Blog Archives

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!

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Halloween may be  the most ghostly holiday, but like Ebenezer Scrooge, I have always found Christmas to be more haunting. 

And just as with Scrooge, my Christmas ghosts remind me of what used to be and what I  still hold dear.

Unlike Scrooge, my ghosts don’t necessarily encourage me to reconsider my life path. They are simply reminders about change, about being a parent and about how the best Christmas gifts often go unopened for years and sometimes even decades.

And every holiday season, my ghosts remind me of  when I was an adolescent  and received gifts that I didn’t unwrap or appreciate  until years later.

They were given to me when I  was struggling with the usual  angst and therefore oblivious to anything my parents were dealing with.

And they were dealing with a lot.

My dad was unhappy with his current employment and seeking a new job. My mom was happy and fulfilled with her role in the community, but supportive of my dad.  Therefore, the needs of my dad, the family breadwinner, won out and he accepted a job almost all the way across the country from our Oregon home.

Shortly after accepting  the new job, he packed up his Ford truck  and our family dog and drove cross-country to West Virginia. And my mother, my brother and I were left behind.

He made the move in early fall, and even through my self-absorbed haze, I knew much my mom didn’t want to move.

She even insisted that no one was going to buy our house anytime soon.  But it sold almost immediately, and plans were made for the rest of the family to move to West Virginia over the Christmas holiday.

I continued my life as usual, pretending the change wouldn’t occur. My mother appeared to do the same. And with the holidays approaching, she made sure all the family traditions were kept. We decorated the house and the tree. We participated in holiday events. And we baked Christmas cookies and breads. Our house was warm, festive and inviting.  In fact, there were very few indications that our life would soon be disrupted in ways that would take me years to understand.

But that Christmas WAS different.

My dad wasn’t around, and my mom’s eyes would tear up every time ‘”I’ll be Home For Christmas” came on the radio.

Too soon, school was out for winter break, my dad came home to help with the move, we hurriedly celebrated Christmas and just as quickly packed the house. Then we left. Forever.

Initially, I thought I would never adapt to my new life. Everything was different – the way people talked, how they viewed the world and what their priorities were.  But I was young, and I eventually adjusted.  But because I was young, I was also self-absorbed.  So, the fact that  my mother was facing the same issues at the “real-world” level didn’t seem important.

I knew she was unhappy. I knew that she went from being a community leader to being someone fairly unknown. And I knew that she just couldn’t conform to the suburban culture that we suddenly found ourselves in.

But I also thought she was “old” and just wasn’t affected by things the way I was.  Or at least she knew how to deal with everything better.

I’m now even older than she was at that time, and I know we “old” people don’t always know how to deal.  At least I don’t.  And I don’t always hide my frustrations and imperfections… not even from my children.  And during the holidays, I sometimes simply choke.

But my mom never choked.  Even when she was going through one of the hardest times of her life, she never put her own issues, concerns and needs before those of her kids. She  pretended that whatever her children were going through was a much greater priority.  And she knew the importance of making us feel like we were home, even if she didn’t feel like she was.

That’s why, the Christmas after “the big move” felt just like every other Christmas.  We decorated the house with the same decorations that we’d put out in years past. We baked the same cookies and breads that we baked in the past. And we listened to Christmas carols on the scratchy records we’d always listened to. It felt like we were home for Christmas.

I actually received several unwrapped gifts those two Christmas holidays.  I received the gift of learning to move forward with my life while still embracing the past. I received the gift of  understanding the importance of traditions at Christmas. And I received the gift of a role model who gave of herself at a time when there was often little left to give.

I unwrapped those gifts years ago, but I’ve held onto them. Every year when we hang the decorations on the tree… some which go back to my childhood…these Ghosts of Christmas Past come back to haunt me. And they remind me that life is constantly changing: new people arrive while others leave. Circumstances sometimes improve and sometimes get worse.  And sometimes, even the entire culture seems to dramatically shift.  But amid these changes, we can still appreciate the Ghosts of Christmas Past, celebrate the Ghosts of Christmas Present  and hope that the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come provide opportunities for our children to open the unwrapped gifts we’ve given them. And that they too are haunted by Ghosts of Christmas Past.