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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.

The Permanent Mark of Bad Behavior

Mena-Peopel-Suck1There are times I feel as though mean and difficult people are the masterminds behind a sinister plot to take over the world. They know they’ll eventually just wear out the rest of us with their rude comments and insensitive behavior.

But then I come to my senses and realize if they were actually smart enough to carry out such a plot, they’d have more sense than a second grader. That’s when you learn some of life’s most important lessons. For example, I learned that a poor decision or a mean word will stay on your permanent record card forever, and a blemish on that card is never going to help you succeed.

Of course, I learned that lesson the hard way. I got the first black mark on my permanent record card when I was in second grade. I’ve had countless since then, but that’s the one that taught me about consequences and guilt.

The exact details of my crime are rather fuzzy, but the guilt is forever etched in my conscience.

The problems started because I was a bus rider.

In second grade, we didn’t have cliques, but there were two distinct groups: bus riders and walkers. (In those days, only the children of teachers came to school in cars.)

I perceived the walkers as privileged. They didn’t have to wait for anyone or abide by any schedule other than the ring of the bell. They didn’t have to arrive at school until the very last minute, and they could leave as soon as the bell rang at the end of the day.

I was jealous.

Those of us who rode the bus were just stuck. Since my bus ran earlier than others, there was a group of us who arrived at school much earlier than we actually needed to be there. In order for school officials to maintain order, they required us to immediately go to the cafeteria and sit quietly until given permission to go to our classrooms.

The wait was long and boring, especially since we were always being told to “quiet down.” Even now, almost 40 years later, I find that difficult. In second grade, it seemed impossible.

I don’t remember who came up with the scheme or how we executed it, but a group of friends and I decided we were going to escape the prison in the cafeteria. We didn’t make it far and were soon discovered hiding in the bathroom. After yelling at us, a teacher escorted my fellow criminals and me to the principal’s office.

The only thing I knew about the principal’s office was that it was where the really bad kids went. I was pretty sure there was a jail cell in there, where we would be handcuffed and chained to the bars as punishment for our crime. My worries grew as we were told to sit outside Mr. Mitchell’s office and “think about what we had done.”

By the time Mr. Mitchell opened his door and told us to come in, I was shaking.

Mr. Mitchell sat behind the desk and lectured us and lectured us and lectured us. As he talked, his face got redder and redder and redder. The only words I remember were “your permanent record card.”

I gulped.

I was supposed to go to college and get a job. I had no idea how I was going to tell my parents that all their hopes and dreams for me had been erased with one stupid decision. (Yes, I really did worry about such things as a young child.)

For years, I worried about my permanent record card and that time in the principal’s office. Many nights, I would lie in bed thinking about the implications. My concerns finally began to fade when I was an adolescent and transferred to a different school district. As my records were being reviewed, no one mentioned my criminal past.

I had been granted a pardon, and I was grateful. But, now, I find myself getting tired of passing on the gift of a pardon to others.

This week I am especially tired. I wrote in another blog about the death of a young West Virginian. While most of the feedback was positive, there were also individuals who left comments that belittled the individual and his way of life. The comments were hurtful and rude and pointless.

They were also permanent. Even if they are deleted, others have already read them, including friends and family members.

The situation bothered me to the point I couldn’t sleep at night worrying whether or not I should even have written about the young man’s death.

But then I remembered another important lesson from second grade: most people are mean to others because they don’t feel good about themselves, so you should try to be nice to them anyway.

I guess I’ll keep trying. Even though the marks made by  negative behavior (by both me and by other people) may be permanent, marks for positive behaviors can be permanent too. I just have to keep reminding myself of that.

Everything I Need to Know About Valentine’s Day, I learned in First Grade

candyheartsI always liked school, but I absolutely hated first grade. That’s because I had a very, very, very mean teacher.

Even forty years later, I’m still traumatized by memories of Mrs. Gladwill.

Normally, I’d feel really guilty calling someone out by name but 1) I’m not the only who has scars inflicted by Mrs. Gladwill and, 2) She’s dead. She died in 2008 at the age of 94. I know this because my mother sent me a link to her obituary. My mother, who is a very wise woman, knew I needed closure.

There’s no need to go into all the details of why first grade was difficult. There are just too many of those details, such as:

Watching fellow students have their ears twisted;

Sitting in class in fear of having “accidents” because, instead of giving permission to use the bathroom, Mrs. Gladwill gave lectures about “not planning accordingly”;

Having my desk put in the corner of the room so others couldn’t cheat from my papers.

But my worst memory, by far, is Valentine’s Day.

Back in the early 1970’s, before there were strict dietary guidelines in schools, Valentine’s Day parties were one of the celebrated days of the school year. Preparation began well before the actual day. By the beginning of February, letters were sent home with both the names of classmates and a list of snacks, such as cookies, cupcakes and candy, that parents were asked to contribute. We used that list of names to painstakingly address a card for every single classmate – whether we liked the person or not. But we did pick out “the best” cards and candy (every card had to have candy) for our friends.

In school, we decorated mailboxes (shoeboxes covered with construction paper) in which our Valentine’s Day cards were to be delivered. The actual celebration was to be a festival of sugar and giggles.

The day before the big Valentine’s Day party, I could no longer hide the fact I couldn’t swallow. I’d begun to worry the day before at school when eating lunch was a painful challenge. At breakfast, while I was trying to somehow swallow a spoonful of Cheerios, my mother took one look at me, told me I looked like a chipmunk and declared I had the mumps.

I wasn’t just devastated. I was horrified.

Mrs. Gladwill simply did not tolerate illness. Every day, after she took attendance, she would take a piece of chalk and scrawl the names of the absent on the blackboard. In the eyes of first graders, having your name on the blackboard was equivalent to the adult version of being forced to wear a scarlet letter. Walking into the classroom and seeing  your name on the blackboard was the ultimate walk of shame.

Being diagnosed with mumps was not only a sentence to take that walk of shame, but it also meant I was going to miss the Valentine’s Day party. In the eyes of a six-year-old, life couldn’t have been much worse.

That Valentine’s Day was probably one of the longest days of my life as I spent every minute imagining all I was missing. Finally, sometime after 3:00, I heard the squeal of the school bus’ brakes as it stopped in front of my house. When my brother came into the house, he didn’t call me chipmunk or tease me for missing all the festivities. Instead, he handed me the shoebox I had so painstakingly decorated only a few days earlier. But now, it was full of Valentine’s and candy. I spent hours reading and treasuring all of the cards, even the ones I knew weren’t heartfelt.

A few days later when I returned to class, my name was one of many written in dark chalk on the blackboard. Apparently, some nameless person (me?) had come to school with the mumps and shared the virus with everyone else.

Eventually, attendance went back up and our class returned to the same, miserable status quo. But I didn’t. That Valentine’s Day taught me a lot about love:

1. Love is about the memories we treasure because, even though they sometimes grow out of difficult situations, they remind us of people and challenges we’ve overcome.

2.Love is about finding a song that will mean something to you at any age. For me, the  Rolling Stones got it exactly right. “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well you just might find, you get what you need.”

3. Love is about having a family whose support will always make the worst day a little bit brighter.

4. Love is learning to treasure all the small gifts, even ones from people who may not realize that they were giving anything of importance.

5. Love is about taking care yourself, even when others will try to make you feel as though their needs should come first.

Most of all, I learned that Valentine’s Day is much more complicated than cards, or candy or having just one special person in your life. It’s about recognizing and acknowledge everything that makes you happy.

And, over the past 40 years, I’ve been immensely blessed with people, memories and circumstances that make me happy.

Which, is why, even though I may not entirely succumb to the sappiness of Valentine’s Day, I certainly embrace the sentiments, and the lessons, it’s taught me.

Did You Just Stick My Jelly Beans Up Your Nose?

jellybeansThere are those days when I feel as though people are sticking my jelly beans up their noses.

In more innocent times, I never worried about leaving a bowl of jelly beans on my desk. Instead, I was pleased to share with others while regularly snagging a few pieces of candy myself.

I should have known better.

I should have realized that some people will always find a way to sabotage life’s small pleasures because they are so focused on meeting their own needs.

I learned the lessons of jelly beans when I was getting my master’s degree and had classes with someone from high school. I don’t remember ever talking to my fellow student in high school and was honestly surprised he’d even graduated from college.

I had preconceived beliefs about him, and he, in turn had preconceived beliefs about me. I remember the day he told me, “you are actually really funny. In high school, your friends told me you were funny, but I never believed it. I always thought you were just too smart and too serious. You really aren’t that serious at all.”

I couldn’t really fault him for never getting to know me as I’d never made the effort to know him.

Instead, I’d simply thought he was someone who spent a lot of time in the principal’s office.

Turns out, I was wrong.

He rarely spent any time in the principal’s office. Instead, he spent a lot of time with the vice principal, who was in charge of discipline.

“Mr. Tidquist and I,” he said, “were quite familiar with each other. But I really didn’t like him or the jelly beans he always kept on his desk.”

I shouldn’t have asked about the jelly beans, but I couldn’t resist.

“Mr. Tidquist always had a jar of jelly beans on his desk, and sometimes he would grab a handful and eat them while lecturing me,” he told me. “One day, I was sitting in his office alone waiting for him to come in, and I was just so angry. I kept looking at those jelly beans and thinking of Mr. Tidquist eating them. I just couldn’t help myself. I would take few, put them up my nose, put them back in the jar and then stick some more up my nose.”

He smiled.

“I can’t even describe how I felt when Mr. Tidquist came back in his office, sat at his desk, grabbed a handful of jelly beans and ate them.”

After hearing the story, I couldn’t immediately describe how I felt either, other than to say I was relieved that I’d never been in Mr. Tidquist’s office and therefore never been tempted to eat his jelly beans.

But lately, I feel as though my decisions, beliefs and values are like the jelly beans on Mr. Tidquist’s desk. I take pleasure in being a strong and educated woman who can think and act on her own. I like to believe that by sharing and discussing my opinions, I just might help make the world a little bit better.

Instead, when I’m not around, some people choose to express their dislike and misperceptions by judging me, discrediting me or misinterpreting my actions. But they don’t say anything to me directly.

In other words, they are sticking my jelly beans up their noses.

Since I’m human, there’s a part of me that can’t help but be bothered and offended. But there’s another part of me that realizes how their behavior has nothing at all to do with me. Which is why, instead of taking my jelly beans off my desk, I’m thinking of putting a mirror next to them.

That way, when people put my jelly beans up their noses, they are forced to see how their words and behavior only reflect back on them.

In the meantime, I’m going to continue to enjoy sharing my jelly beans with everyone who appreciates them.

My Lifetime Battle with the Big, Yellow School Bus

This Monday, my son starts high school and my daughter starts middle school.

I could grieve how quickly the years have flown. I could pull out baby pictures and wallow in nostalgia. I could reminisce about how, just yesterday, my son was starting kindergarten.

Or I could celebrate that, because both of my children are attending school out of district, my epic battle with the big, yellow school bus may just finally be over — permanently.

The battle began when I was in first grade. Having spent kindergarten walking to school, I was  ecstatic that we had moved to a house that required riding a school bus.

My enthusiasm didn’t last long.

The problems started on the first day of school when I thought I could handle the bus ride all by myself. And I did. Going to school was simple. The bus picked me up in front of my house and dropped me off at school. My biggest challenge was getting to my classroom.

Going home proved a bit more difficult. I got on bus number 25, rode it to my street and rode it to my house. I then rode it past my house because my timid calls to stop weren’t heard over the din of bus chatter.  Even though the bus failed to stop at my house, it did seem to stop at almost every other house in the county. When her route finally ended, the bus driver turned around, gave me a pointed look and asked me where I lived.

I proudly declared my well-memorized address “1910 Bean Drive.”

The bus driver did not look happy. “We went right past there. Why didn’t you get off?”

“Because you didn’t stop,” I replied.

Without a legitimate comeback, the bus driver had to make a decision. She’d take me home on her next run. Surrounded by kids two or three times my age and size, I finally made it home to an almost hysterical mother.

I wasn’t used to my mother being so worried. I was used to my mother being in control of every aspect of my life… including what I ate. And while I pined to have a lunch box with a bologna sandwich on white bread and ding dongs like all the other kids, my mom packed a very different lunch.  Ever day I carried a brown bag (that she ask I bring home to be recycled) with a peanut butter (no added sugar) and honey sandwich on home-made wheat bread, carrot sticks, an apple and powdered milk in a square container with a lid (no thermos for me).

I hated that milk. I never drank that milk. But day after day, my mom packed it in a brown paper bag and day after day I carried the brown bag and the container still full of milk home from school.

Then, the inevitable happened, and I dropped the bag onto the floor of the school bus. The milk, which was already at room temperature, spilled everywhere.  The bus driver was not at all pleased with me, so I should have known the situation would get even worse.  And it did.

Only weeks later, my mother put her car in the shop near my school and needed a ride home.  Being practical, she arrived at my school just as classes were ending and climbed onto bus number 25 with the first and second graders. At least she tried to climb on the bus, but the driver wouldn’t let her.

My mother insisted that there was plenty of room and the bus was going right to our house anyway. The driver told her no. After what seemed like the longest argument (and one of the most embarrassing moments of my life), the principal finally came over to settle the matter.

My mother had to find her own way home.

I’m pretty sure that was the day my name was officially added the national school bus “beware of this student” watch list.  (That’s the list distributed nationwide to every single school bus driver.)

The list is the only explanation as to why, even after I moved across the country, the new school bus driver didn’t like me either.

In that case, the feeling was mutual. I had no respect for a woman who, instead of looking at the road, was constantly looking in the mirror to see what the kids were doing. After a few very close and dangerous calls on winding, West Virginia roads, my friend and I decided we’d had enough and organized a protest. We told everyone on the bus to duck down below the backs of the seats. The next time the driver looked in the mirror, her bus appeared empty.

We though this was hilarious. Our bus driver didn’t. In fact, she was so angry, she stopped the bus and marched up and down the aisle taking  names and phone numbers  Once she got mine, she seemed satisfied in learning that the girl on the national watch list was the culprit.  What she didn’t expect was that my parents sided with me. They didn’t, however, think the incident warranted a life-time pass from riding the school bus, and I was still forced to ride for a couple more years.

But now, my days on the bus have come to an end, and, except for a few field trips, they have ended for my children as well.

Like so many other parts of childhood, all that is left are the memories and the lessons learned. Now it’s time to make more memories and learn something new. I’m just glad that neither is likely to involve a big, yellow school bus.

Burning Down Our House With Debates About Health Care

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln made his famous “A house divided cannot stand” speech.

He was debating Stephen Douglas about the issue of slavery. Douglas believed that each new territory or state should be allowed to decide whether it would permit slavery.  Lincoln believed that the nation as a whole should take stand.  At the time, a lot of people believed whites to be superior to blacks and that owning another person was justified based on skin color and bank account size.

We all know who eventually won that debate. But even after the slaves were free, too many people still believed in a superior race.  And, for more than century, too many laws reflected their beliefs.

Now, more than 150 years later, I wonder how history will portray the politics of 2012 when the United States is once again a house divided.

Only this time, instead of being divided over slavery, we are divided about the purpose of government.  But there is also an underlying debate very similar to the one being waged during the Civil War.

Too many people still believe that some  individuals are superior to others. Only instead of color, they are claiming superiority based on the size of their bank account or their employment status.  We have become a country that is debating whether we measure success in terms of dollars or in terms of human rights.  We are debating whether accumulating possessions is more important than ensuring access to health care.  And we are even debating whether or not poverty is a moral issue.

This has never been more apparent than with the reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision that the Affordable Health Care Act is Constitutional.

The fact that people have different opinions about the decision doesn’t bother me. I expect that. Different opinions are healthy. What bothers me is the judgmental comments and self-righteous outrage that some people expressed.

I was particularly struck by comments from a public school teacher who said the Supreme Court’s decision was immoral.  She followed this by saying “I work for a living. I don’t want my hard-earned dollars to support people who depend on the government.”

Since a public school teacher depends on the government (i.e., taxpayer dollars) for her paycheck, I was dumbfounded.  I wonder how she would react if the country engaged in a debate about the importance of education and whether we are infringing on taxpayers rights by requiring them to pay for education.

At some point, our country embraced the belief that education is a right that every child deserves. We even took that concept a step further and mandated that children stay in school until a certain age.

If the issue were being debated now, there’s no doubt some people would be screaming that requiring children to go to school is unconstitutional and that hard-working taxpayers shouldn’t be responsible for the education of others.

Thankfully, most people recognize the importance of education, the benefit it has on a person’s future and the positive impact on a community’s economy.  The same benefits can be attributed to access to health care, so I’m not really sure why we are so divided about the issue.

But we are.

Instead of debating how to help people, we are debating whether or not we even should.  Take, for example, the comments of the previously mentioned public school teacher who claimed the concept of the Affordable Care Act is immoral.

Last time I checked, helping others was the definition of morality, not immorality.

But logic isn’t everyone’s strong suit. Many of the same people advocating for personal responsibility are also outraged that the individual mandate is part of health care reform. As explained to me, the purpose of this mandate is to encourage responsibility by requiring people to either purchase health insurance or pay a penalty to help cover the government’s costs.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the Affordable Care Act is perfect, but at least it’s a statement about what a lot of people think is important.  Actually, most people probably think access to health care is important.  The dividing issue is about whether it is important for all Americans or only those who have employers or bank accounts that can cover the costs.

The debate isn’t  going to end anytime soon. And with the presidential election season getting into full swing, discussions will  get even more discordant.

I just hope that whatever the outcome, Americans can look back at the repercussions of this time with pride rather than shame. I hope we can say this is a time we stood up for the rights of all rather than for the benefit of some. And most of all,  I hope we  don’t divide and even burn down our house with our heated differences.

Paving the Way to a Better Educated America

I’m beginning to think that our country is like a complex highway system that is riddled with potholes.

Very intelligent people designed the system. It has served a great purpose, and a lot of people  are better off because of it.

Unfortunately, the potholes are getting bigger, and the damage they’re causing is far reaching.

To address the pothole problems, Americans keep patching them one at a time. It’s not effective and is generally a temporary solution.  The potholes might disappear for a while, but the patches usually break up and the potholes get even bigger.

To really address the pothole problem, whole sections of the highway need an overhaul.

But overhauls require significant changes and shifts in how we think.  That’s something a lot of people, particularly those who have easy access to planes and who don’t even experience potholes, do their best to avoid.

I’m not one of those people, and I’m tired of dealing with the potholes in politics, social services and education. Especially education.

All you have to do is look at America’s dismal statistics to realize that our education system is not helping those children who need it the most.

Nearly 1 million kids who start high school every year in the United States don’t make it to graduation.  The dropout rate of students living in low-income families is about four and one-half times greater than the rate of their peers from high-income families (http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2011/dropout08/findings1.asp). The problem is cyclical: parents with limited education often had poor experiences in school and are less likely to emphasize its importance.

For years, community activists, business leaders and education experts have been discussing the problem and trying to develop solutions.  millions of dollars have gone into innovative programs.  Some communities have decided charter schools are the answer. Others have provided alternative opportunities for youth who don’t do well in the typical public school. And others have simply been too busy pointing fingers.

Even when rates improve, the problem is still extensive.

That’s because most of the solutions center around patching potholes:  pouring resources into programs for children who are already at a disadvantage when it comes to learning.

Extensive research on brain development indicates that what happens between the ages of zero and three affects our ability to learn:  (http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/famsci/fs609w.htm)

Forget about being ready to learn in kindergarten.  Children from an environment with little stimulation or interaction are behind before they even enter a Pre-K classroom.

But, as a nation, we are doing very little to address true early education (birth to three.)  Right now, we are simply trying to help many kids whose brains were never wired to learn because of what happened during their first three years. If our education system shifted its resources and focus to the very young, children might actually be better prepared for academic learning.

And yes, the cost would be high. But people always think the cost of preventive programs is high until they look at the cost when there is no prevention.

According to a recent series on NPR (http://www.npr.org/2011/07/24/138653393/school-dropout-rates-adds-to-fiscal-burden) a high school drop out will earn $200,000 less than a high school graduate over his or her lifetime, and almost a million dollars less than a college graduate.  And the cost to taxpayers? The estimate is  anywhere from 320 to 350 billion dollars as a result of  lost wages, taxable income, health, welfare and incarceration costs.

Can you imagine the difference if our education system actually began to address the critical link between early childhood brain development and academic success? Not only would we begin cutting the costs attributed to the high school drop out rate, but we’d have a whole generation that would be better prepared to contribute to society.

Making that change would require a significant paradigm shift in how Americans think about public education and who we think should receive it. And it would mean education systems would have to partner with other sectors to work with families, since that’s where much early education is or is not occurring.

This overhaul wouldn’t solve all of our country’s education issues. Like anything else, there’s not one magic bullet.

But it’s certainly a start to paving the way for future generations.

A Tale of Two Teachers and Blank Sheets of Paper

With the current year fading fast and all of the potential of  a new year on the horizon, I’d like to suggest a resolution for everyone: don’t write on someone else’s blank sheet of paper.

Whether or not you let someone write on YOUR  paper is up to you, but please don’t write on someone else’s.

Personally, I’m resolving to avoid both.  For such an outwardly head strong, opinionated person, you might think the first will be more difficult.  But, for the unsure, worried and perpetually questioning me inside, the second will be just as challenging.

For years, I’ve let way too many people write on my paper. . . altering my story with their advice, opinions and standards. And the difference between someone who writes on your paper and someone who cheers as you write is long-lasting.

I learned this from two teachers and the blank sheets of paper they expected their students to fill.

I absolutely loved those blank sheets of paper.  I loved the smell. I loved the look. And I loved the endless possibilities.

During my grade school years, the paper wasn’t white. It was an indescribable shade of grey and tan with space for a picture above and a combination of dotted and solid lines below.  The purpose of the lines was to ensure appropriate hand-writing form.

I never worried about my handwriting (and was generally graded down accordingly).  I was much more worried about content. I was fascinated by how I could string words together to say something that nobody else had ever said. I adored the feeling of putting pencil to paper and creating something.  And I loved being able to express myself.

What I didn’t love was having parameters placed on me.

And those parameters were set forth quite firmly by my first grade teacher, Mrs. Gladwill. Unfortunately, I can’t really say anything nice about the woman.  I could write pages about the horrors of that school year –about the times I was stuck in the corner so other students wouldn’t cheat off me; about how needing to go to the bathroom was a nightmare because it was prohibited during class time (Mrs. Gladwill’s theory was that if you didn’t have the sense to go during recess or lunch, then you should wait); about how Mrs. Gladwill liberally used harsh words and a ruler on knuckles; and, most of all, about how Mrs. Gladwill required conformity.

For a “spirited” child, there’s no wonder that I didn’t thrive in first grade. I simply survived. And was beholden to a series of lessons that led me to believe that sometimes it’s easier to just let others control what goes on your blank sheet of paper.

That became evident when Mrs. Gladwill gave all of her students the assignment of  writing (and drawing) an answer to the question  “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

At first, I was very excited about the assignment.  With Mrs. Gladwill as a teacher, I should have known better.

I wanted to write about becoming a trapeze artist. My father had built and hung a trapeze from a juniper tree in our backyard, and I was already practicing my act.

The problem was, I didn’t know how to spell trapeze.

When I asked Mrs. Gladwill, her only advice was to look it up in the “book of careers” she had provided us.

Needless to say, trapeze artist wasn’t listed.

So I had to ask Mrs. Gladwill again.

Instead of helping me spell out my dream, she advised me to write about something “normal”, like becoming a nurse.

I had no desire to be nurse, but I recognized the authority she had. So, I reluctantly looked up nurse in the career book and wrote about how I wanted to be one. I even remember drawing the picture with particularly harsh strokes: I was angry that Mrs. Gladwill had taken control of MY piece of paper.  At the same time, I did not want to be in trouble. So my blank sheet of paper became a full sheet of paper that was a lie.

Turning in that paper marked the end of my dreams of becoming a trapeze artist.  Mrs. Gladwill had made it clear: if it wasn’t in the book about careers, there was no sense in pursuing it.

By second grade, my dreams had evolved anyway.  My new ambition was to become a writer.

Much to my surprise, my teacher, Mrs. Roth, never told me to look up writer in the “career book.” In fact, she didn’t even have a career book. She simply encouraged me to write stories whenever I had extra time. She even taped my stories on the outside of her classroom door where others could read them. And they did.

I remember swelling with pride when fourth graders stopped by our classroom to read my stories.

Since then, that dream of being a writer has never died.  I can’t say I’ve fully achieved that goal, but I never gave it up. It’s hard to give up something when others, particular teachers, believe in you.

So as 2012 approaches, I’m raising a glass to toast the blank sheets of paper everyone will receive in the new year. And I’m toasting the opportunity we all have to continue writing our own unique story without being told what the plot should be.  I’m also raising a glass to how we can all cheer each other on. And most of all, I’m raising a glass to the great teachers who lead the way.  Not only do they encourage so many of us, but they also serve as examples for other teachers by acknowledging that sometimes the most meaningful lessons aren’t the ones that are taught but are the ones that are observed.

Here’s to that! Cheers!