Bright Spots

The universe is filled with mystery — with things I will most likely never understand. Here’s one example we’ve all seen play out in the world: Sometimes good things happen to bad people, and sometimes bad things happen to good people. This sounds like a trite expression, but it’s one I’ve found to be true. You see, when my daughter Ally was diagnosed with glioblastoma, I didn’t blame God, even though that is a reasonable reaction. Instead, I attributed her illness to the randomness of the universe. Or maybe, to be a bit more coarse, I just understood that “shit happens.” Even the kindest of humans get cancer. Even the most loving people die much too young.

That being said, sometimes in the midst of a really difficult situation, a person is able to find some bright spots — small blessings that were gleaned from said horrible event — small gifts from the universe. This is true of my daughter’s illness and death. I know that losing Ally is the worst thing I’ll ever have to go through, but at the same time, I’ve met some amazing people through our family’s horrific journey.

I remember walking into the KU Cancer Clinic the first day Ally had radiation. It was a horrible day. I tried to be optimistic and stay strong for Ally. Her dad had to leave the room. And Ally — my amazingly tough girl — remained steadfast and strong. Afterwards, as we were leaving, we were stopped at a check out desk. The lady behind the desk handed Ally an envelope containing a dollar bill. You see, a donor whose wife had struggled with cancer noticed the number of kids who were fighting this disease too. This pained him. He decided to donate money so that each child received a dollar each time they came for radiation. He wanted to provide encouragement and hope. I don’t know this man. I’ll probably never meet him. But I admire him and his kindness. I feel like his seemingly small act is something that will impact me forever. I want to dole out acts of kindness like this anonymous donor did.

After Ally died, I’ve been able to connect with several other mothers who, like me, lost a child. I know that this connection probably sounds sad and maybe even morbid. But I feel like we’re all in the same club — the club that no parent wants to be in. If we must endure this loss, we may as well survive it together.

This summer, I was invited to speak at a children’s hospice inservice along with several other parents. We were talking to hospice nurses (angels on Earth) about our experiences during our child’s illness and death. It was a hard, but important thing to do. My words could potentially bring change to a program that will impact mothers just like me. My social worker friend Karen accompanied me so I didn’t have to do this alone. I listened to other stories, similar to my own, and I spoke about my beloved Ally, her life, and her time in hospice care. This event, even though challenging, was also cathartic. Afterwards, a mom asked if she could give me a hug. We hugged tightly, and without words, we shared a poignant connection. I will not forget this mother, even if I never physically see her again. I will not forget her daughter, even though I never knew her.

Recently, I met another mother who had lost a child. This is a new co-worker who I predict will also be a new friend. This woman overheard me talking to another parent about how I’m holding up. A day later, my co-worker came to me and asked if I had lost a child. She then said that she had lost her sweet son nearly 25 years ago and asked if I’d like to get together and talk.

This week, we met at a coffee shop. I’ve only known this woman for two months, and it feels like it’s been a lifetime. We have shared experiences — trauma, grief, mom guilt, and finding joy despite our circumstances. Again, it probably sounds weird to befriend another bereaved mother, but to me, these friendships feel like a small gift from the universe. There is another mother who feels what I feel and stands in solidarity with me through my pain.

I am certain that my daughter’s life and death have changed me. I’m not the person I was before she was born, and I’m not the person I was before her cancer diagnosis. But in some ways, I’m better. Stronger. More loving. More joyful. I understand the value of the small but significant gifts the universe has offered up to me, and I am grateful…for the small things, for friendships, for the short but significant life of my daughter.

Family Matters

It was 8:15 on a Tuesday night, and I’m leaving dinner with a friend. I noticed that I missed a call from my dad. My parents are at the age where I’m both grateful for getting to talk to them regularly and worried when I get a call. So as I drove home, I called my dad back to see what was up.

After answering, Dad switched over to the speaker phone so I could talk to them both, and we started talking about our day. Then, like many nights, our conversation reverted back to Ally — my sweet daughter who died in 2020. We talked about losing Ally, but we also discussed the world, grief, age, and how sometimes life doesn’t turn out as we hoped. It could be the cocktail I just had with my girlfriend or maybe just the wisdom of growing older, but I felt acutely aware that our relationship is rare – that not everyone can say anything to their parents. That night, I felt especially grateful. I know I am lucky to still have both parents, and I’m lucky to have parents who love me unconditionally. More than that, as I was hanging up, I could hear love and pride in both of my parents’ voices. Even though I’m a grown woman, it still gives me joy to make my parents proud.

Readers, I’m sure you’d all agree that family is not always easy. I love my family to death, and sometimes they (still) drive me crazy. As a teenager, I felt like we were fairly dysfunctional. And yet as I’ve grown up, I’ve seen some truly dysfunctional families. I know now that mine is only moderately dysfunctional. (Kidding/not kidding!) I feel badly that when I was growing up, I had this inner voice telling me that my family was “wrong.” We didn’t have enough money. We didn’t have the right clothes. We didn’t do the right things. For instance, my Dad wore mismatched running attire when we jogged together — often by a “cool” friend’s house. Thirteen year old Crysta was mortified. You know what 50 year old Crysta would say to these notions? Bullshit. That’s right. I call bullshit on my adolescent views on life. I was young and dumb; I know better now.

I’ve mentioned my parents, but I should also talk about my sister. She drove me crazy growing up. I remember liking a boy in 6th grade, and as we were walking home from school, she went out of her way to embarrass me. I was again mortified. Now I know that she was just trying to spend time with me. I remember our neighbor punching her in the stomach, while I, in a near stupor, did nothing. This is one of my childhood regrets — that I did not defend my sister. If I could redo this moment in time, I would. And recently, I learned that my sister punched one of her friends for badmouthing me back when I was in high school. Jaime, I promise to fight back if “she who shall not be named” holds your arms again so her sister can use you as a punching bag.

My sister and I have had some horrendous emotional and physical fights, as most siblings do. We used to share an apartment, and you can guess how disastrous that was. (Don’t worry Jaime. I won’t share all of your dark secrets here!) But after time passed, we both had families, life went on, and we got past these adolescent spats. At the end of the day, I know she has my back and I have hers. I’m pretty sure I was the first person to know about my sister’s impending divorce and the reason behind it. And even though I have an amazing tribe of friends, I called my sister to be with me when my daughter was dying. Sisters. The most interesting love/hate/mutual admiration/I’ve got your back relationship on the planet.

My parents raised my sister and me to be strong and independent women. They wanted us to have our own opinions, and boy did we. That is one thing that hasn’t changed through the years. I’m sure they didn’t enjoy all of our arguing and debating as kids, but as adults, one of our favorite things to do together is to sit at the dinner table and discuss relevant topics. All of us chime in. And as I tell my friends who know what a talker I am, I am actually the 3rd quietest in my family. I almost have to raise my hand to get a word in. I understand now that not all families communicate like ours does — for better or for worse.

On a good night, my dad will get out a napkin and doodle his view of the world. I know someday I will miss his napkin missives. And my mom, well, as a kid she’s always put a note in my lunch when I’d go on field trips. That used to embarrass me; now, I’d love to have saved one of her notes. I know now what I believe no kid understands when they are young — how devoted and hard-working my parents are and were.

When I was in college, my sister and my dad used to create crazy scenarios just to come for a quick visit. Jaime had to “borrow an outfit for school.” Or Dad was just “driving through town” and thought he’d stop by. During my first years of teaching, on the days I felt dejected and ineffective, my mom would come to my apartment and either sit with me or drag me out of the house to get a Sonic drink. I guess what I’m trying to say is that my parents, like my sister, have always supported me. That doesn’t change with age or with distance or differing opinions. For that, I am eternally grateful.

As an adult, I understand that my parents may not like my choices, but they will support me even if they disagree. I know there’s nothing I could say to my parents that would make them turn me away. I can let down my guard around my mom and dad, and even on my worst days, they will still love me. Best yet, my parents don’t just love me; I think they legitimately like the Crysta that I’ve grown into. Good thing I’ve matured because sixteen year old Crysta was a pain in the ass. They must have worked hard to tolerate her.

I am going to end with a quote from Erma Bombeck, which pretty much sums up my upbringing from my parents’ point of view:

“Someday, when my children are old enough to understand the logic that motivates a mother, I’ll tell them: I loved you enough to bug you about where you were going, with whom and what time you would get home. … I loved you enough to be silent and let you discover your friend was a creep. I loved you enough to make you return a Milky Way with a bite out of it to a drugstore and confess, ‘I stole this.’ … But most of all I loved you enough to say no when you hated me for it. That was the hardest part of all.”

The Hope of a New School Year

If you’re a teacher or you know someone who teaches, you know that Covid has multiplied the daily challenges for educators across the globe. In 2020, during our complete shutdown, we experienced a difficult 4th quarter. During this time, we tried to provide classes over Zoom, maintain rapport with our students, and create educational opportunities via the internet. We teachers had not yet lived through a global pandemic, so we were ding the best we could to service our students and keep our own families afloat. Then in the fall of 2020, at least in the elementary school I teach in, we were back at school with very rigid (but in my opinion, important) Covid safety guidelines. We masked; we spaced out; we ate lunch in our classrooms. And though it was hard, we were happy to be back and in person with kids.

Still, teaching in a mask is tough. Kids can’t see your facial expressions, and you can’t project your voice. Keeping kids socially distanced is nearly impossible. For me, a specialist teacher who teaches both library and computer classes, I had to become mobile. I packed my materials (and library books) on a cart, and I pushed into classrooms to teach. My schedule was grueling, as even my principal noted when she subbed a day for me. Homeroom teachers had to move to another room for lesson planning since specials were in their classrooms. Students ate lunch in their classrooms, again booting teachers out of their sacred space, and teachers had to space out during lunch or eat alone. Yes, the 20-21 school year was challenging, yet we were grateful to be back in the building with our students.

Fast forward to the 21-22 school year.  Covid regulations loosened.  Specialists could be back in their classrooms.  Mid-year, masks became optional in my school district, and school was a semblance of normal…finally. However, talk to any teacher in any district, and he or she would say that last year was the toughest year of teaching ever.  This was my experience, yet I don’t really know why.  I suspect, however, that because teachers had been isolated from one another due to workloads and spacing guidelines, we temporarily lost our ability to work together.  We forgot the power of collaboration.

All last year, I felt a plunge in teacher morale, myself included.  Teachers were tired.  As we were working hard to serve our students, some parents decided that we were “indoctrinating” their children and then caused drama via social media and at board meetings.  (Note:  If I were going to indoctrinate my students, the lesson would be to listen quietly and sit still — not any kind of political ideal.)  In the midst of  this challenging period in teaching, many of our Kansas state legislators turned against teachers as well.  Policies were introduced that would add more work to teachers’ already enormous loads or make the daily routine of teaching more laborious.  21-22 felt overwhelming, deflating, and almost untenable.  As the year ended, many teachers retired earlier than planned, and many teachers left the profession altogether.  

I love teaching — even on the hardest days. After all, I have wanted to be a teacher since I was a 4th grader at Robinson Elementary. During the 21-22 school year, I updated my resume and LinkedIn profile and looked for jobs outside of education. I also considered switching positions, schools, and even districts. But then I decided to stay put, and today I’m completely at peace with this decision. Here are four reasons why.

  1. To start with, I’ve always felt grateful to be at my current school.   I pull into town each morning, cross the railroad tracks, cruise through the small downtown area, and feel at home.  Most days, I see students walking to school.  So I roll down my window and say good morning.  I walk into the building and am greeted by staff members I’ve worked with for ages now. If I stop by the community library on my way home, I usually run into some former students.  My school has always felt like a home away from home – even during the challenging Covid years.
  1. I have spent sixteen years building relationships with students and parents.  My book shelver has worked with me for thirteen years now — since her youngest boy was in kindergarten.  I have former students who stop in to see me.  In fact, I have former students who offer to help me with my end of the year inventory and other special projects.  It’s difficult to leave a school where I have such strong connections.
  1. This year I am hopeful that things will improve in my building and in my district.  We have a new district superintendent.  I was lucky to participate in the interview process, and I feel like we’ve selected the right person for this job.  In addition, I feel a change of atmosphere within my school.  I can’t really explain why.  We lost a lot of great teachers and paras last year to job changes and retirement, but yet these positions were filled with new staff members who bring enthusiasm and positivity to the table.  We’re starting the year with a sense of school pride and collaboration.  In fact, I’ve had the best first week of school that I’ve had in several years.  I am sensing that this will be a good school year.
  1. Finally, I just really have a sense of peace about where I am.  I love my students and would be sad to leave them.  I love my content areas.  I recognize that “the grass is not greener” at other schools or in other fields.  After a lifetime as an educator, I tend to think in semesters.  I’m not sure this old gal could assimilate into the business world.  But most of all, I just really like working with kids.  Despite the hardships of teaching, it is still what I choose to do.  

Teachers, I wish you all a happy, healthy, inspired year of teaching.  I hope that you have fewer challenges than you’ve had during the past three years.  I hope you feel fulfilled and appreciated, and I hope you know that you make a difference every single day.  

 I’ll end with this — a song we sing at my church when the kids go to Worship and Wonder.  It sums up how I feel about the potential of the students I serve.

You have the hands that can open up the doors,

You have the hopes this world is waiting for.

You are my own but you are so much more,

You are tomorrow on the wing, child of mine.

I Can do Hard Things: A Story about Love and Grief

This image was created by my talented sister, Jaime Hudson-Farra.

Today was a tough one for me.  I had a wave of grief run through me that I hadn’t expected.  In fact, I was thinking just the other day that maybe I had turned a corner in my grief journey.  And yet, I found myself in tears three times today, then once more when I tried to explain this all to my husband.  Grief, as I’m reminded over and over, doesn’t really allow you to turn a corner.  When you are experiencing a loss, you don’t get over it.  Grief is a lifelong journey, and my hope is that the sharp edge of it  lessens as time passes.  But I can’t say for sure as I’m just a little over two years in.

Back to today.  My morning was uneventful.  I headed out to work, on time no less, and listened to my Audible book on the way.  Recently, I’ve been working through the young adult books of Jason Zentner.  (If you haven’t read In the Wild Light, go check it out immediately.  It’s the most beautifully written book — my favorite read of the year so far.)  So now I’m listening to the book called Goodbye Days.  It’s about a teenage boy who lost all three of his best friends in a car crash.  The families of two of the boys want our protagonist Carver to help them have a “goodbye day” for their sons, which entails doing all the things that their boys loved and telling stories about each boy.  In fact, this is sort of what I try to do on Ally’s death day, May 3, and on her birthday, June 28.   Nonetheless, this was a trigger.  Just as I was pulling into the parking lot at work, I got to the part where one boy’s parents were becoming vocal about their grief.  And I teared up.  I walked into the building and talked with a co-worker.  More tears.  I was in a tender place thinking about Ally and just missing her with all my mama heart.

After school, I headed out to see one of Ally’s lifelong friends and deliver her graduation gift.   Her name is Nipam, and she was Ally’s first friend when she started Bentwood Elementary back in first grade.   Nipam was the ying to Ally’s yang.   Nipam was talkative, a little boy crazy, a little bold, but in the best of ways.  Ally, even with her somewhat wacky sense of style, was a bit more subdued. So I was looking forward to seeing Nipam and her family, as she meant a lot to Ally.  At the same time, I knew this would make me miss Ally even more.  I knew this visit might be both comforting and hard.

I arrived at Nipam’s house, and her whole family made me feel welcome right away.  I sat down in Nipam’s living room, and we started chatting.  I handed her my gift, then I pulled out a bag with a few items from Ally’s bedroom.  Nipam is leaving for college soon, and I wanted her to have some keepsakes.  She  started talking about her future (she wants to become an oncologist, largely inspired by Ally’s cancer journey), and then we started sharing memories.  She started by telling me that she and three of Ally’s friends had stopped by the columbarium today to say goodbye before they headed off to college.  I cried.  I was a bit mad at myself as I hadn’t planned to cry in front of Nipam or her family.  Nipam understood.  

I spent the rest of the conversation fighting back tears.  I asked Nipam to share a story about Ally that I didn’t know.  She told me about how in first grade, she talked Ally into “picking a boy she liked” so they could pretend to make the boy “love her forever.”    If you know Ally, you know that this was not her jam.  She was not in any way boy crazy.  In fact, in middle school, a boy asked for her “digits” and she declined.  Ally liked boys — as friends.  In fact, she cultivated some amazing boys who were friends. But even by age fifteen when she died, she hadn’t really become interested in dating yet.  So I had to laugh when I learned that way back in first grade, Nipam coerced her into “naming” a boy.  

As we talked,  I shared some stories about Ally and about the two of them.  I remember one time when the girls were at Bentwood Elementary, I took Ally to Back to School night.  Keep in mind, Ally was always her own little person who didn’t mind being a bit of an oddball (in the best of ways).  But that night, we were sitting in the bleachers hanging out.  A group of girls from her grade sat behind us.  No one spoke to her or invited her to sit with them.  In fact, they acted as if they hadn’t seen her.  Ally was too reserved to say anything.  This brought out my mama bear instincts.  I was both infuriated and sad.  Ally was such a great kid, and it hurt my heart that other kids didn’t see that.  And then…I saw Nipam enter the gym.  Ally and I sprinted down the bleachers to greet her; the girls hugged!  The rest of the night was absolutely fine.  Ally had her friend — another true blue like Emma, Sophia, Jackson, Ben and Jack.  You see, Ally had a knack for knowing what kids were worthy of her time.  She didn’t have friend drama because she chose her friends wisely.

I left Nipam’s house about an hour later.  I’d spoken to her dad, her grandparents, her adorable little brother, and her mom Namisha. Namisha and I hugged before I left, and we all pledged to stay in touch.  I really hope we do.  I walked out to my car, and I let the tears spill.  The tears, I think, were for the beauty of their friendship and for my own sadness about what should have been — the life I feel that Ally deserved.  

I drove home, and as I was trying to explain my day, I experienced one more rush of tears.  Grief is like that…unexpected.  It sneaks up on you in the midst of a good week, during a movie, talking with a friend or co-worker.  Grief hits you when you think you’re feeling mostly happy, mostly normal.  But grief is the price for love.  If I had known when Ally was born that I would lose her at the all too young age of fifteen, and if I had been given a chance to undo this kind of pain, I would decline.  My fifteen years of life with Ally were well worth the hurt I’m experiencing now.  You see, grief is a part of life.  And though I’m missing Ally more than I can even put into words, I am always grateful for her short, but meaningful life.

“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”

Washington Irving

My Yoga Journey

It’s a dreary Sunday, and I’m sitting at my favorite local coffee shop reading about chakras and sipping on mint tea.  I’m aware that if you saw my book titled Chakras for Beginners, you might think I was a little strange or new-agey.  But I’m preparing to teach a Heart Chakra yoga class/workshop.  I’m reading up on the chakras so I have a bit more insight to share with my students.  You see, aside from being a teacher of children, I’m also a teacher of yoga.  I received my certification this year, the year I turned 50.  Becoming a yoga teacher has been something I’ve wanted to do for years, and now I’m doing it.  I am living my dream, so to speak.  As the owner of my yoga studio says, “We have the best job ever.  We get to make people feel better.”  I don’t take this job lightly.

I started doing yoga officially when I was 17. I stumbled across an article with ten yoga poses in Seventeen magazine.  I cut the article out and did these poses every night before bed.  I couldn’t articulate the effect yoga had on me at the time, but I knew that I was calmer.  I slept better.  And I liked doing the poses.  I never told anyone that I was practicing yoga, but even as a teen, yoga was having a positive impact on my life.

Prior to my teenage foray into yoga, I’d been doing yoga for years and didn’t know it.  I started gymnastics at the age of five, and before practice, we’d stretch.  The stretches were yoga poses.  As a kid, I was also a runner.  Before practice, we’d stretch.  You guessed it — the stretches were yoga poses.  So I grew up with an appreciation for stretching as a prelude to any physical activity.  It wasn’t until my 30s or 40s when I realized that yoga itself was a physical activity that also settled the mind.  I began to see the positive benefits to the practice. 

When I was in my 30s, I was busy raising my two children.  I attended classes sporadically as my schedule would permit or put on a yoga video from time to time.  I loved it, but my focus was more on work and kids.  In my 40s, I started attending Yoga in the Vineyard on a regular basis.  This combined several of my great loves — yoga, wine, and socializing with friends.  Finally, about five or six years ago when I was going through a tough time, a friend of mine took me to her yoga studio in Olathe.  I attended classes here occasionally for years.  I loved this studio immediately with its chill vibes and colorful sun mural.  I enjoyed attending classes, but again, I was busy with work and kids. And during this time, I had a child who was fighting cancer.  So my priority was her care, not my own self care. 

Then the pandemic hit.  I knew the owner of my studio, as an independent business owner, was likely struggling to stay afloat.  So I bought a package of classes and eventually became a regular studio member.  I did yoga virtually, as I was able, to help her out and to care for myself as I was struggling, too.  Near the beginning of the pandemic, I lost my sweet daughter to cancer.  Afterward, I did yoga even more.  Yoga was my respite.  My practice allowed me to step out of my head and out of my grief for an hour at a time.  I say this in complete seriousness:  Yoga saved my life.  The practice of breathing and stretching and being present helped me have moments of peace during my sadness.  In fact, it still does.

Last fall, I talked to my teacher, the owner of my yoga studio,  about her teacher training classes.  I knew this was somewhat impractical.  What would a person my age do with a yoga teacher certification?  I didn’t know what my plan was, but I did know I wanted to learn more about the practice of yoga even if it was just for the sake of learning.  I talked a friend of mine into joining me, and we embarked on a 200 hour program to become yoga instructors.  In February, we “graduated.”  And within a month, a class opened up at our studio.  My friend and I now take turns teaching a Monday night restorative yoga class.  In addition, I teach yoga to a group of co-workers.  And I’ve booked a couple of other yoga gigs as well.  I’ve even done a bit of yoga with my students at school.

The importance of this journey to me is not only that I pursued my love of yoga, but that I pursued SOMETHING.  As I age, I try not to take a passive role in my life.  I believe in constantly learning and striving and growing.  To me, becoming a yoga instructor is more than just teaching yoga.  It’s about running towards life, trying new things, and letting the world know that age is not a deterrent from accomplishing goals.  At the end of the day, I know I’m stronger — inside and out — for delving a bit deeper into the practice of yoga. 

“Yoga is not about touching your toes,

it’s about what you learn on the way down.”

Jigar Gor

One Teacher’s Thoughts on School Shootings

We live in the era of urgent news updates sharing information about the most recent school shooting.  Sadly, we have largely become numb to these frequent news stories and the subsequent “our thoughts and prayers are with your school” sentiment from our legislators.  Is there anyone else out there who shares my sentiment — that thoughts and prayers for these students, staff and families are not enough?  When are we going to enforce our gun laws and keep our children safe?  When are we going to say “Enough is enough!” regarding our teachers being human shields for our children?  When will we work to find a real solution to students bringing guns to school?  

I’m writing about this because, though school shootings are horrific, most people feel significant distance from these events.  We all have a “not in my neighborhood” mentality.  We all want to feel that the community we’ve chosen is safe.  However, on Friday, March 4, 2022, Olathe East had a school shooting.  Olathe East — the school where my children attended.  The school that houses students and staff who I care about.  A school that’s practically in my backyard.  Wait, what?  This wasn’t supposed to happen in a suburban Kansas school!

Luckily, no one was killed in this shooting.  The shooter was shot and later hospitalized.  The assistant principal and SRO were both shot, but they were released from the hospital the day of the incident.  Still, a school of nearly 2,000 students is left feeling traumatized and afraid. Teachers, like students, are anxious.  Are there other kids in the building who regularly bring guns to school?  Is there a way to make this building feel safe again?

As a teacher, I have lived through the pre-Columbine era, where a school shooting was both shocking and occasional.  But since Columbine, school shootings have become a thing.  We now have active shooter drills in schools to prepare for this event.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am glad we prepare.  In the case of the Olathe shooting, it appears to me that the SRO followed protocol and probably saved many lives.  The school was on lockdown, and no students were injured.  But if you’ve ever been in a dark room with frightened first graders, hunkering down with the door locked and only a dim flashlight for light, you might reconsider your stance on what to do about school shootings.  Gun violence at school should not be a thing, and small children should not have to ask their teachers whether an active shooter exercise is a drill or real.

I don’t have the answers, folks.  I wish I did.  But I do believe that though there are many responsible gun owners, we are a country that values our 2nd Amendment rights more than we value human lives.  We allow underpaid teachers to go into buildings knowing that today might be the day that they have to block a child from a bullet or lockdown their classroom.  And instead of helping us, many of our legislators offer this sort of statement, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”  Well, that’s not enough.  What about doing something?  What about action and policy change?  What about providing adequate funding to schools that will allow protections for our children?  What about education and/or counseling for staff and students so they don’t feel anxious about coming to school?  What about mental health initiatives to help students who attain guns?  What about putting our heads together as a country and a community to make school a safe and harmonious place for our children?  Please, no more empty words “addressing” this problem.  

Let me end with this.  I am prepared to protect a student from a gunman by taking a bullet.  I am prepared to die so a child won’t.  But folks, this isn’t actually my job.  My job is to educate, support, mentor and encourage.  We need to ask ourselves as a nation, is this the America we want — a nation where our children are afraid of being at school?  We owe it to our children (and to our teachers) to do better than this.  

“Teachers are the guardians of spaces that allow students to 

breathe and be curious and explore the world and be who they are without suffocation.”  

Brene Brown

Here are two organizations that work to end gun violence in schools (as well as in homes and communities) if you’re interested in getting involved.

https://www.sandyhookpromise.org/

http://protectourschools.com/ 


And here is the link to an article about the Olathe East shooting. https://www.cnn.com/2022/03/04/us/olathe-east-high-school-kansas-shooting/index.html

This is Me: A Glimpse Inside my 50 Year Old Self

No photo description available.
This (literally) is me!

A few weeks ago, I celebrated a BIG  birthday.  As this day approached, I had been thinking about my life and what I’ve learned thus far.  I remember that I was scared to death of turning 30. Thirty sounded so old.  Turns out, 30 was no big deal. I’d relive my 30s any day.  My metabolism was still my friend, I had energy, my kids still snuggled with me.  My life was pretty much problem-free.  Then, my 40s rolled around.  I wasn’t too excited about turning forty, but my 40s have taught me some important lessons.  I’ve learned to love my body in thickness and in health.  I’ve also learned to love myself and accept my flaws.  I started to become a more authentic version of myself.  It seems that with age comes wisdom and a “don’t worry too much about what people think” mentality, which is a blessing.  

As my forties came to an end, I didn’t feel nervous or sad.  Instead I mostly just felt grateful.  Fifty sounds like a big number, but aside from the sound of it, I am happy to be a year older.  You see, I believe that growing old, even with its aches and pains, is a privilege.  I understand that my life is a gift, and I am actually looking forward to living and learning and growing as a person in my next decade of life.   

I decided that in honor of my  50th birthday, I should write down my fifty truths — my deepest, silliest and most honest beliefs. I want to put in writing my current perspective on the world and reflect how my outlook has changed over time.  So here is my list.  These fifty truths are in no particular order, but they are all ideals I hold dear.

  1. I believe in wearing bright and sparkly nail polish no matter my age. Bright toes make me happy.
  2. I believe in dancing in the kitchen. Dancing in the kitchen is always evidence of a good night.
  3. I believe in do-overs — for myself and for others.
  4. I believe in the power of a parent’s love. The older I get, the more I respect my parent’s love for me and the more I love my own children.
  5. I believe that public education is a critical component of our society. and that teachers are real life superheroes.
  6. I believe in community.
  7. I believe in a higher power, even if I don’t understand all of the details.
  8. I believe in the quote from Dead Poet’s Society where John Keating says “words and ideas really can change the world.”
  9. I believe that the Beatles are the greatest rock band ever.
  10. I believe that the Foo Fighters and U2 are a close 2nd and 3rd.
  11. I believe in adventure. I find myself, as I age, wanting to run towards the world.
  12. I believe in love. Enough said.
  13. I believe that sometimes — okay, most of the time — self care is more important than productivity. (My husband disagrees with me, but I stand behind this one.)
  14. I believe in sitting with people in their darkest hours just as they have sat with me.
  15. I believe that being a mom has been my best and hardest job.
  16. I believe in naps.
  17. I believe in connection. I’ve learned that I am good at connecting with people and building relationships.
  18. I believe that I am creative but not necessarily artistic.
  19. I believe my parents did the best they could with what they knew, and I have tried to do the same.
  20. I believe that my family of origin — my parents and my sister — are still my biggest fans.
  21. I believe that we all need a safe and happy place to land at the end of the day.
  22. I believe that part of being happy is recognizing the small joys in our lives.
  23. I believe that you can be a happy person even if you’ve experienced great loss.
  24. I believe in therapy. Therapy has helped me in a plethora of ways.
  25. I believe that, for me, writing serves as a kind of therapy.
  26. I believe in writing notes of gratitude to people that I love.
  27. I believe in silver linings, even if that makes me appear naive or overly optimistic.
  28. I believe that teachers make the world a more educated, more beautiful place.
  29. I believe in fun and mischief.
  30. I believe in girls’ trips.
  31. I believe that yoga can restore your health and your soul.
  32. I believe in hugging — friends, family, my students, sometimes even strangers.
  33. I believe in reaching out to people who are struggling.
  34. I believe that I experience God’s presence anytime I walk barefoot on a beach and look into the vast ocean.
  35. I believe in the power of a good coffee date/chat with a girlfriend.
  36. I believe that money spent on books, movies and music is never wasted.
  37. I believe in sleeping in.
  38. I believe that lifelong learning leads to a fulfilling life.
  39. I believe that a person is never too old to try something new.
  40. I believe that someday I will figure out my purpose on this Earth, but until then I will try a lot of different things.
  41. I believe in girl power. Thank you Sandy Hudson, Ally Baier, RBG, Michelle Obama, Cindy Lauper, Malala, and all my other female heroes.
  42. I believe in kindness.
  43. I believe that there is almost always a resolution to a problem.
  44. I believe that you never give up on your children.
  45. I believe that Brene Brown’s writing has changed my life for the better. (If you haven’t read her, start with The Gifts of Imperfection.)
  46. I believe in taking walks with friends.
  47. I believe in honesty — or at least attempting honesty. I no longer have the stomach for bullshitting people.
  48. I believe in peace.
  49. I believe that it is important to have things in life to look forward to.
  50. I believe that that life, even in its most difficult seasons, is a gift.

So there you have it, friends, a list that reveals who I am at 50.  I have grown from a shy kid who was afraid to speak out in class to a person who is fun, free, and maybe a little bit fierce.  Today I strive to be a person who runs toward life and feels gratitude on even the most challenging of days.

The Marriage of Grief and Depression

I recently developed a new mantra.  It goes like this:  It is not my job to make people comfortable.  I don’t mean that I’ll go out of my way to make friends and acquaintances ill at ease.  That’s not really who I am.  What I mean is that I am trying very hard to be honest about myself and my life.  If that makes people feel uncomfortable, then I need to let that roll off my back.  

With that in mind, I need to tell you that this blog post is not a happy one.  I’m purposely going for honesty.  Maybe someone out there needs to hear this and know they’re not alone.  Maybe there’s someone else who feels just like I do.  Today’s topic — grief and depression.  Unfortunately, this is a topic I know well. 

A few years back, I was diagnosed with depression.  This was before my daughter Ally’s illness, before I had experienced real loss. We were dealing with some behavioral issues with my son, which looking back, were insignificant compared to what we’d later face.  But still, I was struggling.  My therapist thought I had situational depression, and he suggested I talk to my doctor about this.  My doctor then put me on a low dose of Lexapro.  For several years, I stayed on this medication, and it worked.  It helped keep me level and able to cope with life.  

A few years later, life got really difficult.  My sweet, twelve year old daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer.  My family lived in limbo for the next 3.5 years, trying to stay afloat while also living in fear of what could/would happen next.  Those years were filled with joy, fear, hope, tears, love and a deep sadness.  I stayed on meds to keep going as grief was starting to creep in; I grieved a life of normalcy for my child, for my family, and for myself.  I had constant worry, a constant sense of ‘What will happen if…?’ 

In April of 2020 the if happened.  We discovered that treatments were no longer helping Ally.  On May 3, Glioblastoma took my daughter’s life.  And that’s where real depression kicked in.  Intertwined with this depression was grief, which has been a constant companion since then.  I’ve been trying to work through my grief, take the right steps to keep my depression at bay, and still be a functional human.  I’m on meds, and I recently adjusted them as I can feel that the holidays will be hard this year. I see a therapist.  I am doing life the best I can.  Up until a couple of weeks ago, I really thought I was doing okay.  But then depression swoops in, and I’m flat on my back again.

Now here’s the part I’m a little embarrassed to share.  I like to think of myself as a strong person.  I’ve had to be during my daughter’s illness and after her death.  I feel compelled to be strong at work and when I’m out in the world.  But the last few weeks when Rich and I sat in counseling together, working through our grief, I got called out by our counselor.  She said I was “awfully tearful.”  I was furious.  Of course I am tearful.  Counseling is hard.  Grief is hard.  Trying to piece your life back together after a devastating event is hard.  I thought I had been doing so well.  I get up in the morning and go to work.  I am trying to be a kind teacher, a reliable co-worker, a loving friend.  I exercise.  I read.  I stay busy with writing groups and yoga classes and happy hours with the girls.  And yet, I’m still depressed.  I had an epiphany:  I live in a haze of blah that I can’t fully pull myself out of.  And I’m so angry that I can’t outrun the grief and depression that hangs over me.  If a friend were to tell me about his or her depression, I’d tell my friend to get a good therapist and to consider medication.  Don’t give up.  Be gentle with yourself.  Practice self care.   Why can’t I be gentle with myself?  My therapist and my doctor both suggested I should give myself grace…which is hard.

In most of my blog posts, this is where I’d try to insert a positive reflection or maybe a bit of wisdom.  But this time I can’t because I don’t have any meaningful insights.  I don’t have a solution.  I’m still in the depths of trying to understand my loss and correctly treat my depression.  I will say this:  If you are hurting, if you feel low, if you are anxious about the holidays, you are not alone.  Do not be ashamed about asking for help.  Do not feel badly about needing therapy and medication to feel better.  And do not second-guess being honest about all of this.  Life is hard, my friends.  However, life is better when you love and grieve and share with and lean on your people.  As for me, I’m not giving up.  But dang, this journey of grief and depression is a long one.  Here’s to lighter days for all of us.

”Grief is so human, and it hits everyone at one point or another, at least, in their lives. If you love, you will grieve, and that’s just given.”  – Kay Redfield Jamison

Note:   If you are struggling with depression during the holidays or any time, you can call the Depression Hotline at 1-888-771-5166.  If you want to search for a therapist near you, go to the Psychology Today website at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us.  Most importantly, if you feel suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. 

Fork the Nonbelievers:  Some 1st Quarter Reflections from an Already Tired Teacher

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image.jpeg

To my Fellow Educators, 

I am coming off of a tough week at work.  I am tired and struggling, as many of you are.  As the end of our first quarter approaches, I am realizing that the second full year of teaching during a pandemic will be no easier on us as educators.  Last year we were so glad to be back in person with our students that we happily pushed through a lot of hard things.  But the hard things seem to keep piling up on us.  I don’t care if you’re a homeroom teacher, a specialist like myself, a paraprofessional or a custodian, your job right now is tough — harder than in any “normal” teaching year.  Covid protocol has changed many aspects of our jobs and has added additional challenges.  

On top of the new challenges, Covid has alienated us as teachers and co-workers.  We don’t see each other at lunch or after school, thus we don’t get to share our stories and struggles. Because we don’t communicate like in the past, we forget to empathize with one another.  We forget that each role within a school may look a bit different, but each role has its unique benefits and challenges.  I feel strongly that by working together and supporting each other, we can create a positive learning environment for ourselves and our students.  You see, quite often we teachers learn as much as our students throughout the year.

While dealing with my own personal struggles, I’ve been thinking about the kind of teacher/person I want to be.  I’m not perfect.  For instance, just today I snapped at a class over something that wasn’t their fault, and I’ve been beating myself up about it all afternoon.  Still, I want to be a teacher who goes to work with my head held high, a teacher who tries a little harder next time, a teacher who my students and co-workers respect because I try to maintain my authenticity and my integrity.  I’ll tell you all the truth — teaching is not easy right now.  And yet, teaching is literally all I’ve ever wanted to do.  I knew back in 4th grade, sitting in Mrs. Cruit’s classroom, that I wanted to be a teacher. I am doing EXACTLY what I’d hoped to be doing when I was a kid.  I don’t want to take this for granted.  

So here’s my plan.  Instead of sitting around and listing for you all of the hard things about my job and yours, I’m going to tell you my WHY — my beliefs about teaching.  Then I’m going to print this out and post it in my office.  I’m going to look at my list every day, and I’m going to bust my ass trying to be the kind of teacher that I hoped I could be.  I’m going to take a piece of advice from my father:  Fork the nonbelievers.  (Note:  Language slightly altered to be less offensive.  I am a teacher, after all!)  I think this is what my Dad means by this phrase.  Don’t worry about other people — what they’re doing or what they think of you.  Keep on doing your best and you’ll be all right.  That is what I intend to do.

So here are my beliefs.  I encourage you to sit down and write out yours as well.  I think that in remembering why we became teachers in the first place, we can re-motivate and re-inspire ourselves.

What I Believe about Teaching

2021-2022

  • I believe that my job as a  teacher is important.    What I do has the potential to positively impact lives both in the present and in the future.  
  • I believe in teamwork — teamwork in the classroom, within my building, and within my field.  I want to be the kind of co-worker that people enjoy collaborating with because they know I will work for what’s best for our students and for our school.  I believe in connecting with other teachers who do what I do to share ideas and garner encouragement.  
  • I believe that a strong public education system levels the playing field for all children.  And it’s my job, in part, to help students see the importance of education now and in the future.
  • I believe that I can be a bright light in a child’s educational experience.  I strive to be a person who both shares the importance of lifelong learning and who connects deeply with her students.  
  • I believe in building relationships in my classroom.  Students won’t care about learning from me until they understand that I care about their well-being.  (Thank you Sharon B. for teaching me this!)  I also believe in building positive relationships with my co-workers and families.  Relationships are key in my profession.  
  • I believe that my content matters, but I also believe that my character matters.  How I treat my students every day makes a difference.  I want to be a kind, fair, fun and enthusiastic teacher.  On days when I fail in this department, I want to pick myself up and try again.  
  • I believe that all kids have something in them to be valued.  We all have had tough kids.  But even the toughest kid has something that can be appreciated and fostered.  
  • I believe that when there’s a problem in the classroom, there is also a solution if you work hard to find it.  I believe in talking to other teachers or my principal to find a remedy to a challenging situation.  I don’t want to give up on a class or on a kid.
  • I believe that I have the most interesting, creative, challenging, heart-breaking AND rewarding job.  I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do or be.

“One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.”

Malala Yousafzai

Happiness vs. Despair

heart-shaped black stone on green grass

I’ve declared this summer as The Summer of Crysta.  To be fair, I do this every summer.  But this summer, it seems extremely important to dedicate some time to myself.  I am a little over a year out from losing my beloved daughter  And this summer feels like a perfect opportunity for some self-care and healing.

One thing I’m doing this summer is taking a class.  I needed something to stimulate my brain (and move me over on the salary schedule at work).  The class I chose is both fascinating and inspirational.  This summer, I needed to move away from the sadness of the last few challenging years and find some forward motion.  This class has helped.  It’s got me pumped up and engaged for the first time in a long time.  I’m starting to think about my “what’s next.”

The title of the class is Social and Emotional Intelligence:  7 Who Dared.  We’re reading the book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, and we’re learning about seven amazing human beings — Malala, RBG, and John Lewis, to name a few.  During my study, I  heard John Lewis say this:  “Don’t get lost in a sea of despair.”  Man, this hit home.  I’ve been there for a while now.  We all have.  2020 was a tough year for the human race.  So this quote got me thinking…how do we move away from despair into happiness?

You see, I believe that happiness is, in part, a choice.  I think happiness is connected to gratitude and really digging into your life and being able to  appreciate the little things.  I thought I’d share some of the things that are making me happy and whote and grounded right now.  These things are allowing me respite from the deep despair the world has thrown at me and adding a little light to my life.  Here goes.   

  •  My relationship with my son.  Joel is turning 20 in July, and watching him grow into the man I knew was in there all along is a privilege.  Joel is witty, outgoing, kind-hearted, and engaging.  I love it when I can get him talking.  He has interesting insights on the world,  and I’m glad that he shares a little bit of his heart with his mom. 
  • My parents.  The older I get, the wiser my parents become.  I am reminded daily of how grateful I am to have parents who are living.  My parents have been a rock for me, and I’m truly grateful to have a safe place to land — even as an adult.
  • My work.  I’m glad to be a teacher and to have a work home I love.  My co-workers and my love for my students helped me through a really hard school year, and as I reflect on the year, I realize that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.
  • Yoga.  Yoga has stretched me — literally and figuratively.  Yoga has helped me remember to breathe and to stay connected to the present.  It has given me a break from the constant ruminations in my head.  I am stronger, both inside and out, because of my practice.
  • Reading.  I am a lifelong lover of books.  Books entertain and inspire me.  However, my focus was lacking this past year.  But this summer, I have been able to engage in reading again — for more than just a few minutes at a time.  There’s nothing better than getting lost in a book, and I’ve done that this summer.
  • My tribe.  I have realized that I am a collector of sorts — a collector of people.  I have work friends, church friends, old friends, neighbors who are friends — you get the idea.  I find that I connect easily with people (I am a teacher, after all), and I’m blessed with a lot of amazing people in my life.  When I’m down or need to reach out, there is always someone to reach for.  
  • Writing.  I’m grateful to have an outlet for my emotions.  It feels good to let my insides pour out onto a page.  Writing, to me, is therapy.  It helps me make sense of my world.
  • My daughter. Most of my writing focuses on the deep loss I experienced when Ally died.  And even though I’m still working through the grief of losing her, my soul is fed by her existence.  I feel extremely fortunate to have had fifteen years with this beautiful, kind-hearted, one in a million girl.  I think I learned more from her than she ever learned from me, and for her life, I will be forever grateful.

So friends, I hope that you can take a minute away from whatever is hurting your heart right now and think about what is making you happy.  I don’t mean to minimize your pain; I am right there with you in the hurt.  But I do think that it is helpful to remember the other beautiful things in your life. Keep fighting through the despair you may feel, and look for the things in your life that make your heart sing.