Monday, January 27, 2014

My Grandmother - Sue White

 I was thinking about Sue the other day and also thinking how we often deify the dead - turning them into saints without fault.  And though Sue had many outstanding qualities, she, like the rest of us, was not perfect.  So, in wishing not to do her or the world a disservice, I decided I should remember not only what made her great, but also what made her humanly imperfect. 
 I remember being in her kitchen one day in my early twenties.  It was winter, and I was wearing jeans and a pair of short, black boots I’d just bought.  I loved those boots.  I sat in a chair facing the armchair she sat in, and I crossed my legs and leaned back in my chair as we chatted.  She looked down at my boots and said, “My god, those are the ugliest things I’ve ever seen,” and gave a perfunctory chuckle.  Then she moved onto whatever was next in her head, my ugly boots forgotten... forgotten by her but not by me.  I was offended.  How dare she say something like that!  Can’t she just keep that stuff to herself?  At the time, I angrily wondered if she thought she had the right to say things like that just because she was getting on in years and old people get to do whatever they like.
I hadn’t thought about this in years, but now I want to couple it with a seemingly unrelated story.  Since Sue died, several people have earnestly mentioned to me how she always made them feel welcome and how talking with Sue about things always made them feel better.  Then I realized something.  There have been countless times in my life when I did not comfort a suffering friend, when I did not approach the new person at the party because I was afraid I’d say the wrong thing.  Sue was never afraid to strike up a conversation, about the weather or your latest mental breakdown.  No topic was taboo, and because of that, she sometimes offended, but also because of that, she often provided solace and comfort to people when no other dared.  So as I thought about it, I realized for all the things I’ve learned from Sue - from how to make strawberry jam to how to be a good writer - the thing from her I most want to carry with me as I move through life is this:  Never be afraid to say the wrong thing.  Say something.  Say anything, whether the person is in obvious pain or simply a little uncomfortable in unfamiliar company.  And, if you, however well-intentioned, accidentally offend them, don't be too hard on yourself.
I’m going to end with a quote, because Sue loved them.  This one by Hunter S. Thompson describes in a broader sense the importance of daring to say the wrong thing. The first time I heard this quote, it was many years ago from Sue herself.  This is one she both loved and lived. It’s another lesson I carry with me:

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!

-Hunter S. Thompson

Monday, January 6, 2014

Farewell to Mrs. Howard

I just came from dropping Jack off in his classroom for the first day after winter break.  Normally, I don't go into the classroom with him, but today was different and not just because we've been on vacation for two weeks.  Mrs. Peggy Howard, Jack's beloved kindergarten teacher, and her eighteen-year-old son, Cale, were killed in a car accident by a drunk driver.  Mrs. Howard won't be returning to school or her family or anywhere else ever.  Jason and I were still in shock when we told Jack the news just over a week ago.  The only question Jack asked about it was, "When did it happen?"  Then, he crawled in my lap and peppered me with anxious questions about what would happen in his classroom now.  He wanted to know how the new teacher would know all the things Mrs. Howard did.  We went on with our vacation after that, Jack distracted by fun with cousins and grandparents.  We went to the funeral.  I cried a little.  Jack got antsy during the service, but Jason and I both thought it good he go for closure and understanding what happened to his teacher.  This morning, in the dark early hours before school, Jack and I once again cuddled on the couch as he voiced his nervous concerns about the new state of affairs in his classroom.  I reassured a little and listened a lot.  After all, there is no great solution or fix for this terrible tragedy.  Then, we went to school.  Steiner Ranch Elementary has handled a horrible situation beautifully, from calling us personally to deliver the news to inviting parents into the classroom for the first day back.  We parents listened to the counselor talk to the kids and met the interim teacher.  She was experienced, warm, and reassuring.  My initial concerns about the kid's continuing education dissipated.  After all, one of the reasons we moved here is so our kids could attend Leander ISD schools, in the district where I once taught and have first-hand knowledge of it's quality.
As I kissed Jack goodbye and left the classroom, I knew he'd be okay.  His teacher is gone, but he has a wonderfully stable family and the committed staff of the elementary school to see him and his classmates through.  I held back the tears, though, as I hurried through the cold morning to my car.  Being in that classroom, Mrs. Howard's absence was palpable to me for the first time.  Jack hasn't expressed missing her yet, only anxiety over the classroom.  It may hit him later, in a couple days or weeks, but I miss her.  I didn't spend nearly the amount of time at the school Jack does, but the little time I did spend, I was so impressed by Peggy Howard.  Having taught elementary school myself, I struggled at times to maintain patience and calmness in the face of the chaos that is young children.  Peggy was a beacon of patience and the epitome of calmness.  I so admired her demeanor and her genuine, calm smile.  I thought, if I ever go back to teaching, I'm going to think of her.  I'm going to try to be more like her.  It does take a special person to teach kindergarten.  Many people don't last more than a few years there, but Peggy taught kindergarten for decades.  She loved it, she loved the children, and it showed.  I realized this morning, whatever and whenever Jack feels about her, I am going to miss her, as a teacher, a person, and someone I admired.  After I got done being angry at the drunk driver and worrying about Jack, I was left with only sadness that the world is being deprived of a wonderful, contributing person like her.
Peggy Howard will be so sorely missed by so many people, as was evidenced in the hundreds of people who attended her memorial service. I can't imagine her family's pain right now.  I do hope, though, that it is some small comfort to know how many lives she touched.  She lives on in her family and in all of the hundreds if not thousands of children she's made feel comfortable and loved on that very first day of kindergarten.  Teachers like her are the reason kids learn to read and write and love going to school each day.  She's the reason they feel safe there.  She is the reason Jack and myself, both nervous about his starting public school, became so quickly comfortable there.  I was not just happy, but relieved when I met her and knew she would be the one with whom my son would spend his formative kindergarten year.  I know whomever the school chooses to permanently take over the classroom will be a well-qualified, loving person who leads our children to great kindergarten success.  I will, however, always remember Peggy Howard as Jack's first teacher and an incredibly admirable person.