Thursday, November 28, 2013

You never know... some thoughts on gratitude

So here I am, on American Thanksgiving Day. There is a lot that can (and should) be said about the politics of this holiday, but for now I'd like to share some thoughts with you about influence and gratitude. This is a long post, so thank you for your patience.

I've had many teachers in my life. You already know about Brother Blue, but today I'd like to tell you about three others.

I attended public school. I had some mediocre teachers and a few amazing ones. Among the best were Mrs. Gilmore and Mr. Mealey.

Mrs. Gilmore was my fourth grade teacher at C.W. Henry Elementary School in Mt. Airy, Philadelphia, PA. She was a tiny woman, barely taller than I was, with greying hair she wore in a bun. She was African-American and, looking back on it, I imagine her determination to get to where she was. She was fiercely fair; if you worked, you were rewarded. If you didn't, you failed. Most of the kids were scared of her. I don't think I was. I remember watching her work with one of the struggling students and seeing how gently she placed her hand on their back. I remember her terrifying a bully into behaving. And I remember a gift she gave me that has stuck with me to this day.

I was one of the brighter students in the class, reading well above my grade level. I was always in the most advanced reading group. Then, one day, half of my group was given a new reading book. I was in the half that wasn't. I was offended and asked her why I didn't get the new book. She looked at me quite calmly and told me that if I wanted to be the best I had to work at it, not just rely on my gifts. I was stunned. No one had ever told me that my inherent intelligence wasn't enough. I went back to my desk and read the rest of the assigned book within a day or two on my own and was duly promoted to the advanced group. I remember her smile as she handed me the book; clearly this was a victory for us both.

I haven't forgotten that lesson.

Mr. Mealey was my tenth grade biology teacher at the Philadelphia High School for Girls'. Over the course of the school year we became friends; he listened to my bemoan my problems and occasionally he would ask for advice about his own sons, not so far in age from me. He was a good teacher, passionate about his subject and he really wanted us all to see how cool it was.

I was a decent biology student. I could have been better if I applied myself, but Mrs. Gilmore's lesson was one I needed to learn over and over. In the middle of the school year I was having a particularly difficult time. I came into class and was completely unprepared for the test we were having that day. I turned in a blank paper. I remember looking at the questions and knowing none of the answers. I knew if it were a better day I would pass, but this day I had nothing. Biology was the least of my concerns.

Mr. Mealey never counted that paper against me. Without telling me, he didn't include it in my averages. I didn't know this until I received my term grade. It was the same as the term before and statistically it should not have been. When I realized what he had done, I wept. This simple act of kindness was an immeasurable gift. I am still grateful for it, grateful that he was willing to give me a chance to prove myself on the next test. I did. Sometimes an unexpected, unearned kindness makes all the difference.

I haven't forgotten that lesson, either.

Many years later, after college, I was working for a university as a research assistant. I interviewed people who had mental health challenges in the 1960s. One of my subjects was a man who was still quite ill. His home, where he lived alone, was littered with old broken toys and trash and take-out food boxes. Much of the interview was filled with his anger at his ex-wife and his kids. I was becoming nervous and considered ending the interview early.

He paused in the midst of a tirade, then his shoulders slumped. He looked me in the eye for the first time since I'd arrived. "I haven't seen my kids in at least a decade. These toys, I keep 'em in case they come back. I haven't called or asked them. I'm afraid they'll hang up on me." He paused, looking around his home. "You don't regret the things you do, you regret the things you don't do."

The interview concluded soon thereafter, but I haven't forgotten his lesson either. Neither lesson, really - the one about regret or the one about fear and sympathy.

We never know who our teachers will be. Nor do we know whom we will influence. All we can do is move through the world open to the possibility. Open to the chance that we will learn something unexpected or that our actions will help someone else learn what they most need to know. Open to gratitude, for the gifts received and given.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, November 4, 2013

Five things I think about through the long night

I’ve had an insidious cold for the last week, full of the usual sneezing and sniffling, but with an additional determined cough. I’ve been coughing enough that my ribs and abdominal muscles are sore. Yuck. What’s more, the cough gets worse at night, therefore falling asleep is a careful dance between becoming comfortable and remaining still, so I don’t trigger another coughing fit. You know all about this kind of thing, having suffered colds yourself.

What’s been interesting in this sleeplessness is that I’m not experiencing my usual frustration with insomnia; reading about second sleep has helped tremendously. I know I’ll fall asleep soon enough. Instead I’m taking this as an opportunity to let my mind wander and it’s going to some interesting places. Here are some of the things I’ve been considering in the middle of the might while I wait for sleep to conquer the cough.

5. The next thing I will write in NaNoWriMoIn the past I’ve had insomnia worrying about this month long writing event, but lately I’ve just been imagining my characters in new ways. I never knew fire sprites looked so fetching in Hawaiian shirts.  
4. What animal does my beloved sound like tonight? You might say he snores. I’d say he does a stunning sleep rendition of a purring tiger. Or a content capybara. Or maybe a distant revving motorcycle, preparing to propel its rider over the Grand Canyon or a Martian canal. 
3. Imagining places I’d like to go but am unlikely to get to. I shift through time and space, exploring the library of Alexandria. I dance in a ball at Pemberly. I walk through the bazaars on the Silk Road. 
2. I listen to my heartbeat and imagine music surrounding it. 
1. Lastly, and mot importantly, zombie fortification. How could I make my home safe from a zombie attack? I considered this quite seriously for a long time last night. My conclusion was that I was probably doomed.
And then I finally fell asleep, dreaming of the undead fiddling with lock picks and dropping their fingers. Ah, insomnia, bringer of strange dreams and stranger reveries. 

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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