DIY Fail

Cutting my own bangs, waxing my own … (never mind), attempting to apply false eyelashes fifteen minutes before a big event, washing my second floor windows from the inside of my house (with my ass hanging out of the bottom half of the window), fixing the ice maker in my freezer–these are just a few of the many DIY projects I have failed at.

That and editing a 415-page novel.

Friends who purchased The Gym Show between March 23 and April 14 may have noticed a few mistakes in the final manuscript.  I can’t describe for you the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach once even one of those mistakes revealed itself to me, not to mention the “I feel like opening a vein” reaction once I discovered there were even more.  It is painful for me to even write about it now.

When I first embarked upon this self-publishing odyssey (and make no mistake:  the fact that a title is self-published is not a derisory attribute), I contacted another self-published author Dina Silver, a friend of a friend.  I explained to her that I knew nothing about the publishing game, and I was looking for any advice she could proffer.  The one thing that she told me is that under no circumstances was I to even conceive of the notion of editing my own work.  Half of me agreed with her; the other half–the half that said, “I edit stuff for a living,”–told me that in the absence of an editor, just roll up your shirtsleeves and do it yourself.

So I did.  And Dina was right.  It came back to bite me.

I work in the QA department of a software company, and in QA, enhancements to the software must be tested over and over again, sideways, up and down, diagonally, using every scenario imaginable.  Same goes for editing.  I have learned, the hard way, that when you’re too close to something, you see it as a series of blurred lines; that is, you tend to skip over parts that you know should be one way, or you promise yourself that you’ll get back to it and fix it, and then you forget about it.  That is exactly what happened to me.

That, and I was also working full time writing and editing software manuals by day while I was writing a novel at night.  That’s a lot of words running together.

Don’t misunderstand.  I’m not making excuses (for there is no excuse for grammatical errors from someone who claims to be a writer), but I will tell you that I had secured the services of an editor; however, shortly after our initial meeting, he faced a rather devastating health crisis within his family.  Understandably, his services were no longer available and rightly so.  That’s when, in a hurry to get the book out before spring break, I decided to go bareback.  I had good intentions, but, again, it ended up being a DIY fail.

So here’s my deal:  If you purchased The Gym Show between March 23 and April 14, I will make good on my promise to deliver a quality product, just like anyone who creates or delivers something.  Just like the new HVAC system we had installed in 2012 that crapped out on us yesterday, or the pair of jeans I just bought from Kohls with a missing button.  I will replace your defective product with an improved version, one that has been tested over and over again, sideways, up and down, and one of which I am very proud.

Two weeks ago, I found a scathing review of The Gym Show on Amazon.  Last night I discovered another review–not as scathing, but not very complimentary, either.  It didn’t take me long to put together the dots and discover the identities of the two individuals who wrote the reviews, not that it matters that much.

Each of the two reviewers had been well within their rights to write a review; however, the first review was just plain ugly.  And this person knows me–that’s what really sucks.  Let’s just say that it is entirely possible for me to hand deliver to both of these reviewers a more polished version of The Gym Show without the aid of a full tank of gas or a GPS.  Given the opportunity, I will do so graciously, happily, and without malice.

Now quit writing crap about my book.

And you better believe that, as with many experiences in life, I have learned several valuable lessons.  The first is never get involved in a land war in Asia; the second:  never, ever edit your own 415-page novel.

You can email me at



The People’s Republic of Massachusetts

Every so often, I’ll have nightmares about my children being taken away from me and there is nothing that I do can get them back.  The forces that are keeping me from my children are far too powerful to negotiate with.  I can see my children, and I can hear their screams and cries for me to save them, but I’m powerless to do anything.  I awaken with wracking sobs, and it takes me a few minutes to convince my sleep conscience that it was all a bad dream and that my children are safe with me.

That is, until I read about stories such as the case of one Connecticut teenager Justina Pelletier.  Justina, according to her physician, suffers from mitochondrial disease, a rare metabolic disorder that causes extreme fatigue and a host of other symptoms affecting, among others, one’s eyesight, digestion, and muscular strength.

In February 2013, the Pelletiers, upon the recommendation of Justina’s doctor, rushed her via ambulance to Boston Children’s Hospital.  The decision to go to Boston Children’s Hospital was based upon this doctor’s recommendation to have Justina seen by a certain gastroenterologist who had just moved from Tufts Medical Center, also in Boston, to Boston Children’s Hospital.

It was a decision that resulted in the Pelletiers’ losing custody of their daughter and the beginning of their nightmare.

To make a long and tragic story short, Linda and Lou Pelletier, Justina’s parents, lost custody of their daughter because Massachusetts child-protection officials acted upon the recommendations of doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital who diagnosed the teenager with a mental disorder, disregarding her earlier diagnosis of mitochondrial disease.  The Pelletiers, the parents of this child and probably (I’m only guessing here) the people who know her best, disagreed with Boston Children’s about Justina’s diagnosis and care, so they did what any responsible adult–parent or not–would do:  They sought a second opinion.  And for that subversive behavior, they were separated from their daughter.  She was fourteen at the time.

When my daughters were fourteen, I used to toss and turn all night worrying when they would go to a friend’s for a sleepover.

You can read all about the case; however, the point that I am desperate to make is this:  Since when does the State (or in Massachusetts’ case the ‘Commonwealth’) or any agency, entity, or organization know what is better for a child than the child’s parents?

Oh, I know–believe me, I know and have been privy to several cases of parental abuse, neglect, Munchausen Syndrome, you name it.  I was a teacher, and I saw that all the time.  However, I never tried to substitute my beliefs or judgment over those of a parent.  What right did I have to tell a parent what is best for their child?

Just for fun, let’s look back in history at some other instances where “the State” has sought to overrule a parent’s judgment.  There was the infamous Hitler Youth movement where scores of German children were coerced into goose-stepping for Adolf, not to mention the obvious brainwashing happening to all those blond-haired blue-eyed kiddos.  And how could we forget those highly competitive Soviets who would send emissaries into a school in order to pick out future athletes to exploit and take them to a training facility far away from their parents?  Okay, at least they got to go to the Olympics eventually, if they didn’t end up in the salt mines of Siberia.  And there exists, even today, the numerous cases of child trafficking resulting in forced labor or sexual exploitation–state sanctioned?  Not directly, but then again, every time you buy a pair of Nikes, think about the country where those cool-looking kicks were made and little hands that made them.

“But Kelly,” you might be saying, “that’s over and done with, and that pesky child trafficking problem?  That only happens in third world countries–not here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.”

Justina Pelletier, the now sixteen year-old daughter of Lou and Linda Pelletier, who has been in custody since February 2013,  remains in the custody of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts–not because her parents abused her, not because she reported that her family was neglecting her, and not because she showed up at school with a wicked case of head lice and smelling like pee.  She remains in custody because of a hunch.

While in some parallel universe it may be true that Lou and Linda Pelletier have somehow sabotaged Justina’s health, why remove her from her home?  Would it not make more sense to return her to her parents under some kind of supervision?  Some follow-up care?  An agreement whereby she is seen by a psychiatrist to rule out mitochondrial disease?  No, that wouldn’t do because then several state workers would be out of a job–social workers, judges, state-sanctioned “experts”.  The big bully wins this round, and knowing that the Pelletiers are not a family of means (read:  litigation-happy), the state sentenced Justina to the psychiatric floor at Boston Children’s.  Her parents had limited visitation rights.  And that’s where I would have come completely unglued and quite possibly hurt somebody.

Today, nearly a year and a half later, Justina remains in state custody in a residential facility for troubled adolescents in Connecticut, 90 minutes from her home.  She has made repeated pleas to be returned to her parents, an altogether opposite response from what one would expect from an abused child.  As a result of their advocating for their daughter, Lou and Linda Pelletier have been branded as difficult and combative.

Difficult?  Combative?  I’d say they’ve shown remarkable restraint.  I can’t say with all certainty that if my child was being held against her will and against the will of my husband and me that there wouldn’t be somebody leaving the courtroom in a body bag.

Only in the Soviet Union America.



Maybe we should lower our standards?


Just last week, lawmakers in my adopted state of Indiana decided that there were enough educated, trained, and experienced teachers out there, so they went ahead and opened the gates of teacher-dom to anyone with a college degree and a ‘B’ average.

I’ll get to the comparative analogies in a minute.

So, what does this new law say about the majority of teachers who matriculated through teacher training programs at accredited universities, spent countless hours observing and participating in the teaching process in classrooms with veteran teachers guiding them through their nascent lessons and interactions with children?  What does it say about the future teachers who spent upwards of two semesters student teaching at different grade levels in order to experience as much of life as an educator as possible before Pomping and Circumstancing their way across the graduation stage?  And what does it say about those who braved the interview processes at several school districts only to finally land their dream job–as a teacher’s assistant or a substitute teacher with the hopes of someday being called up to the big leagues?

And what does it say about established teachers who, on their own dime, sought out advanced degrees and certifications so that they would be not only more marketable within their school district, but more importantly, become better at their craft?  What about those who went back to graduate school to earn a special education or gifted education endorsement, a middle school or high school certification, a Master’s Degree, or a principal’s license?

I’ve done everything listed in the last two paragraphs, all while giving 25 years of my life to the State of Indiana as a teacher, both at the elementary and middle school levels, both in the rough and tumble inner-city of Indianapolis and the once tony suburb of Lawrence Township.  Most of those years were amazing; some of those years were downright awful, but in retrospect, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.  That I am no longer a minion of the State of Indiana is irrelevant–what is relevant is the State of Indiana’s latest bone-headed move to lower the standards of teacher certification.

So, Indiana, while you’re at it, here’s something to chew on:  Once I had dreams of becoming an R.N.  I even applied to and was accepted into the School of Nursing at a small institution in Ohio.  However, once my father wisely reminded me that the sight of copious amounts of blood made me pass out cold, I reconsidered my options and chose to remain a teacher.  But since then, I think I’ve licked that blood thing (the passing out thing, you weirdo), and now …

I want to be a nurse.

I graduated in 1985 from Penn State University with a 3.5 GPA.  So, whaddya say, Indiana?  Can I become a nurse?  What’s that?  I have to pass a test?  No problem–I’m an excellent test taker.  Experience?  Psht!  I have three kids that came out of my body, so I think I know a little bit about being in a hospital and what it takes to be a nurse.  And the countless trips to the ER and their broken bones, stitches, and the one time my daughter Caroline drank a bottle of liquid Benedryl …yeah, I think I can handle this.  How hard can it be?  I want to be a nurse, for crying out loud, not a biomedical engineer.  Geez.

So if not a nurse, there’s another profession I’ve always thought I’d be good at:  Lawyer.  How hard can it be?  I know you have to pass a test (again–GOOD TEST TAKER HERE), and you have to be able to write well (I think I’ve got that, Scooter) and know a lot about the law and how to research laws, precedents, decisions, and stuff like that.  So, can I be a lawyer?  What, is there some exclusive club that only lawyers know about that would prevent me and may 3.5 GPA from Penn State University in Elementary and Kindergarten Education from becoming a lawyer?  Okay, so then can I go back to being a nurse?

Skills?  Special skills?  To be a nurse?  Oh, like giving shots and things.  I already know how to do that–I gave myself shots every day for the first three months I was pregnant with the Boy, so there.  There’s more?

Well, what about “on the job training”?  No?  Why not?

Okay, so maybe lawyering is a better option.  I know they read a lot.  I read a lot.  I don’t understand why I can’t be a lawyer.

“But Kelly,” you might be saying (unless you’re a teacher).  “You’re being ridiculous.  Whether you’re a nurse or a lawyer, each profession requires a particular set of skills.  Liam Neeson said so.  Really, dear, what special skills are needed to be a teacher?  Honestly, how hard can it be?”

Gee, I’d love to sit down and outline for you all of the necessary pedagogy, the extensive metacognitive skills knowledge base required, the need to have a complete understanding of P.L. 94142, the difference between an IEP and a 504, the ability to align a set of standards to instruction and an ability to document the hell out of it, the affective aspects of containing upwards of 40 children in one room at a time for an extended period and …well, I could go on and on.

How hard can it be?

Harder than you think.  Teaching requires a hell of a lot more than a 3.0 GPA and a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management.



A Life Well Lived

Yesterday afternoon, after returning from a perfectly beautiful Easter picnic up at Purdue with my husband and children, I received a rather cryptic group text from some former colleagues that delivered the sad news of the death of a woman with whom I worked at Fall Creek Valley Middle School here in Indianapolis.  As with all news of this type, for me, at least, there’s a period of mental digestion, and then the memories begin to play back in my mind like the retrospective part of a movie that you know is going to make you cry at the end.

And the memories I have of Dottie Doxtator are some of the best memories I have of being a teacher.

Dottie was an instructional assistant for many severely disabled children at Fall Creek Valley, so I really began to know Dottie well when I had one of her former students in my regular English/language arts class.  I say she was Dottie’s student, because quite honestly, had it not been for Dottie, this student—we’ll call her ‘Mary’—would not have been able to do anything.  Mary was so severely disabled that she could not speak, was non-ambulatory, and could only move some of her body parts in reaction to whatever outside stimulus happened to, well, stimulate her.

I have to admit, shamefully, that I had my doubts about having Mary in my class (as if my doubts would have had any bearing on the stipulation in her IEP that mandated that she be educated in regular education classes—that’s P.L. 94142 for all of you unfamiliar with the ‘Least Restrictive Environment’ law.  Mary appeared to me to have very little grasp of the world around her, but, as you will soon learn, I was rather handily schooled about what Mary could do by none other than Mary herself.

It was the time of year when my English/language arts classes were reading the play The Diary of Anne Frank.  Dear Dottie had the idea that she could program the lines of one of the characters into a Dynavox machine (sort of like a tape recorder) that Mary could activate with her hand when it was the character’s turn to speak.

All of this was Dottie’s idea.  I was skeptical.  After all, it would be Dottie’s voice reading the character Margot’s lines, it would be Dottie prompting Mary to hit the big red button on the Dynavox to activate the recorded voice, and it would invariably be Dottie who lifted Mary’s hand to pound the Dynavox’ big red button when it was ‘Margot’s’ turn to speak.  But I had an inkling that Dottie knew what she was doing, and I was curious how this would all turn out, so I agreed.   I now wonder who I thought I was to have demonstrated such hubris.

On the day of Mary’s stage debut, I assigned the speaking parts in that day’s reading of the play to various students, and when I assigned the part of ‘Margot’ to Mary, none of the students reacted to Mary’s imminent participation.  Most of them had come to class either tired or already bored, never appearing curious about how this was all going to happen, but then again, eighth graders have perfected the attitude of blasé-ness, so I wasn’t at all surprised.

Once it was Mary’s turn to “read” her lines, though, all of that changed.  The students in the class and I watched in fascination as Mary’s face began to contort, her mouth twisting into the semblance of a smile as she began wildly gesticulating while Dottie very gently guided her hand toward the big red button.  The pre-programmed lines flowed from the device, and Mary became, in that instance, a participant in the class, a bona fide member of the eighth grade of Fall Creek Valley Middle School and demonstrated her happiness by loudly rendering whatever sounds her once dormant voice had previously held.  The other students in the class had already picked their heads up off their desks, realized what had just happened, and commenced to cheering, clapping loudly, whistling, woo-hoo-ing, then scraped back their chairs and gave their classmate Mary a standing ovation worthy of a rock star.  Some even approached her wheelchair and lifted up her hand to give her a high five.

Mary had amazed and mesmerized them, and she knew it.  In that instant, Mary became the teacher. It was as if she had said to all of us, “See?  See what I can do?”  Her face bore the look of smug satisfaction, and the vision of her smile is an indelible memory forever etched into my mind.

Naturally, I lost it.  To say that I cried is rather an understatement; I sobbed, bawled my eyes out, and to this day, when I remember Dottie’s gentle persistence, her devotion to Mary, and her determination to allow Mary to become a part of that tenuous, contentious, loud-mouthed, hormone-ravaged, beautiful, and hilarious collection of eighth grade kids, I start to cry again.

Dottie left this world yesterday along with her son Scotty, who was also, like many of the students Dottie cared for at Fall Creek Valley, cognitively disabled.  She talked about Scotty often to me and to others, always prefacing her conversation with “My Scotty.”  Her devotion to him was unparalleled, but then again that is not surprising.  When God chose Dottie to be Scotty’s mother, He knew what He was doing.

Sadly, after I left Fall Creek Valley, I lost touch with Dottie, but I will never forget her.  She remains one of the most influential people of my life because she, along with Mary, taught me that everything is possible when kindness, faith, and love are applied to a seemingly impossible situation.

Well done, good and faithful servant.  Heaven’s rewards await you and Scotty.


Wing Men

Their work area looks as if a goat exploded inside their cubicle, they collect graphics and obscure references to zombies and tack them up on their walls, they’re obsessed with fantasy football, science fiction, and South Park, and they have the collective sense of humor of a classroom full of eighth grade boys.  Don’t leave an open bottle of water near your desk, because, more than likely, you’ll find something floating on the bottom of it, like a swollen gummy bear that’s been God only knows where before succumbing to its watery grave. 

Brent* and Joe* (not their real names) are two boys with whom I work in the QA department of a worldwide software conglomerate that may not be a household name to most readers, but leads the industry in designing manufacturing software.  Not only does this most profitable enterprise work the proverbial room that is the global marketplace with its state-of-the-art product and successfully markets it, it seeks to recruit only the most talented individuals who, behind the scenes, make the magic happen.

Which takes me back to Brent* and Joe* (not their real names).  Both survived matriculation at Kent State (surprisingly without any intervention from the Ohio National Guard) and now work with me at the software conglomerate; or rather, I work with them.  Or, rather, they put up with me and my inane and asinine questioning without any visible eye rolling or finger pointing (you know the finger), while I blithely return to my neat-as-a-pin work area and attempt to decipher their complicated solutions to my simple problems.  You have no idea how often Wikipedia has saved me from the abject anxiety that only the technologically-limited have experienced.

Here’s what we—Brent* and Joe* (not their real names) and I–do at the software conglomerate:  Brent* and Joe* (not their real names) test the software enhancements that are made by the über talented software developers at the global software conglomerate, then, once vetted, they pass along the enhancements to me to update or document in the software applications’ users manuals.  Sounds simple, right?

Simple for them maybe; not so simple for me.  I have many talents; following directions is not one of them.  But I’m getting better.

I won’t elaborate on the sad and sorry months when I wasn’t dead sure how to download and install a program onto my PC, how I had to look up the word ‘algorithm’, how I had to pretend that I knew how to take a screenshot, or how I had no idea of what a virtual PC was even though I worked on one every day.  Those were the darkest of my early days at the software conglomerate, the days when I’m sure Brent* and Joe* (not their real names) wondered just how I ever managed to part my hair in the morning.

But like I said, I’m getting better, and so, hopefully, the relationship between Brent* and Joe* (not their real names) and me is also evolving. 

Now that I work in the private sector for a worldwide software conglomerate, people ask me all the time if I miss teaching and the answer is “Hell, no!” except for one thing:

I miss sitting among my students and clandestinely listening in on their conversations.  I miss hearing the two boys in the back of the room trading Anchorman and Office Space lines and trying hard not to crack up or pee in my pants.  I miss the little jokes, the “joning”, and the playfulness that exists among folks who actually, deep down, like, respect, and cherish one another.

Brent* and Joe* (not their real names) are like those two boys trading Anchorman and Office Space lines, and they could very well have been my students when they—Brent* and Joe* (not their real names)– were eighth graders.  While they like to cut up and have a good time, these two men are also very committed to their work.  They take very seriously the task of testing—testing up, down, diagonally, sideways, around curves, and under any and all possible scenarios. 

The takeaway?  It is possible to develop good working relationships with your colleagues even if, seemingly, you have little if anything in common with them.  And it is most definitely possible to find good help these days—Brent* and Joe* (not their real names) are proof of that. There’s a certain level of respect that exists among the three of us—Brent* and Joe* (not their real names) respect me because they have to since I’m old enough to be their mom; in turn, I respect the two of them for their intelligence, their work ethic, and, lastly, their combined sense of humor.  And so this is my homage to them—to my wing men, who, without their patient instruction and tolerance of my dumber-than-a-box-of-rocks-ish-ness, I would still be trying to figure out how to access the VPN.

Kids these days…

Private Parts

Lest you think I’m about to launch into a tirade about things best mentioned in private, let me put your mind at ease and tell you that I’m about to launch into a tirade about not mentioning these things on television, the internet, and through social media. I once heard the actress Angela Landsbury state in an interview something to the effect that, even between husbands and wives, some “personal processes”, if you will, should remain, well, personal. I think she may have something there.

A little background for contextual purposes is needed here. In my family of origin, we were quite open. My parents were not prudish, nor did they keep from us any information that would help us understand our how our family of origin came into being, but, as educators, they knew the right time to mention the unmentionables and they kept the conversations factual. I didn’t know about babies being found in cabbage patches until I was an adult, and I thought that the stork was just the right type of animal from which to hang a baby hammock, not to actually deliver one’s child. In our family, though, body parts had funny names, but in the interest of our family’s privacy, I’ll not divulge them here. Suffice it to say that we knew the clinical terms for our particular accessories, but we much preferred the silly ones that my parents had made up.

That is not to say that there weren’t embarrassing times. For instance, the first time I saw a television commercial hawking feminine hygiene products, I was watching television with my dad, and to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever been so mortified. And how can anyone over the age of 45 forget the ad for Playtex Tampons, featuring the mildly successful stage and television actress Brenda Vaccaro? Brenda Vaccaro, with, what my dad used to call, a “whiskey-tenor” voice, would draw, after each delightful and descriptive sentence, yet another ragged, emphysema-ravaged breath as she illustrated the amazing absorbing properties of the product. Worst television ad ever.
Then there was the time that I was watching the movie The Summer of ’42, again, with my dad. I was old enough to have read the book, but when the protagonist went into the drug store to purchase “rubbers”, my once so progressive-thinking dad made me change the channel back to Happy Days. I did so both quickly and willingly.

Today, though, it seems as if anything goes. Childbirth, for some (not for me, but that is another entry altogether) a magical, sacred moment when a couple welcomes their child into the world, is now fodder for all types of photographic and video production and distribution. If a couple wishes to capture the moment, I applaud their efforts; for me, I informed my husband that he could take one picture of our child upon its entrance into the world. And, nauseous as he was, Tim managed to shakily snap a picture as my doctor lifted Christian out of my open and retracted belly and held him up past the sterile field. Proof that he is mine, I guess. Four years earlier when I delivered twins, I was unconscious, Tim was not permitted in the operating room, and I’ll have to take everyone’s word at Methodist Hospital that those two chicas belong to me.

It’s not the actual videotaping or photographing of the event that has me riled. It’s the distribution of the video or photographs—on television, especially. Take, for instance, the preeminent achievement and veritable cornerstone of The Learning Channel, a priceless gem called Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. On last week’s episode, a repeat, Honey Boo Boo’s teenaged sister goes into premature labor. She tells her mother, “She’s hurting my biscuit.” ‘She’ refers to the baby within; ‘biscuit’ refers to the young lady’s nether region. Now, thankfully, the young lady’s labor was arrested and she was sent home, but did we really have to suffer through the angst of an almost premature delivery and the knowledge that Mrs. Honey Boo Boo taught her daughters that their genitalia was named a ‘biscuit’? For that matter, why do we have to suffer through Here Comes Honey Boo Boo at all? Full disclosure: I watched this particular episode in a hotel room while searching for a less pedestrian offering, and I promise that I did not and will not buy any of the products advertised during the show.

Then there’s Oprah and her va-jay-jay. Precious. Once she roped Dr. Oz (a cardiac surgeon with a fascination for poop) into being her go-to medical guy, I knew it wouldn’t be long before she treated her all-female audience to several sessions with the dashing Oz. In his signature tell-it-like-it-is style, he often appeared on Oprah to expound upon not just poop but many other functions associated with things one does in private. I’m not sure I remember if that was the context in which Oprah introduced us to her va-jay-jay—or maybe I’m just trying to block that image out of my mind—but apparently Mrs. Oz is cool with her husband, the cardiac surgeon, discussing vaginas because now he does it all the time. Once he was gifted with his own spin off, he broke down all the barriers. I realize he is a doctor, but does he have to get all casual and cavalier about these portions of a woman’s anatomy? And have you noticed that very few of his shows focus on man parts?

I hesitate to include this next example of television’s casual treatment of body parts, but (and again, it’s when I’m flipping through channels) that train wreck of a family the Kardashians lack any sense of restraint when it comes to their activities, especially when it comes to anything having to do with the parts of their bodies typically covered by even the tiniest bathing suits. Personally, I’m not quite sure that E! could pay me enough money to wax poetic about some of the activities the Kardashians describe with so much passion and naughtiness, and I know for sure that my own sister and I, unreserved though we might appear, are much more private than these vapid and oh-so-tasteless sibs. We have been known though, on occasion, to talk about poop.

Whatever would have inspired me to issue a commentary on the subject of private parts? Apparently, as I write, the Duchess of Cambridge is in labor, about to give birth to a little girl or boy who will one day—God willing—become the queen or king of England. The fact that an heir to the throne is about to be born is newsworthy; details of the duchess’ labor and perceived status minute by minute is not. I listened to Dr. Nancy Snyderman on the Today show this morning talk about the duchess’ labor, conjecturing about cervical width, epidurals, and vaginal v. Caesarian delivery, and I thought to myself, “So glad that’s not me.” Having a baby, no matter who you are or how it comes out, is both a humbling and spiritual experience. For me, the entire process is definitely one that I would never wish to share with the world. Some things should remain sacred.

Even poop.

Docendo Discitur

Is it really possible or desirable for any of us to see people through a colorless, shapeless prism, limiting our perspective so that each individual who crosses our collective paths appears unremarkable, nondescript, and flavorless? Think about it: If we lived in a monochromatic world, just how much fun would that be? How boring and meaningless would our lives be if everyone else looked like, sounded like, and dressed just like us?

I grew up in a region of the country where I encountered few “people of color”–and that’s the last time you’ll see me use that particular phrasing—my own skin is darker than most skin that covers “people of color”. Damn! Sorry. I meant next to last time! My years and years of attending diversity workshops have left me with an aversion to “ edu-speak”, and that particular phrase was overused entirely, mostly by white folks who thought they were being politically correct. Just tell it like it is.

What I’m trying to say (and failing miserably) is that I was not exposed to differences in race, but I was exposed to variances in ethnicities. The difference? Oh, mostly neat stuff like food that tasted better, hair that was darker, thicker, and longer, grandparents with funny accents, and families proud of their heritage and the chutzpah of their parents or grandparents for carving out an existence in the greatest country on the planet.

My first teaching job was at an inner city, and I mean inner city elementary school on the near eastside of Indianapolis. I was freshly graduated from a little college in Pennsylvania’s Happy Valley, where we could readily identify our fellow Nittany Lions geographically by listening to each other refer to carbonated beverages as ‘pop’ or ‘soda’. For the uninitiated, State College, Pennsylvania serves as the dividing line between western and eastern Pennsylvania—I grew up in western, PA; ergo, I’m a ‘pop’ girl.

At any rate, me and my pop drinking self arrived at said elementary school to interview with the principal, a white man, but a lifelong east-sider. Later, he would tell me how disappointed he was initially with the caliber of talent the central office had thrown his way that particular day—apparently, I had asked him how many of the children in the school lived on farms. I don’t remember that, but he took it as a portent of my unsuitability as an inner city sixth grade teacher. I must have done something right, though, because he hired me. I was ecstatic! I had my very first real job!

Then I learned that I would be replacing Mr. U., an elderly gentleman who was legally blind and was being forced to retire because he couldn’t see. Understand that I’m not trying to discriminate against those who are visually impaired, but the sense of sight is a rather handy tool when teaching inner city sixth graders. Maybe I was the first candidate sent from the central office without a significant sight impairment or maybe I was the only one stupid enough to replace a blind man, I don’t know.

Just as it was during my first few weeks as a new mother, my first few weeks as one of three sixth grade teachers at IPS John Hope School #26 remain a blur. For the very first time in my life, I was exposed to the variances and differences between my white, white, really white self, and the mostly African-American and Latino children—all 32 of them—in my class. Oh, boy.

I promptly informed all 32 of my little charges that the party was over, that I had perfect 20/20 vision (lied), and that I wasn’t taking any crap from any of them. Yeah. I was the boss of them now. Little did I know how much they already hated me—not because I could see, not because I was white, but because they were so attached to their former teacher. These kids loved Mr. U., they had been very protective of him, and despite his limitations, he had, apparently, managed to love them back.

So it was my first class of children who took me to school. I learned that I was, indeed, a ‘honky bitch’ and a ‘cracker’, and that I was ‘country’. They asked me how many babies I had, so I took that as a teachable moment and introduced an impromptu lesson on titles, telling them, “My name is Miss Abercrombie. That means that I’m not married.” They looked at me and said, “So?” They made fun of the way I talked, they ridiculed me because I was so painfully naïve about who they were and what their lives were about, and they took every opportunity to tell other teachers in the building how mean and hateful I was. They were rude, disrespectful, undisciplined, noisy, and had no interest at all in learning anything that I had to teach them. It was a miserable job, and I cried every Sunday night because I wasn’t sure I could face another week of it.

The worst day of my life that year was when I was called into the principal’s office to face him, the school’s social worker, an angry mother, and a detective from the sex crimes unit of IMPD. I was interrogated about one of my students—a twelve year old, who, I was told, was nearly four months pregnant. Apparently, the piece of garbage who impregnated her had been coming to my classroom to pick her up each afternoon, and I had let him. He had told me that he was her brother, and that their mother had asked that he walk her home. When I tearfully explained this, the girl’s mother looked me dead in the eye and said, “Amy ain’t got no brother.”

As awful as things sounded, a change began to take place between my students and me. I’m not quite sure when the turning point was that year, but after awhile, I began to grow rather attached to all 32 of those little boogers, and they, in turn, were much nicer to me. I even grew attached to the girl with a perpetual case of head lice, the young man who routinely brought kitchen knives and wads of hundred dollar bills to school, the little cutie who had seven brothers and sisters all with different last names, and all three Tyeishas.

I even stood up to the one mother who came into my room demanding to know why a white woman thought she was good enough to be her daughter’s teacher. She threatened me, even backing me up against a wall with a balled up fist ready to deliver a sound upper cut to my face. In an uncharacteristic burst of courage, I faced her down and challenged her to bring it. I was, after all, in much better shape, was wearing flats, and was decidedly more sober than she was. She backed down.

This is not a story meant to warm your heart and make you all gooey inside because you know someone noble enough who taught “the least of these” under difficult circumstances. No, my point is this: I am a better person because I had those 32 little boogers and later hundreds and hundreds of others as my students. What many people fail to understand about teachers is that no matter how awful a kid in your class can be, you still have some relationship—some attachment to him or her. My eight years in the Indianapolis Public schools and my subsequent years in a suburban middle school have made me a better person, especially when it comes to how I look at people who come from different backgrounds. I was the one who learned from them.

I have a feeling—a portent, if you will—that in the next few days this country is going to erupt in some kind of turmoil over the untimely and unfortunate demise of a kid who could have been one of my little boogers. I also have a sick feeling that that this turmoil could undo so much of what so many of us—Black, White, Latino, Asian, or otherwise—have accomplished as human beings for the past sixty years. Let’s face it: It is impossible to look at the world through a colorless prism. Since we do live in the greatest country on the planet–the greatest, not the most perfect–can we not, instead, let our justice system do its job? To do otherwise is unbecoming of us as Americans and as members of the human race.

It’s not much wonder that my very first class of sixth graders were so wary of me. Their beloved Mr. U. was unable to see them, so he most likely valued each of them according to their behavior, their character, and their uniqueness. Once I entered the picture, I’m sure they believed that I would see them otherwise—as poor, ghetto, thuggish, or white-trash. It took a lot of time, tears, and teaching, but in the end, I hope I was able to look at each of them through a colorful prism and regard them by how they changed my life forever and shaped me into the person I am today.

Let me tell you: My child would never do THAT.

My children are perfect. They are perfectly children—well, now perfectly young adults. When I say that they are perfect, I am not extolling their virtuous deeds, their academic prowess, or their respectful and deferential treatment of their elders. I mean that they have or–in the case of my youngest–are in the process of making mistakes, pulling bone-head moves, and driving me certifiably insane.

When young couples are contemplating starting a family, their older friends need to stage an intervention. Not to dissuade them from procreating, but to educate them on the reality of being a parent. Once born, these types of instructions aren’t included when you bring baby (ies) home from the hospital. Shouldn’t there be a warning label stating, “Caution: Do not for one minute think that this kid is going to grow up without A) embarrassing you, B) causing your hair to fall out in great clumps, or C) initiating contact with a bail bondsman”?

When I was a younger mother, I would experience the galling and appalling behaviors of my eighth grade students and say to myself, “Good Lord, MY CHILD will NEVER do THAT! I feel sorry for his/her parents!” Someone should have slapped me at that point. I have learned the hard way that my children have done THAT. Anyone who says their kids would “never do THAT”–‘THAT’ being anything from dropping the f-bomb to building a bomb–had better eat their idiotic words toute suite, because I guarantee that your kids will do THAT. Whether or not you ever find out about THAT is another thing.

For the record, none of my three perfect children has ever built a bomb, nor have we ever sought the services of a bail bondsman. And, no, I’m not going to satisfy your curiosity by listing all of their shortcomings, their peccadillos, or all of the times I’ve been ready to put them up for adoption—our family subscribes to the ancient and not-so-often practiced principle of keeping what happens among family–well, among family. In short, you won’t see us on an episode of Dr. Phil anytime soon.
Have they disappointed me? Yes. Have they worried me to distraction? Oh, yes! Do they sometimes make decisions that cause me to wonder if I brought home the wrong babies from the hospital? Absolutely. But here’s my problem:

I grew up under rather unusual circumstances. My mother, a force to be reckoned with mom-wise, left this earth way too early at 40 (I was 11) leaving my brother, sister (both teenagers at the time), and me with a much older father. In retrospect, I think that my dad felt that we were such great kids and that our mom had done such a phenomenal job raising us so far that he really didn’t have to do much to mold his young breed any further. My brother was a saint, my sister’s charm and athleticism made up for the laundry list of crap that she pulled as a teenager, and I? Well let’s just say that I fell somewhere in between.

The problem I have with my own children is that I lack a template. Most moms of teenagers look back on their own upbringing and say, “WWMD?” Or even better, they call their own moms and say, “Did I pull this **** when I was 15?” When I wonder what my mom would do, I’m at a loss. So I do what I think she would do, and for the most part, that works.

Here’s the good news: My two oldest are in their first year of college. Their first year has been an unbelievable and, frankly, surprising success. I almost feel as if all of the prayers to the Blessed Mother, the hair pulling, the rendering of garments, and the tears and frustrations I’ve experienced with them have rewarded me with two young ladies who finally get it.

This bodes well for child number three, who, right now, is driving me berserk in an altogether different way. There is no shouting, no yelling, no eye rolling. His modus operandi is passivity. I can’t yell at him—he just looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind. When I talk to him, my used-to-be mommy’s boy mumbles something inarticulate. He’s a totally different animal than my first two when it comes to the mother-child relationship.

My point is this: To all you young mothers and mothers of teenagers-to-be, do not for a moment say, “My child would NEVER do THAT.” Why? Those same mothers who used to say that to me have children who I have witnessed first-hand DOING THAT. Sometimes your children have told me about doing THAT. One thing I can say about my three—they usually tell me about THAT before I find out by any other means.

If I’ve learned anything from my first two, it is this: Stand your ground and know that this too shall pass.

Come on; go with me on this—I’ve got one more to get through high school. Hopefully, he, too, will take a page from his sisters’ playbook and shock and awe me and become the amazing young man that I know is lurking inside of that surly little teenager.

An Homage to the Snow Day

Typically, when snow is forecast for central Indiana (and maybe other places, I don’t know), the projection of accumulating inches far exceeds the reality.  How do I know this and why do I care?  It goes back to being a teacher—of course.  Doesn’t everything?

Teachers live for snow days!  Oh, some may say, “I don’t want a snow day because I don’t want to make it up in June” but the reality of that argument is that the day in June that is “made up” is more or less a day spent wrapping up loose ends.  Tests are already taken, grades are submitted, books are returned to their summer storage place, and the time is spent signing yearbooks, cleaning out lockers, and possibly taking the whole class outside for an impromptu field trip.  So in reality, that make up day is not nearly as painful as finally having to schlep your sorry and slippery self into school, fishtailing your way into the parking lot (while the parking lot of the district administration building next door remains empty well into the morning).

The next best thing to a snow day is the two-hour delay.  For the uninitiated, a two-hour delay just pushes the day back two hours, meaning two additional hours of sleep.  Über teachers I’ve worked with (there’s a couple in every school, apparently) would stoically brave the icy and snow covered roads so they could proclaim to the rest of us, two hours later, that they used that time to work in their classrooms.  Not me.  I considered the concept of the two-hour delay a slice of serendipity in an otherwise mundane week.

The drama that precedes the announcement of the snow day or two-hour delay is nearly as exciting as the announcement itself.  Will they or won’t they?  Who actually makes the call?  My dad, a man my readers will get to know on a whole new level real soon, was a high school principal in northwestern Pennsylvania from 1952 until 1973.  In the 1960s, it was his job to “make the call”.  That meant that at around three in the morning our phone would start ringing.  “Mr. A?  Are yinz havin’ school today?  I need to know if I should hitch up the plow so’s I can git the young’uns to the end of the driveway…” or “Mr. A?  Clyde wants to know if he should start milking now, ‘cause he’s guessing with all a this snow, the cows are going to be slow gettin’ into the barn, and he don’t want to miss the bus, but if yinz aint havin’ school, then he can sleep a extra hour…”  My dad would suit up, walk down to the end of our driveway with a flashlight, check the road, then traipse back up and “make the call”.  Making the call involved calling WICU TV in Erie to tell them that the Linesville schools would be closed that day.  He then gave them what I can only guess was a secret password, then our phone number so that they could call back to confirm that he really was James R. Abercrombie, principal of Linesville High School and the man charged with making the call.

Now that I’m no longer teaching and my kids are older, snow days and two-hour delays have lost their sparkle.  I do, however, rally in spirit for my teacher friends.  Even if they moan at the prospect of having to go to school past Memorial Day weekend, I know that deep down they’re secretly delighted at the prospect of having a day all to themselves.  To me, snow days and two hour delays were little gifts that allowed me to snuggle with my kids, make a big breakfast, and maybe take a long nap on a snowy afternoon. What’s not to love about that?

Old Dog

Two years ago to the day, I quit my job as a teacher.  I was so unhappy and so miserable that I couldn’t even wait until the end of the school year.  It wasn’t because of the children in my class; they were a daily delight.  I didn’t leave because of the people with whom I worked—they remain good friends of mine.  Money?  No, it wasn’t the money.  It takes years to get to a place in teaching where the money one earns is finally substantial enough to almost make it worthwhile, and I was already there.

I quit because I could no longer perform my job knowing that no matter what I did and no matter how hard I worked, I would never rise to meet the combined expectations of a district administration and a misguided state department of education.  I quit because I couldn’t swallow enough Kool-Aid necessary to change what I knew to be best for kids in order to satisfy the new vision of some grant coordinator in the central office who had gone to a workshop in San Diego the previous summer and discovered that the problem with teachers was their “white privilege”.  I quit because I certainly could not depend upon the collective standardized test results of 27 ten year olds to determine whether I could earn a raise or keep my job.  And I quit because I constantly felt as if I was being punished for doing something bad.

Did I have a back up plan?  No.  I knew I had skills, but those skills were limited to the education milieu.  I soon discovered that headhunters and recruiters saw teaching just as most of the uninitiated do:  Sure, she can put up a mean bulletin board, and I’ll bet she’s great at reading a story, but can she do anything else?  Imagine my shock when I interviewed for a sales position with a web-based education company and was told that I did not have enough experience to market their product—a product that I had been using with my students for six months.  I was equally flummoxed when I tried to enter the higher education arena but was met with crickets.  Apparently there are enough university professors in central Indiana’s schools of education—too bad most of them have little actual classroom experience.  I began to believe that whatever skills I had were not marketable.

Serendipity saved me when I reconnected with a high school friend who asked me to work for his software company.  Agreeing, though not really knowing how my skillset would jive with a software outfit, I interviewed with management (over the phone) and replied ‘yes’ to her questions about my technological prowess, reckoning that I had enough time and Googling skills to figure out what the hell she was talking about.  My friend had earlier assured me that there would be no math on this test, but my first assignment was to test algorithms.  So I Googled ‘algorithms’ and discovered to my horror that it was something that had to do with math.  I felt like opening a vein.  The actual task was not nearly as difficult as I had imagined, and though it took me like eleven hours to complete what should have taken me two, I finally did git-r-done.

My point is this:  I am 50 years old, and I never believed that I could learn anything new that would be of any benefit to me.  Moreover, I had no desire to learn anything new—after all, I had been in school for just about 45 of those 50 years.  For crying out loud, didn’t I already know everything?

I am responsible for knowing how to run manufacturing software and explain it in a users’ manual format, so consequently I learn something new every day.  Sometimes the process is frustrating, sometimes it’s maddening, and sometimes I feel like I am the most dim-witted, obtuse knuckle dragger out of a boat-load of geniuses and that my importance to the company ranks only higher than that of the lady who comes in to water the plants.  It’s bad enough that I’m considered elderly among all of these recent college graduates, but to feel like a dullard among kids who are young enough to be my former students is a rather humbling experience.  But I’ve learned from that, too.  I learned that when you ask a twenty-something kid to help with a complicated problem you had better bring cupcakes the next time you see him.  I also learned that these same twenty-somethings are a little wary of me, especially when they discover that I’ve been a teacher.  I’ve learned to admit when I don’t know something—which happens just about every day—but not to dwell on my shortcomings.  And I’ve learned that I can acquire new skills, and that makes me very happy.  It also makes me feel as if this old dog can learn other new tricks.  Unless they involve math.