Category Archives: education

The Turch and Other Mistakes

Neither age nor time has changed my opinion of Mrs. Gladwill.

I will go to my grave believing that my first grade teacher actually took pleasure in torturing little kids.

If you think I’m exaggerating, consider this: at age six, when I watched the movie The Wizard of Oz for the first time, I was convinced that the Wicked Witch of the West had taken lessons from Mrs. Gladwill.

Horrible memories from first grade still haunt me:

  • Being put in the corner because it was easier to move me rather than the kids around me who were cheating;
  • Wetting my pants because Mrs. Gladwill believed that if you didn’t use lunch or recess to relieve yourself, you didn’t plan appropriately;
  • Going to school with the mumps because I didn’t want my name to be written on the upper right hand corner of the chalkboard for being absent;
  • Getting caught going to school with the mumps, being blamed for infecting most of the kids in my class, and having my name written on the upper right hand corner of the chalkboard anyway.

The list goes on and on. But nothing compares to the horror I felt for making my first mistake on a school assignment.

Up to that point, I though school was too easy. So, when Mrs. Gladwill gave her class a worksheet with rows of pictures and told us to circle everything that began with the letters ch, I scoffed at such a simple task. While my peers studied the worksheet and labored  over the choices, I took more time selecting which crayon to use than I did actually circling the pictures: a chairs, cherries; checkers, a chicken, cheese and a few other items. I raised my hand, turned in my paper and took pleasure in being the first in my class to complete the assignment.

What I never anticipated was getting the paper back the next day with a big red circle around the picture of a church and an even bigger -1 at the top of the page.

I was so astonished, I forgot to be afraid of Mrs. Gladwill. I actually reached out and tugged on her sleeve.

“You made a mistake,” I blurted out in my moment of disbelief,

I immediately regretted my words.

Mrs. Gladwill turned around with a look that said “I never make mistakes.” Her  lack of words, however, gave me the opportunity I needed.

“You circled the turch,” I said. “Turch doesn’t begin with ch, It begins with T.”

For the first time in my life, an adult looked at me as though I was stupid.

“CHurch,” Mrs. Gladwill said emphasizing the ch sound, “begins with ch.”

And that was the end of our discussion. But it wasn’t the end of my disbelief.

I took the offending paper home to show my mother, who, to my amazement, sided with Mrs. Gladwill.

I was stunned. We went to turch almost every Sunday. When I talked about turch, it definitely started with a T.  And that’s how others people said it too. I couldn’t have been saying and hearing it wrong.

And yet, according to my mother and to Mrs Gladwill, I had been.

The day my mother convinced me that turch wasn’t a word was quite possibly the most humbling day of my life. My world was turned upside down because I realized that the way I perceived it wasn’t always accurate. That was the most important lesson I learned in first grade.

It’s also one of which I am regularly reminded.

Just the other day, I discovered that yet another person I knew had died of a drug overdose, and, once again, people took to social media to disparage her. There were comments about how she used the money she got from being on welfare to buy drugs. There were comments about her deserving to die if she did drugs. There were even comments that the world was better off with one less drug user.

And for every one of those comments, someone who knew would point out that she wasn’t on welfare – she had a job. They would point out that she was a kind soul who went out of her way to help others. They would say that she had a family who loved her. That seemed to fall on deaf ears.

The people who were making the negative, hateful comments were doing exactly what I did as a first grader – only instead of insisting that the word church starts with a T, they were insisting that there is only one type of person who dies of a drug overdose. Based on their judgemental comments, the only thing that will change their mind is when someone they know and care about dies of an overdose.

I wouldn’t wish that on anyone – just as I wouldn’t wish any child has a horrible teacher like Mrs. Gladwill. But there is something to be said for negative experiences.  They teach us valuable lessons; they help us develop new skills; they give us a new perspective; and, hopefully, every once in a while, they teach us humility.

Mrs. Gladwill died ten years ago at the age of 94. When my mother sent me her obituary, all those negative feelings from first grade came rushing back. But something else came back as well: a memory of my mother telling me that the smartest people make a lot of mistakes in life. The difference between them and others is that they always learn from them.

Thanks Mom. And (I say this with a great deal of hesitancy) thanks also, Mrs. Gladwill.

Three (Different) Strikes

The man who walked into my office carrying a chainsaw a few weeks ago is now stuck in a jail cell.

In all likelihood, he’ll be behind bars for a very long time, and I don’t think anyone who knows him is surprised. My former client has been struggling to survive since he was released from prison only a couple of years ago. And while he’d most likely been involved in criminal behavior for which he wasn’t caught (the origins of that chainsaw he was selling to raise money to pay his electric bill are highly dubious), his luck ran out this week. He never really had much of a chance anyway. Growing up, he had too many strikes against him.

And if common sense isn’t enough to tell us that the more negative experiences a person has in childhood, the less likely they are to succeed as adults, science has now proven it. But this doesn’t mean we should give up. Research has also shown that positive relationships with caring adults can help mitigate the impact of those negative childhood experiences.

And for many children, those caring adults are teachers. Teachers aren’t just educating the next generation; they are building relationships that could very well save a child who would otherwise end up like my former client –  in a jail cell heading back to prison.

If common sense and logic prevailed, our communities would be doing everything we could to support teachers. We’d recognize that our future depends on them.

And yet, in West Virginia, our teachers – some of the lowest paid in the nation – have been on strike for more than a week. And the issue isn’t just about salaries – it’s about access to affordable health care and basic respect for the profession.

Many lawmakers are their biggest advocates, but others are actually belittling them.

Take, for example, Republican State Senator Craig Blair, who unfortunately and embarrassingly is from my county. During a radio interview, he actually used the fact that teachers are personally ensuring that low-income children still have access to free lunches during the strike as a reason they shouldn’t get raises.

Not only did he fail to acknowledge how incredible these teachers are for giving more than they are required, he flat-out failed the children they are helping. These are children in poverty. These are children who already have several strikes against them. These are children who need caring adults in their lives to counter all of  the negative consequences of poverty. These are children that are caught up in a political battle that could be easily resolved. And these are the children who will soon be adults that either contribute to or become a burden on our communities. It all depends on what we adults choose to do.

I couldn’t save my client who is back behind bars, but I refuse to do nothing for West Virginia’s children and the teachers they need as much as they need sunshine and water to grow.

I’m using this blog and my words to strike back at the lawmakers who aren’t supporting them. And I know a lot of voters who will be striking back at the ballot box in November.

Stay tuned.

An Overdose of Reality

shep pointingLast Monday night, family and friends celebrated as my son and 255 of his classmates received their high school diplomas

A week later, one of those students died.

My daughter was told about the death at school. My son found out via social media. My husband learned of it from my son. And I received  a text message telling me the Spring Mills High School class of 2016 had already lost a member.

Within a few hours, the rumors were swirling through the neighborhood and on the internet. But there was element that never changed: the culprit was heroin

And while many are simply shocked that a kid with so much potential died from a drug overdose, I’m dealing with a range of emotions.

I’m saddened, and my heart breaks for my son’s classmates who are struggling to understand what happened. I’m overwhelmed with how this drug continues to gain strength in my community. And I’m frustrated with the  political posturing that’s preventing real solutions to this horrible epidemic.

But, most of all, I’m angry.

I’m angry that so many people are expressing surprise that an athlete with decent grades could die from an overdose. This has been happening for years across the country, and pretending it couldn’t happen at our school was ridiculous.

I’m angry that my community has experienced dozens of overdose deaths since the beginning of 2016 and yet so many people want to blame the victims and their families instead of work toward a solution.

And most of all, I’m angry that drug dealing is yet another example of how money has become more important than human lives.

Nobody in the Class of 2016 can rewind the clock a week and get a do-over, and there is still plenty more heartache to come for everyone involved in this situation.

I can only hope that the members of my son’s graduating class, as well as the underclassmen who will follow in their footsteps, recognize that some of life’s most important lessons don’t happen in the classroom. Even more importantly, I hope they understand that those lessons mean nothing if they don’t use that knowledge in a meaningful way.

In a situation like this, turning those lessons into action is a matter of life and death.

The Graduate

EPSON MFP image

Thirteen years ago,”Pomp and Circumstance” played as my son wore a red cap and gown to accept his diploma.

Because his class was extremely small, the formal ceremony was short. As the post-graduation celebration began, my son led his friends in a unique rendition of the “Chicken Dance.”

Throughout the afternoon, there were several other moments when he grabbed, or attempted to grab, the limelight. At one point, his teacher pulled me aside and whispered “All the world is a stage for Shepherd. Just enjoy it.”

But I couldn’t.

The next 13 years, starting in kindergarten, weren’t easy.

I worried obsessively about my son.

Even though my son was very smart and very funny, I worried that he didn’t have the same interests as his peers.

I worried that he was awkward and uncoordinated and would never find the place where he belonged.

I worried that he often seemed oblivious to what others automatically understood.

I even worried that he didn’t care that I was worried.

But somewhere between kindergarten and twelfth grade, my son taught me more than algebra and English literature classes ever could.

He taught me that going out on a limb will always be more interesting than standing on the ground hugging the trunk.

He taught me that winning a dance contest doesn’t necessarily require the best moves. It simply requires the most guts.

He taught me that more people appreciate the sheep who wonders off to explore new pastures than the ones who stay with the herd.

And he taught me that grabbing a mic and singing in front of the entire student body can never be embarrassing if you get everyone to sing with you.

On Monday, I will listen to “Pomp and Circumstance” while my son wears a red cap and gown  to accept his diploma.

I wish I could guarantee he won’t lead his entire graduating class  in a rendition of  “The Chicken Dance,” but I can’t. Neither can I  guarantee he won’t pull off one final, ridiculous high school stunt.

But here’s what I can guarantee: I won’t be worried.

Because I know that my unique, gifted, funny, ridiculous, smart, sarcastic son already has plenty of experience in finding his way in the often rocky terrain of life.

I also know, that his preschool teacher wasn’t entirely right. All the world is not just a stage for my Shepherd. Instead, all the world is HIS stage.

And I can’t wait to see his upcoming performances.

A Bad Influence?

BannedBooksWeekIf some people are to be believed, I grew up in an immoral home surrounded by bad influences.

My parents not only allowed me to read banned and challenged books, they actually encouraged it.

And look how I turned out.

I have a (fairly) open mind.

I don’t think people of a particular economic status or a particular religion are any better than anyone else.

I don’t believe you can judge other people or their circumstances.

I think that talking about tough and sometimes uncomfortable subjects always does more good than pretending they don’t exist.

And I encourage my own children to read banned and challenged books.

Even worse, I’m actually promoting Banned Books Week during this last full week of September, a time that frightens some people more than the last week of October.

That’s because some people are scared that their children, other children and even other adults might be exposed to books that challenge the way they think and their values. Some are even afraid their children might learn something new – usually about sex, or drugs or violence or mental illness.

And they are probably right.

When I was in sixth grade, the school administration decided to break students into different groups depending on our reading ability. I don’t remember any books my reading group was assigned. I do remember that on certain days, students in my group were allowed to read whatever we wanted.

And the book that everyone wanted to read that year was Forever by Judy Blume,

I have the distinct memory of a group of girls sitting on a pile of mattresses stacked in the corner of the school gym while a girl named Karen read passages out loud. I also remember being a bit shocked but also amazed. I had read hundreds of books, but that was the first time I had ever read a book that discussed sex.

I wasn’t sure what to think of that, and apparently the other girls didn’t either. The book didn’t condemn sex, but neither did it glamorize it. Instead, it laid out potential consequences and made all of us think.

Maybe that is what most scares people who promote censorship: thinking.

They fear that people will think rather than simply behave or believe as they are told.

Apparently, there’s a lot of fear in the United States.

According to the American Library Association, over the past ten years, more than 5,000 books have been challenged for the following reasons:

  • 1,577 challenges due to “sexually explicit” material;
  • 1,291 challenges due to “offensive language”;
  • 989 challenges due to materials deemed “unsuited to age group”;
  • 619 challenged due to “violence”‘ and
  • 361 challenges due to “homosexuality.”

An additional 291 were challenged due to their “religious viewpoint,” and 119 because they were “anti-family.” (Some works are often challenged on more than one ground.)

Some of my favorite books are on the list of the most commonly banned or challenged books of the 21st Century:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Now a few of my daughter’s favorite books are regularly appearing on the annual “most challenged” lists. including The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Looking for Alaska by John Green.

But here’s the thing protesters don’t get: when my daughter is reading such books, she wants to talk to me about them, and the resulting discussions are incredibly rich. They provide an opportunity to talk about values and beliefs in a non-threatening way.

And those are discussions we’d never have if the books were banned.

I certainly don’t like every book my daughter reads or every idea that is presented in them. In fact, there are some I prefer she didn’t read.

But that doesn’t mean I have the right to say the author’s words don’t count or aren’t meaningful. Doing that is stepping into very scary territory.

Just ask anyone who witnessed the Holocaust.

I want more for our next generation, and because of that, I encourage everyone to go to a library, a bookstore (whether in a building or on the internet) or their own bookshelf this week.

And I want everyone to pick out, read and enjoy a banned book.

365 Reasons to Smile – Day 63

I was once told that members of Generation X don’t have any heroes.

The explanation as to why makes sense.To_Kill_a_Mockingbird

We are the first generation that experienced the real-time exposure and humiliation of preachers (Jim Baker) and politicians (Gary Hart).

We are the first generation that experienced around the clock media scrutiny, the paparazzi and the loss of privacy.

But I disagree that we don’t have heroes. Our heroes are just different.

My heroes are the women who fought for equal rights. My heroes are the women who shared their own struggles and believed in me. And my heroes are the women who cared more about the needs of others more than their own needs.

I am incredibly fortunate that I personally knew many of these women.

I am also fortunate that others wrote books.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those books.

Harper Lee never wrote another because she never had to.

She said everything that needed to be said in To Kill a Mockingbird, and each time you read it, you discover a new truth.

Her one masterpiece always makes me smile.

Day 63: To Kill a Mockingbird   Day 62: Green Lights Day 61:  My Canine Friends  Day 60:  Differences   Day 59:  A New Box of Crayons   Day 58: Bookworms  Day 57: Being Oblivious   Day 56: Three-day Weekends  Day 55:  A Cat Purring  Day 54: Being a Unique Individual   Day 53: Children’s Artwork  Day 52: Lefties  Day 51: The Neighborhood Deer   Day 50: Campfires  Day 49: Childhood Crushes  Day  48: The Words “Miss You”  Day 47:  Birthday Stories   Day 46: Nature’s Hold on Us  Day 45:  Play-Doh   Day 44: First Day of School Pictures  Day 43: Calvin and Hobbes  Day 42: Appreciative Readers  Day 41: Marilyn Monroe’s Best Quote   Day 40:  Being Silly  Day 39:  Being Happy Exactly Where You Are  Day 38: Proud Grandparents  Day 37: Chocolate Chip Cookies   Day 36: Challenging Experiences that Make Great Stories  Day 35: You Can’t Always Get What You Want  Day 34:  Accepting the Fog    Day 33: I See the Moon  Day 32: The Stonehenge Scene from This is Spinal Tap  Day 31: Perspective  Day 30:  Unlikely Friendships  Day 29: Good Samaritans  Day 28:  Am I a Man or Am I a Muppet?    Day 27: Shadows  Day 26: Bike Riding on Country Roads  Day 25: When Harry Met Sally  Day 24: Hibiscus   Day 23: The Ice Cream Truck  Day 22:  The Wonderful World of Disney   Day 21: Puppy love  Day 20 Personal Theme Songs     Day 19:  Summer Clouds  Day 18: Bartholomew Cubbin’s Victory Day 17:  A Royal Birth    Day 16:  Creative Kids Day 15: The Scent of Honeysuckle   Day 14: Clip of Kevin Kline Exploring His Masculinity Day 13: Random Text Messages from My Daughter     Day 12:  Round Bales of Hay Day 11:  Water Fountains for Dogs    Day 10: The Rainier Beer Motorcycle Commercial Day 9: Four-Leaf Clovers  Day 8: Great Teachers We Still Remember Day  7:  Finding the missing sock   Day 6:  Children’s books that teach life-long lessons Day 5: The Perfect Photo at the Perfect Moment     Day 4:  Jumping in Puddles   Day 3: The Ride Downhill after the Struggle Uphill    Day 2: Old Photographs Day 1: The Martians on Sesame Street

365 Reasons to Smile – Day 44

trina1sean3Today, like the first day of school when my son started kindergarten 11 years ago, will forever be preserved in photographs.

As my daughter begins seventh grade and my son begins tenth, they are well beyond being the excited children they once were.

But I, just like my mom, still insist on taking obligatory pictures. Maybe that’s because it’s one of the few times I get a picture of my two children together.

Or maybe it’s because I’m watching them grow up too quickly.

Or maybe it’s because I still enjoy the trina 8 sean 10first day of school pictures from my own childhood.

For whatever reason, the taking first day of school photos is a family tradition that I’ve held onto.

And it always makes me smile.

Day 44:  First Day of School Pictures

 Day 43: Calvin and Hobbes  Day 42: Appreciative Readers

Day 41: Marilyn Monroe’s Best Quote   Day 40:  Being Silly

Day 39:  Being Happy Exactly Where You Are  Day 38: Proud Grandparents

Day 37: Chocolate Chip Cookies   Day 36: Challenging Experiences that Make Great Stories

Day 35: You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Day 34:  Accepting the Fog    Day 33: I See the Moon

Day 32: The Stonehenge Scene from This is Spinal Tap

Day 31: Perspective

Day 30:  Unlikely Friendships  Day 29: Good Samaritans

Day 28:  Am I a Man or Am I a Muppet?    Day 27: Shadows

Day 26: Bike Riding on Country Roads

Day 25: When Harry Met Sally

Day 24:  Hibiscus   Day 23: The Ice Cream Truck

Day 22:  The Wonderful World of Disney   Day 21: Puppy love

Day 20 Personal Theme Songs     Day 19:  Summer Clouds

Day 18: Bartholomew Cubbin’s Victory Day 17:  A Royal Birth        Day 16:  Creative Kids Day 15: The Scent of Honeysuckle   Day 14: Clip of Kevin Kline Exploring His Masculinity Day 13: Random Text Messages from My Daughter     Day 12:  Round Bales of Hay Day 11:  Water Fountains for Dogs    Day 10: The Rainier Beer Motorcycle Commercial Day 9: Four-Leaf Clovers  Day 8: Great Teachers We Still Remember Day  7:  Finding the missing sock   Day 6:  Children’s books that teach life-long lessons Day 5: The Perfect Photo at the Perfect Moment     Day 4:  Jumping in Puddles   Day 3: The Ride Downhill after the Struggle Uphill    Day 2: Old Photographs Day 1: The Martians on Sesame Street

365 Reasons to Smile – Day 9

four-leaf-clover-pictureMy parents always had a shelf full of books that I don’t think anyone ever read. There were nature books and travel books and thick books of poetry that just didn’t have the worn look of  the novels and biographies that lined other shelves.

But even though no one read them, that didn’t mean they weren’t used.

On the occasions I would take them off the shelf and thumb through them, I would often find a four-leaf clover pressed in wax paper between the pages. And I knew my dad had put them there.

He, like so many people, considered four-leaf clovers to be lucky. So, each time he found one, he kept it.

And now, every time I find a four-leaf clover, I am reminded of how lucky I was to have him as my dad.

And that always makes me smile.

Day 9: Four-Leaf Clovers

Day 8:  Great teachers we still remember

Day  7:  Finding the missing sock

Day 6:  Children’s books that teach life-long lessons

Day 5: The Perfect Photo at the Perfect Moment

Day 4:  Jumping in Puddles

Day 3: The Ride Downhill after the Struggle Uphill

Day 2: Old Photographs

Day 1: The Martians on Sesame Street

365 Reasons to Smile – Day 8

Whenever someone uses the word “deduct,” I always think of Mr. Hoff. He once asked his class to use the following four words in a complete sentence:  defeat; defense; detail; and deduct.

None of his students were able to put together a logical sentence, and Mr. Hoff gave an impish grin and said “Defeat of deduct go over defense before detail.”

My classmates and I may have groaned, but I’ll never forget that sentence or those words.

Mr. Hoff was my fifth grade teacher, who I recently wrote about in my Charleston Daily Mail blog.  I was shocked when many of Mr. Hoff’s former students from Oregon started posting and commenting on the blog.

But I shouldn’t have surprised.

Mr. Hoff was an amazing teacher, and being reminded of a great teacher who made a difference always makes me smile.

Day 8:  Great teachers we still remember

Day  7:  Finding the missing sock

Day 6:  Children’s books that teach life-long lessons

Day 5: The Perfect Photo at the Perfect Moment

Day 4:  Jumping in Puddles

Day 3: The Ride Downhill after the Struggle Uphill

Day 2: Old Photographs

Day 1: The Martians on Sesame Street

Shame is Not a Form of Birth Control

I had to double-check my calendar this morning to assure myself that it was actually 2013 and I hadn’t been sucked into a time warp.

I hadn’t been.

Instead, I was sucked into reading news articles about a school assembly featuring an abstinence-only proponent whose only educational credential is a Psychology Degree from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

See: http://www.dailymail.com/News/201304110267 and http://www.wvgazette.com/News/201304110229 .

I can’t emphasize enough how inappropriate the assembly was.

Almost 20 years ago, when I was working in the field of sex education, experts had already proven that abstinence-only and shame-based tactics don’t work. And promoting a particular religious philosophy in a public school is simply prohibited.

But self-righteous people, who believe they actually know what God is thinking, seem to find a way around these issues.

The speaker, Pam Stenzel, and her sponsors, a religious group called Believe in West Virginia, say her speech wasn’t faith-based. Instead they say it was just a warning about the dangers of sex before marriage.

Those few words should have been enough to keep this woman out of the public schools.

A real sex educator doesn’t pretend that a wedding ring can protect people from a sexually transmitted disease, an unplanned pregnancy or heartache.

A real sex educator doesn’t outright dismiss homosexuals, who are still fighting for the right to even be married.

And a real sex educator doesn’t condemn, judge or shame.

Instead, a real sex educator gives facts – not statistics that have been manipulated to fit a certain dogma.

A real sex educator will agree that sex is the only human behavior that has the potential to create life or to threaten a life. The educator’s job is to help individuals make decisions to prevent unwanted consequences.

And a real sex educator will spend time talking about healthy relationships and about treating others with respect –  not condemnation.

Years ago, I was that person, and I will never forget making a presentation about AIDS and HIV in a middle school classroom. As I interacted with the students, the teacher, who was obviously not happy I was there, took out his Bible and placed it open on his desk. He pretended to read, and I pretended to ignore him.

A year later, I had the same assignment and found myself in the same classroom. But instead of taking out his Bible, the teacher made a point of welcoming me and telling his students they should listen. He then privately told me that “a really good person” from his church had been diagnosed with AIDS. Instead of noting that a lot of “really good people” had been diagnosed with AIDS, I was just grateful that he had become a bit more open and less judgmental.

Now, I am hoping the same for all those involved in permitting the recent school assembly at George Washington High School.