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

Freedom! 2022

Every year in January, I pick a word for the year — a word that will serve as my theme. One year my word was authenticity. Another year the word was discernment. This year, however, I picked the word FREE.

I’ve always liked the word free, in part because free can be used in a variety of ways.  Free-spirited.  Free will.  Freelance.  Free speech.  Free rein.  Back in the 90s when I was a single, working girl, I used to rock out to the song “Free to Decide” by the Cranberries.  At the time, that song felt like my own personal anthem.  I can still picture twenty-something Crysta driving to work, volume cranked, belting out the lyrics…”I’m free to decide, free to decide…”  

So fast forward to 2022.  In thinking about words for the year, I decided to choose free.  In a way, free sounds like a word with no boundaries…free to do whatever I want.  But that’s not the way I viewed my word of the year.  I’m a mom, a wife, and a teacher.  I’m not free in every way.  There are things I can’t do due to various factors in my life.  However, this is not what I was thinking when I picked my word. Here’s what I was thinking.

  • I’m free to be myself — free to be weird, goofy, funny, serious, quiet, chatty, joyful or sad without apology.
  • I’m free to like myself even when (or maybe especially when) the world is sending me messages saying I’m not enough.  
  • I’m free to make mistakes and make amends.  This applies to home, work, and life in general. I don’t have to obsess about being perfect.  
  • I’m free to like my body, even if I’m a bit heavier than I want to be.  My body is strong and healthy, and I don’t have to be a size 2 to feel comfortable in my own skin.
  • I’m free to embrace my wrinkles and the physical and emotional scars I bear from being on this earth for a while.  Growing old is a privilege, and it’s okay to be grateful for age and experience.
  • I’m free to try new things.  This year, I’ve changed my hair color at least once, I’ve gotten certified to teach yoga, and I agreed to play in a piano recital again, even though I’m the only adult.  I believe with all my heart that we should always try new things, no matter how old we are.
  • I’m free to set boundaries — with my students, my family, my co-workers and my friends.  This is hard and sometimes painful, but I find myself less resentful when I create some reasonable boundaries.  It’s okay for me to expect to be treated kindly.  
  • I’m free to be creative — to write, to color, to make music.  I don’t have to be good at each endeavor, but the doing of the activity is enriching.
  • I’m free to learn new things.  As a teacher and a human, lifelong learning is very important to me.  
  • I’m free to step away from things that are not working — jobs, people, activities and so on. Life is too short to spend time on people and things that no longer fill me up.  
  • Finally, I’m free to live in a place of uncertainty — to question things and allow my perspective to be shifted when presented with new and compelling information.  

As 2022 winds down, I realize that I picked an important word for my personal growth.  This year when I reminded myself that I was free to do all of the things I’ve mentioned here, I felt lighter, less stressed, less boxed in.  I gave myself permission to try new things, to mess up, to make changes when necessary.  After all, isn’t that what life’s all about?

“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution, on an individual level. It’s got to happen inside first.”

Jim Morrison

The Ally League…a Sock Drive and so Much More!

This past Sunday morning at church, we worked on a service project during our Adult Education hour. The project was a sock drive for the Ally League, an entity created by my sister back in 2019 to show support for my daughter Ally who was fighting glioblastoma. Ally was a great kid, a lover of all things comic book related (preferring DC over Marvel, of course) and a warrior. She remains the strongest person I know. And her optimism, despite a harrowing diagnosis, continues to inspire many, myself included. After Ally died in May 2020, the Ally League decided to ask for donations for colorful, patterned socks to give to kids at Children’s Mercy Hospital. You see, Ally loved socks, loved kids, and loved helping others. She would be thrilled to see that we celebrate her life by donating socks to kids fighting illness just like she did.

But back to the project. As we were separating and counting socks, I was asked to speak about the Ally League. I hadn’t prepared anything, although I do better speaking off the cuff anyway. I’m a teacher and writer, so finding the right words is usually not a problem. But I was feeling particularly tender this morning, and when I was asked to share about the Ally League and our sock drive, I cried. I had to pause and collect myself. I tried to convey the meaning of the Ally League and why it is special to me, but I don’t think I did it justice. Instead, I came home and decided to write about it. Reflect. Take time to say what I need to say in the way I want to say it. Here goes.

In August of 2019, my sister created an Ally League Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/allyleagueforever  and thus the Ally League was born.  The Ally League was a place where I could go to share information.  It was a place where we could rally the troops in supporting Ally’s fight.  We first used this page to form a team for Head for the Cure, an organization that raises funds to fight brain cancer.  

Head for the Cure 2019 was the absolute best. Ally was still with us, radiating hope and positivity, inspiring her tribe. We had a crazy number of folks — church friends, neighbors, my own friend group, family, Ally’s besties — all come out in support. Our youth pastor Chuck brought communion, and those of us who wanted to lined up to partake before the race. Ally was in a wheelchair, and I was fully prepared to push her the 3.1 miles. I was grateful for the opportunity to raise money toward this horrible disease and honor my sweet girl.

Before the Head for the Cure race, we hugged, celebrated Ally, silently cursed brain cancer, and surrounded Ally with love and hope and joy. Unfortunately, right before the race, a rain storm rolled in. Instead of walking the race, we all took shelter. My family and several friends headed to Einstein Bros to enjoy a bagel and a little fellowship. (After all, Ally did love her carbs.) I’m not sure the walk itself was important that year. It was the gathering of people who loved Ally, the circle of support, that mattered the most. This was when the Ally League was formed. And though Ally is gone, our group remains.

In May 2020, after a long and brave battle, Ally succumbed to glioblastoma.  I was shattered.  And yet, I wanted to do something positive.  I wanted to honor Ally’s legacy of love and kindness by gathering crazy, “jazzy” socks in Ally’s memory.  These socks would go to other kids who were hospitalized — kids who needed a bit of hope.  My initial goal was to collect 200 pairs of socks.  We ended up collecting nearly 4,000 pairs.  To me, each pair of socks we received represented a deep love for Ally and for our family. 

Fast forward to 2022. The Ally League held our 2nd sock drive. (I figure we’ll shoot for doing this every two years.) We ended up with 163 pairs collected at my school with an additional 88 pairs being collected by my friends at St. Andrew Christian Church. That’s a total of 251 pairs of socks.

This sock drive matters to me for a number of reasons. First of all, Ally loved her socks — Harry Potter socks, mismatched socks, caped superhero socks. Crazy socks exemplify Ally’s bright and quirky personality. This sock drive also represents hope. Each pair of socks could potentially be a bright spot in some child’s day — some child stuck in a dreary hospital needing a little pick-me-up. It does not matter to me whether we gather 300 pairs or 4,000 pairs of socks each time we hold our sock drive. What does matter to me is that we keep Ally’s spirit alive, we celebrate her strength and positivity, and we continue to help other children who are hospitalized and fighting illness.

The 2020 Stats

  • We donated 300 pairs of socks to Children’s Mercy Hospital in November of 2020.  
  • We donated 130 pairs of socks to the Ronald McDonald house in Kansas City, Missouri.
  • We donated 30 pairs of socks to KU Pediatrics.
  • We donated 250 pairs of socks to Wesley Children’s Hospital in Wichita, Kansas.
  • We donated 810 pairs of socks to Mission Southside in Olathe, Kansas.
  • We donated 1,532 pairs of socks to the Overland Park, Kansas, nonprofit called Kuzidi.  Kuzidi is in the process of creating care kits for displaced children, and there will be a pair of socks as well as other comfort items in these kits.  
  • At Christmas-time, we gave socks to students and teachers at the school where I teach, so around 170 socks for students and 40 socks for teachers and support staff. (My school is a Title 1 school, and my students were thrilled with this unexpected gift.)
  • We donated 150 pairs of socks to a teacher at Children’s Mercy Hospital who planned to personally pass out socks to her students who were hospitalized.
  • We donated 482 more pairs of socks to Kuzidi.
  • The first Ally League Sock Drive (from 2020 – 2021, as socks continued to trickle in for months) totalled 3,994 socks. Wow!

The 2022 Stats

  • Edgerton Elementary donated 163 pairs of socks.  These came from my co-workers and even a few former parents.  
  • St. Andrew Christian Church, my church home, donated 88 pairs of socks, then my church family helped me pin all 251 pairs of socks. (For each pair of socks we donate, we include a short note about Ally’s life.)
  • AMR of Kansas City held a sock drive. Their socks have not yet been counted.
  • I intend to donate these socks to Children’s Mercy Hospital and to the Ronald McDonald House sometime in November.

One Last Thing

Here’s a link to a story about our very first donation. Sock Drive 2020

Thank You

It was a Monday night, and I was teaching a restorative yoga class.  I was sitting cross-legged in the dimly lit yoga studio gazing at the sun mural.  My students were resting in savasana, corpse pose, the last pose in any yoga class.  The room was quiet, and I was trying to stay present while my students rested. I was running my thumbs over each finger over and over while I focused on my breath.  I listened to the ticking of the clock.  I tried to be still.

It was mid-breathe when my mind started to wander.  And then a thought emerged:  Crysta, you are living the life that you have dreamed.  You’re a teacher (I’ve wanted to be one since 4th grade), and you’re a yoga instructor (I’ve wanted to do this since I was in my thirties).  Even on the hardest of days, you are doing what you always intended on doing.  All of my being began to feel and hear these words:  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  These words became my unspoken prayer to whatever higher power there might be.

That being said, I don’t really pray anymore.  There are several reasons for this.  First of all, I don’t believe in prayers of petition.  I don’t think that prayer works in that way.  I also don’t believe in praying for things like a new car, a job, or a relationship to work out.  I don’t pray for these things because I don’t believe this is how the universe works.  I believe in a higher power.  I am constantly questioning what this higher power is, but I do think that he/she/it is filled with love.  This higher power doesn’t grant wishes like a fairy godmother; instead, I think that he/she/it is with us always, giving us strength.  I think that this higher power knows our deepest longings and our deepest worries.  This power is always with us, even when we feel the most alone.  I don’t need to pray, because my prayers are already known.

I do believe in gratitude.  Expressing appreciation for the many beautiful things in my life is a form of prayer.  My life has been far from perfect.  I have regrets.  I’ve made mistakes.  I have experienced deep loss.  But I believe with all my being that there is always something to be grateful for.  My daily prayer practice is to write in my gratitude journal, to document the experiences and the people who make my life better.  I am grateful for beautiful sunsets, books that I don’t want to put down, friends who keep me going, my family who supports me, a steamy cup of mint tea, an afternoon at my favorite coffee shop, memories of my children, a job that sustains me, a hug from a student.   Gratitude is a prayer to the universe, a prayer to the higher power, a prayer of thanksgiving for all of life’s small blessings.

As I sat in my yoga class contemplating my life, I felt fully aware that life, despite its difficulties, is good.  Life is also challenging, complicated and unfair.  Yet my life feels fuller — richer —  when I acknowledge the small, daily things that bring me joy.

Dearly beloved

We are gathered here today

To get through this thing called “life…”

Prince

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

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.