current wonderful friendships started as strangers and took time and energy to blossom. The only action plan I have for this so far is to make the foreign language department at my school be my friends, mainly because they seem cultured and worldly and I have to believe they have delicious snacks at their gatherings.

So it is sad to see summer go. All good things must come to an end, including a daily wardrobe of athleisure wear. But I also look forward to returning to a job I love, a bit of a routine, and the new adventures this school year is sure to bring.

 

 

Side note: I mentioned enjoying some books this summer. My favorite thing about not working is reading. I would truly recommend all of them depending on what you are looking for. Here is a list if you are interested.

“It’s Okay to Laugh, Crying is Cool Too” by Nora McInerny Purmort

“Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” by Cheryl Sandberg

“Going Om: Real Life Stories On and Off the Yoga Mat” edited by Melissa Carroll

“Sick in the Head” by Judd Apatow

“This is a Book” by Demitri Martin

“For One More Day” by Mitch Albom

“Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Albom (seriously everyone should be required to read this once a year)