Friday, October 27, 2017

The Things We Carry

I’ve wondered whether to write about the recent loss of my father-in-law, mostly because I want to be super-sensitive to my husband and his mom, because it’s their story and not mine. It seems inauthentic not to write about it, though, so, in the past week or so, I’ve started writing, and then stopped, then started again— more times than I’ve put on shoes.  And still I’ve gotten nowhere.  It’s tricky, writing about an important death.  Words don’t flow.  It’s hard to identify feelings, because they’re jumbled and dull.  

When someone we love dies, everything fogs.  

There’s nothing to say, really.  Is there?

His death was a shock, and it happened quickly, though with that specific slow-motion that comes with death. 

The simple thing that happened was his heart was tired.   The un-simple thing that happened is so complicated that it would take a handful of medical professionals to get it right.  

It has been a few weeks of strangeness.  Flashes of sadness, the unexpected kind, when I remember that he is gone, and when I think about what this death means for us, his family, his grandchildren, the ones left to think about him.  

Strangely, too, this seems like it has intensified the pain I carry for others.  Being a principal, or any type of leader of people, means you carry the weight of a lot, lot, lot, lot of people. Staff, parents, colleagues, and students—we hear their stories, and because we are the type of people who do this, we lift the story and carry it with us, trying to lessen the burden for someone else. 

Last summer, at a conference in Philadelphia, I met a principal friend for coffee. As we talked, our conversation drifted beyond the management and instructional parts of our work, seeping into the heavy feeling of having people count on us.  On his staff, he had, he guessed, right then, at that moment, more than ten different people who were in some deep, deep shit.  He pulled out his napkin and started to note specific worries he had for members of his staff.  An ill parent.  A spouse struggling with addiction and anger. An adolescent child who cannot seem to find his way.  Foreclosure and bankruptcy from a family business gone wrong.  Social and emotional upheaval.  A mentally disabled sibling, undergoing treatment for illnesses he can’t even understand he has. 

Wow.  Right?  Just… so much.  

There’s no real formula on how to help, either.  People react in all kinds of ways when their lives hurl into crisis mode:  Some tell their friends and colleagues, others carry it privately and alone.   Both are fine, but we can’t predict a person’s reaction to a particular situation—and, thus, we can’t plan how we, ourselves, should respond.  No.  Instead, we just need to honor each person, honor each journey, and, if we can, help carry the burden.

And of course, we have to care of ourselves so we can help.  It’s so hard to do.  I certainly haven’t got it figured out.  I really wish I had a neat, clean, concise bulleted list of suggestions, but I have no such thing.  Instead, I try to just be extra forgiving of myself.  I keep exercising.  I eat right, but don’t get too mad at myself when I get lost in handfuls of MnM’s and pretzles (yes, together).  I try not to worry about the insomnia that robs my sleep night after bloody night.  When I feel the snark and judgment of others, as comes with a job like mine, I try to ride it out and release it into the universe.   It’s okay, I remind myself.  You’re carrying a lot.  

That’s what we do.  Carry all we can, and recognize when it’s getting heavier, heavier, too heavy.

And love to my dear father-in-law—a man with whom I shared a unique and sweet fondness.  Rest in peace, Fred.  xo

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Head lice

When I was six years old, the week before Christmas break, my first grade teacher gave my class the lecture about head lice.  It was the “talk-to-the-parent-through-the-kid” approach:  Your parents should clean your hair very well every single night.  They should make sure all sheets, towels, hats, gloves, and clothing is squeaky-clean.  There had been a lice outbreak in our school, and she told us we needed to keep very, very clean.  “We will be doing lice checks on everyone here at school,” she said gravely.  She showed us pictures of lice; she talked about how quickly they reproduce and how they would make us feel itchy and uncomfortable.  As she spoke, dread settled in my stomach and crawl up to my face and then my hairline.  Almost as if I couldn’t control my own hand, I began to scratch the back of my head.  I saw Miss Lehman’s eyes flick over to me.

I don’t know who thought telling a group of six-year-olds how to parent our parents on this issue was a good idea, but, well, whatever.

The school nurse knocked on the classroom door a few minutes later.  “Send them all out, one at a time,” she told Miss Lehman.  “I’ll give them a quick check and send them right back to you.”

Miss Lehman looked right at me.  “Honey?  Why don’t you go first?” she said.  

My face flushed hot as I stood and left the room. 
The nurse beckoned to a stool placed right outside the classroom door.  She held a box of wooden toothpicks in her gloved hand; she picked one out and placed the rest of the box on a stool next to the chair.  I felt the pick on my scalp as she weaved it through my long hair.   I listened hard to her breath, hoping it would tell me what she was seeing.

It just took a moment.  “I’m going to have you go in and get your things,” she said.  “Your mother is going to have to come get you and take you home for the rest of the day, all right?”  I nodded numbly.  Her voice was kind, but there was an unmistakable condescending tint, which felt like chastisement.  I imagined a speech bubble above her head:  What a disgusting child you are.  Get out of this school and go clean yourself up.  

I so did not want to go back in the classroom to retrieve my coat and backpack.  Everyone would know I was filthy and itchy; they would whisper about my creepy-crawlies.  My mortification was thick, raw, and ugly.  I thought I might throw up. 

But I was a compliant child, so I pulled myself up from the stool slowly, as if I wore a block of concrete on my feet instead of my raggedy winter boots.   I turned, desperate for a last-minute reprieve.  “Go on,” she said, nodding toward the door.

I went.  It was a very, very long journey to my desk, my cubby, my books and lunchbox, out the door again and toward the office. 

I breathed again when I saw my sisters, sitting side-by-side in the office. It hadn’t occurred to me they would be there, too.   I was so happy to see them I had to hold myself back from crying.   I sat in the empty chair next to my oldest sister.  “It’s okay,” she whispered.  I nodded.

My mother arrived to pick us up and endured the school nurse’s detailed instructions on what to buy and how to treat our hair and clothing.  “Don’t skip any of the steps,” she said, handing over three sealed envelopes, one for each of us.  “This explains when the girls can come back to school.” 

We left the school, bundled in our winter coats.  There was RID, and hot water, and hours at the laundramat.  There was even—this was 35 years ago—a head-dunk in kerosene, because my father wanted to make damned sure the lice was gone forever. 

It’s annoying when a writer tells what she’s trying to say, because a good writer shouldn’t have to explain herself.  But I do it here, just in case, because of course this isn’t about lice, or how much we’ve evolved in the area of lice treatment, or about what’s right or wrong with how we do things.  It’s about the snapshots a child will slip into a lifelong photo album. 

I’ve never forgotten that day.  No one was unkind; no one had ill intentions; no one did anything wrong.  It was just this thing that happened, and I remember it as clearly as I remember anything.  And I think about that, often, as a mother and educator—about those early memories, and how fiercely they grip.  

Children are seeing; they are watching; and they will remember. 

Teaching, Time, and Water in a Sieve

"Time flies."  The nurse shook her head and locked eyes with the infant I held in my arms.  She was finalizing paperwork to discha...