Friday, May 30, 2014

I've Hit a Brick Wall

"Keep writing. You're doing a great job." 
"I love reading your blog."
"You said exactly what I was thinking."

All of these are comments that I have gotten from readers over the past three months of my blogging journey. I love the encouragement and definitely appreciate all who take the time to read, comment and share.

I am, for the first time, experiencing writer's block. I can't think of anything to write that would be something that I think people would want to read. My blog has no focus. I intended the focus to be about my journey into retirement, but how exciting is that? Maybe as I get closer to the actual date, I'll have more to say about that topic. I have a full 365 days until then, so what do I write about in the meantime?

A fellow blogger suggested that I write stories about my classroom experiences since I have 34 years of them. That would be easy to write about, and let me tell you, I do have some stories. One problem I have is my fading memory, but I can go through all of my old yearbooks to refresh my mind's eye. All of my former students don't need to worry that I'll write about you and your antics: I'll change the names to protect the guilty.

My husband suggested that I write about my family, especially our Southern ways. My family is like most families -- dysfuntional to the max. I used to try to hide our dysfuntion from the rest of the world until I realized that everybody has that little bit of freaky Southern Gothic in him/her. My family isn't that unique, but we do have some tales that probably should be told in order to help the others like us realize they are not alone.

With summer break beginning next week, I should have more time to put into writing. I'm looking forward to it and hope that I can write some posts that people will want to read. My ego suffers when I work on a post, editing and re-editing, find appealing pictures or video clips, and then the post is read by 50 people. I realize that I have a long way to go in finding my audience and getting my name out there via social media. It's a challenge, for sure, but one that I'm excited about taking on.

I have a few ideas I'm working on, but a couple of them need more time than I have right now. I would love suggestions/ideas. 

So, to leave you with some humor, here's one of my favorite comic strips, Agnes. If you have never read her, she's a little girl who has quite a unique view of the world. She lives with her very patient grandmother who attempts to teach Agnes correct behavior, but sometimes all the grandmother can do is shake her head. I apologize for the somewhat unclear images and hope that you can read them.

Agnes also has a best friend named Trout who sticks around even when she knows Agnes is headed down the path of no return.

Have a great weekend!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Honoring the Ultimate Sacrifice

I do not know the dignity of their birth, but I do know the glory of their death. They died unquestioning, uncomplaining, with faith in their hearts, and on their lips the hope that we would go on to victory. Always for them: Duty, Honor, Country. Always their blood, and sweat, and tears, as they saw the way and the light. -- General Douglas MacArthur

Today, I took my son and granddaughter to visit two war memorials in Tallahassee, Florida.

The first one was the Korean War Memorial. 

The Korean War Memorial in Tallahassee, Florida

Cloee and Drew at the Korean War Memorial in Tallahassee, FL.

The Korean War happened before I was born, but this war is special to me because my stepfather, Jerry Capps, fought in Korea. If you knew Jerry, you'd find it hard to believe that he has ever been anywhere outside of Perote, Alabama. I don't think he wanted to go to Korea, but he went anyway and did his part. As a matter of fact, he did more than his part by rescuing his platoon which was surrounded by the enemy. In 1999, he received the Bronze Star he earned in 1951. 

Jerry in Korea 1951

Jerry hated being in Korea. Today, even with advanced dementia, Jerry will say aloud, "Thank you, God, that I'm not in Korea anymore."

The second memorial we visited today was the Vietnam War Memorial.

Even though this war was during my lifetime, I was too young to know much about it. However, I have learned a great deal about this war from my husband who served three tours in Vietnam. 

Today, we still see the effects of this war. When they returned from Vietnam, the veterans were disregarded by the country that told them to fight. Today, homeless veterans number between 130,000 to 200,000. Of these, 47% are Vietnam veterans. A VA counselor once told me that the type of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that Vietnam veterans have is quite different from other veterans. She said they suffer from not only the effects of what they witnessed during the conflict but also from not feeling any worth when they returned home. 

Our government and the Veterans Administration totally missed the mark when it came to Vietnam veterans. The VA talks of not repeating these mistakes with the veterans returning from war today; however, the organization is still has many problems. Recently, the VA has been in the news for making veterans wait extraordinarily long periods of time for health care -- care that in some cases means life or death. After returning from Iraq, former Army Sgt. Vannessa Turner told  ABCNEWS, "Once you come back to be a veteran, it's like a black hole, you know -- nothing." Personally, I know veterans who have had to wait as much as six months for a medical appointment. The VA has poured more money into the appearance of excellent health care, but the problems are still there.

I took my son and granddaughter to see these memorials today to teach them the important sacrifice people make for this country.

The people who paid the ultimate price are remembered by us all on this national Memorial Day. They are remembered by the ones who loved them every day. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


As a kid, I loved buying a Coke and looking to see the name of the city where the product was bottled. My friends and I played a game to see whose bottle was from the city farthest away. There was no prize other than just being named winner.

There were other fun prize-filled products I liked as a child. Cracker Jacks had that prize package that kept getting smaller and cheaper. Bazooka bubblegum had the comic strip inside the wrapper. I wasn't such a fan of the gum because the flavor went away too quickly. Maybe the company thought the comic made up for the lack of long-lasting flavor.

Today's product packaging has much more for a person to look at than the old Coke bottles did. There are nutrition labels, bright text, and colorful pictures. On lots of products, the company has enticed the purchaser by being motivational or funny or both.

The outside of the products don't intrigue me as much as some of the hidden messages on the inside. In the last week, I consumed several of these products. 

1.  Snapple, owned by Dr. Pepper, isn't my first choice for bottled tea, but it's ok. It must be someone's first choice because there are many varieties of Snapple on the grocery shelves. Under each lid of a Snapple bottle is a Real Fact. These facts are both funny and/or educational. You can check out all of the Real Facts on their website so you don't have to consume a large amount of tea to read them. Here's the link: Snapple Real Facts

2.  Sweet Leaf Tea, owned by Nestle, also has a message under each lid, but the "Granny-isms" are more motivational than factual. I actually like the taste of this tea better than all others I've tried. Their kind messages always speak the truth. Just check out the tops on the right.

3. Dove chocolates -- delicious and inspiring. I mean I get almost as good a feeling from the messages as I do from eating the chocolate. Almost. Maybe.

4. Taco Bell sauce packages -- These definitely make me chuckle. Who would have thought that putting funny messages on a sauce package could work? I guess the same people who thought of a talking chihuahua.
5.  Firecracker pop-sicles are my favorite! A blend of three different flavors on one stick was created by a genius. Along with all the refreshing goodness, on every stick is a riddle  whose answer is guaranteed to stump a child as well as many adults.

Product merchandisers have been using these messages, jokes, prizes, or riddles for a long time so the tactic must work. Does any of this make me buy the product over another one? No. Actually, I am old enough that I am not often swayed by advertising/marketing ploys. These package prizes/messages are just a few of the messages to make products fun and likable. 

Do you know of others?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

You're Not Special

For some time, I have considered writing a post about graduation since I'm watching yet another group of young people pass on to college, military, or the work force. I didn't want to write the ordinary "head into the world and do your best" kind of post. 

Yesterday, my husband asked me to listen to an interview on NPR with David McCullough, Jr., son of the famous author of 1776 and John Adams. McCullough, Jr.,a high school English teacher at Wellesley High School in Boston, was asked to deliver the commencement address to the Class of 2012. His speech, which he said he wrote the morning of the commencement, informed the graduates that they are not special. Actually, he tells them that nine times throughout the speech, driving home the point. 

At one point in his oration, he explains his view: "You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.  If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless [...]  we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  We have come to see them as the point - and we're happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that's the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece."

Hearing this speech, I immediately thought of what we teachers say all the time: many of the kids we teach today have a sense of entitlement, like they deserve more without having to work for it. We see parents who aren't satisfied with the C his child earned in a challenging, upper-level English class because his kid has previously made A's in English. Therefore, it must be the teacher's fault. Also there are the athletes who have been told since T-ball days that they are special because they can hit a ball. Consequently, they are above working hard in academics.

I hate to use the old "when I was coming up" line, but I don't remember children feeling so entitled. I saw how hard my parents worked to send me to school, and I appreciated it. I didn't expect to be given anything, especially a grade by a teacher. I think the difference is that today, parents who work feel that they have to make up to the child for not being at home all the time. Or maybe they are working so they can give the child more. Whichever reason, these parents are creating their own monsters.  

I know that the problem of youth isn't a new one. In fact, Socrates said, “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

Fortunately, not all children are this way. I have taught kids who may not be the smartest but have such a strong work ethic that I know they will accomplish great things. I also have taught lots who are super smart and will set the world on fire. I still have hope for the youth of today. Every year, I see people eager to help others by giving of themselves. These are the ones who will make an impact in the world, not to impress anyone but to know themselves that they accomplished something or helped someone. They will also be the ones paying my Social Security. 

Toward the end of his speech, McCullough makes some excellent points to encourage the students to grasp all they can out of life. "Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands," he says. "Rather than You Only Live Once, it should be You Live Only Once… but because YLOO doesn't have the same ring, we shrug and decide it doesn't matter."

He continues his encouragement by telling them to "Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view.  Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.  Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly.  Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion-and those who will follow them.  And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.  The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you're not special. Because everyone is."

You can watch the speech or read the transcript here: McCullough's Commencement Speech

And to end with a bit of humor, consider this statement from a commencement address by President George W. Bush: "To those of you who received honors, awards and distinctions, I say well done. And to the C students, I say you too may one day be president of the United States."

Thursday, May 15, 2014

From the Heart

"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."  -- famous sportswriter Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith

When I was 25, I started graduate school at Florida State University (Go Noles!) in Panama City, FL. The university had recently opened a branch campus and was attempting to build enrollment, so they offered a graduate program in English Education. They made it easy to get in -- no GRE and a 3.0 GPA from your former university. Even with the simple requirements, I must admit that I did not want to go back to school. I had been out of college only three years and was pregnant with my first child. School was not on my mind. 

After much encouragement, however, I signed up. Because this was a new program, the classes were really small and most of the classes were made up of the same people. We all knew each other because we were all English teachers at various schools in the county.

I was still a relatively new teacher and many of my fellow classmates were more established (I don't want to say older). I was more than a little intimidated by them because they had so much experience and knowledge. They intelligently discussed points in class and had a firm grasp on what was going on in education at the time. Me? I was more concerned with how I was going to pay for childcare and buy diapers. 

In one of my education classes, Dr. H. assigned an essay to the class. I can't remember the topic or what I wrote, but I can certainly remember his remarks. In our small, intimate class of 12 of my colleagues, he held up my paper as an example of what not to do. He did not try to make the writer anonymous to spare feelings. He even asked for discussion after he finished tearing apart my paper. 

After class, I couldn't get out of that classroom fast enough. I cried all the way home and cursed Dr. H. for everything he was worth. At the end of the semester, I couldn't tell you a thing I learned from Dr. H about philosophies in education or whatever the class was about. All I learned from him was how not to treat students and their writing. 

In a few weeks, I will complete my 34th year teaching English. During that time, I can't begin to count the essays -- research, narrative, personal, descriptive, etc. -- that I have read. With each one, I always make at least one positive comment because writing is such a personal and risky venture. Although a student's writing might not be up to par, it's still his writing, a definite part of himself. Therefore, a kind word is necessary to build confidence. Also, along with my kind words, I mark every misspelled word and comma misuse, but I also suggest ways to improve, or I ask questions that will make the writer think about what he's written. 

Every school year, I tell my students about my experience with Dr. H. and assure them that I will never embarrass or wound them with my comments. Sometimes I get really frustrated with my students for making the same mistakes over and over, for not taking advantage of editing opportunities, or for just being plain lazy. Sometimes I want to make nasty comments on their papers. Sometimes I want to bring out the stamps I have that read "I haven't got time to read this CRAP" or "Complete and utter BS," but I don't. I remember Dr. H and the very important lesson he taught me. 

I edit from the heart and hope that I have inspired people to keep writing long after they leave my classroom.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Yearbook -- A Tangible Memory

Today, I'm passing out the school yearbook to the students. In my 34 years of teaching, I have been the yearbook sponsor for 33 years.

My first yearbook in 1982 compared to my last book in 2014. 
It was - and I guess it still is - expected that the beginning teachers sponsor a club or coach a sport. Taking over a club is the way the new guy shows he can handle even more than the rigors of lesson planning, grading, and parent conferences. Just another feather in the cap, as they say. Sometimes it gives a teacher a little bargaining power, especially if he sponsors something no one else wants, like yearbook. :-)

Most of the time, the beginning teacher keeps the club until he gets continuing contract (tenure) and then passes it on to another new teacher. Many times I wondered why I never passed the yearbook to someone else. I have complained a great deal about the extra work, the coaches who don't give me information about their sports, the parents for a variety of reasons, pictures that weren't developed properly (remember film?), etc.

However, being the yearbook sponsor allowed me to get to know a great number of wonderful students differently from just having them in a regular class. We have worked weekends, holidays, and late afternoons after school to meet deadlines. It's easy to get to know people when you are working toward the same goal. All of these students still remember the hard work they put into their book. It's really quite rewarding.

The yearbook is also something tangible that shows that I actually accomplished something that year. There have been some bad years that the book is the only way I can show that I made an impact.
I am not a journalist; I'm more of a producer. I don't enter contests where the yearbook is judged. My pride is that the book is always on time, is paid for, and is usually liked by the majority of the students. So far this year, there haven't been any complaints; however, it's only the first day. They will go home, pour over it, and find every misspelled name and wrong date. Where were they when I needed editors? 

My faculty picture in my first yearbook.

To end on a funny note, here's a picture of a teacher who wore the same outfit in his yearbook photo for 40 years. He was a great planner!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Mother's Day

Mother's Day -- a time when all mothers should be treated like the queens we are. I have been a mother for 30 years and always enjoyed receiving the plaster casts of hands, the flower planted so carefully in a cup, or the poem written by my child. As my children got older, I laughingly told them that the best way to honor a mother is to give her a day of solitude. 

Twenty-seven years ago, I was looking forward to celebrating Mother's Day. My son was 3, and I was pregnant with my second child. I didn't know much about this child in my womb; back then, there weren't 3D ultrasounds. The due date was around May 1st, so I spent my days busily preparing for my next child.

Early in the morning of May 6, I went into labor. I had planned everything and was ready, but as usual, life didn’t go as planned. The doctor detected problems and performed an emergency C-section. Next, the pediatrician and my husband came into the operating room to tell me that my new son had clubbed feet. The pediatrician wasn't worried because she said the feet could be corrected. Finally, almost as an afterthought, she said, "Your son also has Down syndrome."

"No," I thought. "You are wrong. I'm only 29. This doesn't happen to young women, only to women over 40." 

I stayed in the hospital five days, and every one of them was horrible. I took as much pain medication as they allowed so I could avoid dealing with this situation. When I went to the nursery to get my son, I looked longingly at all of the other babies. All of my plans for my son were gone. I didn’t know if I could handle any of this.

Growing up in a small town in the South, I had never been around many people with a disability. There was no inclusion at my small, segregated private school. The only special day school was over 45 miles away. When I was growing up, many parents did not take their children with Down syndrome home from the hospital.

I brought my son home on Mother's Day. My husband tried to make it a joyous time, buying me a World's Best Mom t-shirt. But the disappointment I felt was all-consuming. I was grieving the child I had lost, the one who would not play sports and would not be handsome, smart, or healthy.

The next week, I threw myself into learning all I could about Down syndrome. I learned about early intervention, and my son actually started speech and physical therapies at two weeks old. I became the authority, and as a teacher, I felt that my new mission was to educate people about this birth defect. 

Over the past 27 years, I have been proven wrong about what I thought I knew about Down syndrome. First, this genetic abnormality occurs to women of all ages. Down syndrome is one of the most common genetic birth defects. About 1 in 700 (or 6,000) babies are born with Down syndrome each year in the United States. 

There are many other facts I learned along the way, but the most important is that there are no limits for my son. He is an active athlete, having won many gold medals in various events in Special Olympics. He is super handsome and is one of the most popular people I know. If you want someone to "like" your Facebook status, post his picture. He is also super smart, maybe not academically, but he has a job. Actually, at one point, he was the only adult child of all of my children and stepchildren who had a job. He's also been blessed with excellent health.

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. Tomorrow, I’ll remember that day 27 years ago, but I won’t dwell on it. Tomorrow my son comes home from being at camp for the past four days, and I can’t wait to see him. Tomorrow begins a new year of watching him accomplish so much more than I ever thought possible. 

Happy Mother’s Day to all!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Did We Fail Again?

Last night, one of the main segments on CBS Evening News was "Nation's High School Seniors Lagging in Reading/Math." The online article states, "America's high school seniors got a report card Wednesday that no parent wants to see. The Department of Education found, nationwide, only 26 percent are proficient in math and 38 percent are proficient in reading." 

This data is from the Nation's Report Card which informs us every four years about the academic achievement (or lack of achievement) of 12th grade students in the US. The information, supplied by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), is from the 2013 seniors in several states. 

Once again, my teacher ego took a plunge, thinking that this is just one more time teachers will be blamed for poor test scores. On closer inspection, however, I found that the percentages reported, although not great, were relatively unchanged from 2009. So we aren’t worse, but we aren’t better either. It's like settling for a C average.

I have a hate/hate relationship with standardized tests. I hate taking them, and I hate giving them. In my opinion, these tests are the least expensive way to find out who fits in the "normal" category or who is best at taking tests. My complaints about these tests are many, but I'm sure you have heard them: they don't test the whole child, they don't account for outside factors, they force teachers to teach the test, and on and on. 

I'm not going to rant about standardized testing; it won't do any good. Those-who-know-more-than-I have ruled that these tests are the best way to measure whatever those-who-know-more-than-I are looking for.

I remember during one faculty meeting, the teachers were given sample questions from the state assessment test. I took one look at the math questions and knew I was doomed -- all those letters and numbers mixed up with math symbols. I teach English because I can't do math. However, the reading test was just as difficult to me. The reading passages were from a science textbook about some topic I didn't care to learn. Several questions called for the best answer to a question. Isn't the best answer the right answer? Why didn't they simply say the right answer? Is my best answer your best answer? My anxiety level was sky high. If I felt this way for a pretend test, I could only imagine what 17-year-old kids must think.

You can see how well you can do on these practice items on the NAEP test: 
Practice Math and Reading Test Questions

Please let me know your results -- advanced, proficient, or basic.

Tomorrow the state assessment scores for re-takers (that's juniors and seniors who have failed it before) will be divulged. I have a couple of these seniors who are hoping to graduate in three weeks. I received an email giving suggested ways to handle this delicate situation for those who fail. 

I wish that one of those-who-know-more-than-I could be in my classroom tomorrow to witness the reactions of these kids I care about. I hope there are no tears.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

May -- Mental Health Awareness Month

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. 

I am astounded at the number of people affected by mental illness – nearly 60 million people in the United States alone. Whether it’s Bipolar Disorder, Depression, PTSD, Schizophrenia, Borderline Personality Disorder, Eating Disorders, OCD, or any other mental illness, it seems that everybody has something – either as the person who suffers from the illness or as the people who support him or her.

A few years ago, I was searching for help dealing with family/friends/students with mental illness. I heard about a program through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) called Family-to-Family. It’s a 12-week program focusing on education about various mental illnesses, so it’s not a typical support group. However, participants develop relationships with others who share similar situations. The program is taught by former participants who have been through extensive training. The leaders of my group, both mothers of sons with schizophrenia, were so professional and knew how to keep the discussions from straying too far from the curriculum.

In addition to building relationships and acquiring education, I also learned about activities, events and programs in my community for all involved. One other plus about this program is that it is free. I did have to pay a small materials fee, but nothing compared to what counseling would have cost.

Unfortunately, not every city has a Family-to-Family group, but NAMI is available to all. You can find it at

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Sometimes Life Just Sucks

I am an enabler. I am co-dependent. I have always wanted to make everyone happy and make people laugh. But sometimes, no matter how positive I try to be, I have to just cry. Grief and sorrow overcome me. This week has been one of those times.

Addiction sucks.  If you know an addict, you know what I mean. Addiction tears families apart, destroys property, kills without discrimination, and just makes everyone involved miserable. I think the worst part of a person who has to deal with an addict is the disappointment we feel when he relapses after being clean and swearing he will never do it again. We feel like a fool because we have that little bit of hope that maybe this time he'll succeed. Maybe, since he's already lost his family, his job, his vehicle, his self-respect, he'll make it this time.

It took me years to learn that I can't love someone enough to make him stop. When I realized that, I believe part of the joy in my life died. I hardened my heart so that I wouldn't be hurt again. I became more cynical as a way to defend myself from being hurt and disappointed. I know that the addict has to do it for himself. Sometimes I relapse into trying to analyze why he thinks this way or why he doesn't do the right thing. For the addict and the co-dependent, Albert Einstein's definition of insanity is the only explanation of this behavior.

This week, I had to tell a child that her mother is in jail again because of drugs. That, my friend, is maximum disappointment.

Cancer sucks. It's something I would not wish to happen to my worst enemy. That word strikes fear in me because I have seen the suffering it caused people I loved. My dad endured several surgeries and many years of chemo for colon cancer before his death. My sister-in-law died at 48 due to ovarian cancer. I have seen friends fight a brave battle and then succumb to this terrifying disease.

Three years ago, one of my single friends set out to adopt a child who was in foster care. She went through all of the steps, met the perfect little boy who needed a mother, worked with him as a mentor for a year, and fell in love with him. She took him into her home and finalized the adoption last November. This week, my friend found out that her son has bone cancer. This kid was in foster care since he was 6. He's now 13.

I know all the positive mantras to repeat to try to make sense of these wretched events. I know the Serenity Prayer and I've read When Bad Things Happen to Good People as well as Co-dependent No More. I’ve been to AlAnon and prayed a zillion prayers. I learned long ago not to ask why me? but instead to ask why not me? I don’t blame God for these events but examine what I am supposed to learn from them.

What I learned this week, as I have learned many times before, is that sometimes life just sucks. It’s not fair, but like I tell my students, “Fair is where you get cotton candy.”

Here’s hoping for a better week to come.