Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Nine

As we approach the anniversary of the tragedy in Charleston, I thought I'd put this out there.  I wrote it last summer.  While it recounts some of the terrible events, I like to think there is hope here too.

The Nine – Tim O’Keefe 7-15

Charleston in the month of June
At Mother Emmanuel
Good people met to share their prayers
But one man came to kill

They invited him to share their time           
To pray, to learn, to teach
They welcomed him with open arms
But his heart was out of reach

Maybe some good will happen
Maybe some kind of spark
Maybe we’ll move a little closer to the light 
Maybe come in from the dark
Maybe we’ll seek some honest answers
That would be so fine
Maybe we’ll speak some truth to power
We owe so much to The Nine

He shot and killed those precious ones
To start some kind of war
He thought his hate would conquer their love
But he’ll get no reward

‘Cause when the families of the victims spoke
Their strength came from their faith
Forgiveness was the message they shared,
“There’s no room in my heart to hate.” CHORUS

It was no trouble for that young man
To get himself a gun
Like chains and whips and ropes of old
He carried a Glock .41

They prayed and talked that mid June night
A young stranger in their midst
Singing those old Halleluiah songs
They couldn’t know what to expect                       

We met this evil man before
His face was there on Africa’s shore
In the Dark Middle Passage and Hate’s awful course
We’re familiar with his terrible face
His gun and his rope and his hanging place
His Jim Crow laws, his higher race
We know this wretched man all right
His tired flag, his speeches trite
His endless battle against Civil Rights
His chains, his whip, his hate, his gun
He’s been in this land since we’ve begun
Now let us pray that his time is done

Along with the Birmingham girls
Mississippi and young Emmett Till
The Freedom Riders back in ‘61
We remember their stories well

“Come Ye That Love The Lord,” they sang
And, “We are marching to beautiful Zion”
We sing their songs, we raise our voices

To the memory of The Nine

Sunday, June 5, 2016

A Teacher's Life

A teacher’s life is a bit of a mess I’m afraid.  New friendships forming, old friends leaving.  It can be an emotional roller coaster.  At least that’s the way it is for me.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I have taught next to and near teachers who count down the days until summer, wishing their lives away along with the potential for being best friends with students.  Teachers I have known in the past have shown me exactly who I do not want to be as a professional – or as a human.

One was many years ago.  My neighbor in a very large public school with 7 second grades.  She was a nice person.  The wife of a preacher.   She never had a good word to say about her students.  They were her enemy.  They made life hard. She hated coming in to work each day and after the first she would say, “Only 179 days to go!”  This counting down was her mantra.  “Only 157 to go…  Only 132 to go…”  It was funny.  

Only it wasn’t.  

Teaching for her was an endless process of wishing she wasn’t teaching; wishing she was doing something else.  Her kids hid her keys from her.  Her kids were never quiet.  Her kids were failures.  When she retired, it was the happiest day of her life. 

The other is a teacher I know now – although I hasten to add that she is not on my staff.  I play and sing with her at my church sometimes.  She teaches Kindergarten.  She literally prays for the end of the year to come more quickly.  She also counts the days down and is always asking for a HALLELUIA as the year draws to a close.  She regularly recounts stories of her students spitting on her, cussing her out, assaulting her.  Kindergarten.  While she claims to love teaching young children, I doubt she fools anyone.   Being that we are two teachers from the same district you might think that we have a lot in common, that we might be able to talk shop some.  Nope.  We don’t come from the same shop. 

Friday was our last day together.  In my school we loop with the children.  I teach second grade, then third.  That’s 360 school days. That’s over 2,500 hours, 150,000 minutes.   It’s a long time in a critically important time of young children’s lives.  Everyone grows and changes so much.  And I get to be right in the middle of it, I get to bear witness.  And it is an honor and a privilege.  We get to know each other really well.  We become best friends.  So, yeah, I’m kind of sad right now.  But that really is a teacher’s life. 

Even writing my last letter to parents was emotional.  Because most of us get to know each other pretty well too.  After all, we share responsibility for their precious children for two years.  Below are some excerpts from my last curriculum report / newsletter.  Some of it is insider language – but you'll get the gist…

 “Ends are not bad things, they just mean that something else is about to begin. And there are many things that don't really end, anyway, they just begin again in a new way.”  C. JoyBell C.                    6/4/16

Dear Friends,
            It is a bittersweet moment for teachers to say good-bye to their children. And for us at CFI, it may be especially so since we are together for two years. It seems even more emotional this year since I am getting older and probably only have a couple years left teaching. It is also hard because I am just an old softy and I fell for your children.  Oh, we’ll be together again; I’ll make sure of that. We’ll sing songs together. We’ll share projects. But it won’t be the same. They know it. And I know it. But it has been a wonderful ride.
            Perhaps because I am older, and that each year is only a tiny fraction of my lived life, but it seems like only a little while ago when your children were walking into the classroom for the first time. They were looking around full of curiosity and wonder. And perhaps they were a little scared (there are a lot of animal skulls in there!). Most of the kids were used to their Kindergarten/first grade teacher. And here was this old-ish man. They didn’t know if they could trust me. I’m sure they asked themselves… Who is this guy? Will this be fun? Will I learn a lot? Will he be mean? Will I be allowed to talk and be myself? Will it be hard? Does he yell? Will we all be friends?
            The truth is, after all of my years as a teacher, I was a little scared as well. At the beginning of the loop I miss my old friends who have moved on to grade 4. I am also wondering… Who are these guys? Will this be fun? Will I learn a lot? Will they be mean? Will I be allowed to talk? Will this be hard? Do they yell? Will we all be friends?
            While every day in the life of a student (and a teacher) isn’t pure joy, we had a tremendously successful time together. We covered a lot of curriculum but, more importantly, we uncovered a lot of essential learning.  Together we dug in dirt, watched black swallowtail butterflies emerge from chrysalises, assembled skeletons, and built tall structures from toothpicks. We learned cursive, we wrote beautiful songs and sang our hearts out. We got to know our 4th grade pen pals through letter writing. We learned about hunger and homelessness and together we made a difference.  We shared awesome books (Fig Pudding, Marshfield Dreams, Charlotte’s Web, Shiloh, Shiloh Season, Saving Shiloh, The Music of Dolphins, a lengthy set of books about hunger and homelessness, a set of books by Patricia Polacco, Holes, biographies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Helen Keller, The One and Only Ivan, The Watsons Go To Birmingham, 1963, The Indian in the Cupboard, The Return of the Indian, and Number the Stars). 
            We all outgrew ourselves as writers with our own memoirs, our non-fiction animal pieces, biographies, conflict and resolution pieces, poetry and “This I Believe” essays. 
            We had interesting visitors concerning hunger and homelessness, and geology. We were glued to the news and the polls as the primary election process whittled away the field of men and women running for president. What better way could there be to learn about government than focusing on the amazing process happening right in front of us?
            We went on some powerful field studies including one to the State House and, of course, Harvest Hope food bank– where the class worked efficiently to sort and inspect food. And we sang and sang and sang. Our learning celebrations always had a song or two to demonstrate what we had been learning and thinking about. We sang at The Haven Alzheimer’s Care Center before the holidays. We recorded our CD “Helping the Hungry with Harmony” and managed to sell (or give away) hundreds of copies (and raised almost $1,200.00). We sang for the Inquiry Matters conference, our MAT Hooding Ceremony, for Sparkleberry Fair. But mostly we sang for ourselves. During the final week of school we voted for our favorite five songs to sing together on that last ½ day. They were precious. We ended our time together with the very first song we sang when the kids were in first grade. It was a powerful full circle moment.
            These critical incidents and memories made our year unique. This year was filled with special learning events from literature studies to expert projects to science demonstrations to learning about Civil Rights and SC history.  

           In some ways we were like those caterpillars we fed and observed at the beginning of our time together. Even though I had a BIG plan for the year, in an inquiry classroom one never knows precisely what to expect. We all grew and matured and changed and outgrew ourselves. We became more efficient mathematicians, more effective readers, more curious about the world, richer singers, more expressive writers, better team members, wiser teachers, deeper researchers, and more fearless at asking questions. Just like those black swallowtails last fall, the kids shed their old skins and grew up.  After 36 years teaching young children, I guess I did too.

EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY in the end.  IF IT'S NOT OKAY it's not the end - John Lennon

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Lessons From My Mother

I have been thinking about my mom a lot lately. Missing her.  I would often call on my way home from work.  She would often come down from western North Carolina if there was something cool happening.  Yesterday my kids sang at a neat little fair up near my school.  It was fun.  She came to Sparkleberry Fair several years ago.  We were selling CDs of our original songs for a good cause.  We were raising money to buy goats for a village in Rwanda.  She loved it.  I can see her now in her sun hat, walking through the crowd drumming up business for us.  

She would have liked how my class sang yesterday.  She would have liked knowing that Devin is nearing the end of his  coursework for his doctorate in physical therapy and that Colin is going to give music a shot after graduating this summer.  She would have loved his band.  She would have liked getting to know our rascal of a puppy.  She would like my new songs and Heidi's new book.   She was Heidi's and my best friend.

It's not an anniversary of her death, although her birthday is on May 9th.  I am just missing her and as I read this old post, I thought I'd give it another go.  She is still teaching me lessons.  

Lessons From My Mother

My mom died yesterday, December 20, 2011.  Ruthie and I were there holding her hands, telling her that we loved her.  Telling her that she was the best possible mom.

She died the way I wish I could go when my time comes.  Fearlessly.  Painlessly.  In love with the people around her.  She had straightened out as many of life’s complex affairs as she possibly could, giving away a great many of her possessions, making sure she had a living will, making sure her beloved house in the mountains was closed up and safe.

She said no to any additional tests, chemotherapy or transfusions, knowing that they would do nothing but prolong a very uncomfortable life.  She took nothing for pain besides Tylenol until the day before she died. 

The very last words I heard her say were, “I love you,” before she could talk no more.  She was more concerned for those around her than for her own personal comfort.  She was modest until the very end, declining my help in getting her into the bathroom when she could barely walk.

“Don’t cry,” she told me recently.  “You can’t be sad.”  But she herself did cry sometimes.  She worried about all that she would miss; graduations, family relationships, the happiness and accomplishments of others, seeing her grandkids grow up.  Several times in the last month, when it was clear that she didn’t have much time left, on the rare occasion when she allowed herself to be sad, she said, “I just want to know how it all turns out.” 

But it never really turns out, does it?  Life is just so complicated; families and friends just keep spinning out and out.  Life is a process, a journey.  It builds in complexity until the end.

You could never say good-bye to everyone you want to, make sure that all life’s accounts are closed, every possession is passed on.  But she came close.  She worked at it.

And until right before she left us, she laughed and reminisced, loved and received love.  I am a better man for having known this remarkable woman.  All of us who knew her are better off.  As I write this, hovering over my writer’s notebook, somewhere between Albuquerque, New Mexico and my South Carolina home, many of my mom’s lessons are coming to me. 

Here is a list of some simple truths and bits of wisdom that she passed on through her words and actions.  There is no order here.  I am too sad for order.  But my sadness is softened by the knowledge that she left this world a better place. 

My mom, ever the teacher, did more than teach me how to live a good life.  Through her grace and humility, her courage and her openness, she even taught me how to die. 

I could write for the rest of my life and never capture her essence, and if I have any good qualities, I learned them from her.  While this is the saddest time I have known, I am grateful to have had this strong, simply good woman in my life for 54 years. 

Lessons From My Mother

·      Be thrifty.  Our blessings can be more efficiently shared if we are careful with our resources

·      Be generous

·      Find your causes and follow through with them

·      Give a lot – not just money but time and energy

·      Find new friends wherever you are

·      Remember to stay in touch with old friends

·      Love nature. Spend time in the woods and near water

·      Leave a small carbon footprint

·      Recycle everything you can

·      Walk a lot

·      Write real letters with pen and paper

·      Don’t collect too much stuff

·      Find reasons to laugh

·      Love a lot of people

·      Keep up with current events

·      Have an informed opinion about social issues and politics

·      Be active politically

·      Be honest and sincere

·      Forgive easily

·      Work to make the changes you want to see in this world

·      Stand up for those whose voice has been silenced

·      Keep your hands busy doing things for others

·      Don’t waste time on sadness, but cry when you need to

·      Read constantly

·      Don’t give a book you haven’t read

·      Don’t hold on to a book if you have read it

·      Discuss books that move you

·      Appreciate music and all of the arts

·      Be creative

·      Never stop learning or teaching

·      Understand that a person’s worth is directly related to their willingness to serve others

·      Tidy up after yourself – don’t leave a mess for others to clean up

·      Say “I love you” often and mean it

·      When something bad happens move on to the next chapter

·      Listen carefully when someone is speaking to you

·      Appreciate life’s simple pleasures

·      Enjoy spending time with children

·      Be modest and self-deprecating

·      Have a strong work ethic

·      Wake up early – some of the best conversations happen before sunrise

Saturday, April 2, 2016


Remember mail?  That is a question for older folks.  We all have mailboxes.  And the mail carrier dutifully places items in them daily.  But I am referring to MAIL mail.  Remember receiving letters and postcards?  When I was in college I received little care packages from home and from my big sisters.  I still have a postcard somewhere from my little brother from the hospital when he and his hooligan friends were playing a ridiculous game of "CRASH" by smashing their bikes together riding around on the tennis courts near my parents house.  Dan fell off (go figure) and got a concussion and mailed me a silly postcard right from the hospital.  Those were the days.

I have this big pack of letters from my mom over the years.  It is one of my most prized possessions.

Mail - real mail - was a time capsule of thoughts and emotions.  Committed to paper, letters were carefully written reflections meant to be recalled, maybe even kept as remembrances, a record, a reflection of times gone by.  

Not so much any more.  I'm not whining, not harkening to the good old days.  Just pointing out a way we have changed as a culture.  

Today's "mail" is most advertisements and bills.   As I was opening the stack of "mail" the other day, I noticed how the billers and advertisers try to get your attention.  OPEN ME!  READ ME!  OR ELSE! was all over them.  

Here are a few examples from just the last two weeks...

You know if these two boxes are checked on the outside of the envelope, that folks are going to open and investigate.  NO ANNUAL FEE!  Well, that almost means free money!  Right?

Just the word FREE is going to entice some mail openings.  Here are a couple examples...

You know someone, somewhere knows our age and disposition - as in over insured - when we get a guide to long-term care.  Sorry already have it.

Who doesn't love a SPECIAL GIFT?  You know you want to open it if there is a SPECIAL GIFT inside.  Especially one from kids.  Especially kids with cancer.  The cartoon sort of pulls at the heart strings too.  We have been getting these mailing labels for years.  

Can't ever use them though, in case someone wanted a correct name on the return address.  It's HEIDI.  I wish I could get off their mailing list.  It must cost money to send out this pack of incorrect mailing labels year after year.  I love me some St. Jude's, but it isn't one of our causes.

Then there are the ones that demand an immediate response.  It may feel as though someone, somewhere is actually waiting around for you to reply.  

What would happen if I didn't OPEN IMMEDIATELY?!  Would I get in trouble?  That's a lot of pressure to open.  NOW!  It's similar to the one below...

Of course it's TIME SENSITIVE.  We want a response (read: your cash) NOW!  DO NOT DELAY!

Anything with the word URGENT in bold letters should get your attention.  

But I have learned that if I let my subscription expire, they'll make me a far better offer than simply a renewal at the same price.  

But check out how wrong they got the name.  Do I really want a news magazine delivered to my house with such a dramatic name change?  It's Tim O'Keefe and Heidi Mills.  I am a liberated guy and I appreciate it that Heidi kept her maiden name and all, but morphing us into a single androgynous being?  I am not yet that enlightened.

I love me some Amnesty International.  They are one of our causes.  But I don't vote for people I know nothing about.

They use the stress of DATED MATERIAL and an OFFICIAL BALLOT.  If I don't hurry I'll miss the voting date.  I checked the ballot.  I knew nothing about anyone.  I appreciate that they think my input is essential.

But I had nothing to contribute.  It left me feeling a little hollow inside.  SOMEONE will be elected without my input.  

This one is easy.

Who wouldn't choose the 80,000 points over the 50,000 points?  Duh!

On the next one, I feel like I'll get away with something if I order a magazine through these guys.  I mean PROFESSIONAL USE ONLY?  Imagine the deal I can get if I go ahead and pretend that I am a doctor or a lawyer and have a waiting room with patients!  Did they mail it to me by mistake?  Could I just go along with it and read my TIME magazine at the discounted WAITING ROOM/PROFESSIONAL USE rate?  It's like they're daring me to commit fraud or something.

This next one is just so OFFICIAL looking.  I mean if there is a penalty for private use, they must be legit.  And important.  And relevant.  And serious.  

Even the so-called stamp seems imperative.

Stars.  An angry looking eagle.  It just screams freedom.  Justice. The American way!

Nope.  Just junk.  

We get so much junk mail that I thought it would be interesting to look up the stats.

Stop Junk Mail — a Personal Nuisance & Environmental Hazard

  • Keep trees in the forest. More than 100 million trees are destroyed each year to produce junk mail. 42% of timber harvested nationwide becomes pulpwood for paper.
  • Reduce global warming. The world’s temperate forests absorb 2 billion tons of carbon annually. Creating and shipping junk mail produces more greenhouse gas emissions than 9 million cars.
  • Save water. About 28 billion gallons of water are wasted to produce and recycle junk each year.
  • Save time. You waste about 70 hours a year dealing with junk mail.

Your Mailbox Today

  • The pulp and paper industry is the single largest consumer of water used in industrial activities in developed countries, and it’s the third-largest industrial greenhouse gas emitter (after the chemical and steel industries).
  • The average adult receives 41 pounds of junk mail each year. 44% goes to the landfill unopened.
  • On average, we receive 16 pieces of junk mail a week, compared to only 1.5 personal letters.
  • The majority of household waste consists of junk mail.
  • 40% of the solid mass that makes up our landfills is paper and paperboard waste.
  • Junk mail inks have high concentrations of heavy metals, making the paper difficult to recycle.
  • $320 million of local taxes are used to dispose of junk mail each year.
  • California’s state and local governments spend $500,000 a year collecting and disposing of AOL’s direct mail disks alone.
  • Transporting junk mail costs $550 million a year.
  • Lists of names and addresses used in bulk mailings reside in mass data-collection networks. Your name is typically worth 3 to 20 cents each time it is sold.

Definitely something to think about.  

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Don't Blink

In order to get a little "normal" again, to recover just a bit from the nausea that Donald Trump andTed Cruze have brought on, I went into the way-back machine to repost one from a long time ago.  This was the day when we moved our son Devin into his dorm.  His first official day on his own.  He is at MUSC now, studying for his Doctorate in Physical Therapy.  Past the half way point.  At 23, he is on his way to a happy, healthy life.  Full of promise and adventure and good things.  Seems like I blinked again, for it's been 5 1/2 years since these thoughts were first written.

Don't Blink

In our culture, leaving home is as natural as coming home from the hospital as a newborn. It is what happens to most of us as we become adults. For those lucky enough to go to college, it happens around age 18. Kids are born to us, they spend most of their formative years learning how to be, how to get along, who they are and who they will become. Then they leave us to find out who they really are, who they really want to be. They find the path that will take them onward into their future. It really is the way it should be. Then why am I feeling so blue?

Today we move Devin, our 18 year old, into his dorm at the University of South Carolina. We‘re opting for the later shift, hoping that most of the kids will be moved in already. He is moving in with is best friend, a guy he went to high school with, who he spent his free time with for years. His bedroom is packed with what he will take with him. His modest clothes, his stereo, his computer, his new little microwave, new sheets, towels and blankets, his bathroom “caddy” for shampoo, soap, etc. It is the stuff of moving away, of being on your own, of independence. It’s a good thing, right? Then why, when I was vacuuming the hallway this morning and I passed that pile of his new and old possessions, was I so sad? It’s not like he’s moving very far. It is only a thirty-five-minute drive. Heidi takes it every day she goes into campus to work. It’s not like he won’t be coming home some weekends or that he won’t be coming back for winter break and summer vacation next year.

I’ll still see him. I’ll still call him and meet him for dinner (although Heidi suggested that I don’t call so much as text message, “It’s how most kids communicate these days.”).

But it won’t be the same. It will never be the same again. Devin will not be living here. He’ll be back, but it will more like visiting. So…

There are all these thoughts running through my mind. All of these concerns. All these questions. Have I done a good job as a parent? Have I done what I could to teach him right from wrong? Does he know not to lie? Is he grateful? Does he know how to pray? Did I do all that I could to make sure that Devin is kind, responsible, safe? Have I been a good role model? Have I told him enough that I love him. Have I shown him? Does he know that I am there for him no matter what?

Heidi said that she was listening to a radio station yesterday where there is a lot of call-in kind of talk. A woman asked about advice for parents who just had their first baby. One response that stuck with Heidi was simply, “Don’t blink.”

I blinked, you guys. Because it was just such a short time ago that we brought Devin home after his adoption. And we weren't sure what to do with a new baby - except to love him. Devin was going to the lake with me in his diaper to watch the sunset, and I was chasing him around our beloved tree in a suped up game of peek-a-boo. I could make him laugh from his little belly. I can see those loose blond curls and bright blue eyes. I can hear that laugh. It is the most beautiful music.

It was just a short time ago that he was playing with his baby brother’s toes when we brought Colin home from the hospital; when he could catch a butterfly with his bare hands. I remember when he gave up his beloved bottle and we made a solemn ceremony out of it and when he rode a bike for the first time and when he introduced himself at the area pool with, “I’m Devin, and I’m an amazing child.” I remember when he cried when he caught a lizard but broke off its tail. And when he caught his first few fish off the dock.
I remember when he went to Kindergarten and I caught a glimpse of him at school outside on a really hot day practicing for a fire drill. The sight of him so grown up, patiently waiting in the uncomfortable heat for his teacher and his classmates to get it right so they could go inside. He didn’t know I was watching him. He had gone from little-preschool-kid-cute to little-boy handsome. And I remember thinking, where is Devin? Where did that preschool boy go? And I cried. Not in loss or sorrow. In amazement I guess.

I remember us singing silly songs on the way home from school in the car and reading bedtime stories and our secret handshake before bed. Pokemon cards and video games, shell collections and rock collections. Marco polo, pogo sticks and soccer in the meadow.

Then skateboards and loud music and having a girlfriend. Then high school and his first car and his first job and proms and a broken heart. Heidi and I started going to bed earlier. Devin stayed out later.

I remember the feelings I had on the day my dad dropped me off at IU. I tried to be tough, but it was scary – this new freedom. Dev must be having some of the same thoughts. Freedom is great, but it is scary too. He can come and go as he pleases, but he’ll have to get himself up in the morning. He can come in at night when he wants but he won’t get to kiss his mom good night like has always done. He’ll make wonderful new friends, but he won’t be living in his old hood near his beloved lake.

And I blinked, you guys, because he is moving away today. It’s not like I didn’t see it coming. We have been planning for this day for his whole life. But it’s here and it came too fast and I am going to miss living with him and I don’t know what to do with these emotions.

I write for many reasons: to understand, to organize, to feel, to remember, to envision, to hope. I guess it is for all these reasons that I am writing this.

Don’t blink.