Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Healthy Serving of Perspective

Last weekend I served with my women's small group at a food packing event put on by Bright Hope-- a missions organization (for which my friend, works) that specializes in supporting impoverished nations (those where the civilians live on less than a $1 a day) by giving them tools (such as micro loans) to get on their feet and self sufficient. This packing event was part of the Hope for Haiti initiative--a project aimed at caring for the millions of women and children affected by the death, disease, and hunger which existed long before the fateful day of 1/12/2010 and was only expounded by the devastating effects of the earthquake.

In the minutes prior to beginning our volunteer stint, we were spoken to by the president of BrightHope and watched a brief video showing first hand the inhumane conditions which these innocent people are forced to live in, and more than 315,000 have died in since last year. To be honest, what I saw and heard--obviously intended to pull on the heart strings--didn't affect me too deeply. Perhaps my general temperament, or learned emotional detachment for my job, was to blame. Perhaps it was even a hard heart towards serving or distasteful apathy. Any way around it, I just wanted to stop talking about it and start doing something about it.

Donning a stylish hair net and sweaty plastic gloves, coming off a long and tiring school week, visions of the thankless lunch lady position higher education had helped me surmount danced through my head. Clutching two long silver spoons, my appointed duty was to scoop two fourths of a one-person meal into a funnel. Which led to a plastic pouch containing all the contents. Which was then meticulously weighed. Which was fastened in a plastic sealer. Which was placed into a cardboard box with 35 other identical bags. Which was taped shut and joined the ranks of some 6,000 boxes on their way to the starving people of the island. 212,000 meals a little town in the comfortable suburbs of Chicago contributed to a destroyed country thousands of miles away.

Manning this labor line with the 7 other ladies of my small group was where reality set in. The meals going into each one of those bags had nutritional value, and had the potential to improve the health of many women and children within just days. But upon a glance, the meals hardly qualified as such. They were nothing more than powdered chicken and soy, dried vegetable flakes, and plain rice in 2 pound installments. Even the worst concoction served up by a 300 pound cafeteria lady with a beard would have been far more welcome a sight to the average hungry American. But not so for the much hungrier Haitians. The best eats they've seen in recent memory are dried up balls of clay and salt. For which they've been charged by whomever was lucky enough to have a monopoly on the edible clay industry. For them, this mixture added with water to make a mealy gruel, is a Godsend.

Somewhere between an overpriced meal at TGIFriday's that I was blessed to afford, and a late night snack to satisfy my sweet tooth, I got served up a healthy dose of perspective:

I'll never get it.Hearing about the plight of the Haitians made the situation real to me. Seeing the images made it more real. Preparing their meals made it even more real. Actually going to Haiti and experiencing the conditions firsthand would bring the reality home in a way I've never known before. But no matter what I hear, see, do, or where I go, I will never understand what it is to be impoverished. Despite my education on the Third World, I will continue to moan and groan over trivialities like the sound of my alarm, or having to do the occasional chore, or staying late at school. I will feel like my world is falling down over petty things like someone gossiping about me or tripping and falling in public. I will become engrossed in fear when my bank funds dip to a point where I probably won't be able to eat out or shop for enjoyment for a few weeks. Perhaps tragedies or devastation will one day make me genuinely thankful for the comfort in which I live. Until then, I'm only so capable of gratitude from my cushy, spinning office chair.
Perhaps there is something I can do, though, to instill gratitude in others. Every day I interact with individuals--children and adults alike--who have the gift of grumbling. Some of them, I will admit, have life situations which could warrant more complaining than my own: turbulent homes, unemployed parents, emotional challenges, etc. Some of them, I believe, have life situations which warrant nothing but counting blessings and exceeding joy. All of them, based on the trivialities they choose to lament for all to hear, are big complainers.
Just like I'll never truly understand the toils of the Haitians, I can't really put myself into the shoes of students and coworkers. But, I'm willing to bet none of them will go to sleep on an empty stomach tonight, in a deterioriating shack, on a cold, hard floor, their bodies ravished by typhoid and dysentery. And I want to remind them of that fact.
Recently, PBS aired an "Independent Lens" series called "Children of Haiti". It is film documenting first hand accounts of adolescence in the country following the earthquake. Today I began a short study with clips from the film in my Study Skills class.
Their classwork is your homework.
1) Make a list of everything worth complaining about to you right now. Don't be shy. Everyone, in their day, has an eye-roll/grumble/sigh-worthy moment. Some of us are more vocal about what peeves us than others. What's got your goat?
2) Watch the short clips from the film on (link above) reviewing your list as you do.
3) Compare your list of complaints to those of the Haitians. Reflect and allow the brevity of perspective to settle in. Chances are the words "lucky", "blessed", "fortunate", and/or "spoiled" will pop into your mind somewhere along the way.
Class dismissed.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


This past week I was delivered quite the blow when someone with whom I associate closely revealed a life philosophy that did not sit well with me at all.

Without going into too much detail, Person X voiced intentions to proceed with a personal situation in such a way to suggest X believes A) The occurrence of disabilities in the human race is something to lament B) People should not have to be born into this world with defects if it can be helped.

My first reaction when I caught wind of this person's intentions second hand was extreme defensiveness. The more I pondered the connotations of such a choice, the more saddened I became.

I don't wish to go on a rant to plead my case on the value of all life. But, let me make it clear that my stance on ethics, as well as the foundations of my faith, both plainly contradict X's view on Point B.

Jesus says, "Blessed be the meek for they shall inherit the earth." (Matthew 5:5)

Isaiah 11:4 says, "With righteousness he will judge the needy."

The scripture pertaining to the "humble" and "needy" says nothing of their unfortunate circumstances and the need to eliminate them from future generations. In fact, quite the opposite. Most scripture points to granting the utmost regards to these people--therefore putting extreme value on their livelihoods.

That being said, what concerned me more about the connotations of X's statement was Point A--Children and adults with disabilities are walking, breathing tragedies. They are chromosomal errors, neural malfunctions, physical deformations, helpless victims of terrible environments. They turn their parents' heads gray with worry and care. They require endless time, resources, and people just to function in the home, school and society. They will miss out on some or all of the rituals and rites of passage and landmarks of a normally developing individual. Their lives will ever reflect unanswered "What if's".

As a special education teacher, I acknowledge I have a skewed outlook on this population. I can concede the fact that disabilities are abnormalities in the science of human composition and/or exceptions to typical social development. I can also concede that my first experiences interacting with and working with people with moderate to severe disabilities were very uncomfortable situations, and that I have seen first hand the pain and frustration their disabilities cause those who love them and care for them every day. I certainly get my daily dose of challenges attempting to work with and mold these children, and there are certainly many days I entertain the thought of how much better this child's life (and my life--who are we kidding, really?) would be he didn't carry the burden of disability with him.

Perhaps it's my years of experience with these type of people that has allowed me to see the silver lining on the cloud, and even the blue sky peeking out behind it. But, that doesn't mean everyone else in the world is excused for their lack of understanding about the blessings people with disabilities are to the world.

There's no excuse for failing to see the way they remind us not to take life so seriously because some things--like getting through the grocery line as quickly as possible, or hitting all green lights on the commute to work--don't really matter in the end.

There's no excuse for failing to see how they add welcomed diversity and variety in a sea of people who rely so painfully on fitting in and being accepted, that they are actually happy with melting into a faceless sea of anonymity and apathy.

There's no excuse for failing to see how interacting with them can teach us patience, love, courage, determination, and many more virtues we yearn to attain.

"Wow, Miss T," you might be thinking. "You've just listed off a ton of ways other people benefit from the sufferings of that person. What about the exceptional person's happiness?"

Well, I can't say that I really have a good answer for why people with disabilities are allowed to suffer emotional and physical angst beyond the normal allotment for the rest of the world. I've certainly seen these individuals struggle with their limitations and mental tribulations, and it is certainly heartbreaking. But, I also find in them a courage and lust for life--the simple things--that I don't think "normal" people are even capable of. When I see the student with down syndrome in our school at the lunch table laughing wildly (some might even say "inappropriately") to herself, I wonder if she's in on a joke that none of us can be attuned to. When I marvel at the student with autism rattling off math facts at a superhuman rate in a corner all by himself, I wonder if the joy he is experiencing from escaping the rest of the world and entering his own provides him more joy than being surrounded with 100 friends. Perhaps these individuals are much more blessed than we can ever understand from our vantage points-- outside looking in.

Small victories. For anyone who seems incredulous about the prospect of teaching or caring for a person with disabilities, this is the basis for my response. While the rest of the world celebrates Olympians and geniuses and beauty queens, I celebrate a child finishing his homework by himself, greeting me at the door for the first time, or making a friend. And unlike the epic victories celebrated by the rest of the world every once in a blue moon, I experience mine every day--sometimes many times a day. I am so fortunate for this perspective only a select few will have in their lifetimes. I have to believe that parents or caretakers or even the people with the disabilities themselves, all have to resonate with this sentiment on some small level.

Small victories, Person X. Not sweating the small stuff, seeing the blessings, and lauding the humble and the needy, Person X. It's what life is really supposed to be made of. So, why not let it live?

Your homework for the night:

Who are some of the people with challenges--or--challenging people--you have in your life? Stop and see through the frustrations and pain to reflect on the blessings being in this person's life has granted you.

Class dismissed.

Friday, January 7, 2011


Edwin is one of the 6th graders on the top of my secret favorites list for the year. Some of that may have to do with the very limited amount of time I spend with him since he attends mostly mainstream classes and is monitored by my paraprofessional (God bless her).

Though he comes with an ED (Emotional Disorder) label stamped on his forehead, it's hard not to like the kid from the moment you see him. Under four feet tall with giant doe eyes, he is generally a very sweet child--considerate, reflective, and very intelligent. Upon first meeting him, you may find no traces of a behavioral issue.

Edwin also scores major points for the comical nature of his ADHD which, depending on whether he has taken his medication or not, determines who he will be for the day: Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. The code amongst adults to indicate it is a no-medication day is: "The Great Cornholio has arrived". I gave Edwin the moniker after observing the astounding resemblance between him and Beavis (of Beavis and Butthead fame) on a sugar high. When Edwin arrives at his school without ADHD meds in his system, he has been known to roll on the floor, sit in trash cans, ramble in Spanish, make inexplicable screeching noises, smart off to adults, and in true Cornholio style, put his shirt over his head. When the school is fortunate enough to have an extra supply of his medicine, we shove the pill down his throat, take him to an empty hallway to run off some energy for 30 minutes, and then watch in amazement as the maniacal Dr. Jekyll transforms back into the polite, civilized Mr. Hyde. I never believed in the true medical nature of ADHD until I met this boy.

Edwin has another more unpleasant side, however, which rears its ugly head from time-to-time. He harbors some anger and hostility towards adults because of environmental factors, and from time-to-time he makes the unwise decision to say things and act in a very disrespectful way. This first week back from the holidays suggests that something unknown is really eating at Edwin. Either that, or he's forgotten how to be a student. He's been yelling out in classes, refusing to do work, and smarting off to teachers when they consequent him.

And, still--perhaps because I'm a bit removed from the situation--it's hard not to like the kid. Yesterday he was kicked out of two consecutive classes by two different teachers. Today I got wind of the circumstances which landed him a seat in the hall. In Language Arts class, Edwin was being quite the pill--yelling out intermittently in a smart alec tone attempting to play the class clown and steal a few laughs from his peers. Ms. Andy, his L.A. teacher, was at the end of her fuse, so she addressed Edwin, saying:

"Edwin, if you speak out of turn one more time, you're going to get the boot."

I can just imagine Edwin's response with his high voice, slight lisp, and semblance of a Hispanic accent.

"What kind of boot? What size is it? It might be too big. I only wear a size 3."

When this smart remark earned him his ejection from the class, Edwin exited in true Ricky Ricardo style, firing off a rapid slew of indecipherable expletives in Spanish.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Death and Taxes

If someone were to ask me what was the one ability he or she would have to possess in order to be successful at my job it would not be any of the following: Patience (the commonly assumed requirement to handle such special little boys and girls), courage, determination, love (oh no, you have to work at that one ), knowledge, a commanding personality, or a little insanity (yeah, you can't be a completely normal person to want to do this to yourself 7 hours a day, 5 days a week).

The answer, at least as far as I'm concerned, is FLEXIBILITY. Definition: The ability to shrug, kick back your heels, and say "What the hey!" when half your class is absent, when the lesson plan you prepared meticulously for math blows to pieces, when a crisis prevents you from even teaching math, when you get kicked by an unwilling student during standardized testing, or when you are greeted with expletives. If any of these circumstances would easily blow your fuse, you're probably not going to last too long in the profession. On the other hand, if you are able to acknowledge that they occasionally add spice, variety, and even laughter to your life, you may be just the person for the job.

Though there are certain aspects of my life with which I have a hard time relinquishing control, I have to say that the flexibile nature I've acquired on the job has bled nicely into my personal life. Rather than cause conflict by asserting my personal desires over others', I concede and try to "go with the flow" when it's not worth the fight. It takes a lot of pressure off of me and I take joy in seeing others get their wishes met even if it's something as simple as a friend getting to pick the place we eat dinner.

Some circumstances, however, require a lot more flexibility and a lot less choice as to whether or not I'm going to practice it. The last part of 2010 truly brought my inborn teacher skills to the test.

In August, after a great reunion trip to the Bahamas with my best friend who has moved out of state, I decided I was going to visit her in Portland over winter break. Knowing that the December weather in Oregon is typically pretty cruddy, I thought I'd be short changing myself if I didn't throw some sunshine in there. Back in March, My Uncle Tim, from California, had been wonderful enough to come out to Chicago and surprise my mom for her 60th birthday, so I thought I would return the favor and take him up on his always-standing offer to go visit his family in San Diego while already on the left coast. I booked the trip for the second week of winter break and Uncle Tim, always the planner, jumped into action with an itinerary to maximize my experience.

Then, at the beginning of October, my family was blindsided with some staggering news. Uncle Tim was diagnosed with a massive frontal lobe brain tumor. The tumor was quickly removed but it had spread rapidly through his brain and, even with top-notch chemo, radiation, and infusion treatment, the prognosis was grim.

While the first few weeks were uncertain, Uncle Tim bounced back quickly from his surgery. With the love and support of family, friends, the congregation of his church (where he serves as worship pastor), and his hope in the Lord, he immediately assumed a rosey and determined outlook on the future. His first round of chemo was scheduled so that by the time I arrived in San Diego, it would be complete. And Uncle Tim--always the planner, always the determined host--declared that we would try to follow through with our plans (such as a trip to Palm Springs) as planned.

I was not quite as optimistic that things would pan out exactly as planned, but ever the flexible one, I resolved that I would be completely happy checking into my own hotel and sitting on the beach basking in some rays all by myself for 3 days.

The second unexpected came at the end of November. My Grandma had not been well mentally for some time now, but a sudden stroke shut her body down completely causing her to reject food or drink. She passed peacefully the day after Thanksgiving and her memorial service was held at the beginning of December. My Uncle Tim, determined to be at her services, flew straight from chemo treatment to see us all. He was tired, undoubtedly, and could only stay a short time before he had to return for his church services, but it was a blessing to see him an additional time in the month. He was smiling, good humored, and so full of energy that I believed perhaps we COULD manage to fulfill our previous plans made a lifetime ago.

Two weeks after that, a third tragedy struck. My Uncle Larry, who had suffered some years with a neural condition, had a seizure, stroke, and heart attack in quick succession, cutting off oxygen to his organs. He passed less than a week before Christmas and memorial services were planned for the week I was to fly out to the coast. There was no question my Uncle Tim was going to fly to Nashville from San Diego to be apart of the services, but that meant he was leaving the day I was coming in to his hometown.

New arrangements were made for me to stay the night and spend the first full day with my cousin, Tracy's, family. I would end up only staying one full day with Uncle Tim and Aunt Teddy. And that day would be dedicated to traveling to his infusion treatment. For the first time, my teacher's flexibility seemed to fail me because I was not feeling so "go with the flow". Things had changed so drastically from my expectations . I felt I was going to be a burden on Tracy and I feared I would just end up sitting around so much that I might as well have been doing it from the comfort of my own couch. Had I been a bit more selfish and inconsiderate I would have asserted that I was just going to stay out of everyone's way, get my hotel, and have some quiet alone time in order to make the most out of my Cali experience.

I didn't, though. I forced myself into the situation and played Miss Down for Whatever, and I found that my heart actually followed. Even when it downpoured relentlessly that the first whole day in San Diego, I made the best of relaxing time watching a movie and perusing books at Barnes & Noble. After all, it was my time of rest and I aimed to make the best of it.

There was still more unexpected to come, though. My aunt and uncle arrived from Nashville very late that second day, battling through unfavorable flying weather and delay after delay. On only a few hours sleep, they drove me to beautiful La Jolla where my uncle gets his infusion treatments. As I was given the grand tour of the cancer treatment facility my uncle has come to for months now--often on a daily basis--I couldn't help but think how bizarre it was that I spending a day of my vacation in a hospital. Still, I counted myself fortunate to be apart of this experience and thought I'd make the best of the 2 hour waiting process time by touring the grounds in the awesome sunshine. When my aunt and I returned to the infusion room from a run to the cafeteria to check on Uncle Tim, however, we were stunned by the news that someone had carelessly dropped the vial that held the chemical treatment my uncle was supposed to receive. So, that was that. An hour trip designated for this day a complete waste, the infusion schedule completely thrown off because of the long mixing process required to make the cocktail. Though clearly unhappy with this misfortune, my uncle handled it with astounding grace, leaving all the nurses with smiles and "Happy New Years". We continued on to the coast for a delicious lunch and walk along the beach as planned.

During the drive home I had some time to reflect and began to truly grasp how chaotic life had been for me and loved ones around me these past few months. "Not one more thing," I thought to myself. "We couldn't handle one more unexpected and unfortunate thing." But I knew in my heart this was just the weakminded mere human part speaking from me. In my heart I know that it is equally as likely that one of my lesson plans tomorrow will go awry or I will receive more surprising/staggering news about someone in my personal life. So, why do I deny the probability of the latter? My inflexibility is only setting me up for heartbreak, panic, self-pity, and frustration.

This brings to mind the sweet reassurance uttered to Laura Linney's character by her new lover in my favorite movie, "Love Actually", when their romantic night is interrupted by her mentally ill brother: "Life is full of interruptions and complications."

That it is. So what is it in me--this spoiled, middle class, incredibly blessed American girl--that makes me believe that I should be immune to trials and troubles? The fact is that my earthly life offers me no guarantees. Just as I may easily face the fact that one of my students will completely refuse to do the work I have planned, I should be able to face the fact my house may burn down, another tragedy will strike the family, or I will lose my job.

Sort of morbid, isn't it? Well, it's reality. But, you see, hard reality is incredibly cushioned by some guarantees not of my earthly life which I can rely on just as solidly as death and taxes. Living through loss after loss lately--as painful as it was, I couldn't begin to imagine the excruciation of the experience if my family didn't all rest in the one Promise this world can never guarantee. For us, death would be final, and therefore all pain and suffering during life a miserable waste. No amount of practicing the mantra of "C'est la vie" could extinguish the impending sense of doom if we didn't know there was something more.

So, I'm walking into tomorrow with a new willingness for flexibility. "What the hey" if class doesn't go as planned (usually never does on the first day back from Christmas Break) and "what the hey" if my material world falls down around me. I've got a 100% chance on ultimate joy. Life's customer service guaranteed.

Your homework for today. Reflect on the following:

1. What are areas of your life you could stand to be a bit more flexible? Your daily routine? Your say in matters of the home? What things are just not worth holding the reigns on that you could defer to others?

2. Complete this sentence. "If I lost my job tomorrow, came home to find my house burned down, and learned that someone I loved deeply had passed away, at least I would know...."

Class dismissed.