Tuesday, October 28, 2008

At the Airport

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I usually don’t talk to people at airports. I keep to myself. I do look up at the marvelous crowds passing by. Airports are, by the nature of their being, emotional places. The long, sometimes tearful goodbyes. The hugs, the holding of hands, the deep looks of longing. The lovers who will literally count the hours until catching up to their dear ones. The fathers and sons who clap each other on the back and act tough but who secretly want to say, “I love you,” and “I love you too, Son.” The reunions. The joy of returning, of becoming reacquainted. Of looking deep into the eyes of another - into the soul. Sadness, longing, joy, love, relief, indifference. Perhaps I’m kidding myself but I think I can see it all.http://www.faqs.org/photo-dict/phrase/8/airplane.html

When I approach the gate in Charlotte, there are only a few empty seats. I find one with an empty chair on my left and with two old carry-on bags on the right. Next to the luggage is an old woman. Very old. Her snow white hair is thin. I can see her shiny scalp underneath. It is freckled. She is a face of wrinkles. They strike me as happy wrinkles. Her blue eyes are filmy but she smiles at me as our eyes meet. She smiles.
Airport Crowd - Blured Royalty Free Stock Photos

I sit and watch the people stream by. Big man, sweating, puffing, jogging, bouncing, hurrying to catch a flight. Business people with high tech phones wrapped around their ears. Pilots, swaggering, laughing, flirting, in no hurry. They do this for a living. High heels, fingernail polish, real fur coats. Tailored suits, jeans, tight skirts. Whining children being dragged along. Happy little ones amazed by the sights, the crowds, gawking, taking in the bustle, the newness. Teenagers, alone with their music, closing out the rest. Soldiers, homemakers, executives. Tattoos, beards, wheelchairs, baby carriages, boarding announcements, coffee. Ponytails, buns, streaks, braids, hair spray, diamonds, clay beads, leather, silk, cotton, polyester, chinos, khakis, cutoff shorts. Sensible shoes, running shoes, stiletto heels, sandals. You see everything at an airport. But mostly I don’t talk to people. Mostly I watch.

Then this old man shuffles up to the old woman. He carries one cardboard cup of coffee. They will share it. “So expensive!” he almost shouts. Very old. Bald, liver spots, shaking hands. He is wearing a rumpled suit. With a tie. It is stained. His belt is cracked. His shoes are old fashioned - wing tips - and worn out. His socks don’t quite match. One is gray. One is black. He wears his pants very high. His eyes sparkle at the old woman. His eyes, they shine.

He takes the small worn suitcases from the seat between the old woman and me. He places them gently on the floor. The zipper is broken on one. Two safety pins hold it closed. I wonder if it will make the trip without breaking. I wonder if the old couple will.

He turns slowly. Sits down carefully. His knees pop loudly. He winces in pain. Doesn’t say anything about it. He’s used to it, I think. He settles back and puts his right arm on the armrest. The old woman puts her left hand on top of his right. She laces her thin fingers through his. She’s done this a thousand times. A million. They sit, holding hands. Satisfied in each other’s company. There is love. I can feel it. They sigh identical sighs.

There is an announcement. The man cups his ear. “I couldn’t hear,” he shouts.

“We board in ten minutes,” she says.

“We need you a wheelchair.” He gets up slowly. This man knows pain, I think. He puts his hands on his hips. The hands are arthritic, gnarled, large knuckled. He straightens up slowly. He shuffles to the gate.

The woman looks at me. Her old eyes smile. “He takes care of me.” She winks. She grins. Her wrinkles show me that she always smiles.

The old man returns with some kind of attendant and a wheelchair. The attendant is young, soft, balding, sweating. The old man goes to the aid of his old woman. He helps her up then down into the wheelchair. The old man bends slowly and puts the footrests down. The attendant watches. The old man picks up her swollen feet by the ankles. He places them gently in position. Then, slowly he stands and retrieves their bags. He can’t straighten his fingers. She must have been the one to pin the bag shut. He turns towards the gate. They get to board first. The attendant rolls her slowly. She says to him, “Y’all have been so good to us. So good.” The attendant is bored. If he hears her he doesn’t show it.

Then she turns to me. “We are so blessed, aren’t we?” I am not sure if she is talking to me. “So blessed. The Lord has been so very good to us,” she answers herself. Her hazy blue eyes are surrounded by a web of wrinkles. An inner light shines. Something no camera could ever capture. She turns her face forward. They show their tickets. I last see them as they roll and shamble down the hallway to the plane.

“Yes,” I finally answer her. “You are blessed. And so am I.”

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Butterfly

Yesterday an amazing thing happened in our classroom. First the back story... Several weeks ago we planted some fennel outside of our classroom knowing that it is the larval food of black swallowtail butterflies. One corner of our room has a wide floor-to-ceiling window facing a sunny hillside and a pretty little garden. We could see the fennel easily from our pillow-filled reading area in the bay window.

Sure enough, within a couple of weeks we spied some tiny larvae munching on the fennel. We watched them every day. They increased in size incredibly fast, shedding their skin regularly. They ate, and ate, and ate. We took seven of the caterpillars into the classroom and kept them on potted fennel plants in a large net enclosure. They ate and pooped and ate and pooped until the fennel plants were only nubs. We carefully lifted them off the old plants and placed them on new ones as they continued to mature. I unzipped the enclosure regularly to take photographs so we could record their amazing growth.

Our class is so into animals that every single day someone brings in a dead bug, a snail, a feather, a cocoon. Our class walks to the library every few weeks. It's about a ten minute walk from our campus. Walking there and back can be a bit of a challenge since everyone is on the lookout for animals. My friend Geri, who walked to the library with us last time made the understatement, "Wow, you guys are really interested in animals." This after kids brought up dead bugs, pointed out many spider egg sacs, a dead squirrel and other roadkill. "Yes, I guess we are a little obsessed," I answered.

So, the other afternoon we hear this shriek from the reading area. One little girl was backing away, eyes wide, pointing to the pillows. "What's that?!" she almost screamed.
"It's a chrysalis," said another. Indeed, a beautiful khaki and dark brown chrysalis was attached to a US shaped pillow with two silken threads. It was actually attached to the map of Canada. The Northwest Territories. We photographed it and it became a shrine-like fixture on the bookshelf.

On Tuesday morning, during our class meeting, a little boy said, "Hey! There's the butterfly!" Next to the pillow-map was a jet black, rumpled black swallowtail butterfly. There was a collective "Ahhhh," as all heads turned toward the sight. It was trembling and we could see its abdomen pumping slowly. Its body was covered with thick black hair and it was rolling its coiled proboscus (tongue) in and out. It was truly a beautiful sight.

I asked the little guy who first spotted it to pick it up gently so we could release it outside. He put his index finger up to it and the still wilted butterfly dutifully climbed on. I snapped several pictures for our web page. There's this one picture of the boy with the butterfly clinging upside down to his fingers. The look on his face shows this incredible mixture of joy and awe, of magic and excitement. It captured how we all felt.

It is one thing to talk about complete metamorphosis with my students. Even reading books with large colorful pictures and watching a butterfly emerging in fast motion on Youtube couldn't hold a candle to witnessing this miracle happening right in front of us in class. We ooohed and ahhhhed at the tiny larvae.

When we first spotted them they were hard to see they were so small. They grew quickly and we found their shriveled up shed skins behind them as they grew. When we brought them into the classroom we could smell the fennel as they gorged themselves. We chuckled at the size and amount of "poops". We watched the chrysalis thin almost to transparent and we were awed and inspired as the butterfly emerged as an adult.

It was one of those miraculous moments that makes this year different from every other of my 30 years as a teacher of little kids. And yet, it is an ordinary sort of miracle that happens every day, right?

Part of the joy of teaching little ones is that the ordinary becomes extraordinary because you can see life partly through their eyes. I have witnessed this before, but seeing it with a group who have never seen it makes it new for me too.

Presidential Politics in 2008

I know that I am not alone in wanting this election cycle to be over. It has gotten so far beyond the usual name calling at presidential elections. I know that both sides are guilty of stretching the truth and that mud slinging is typical at this late stage in the process. But truly, I have never seen anything like the hate and fear mongering going on now. A few months ago I was forwarded an email warning that Obama is the anti-Christ, the anti-Christ! This was from a woman who I previously thought was pretty rational. Today I overheard another woman ranting the same rant. Out of control, don't you think? I wrote in a previous post about how the crowds at McCain's rallies are getting out of control with their ignorance and hate. After looking around on the internet today, I was much more alarmed than ever. Here are some samples...

The Secret Service is following up on media reports today that someone in the crowd at a McCain/Palin event suggested killing Barack Obama, according to Secret Service spokesman Malcolm Wiley. The shout of "kill him" followed a Sarah Palin rant on Obama's relationship with radical Chicagoan Bill Ayers.

McCain was speaking today in New Mexico, doing his usual personal attack on Barack Obama, as the stock market plummeted and McCain asked the crowd "who is Barack Obama?" Immediately you hear someone yell "terrorist." McCain pauses, the audience laughs, and McCain continues on, not acknowledging, not chastising, not correcting. McCain does say in the next sentence that he's upset about all the "angry barrage of insults."

"Now it turns out, one of his earliest supporters is a man named Bill Ayers," Palin said.
"Boooo!" said the crowd.
"And, according to the New York Times, he was a domestic terrorist and part of a group that, quote, 'launched a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and our U.S. Capitol,'" she continued.
"Boooo!" the crowd repeated.
"Kill him!" proposed one man in the audience.

Palin's routine attacks on the media have begun to spill into ugliness. In Clearwater, arriving reporters were greeted with shouts and taunts by the crowd of about 3,000. Palin then went on to blame Katie Couric's questions for her "less-than-successful interview with kinda mainstream media." At that, Palin supporters turned on reporters in the press area, waving thunder sticks and shouting abuse. Others hurled obscenities at a camera crew. One Palin supporter shouted a racial epithet at an African American sound man for a network and told him, "Sit down, boy."

When politics in America turns to hate we must take steps to stop it. No matter who you think is the best person for the job of president, the hate must stop. I never intended this blog to be a platform for any political party or candidate. I still don't. But how can we stand on the sidelines and not speak out? I know that it's normal to call names at this late hour, but this is also part of John McCain and Sarah Palin's legacy. Make no mistake, people are hurt by this. People are always hurt by prejudice and lies.

After coming home from church this morning, and hearing that fool declaring Obama the anti-Christ, I was pretty upset. When I got home and told Heidi about it she said, you won't believe what Colin Powell said on MEET THE PRESS. Not only did he endorse Barack Obama, but he also very articulately addressed the hate issues into which the McCain campaign seemed to have plunged. I checked it out on Youtube and was so moved by his response to the simple question of, "Who are you going to vote for?" If you haven't seen it, hang on for the story of the Muslim soldier who died in defense of our great country.

Devin's Cradle Song

As I put together the last post, I saw on the wall a copy of the lullaby that I wrote for Dev all those years ago. Now he is nearly six feet tall, a junior in high school. A big, kind-hearted young man who is destined for great things. When I look at the words to his lullaby, it takes me back...

Your cry disturbs the stillness of the night
You wake beneath the covers trembling with fright
We pick you up to hold you and to comfort you
The joy that you bring us is so peaceful and new

Now that you're here and the waiting is through
You don't know how many good friends
You've had waiting for you
And when you cry my dear
How deeply I do love you
Sleep tenderly, my love
Sleep peacefully, my love
Sleep patiently, my love

And how our lives have crossed, it still amazes me
I'm awed by the size of my responsibility
All I know is my life is complete now
It could get better but I just don't know how

Now that you're here and the waiting is through
You don't know how many good friends
You've had waiting for you
And when you cry my dear
How deeply I do love you
Sleep tenderly, my love
Sleep peacefully, my love
Sleep patiently, my love.

In the second verse I wrote, It could get better but I just don't know how.
At the time that was true, of course. But it did get better with the addition of our son Colin. NOW I don't know how it could get better.

Devin's Adoption Story

This post is from guest blogger Heidi Mills. I have other things in the works for this blog, including a story of a butterfly that hatches out in our classroom. Lots of my ordinary thoughts are sort of little events, small occurances which, at the time, may seem extraordinary. This story by Heidi is nothing short of miraculous. It sort of makes the ordinary stories I post look... well, ordinary. Heidi tells this story a lot to new friends. She tells it somuch better than I do.

Devin Mills O’Keefe


Heidi Mills

I’ve led a blessed life. I have always known it at some level but it took Devin diving straight into my heart and soul to help me really know. And it took Devin to show me how to live into and through this knowing.

B.D. – Before Devin

Tim and I thought we had made all the right moves. I had finished my doctorate and had settled into my life as a faculty member at USC. Tim was in the zone as an elementary teacher and we were finally at a place in our lives financially where we thought we could and should begin trying to have children. We were still in deep graduate student debt but it seemed as if we finally had enough of our ducks in a row to begin.

It’s funny now to reflect back on how stunned we were when it didn’t happen quite as we had planned. We had always lived happily yet quite deliberately. We knew how to set goals and accomplish them. We had the academic, intellectual and pragmatic thing down. But it took confronting most important goal we had ever established for ourselves to wake us up and send us down a truly spiritual path. It was a path filled with pain, disappointment and disillusionment. It was a tumultuous path, one that took a number of unexpected turns, but one that ultimately led us to love, synchronicity and pure joy.

After years of functioning as living science projects, going through a number of infertility tests and procedures, I finally became pregnant, really pregnant, pregnant with identical twins. We were startled when we saw two heartbeats during our second ultrasound. To be honest, we were overwhelmed but thrilled. We began making plans to move to a home that could accommodate two babies… we were such planners. And then it happened. I became very, very, very sick. I remember trying not to breathe in the waiting room because I didn’t want to infect any of the voluptuous women who were surely going to deliver within a matter of minutes. I remember wondering if the doctor would be able to give me something that would help me heal without impacting the twins. But before I even had time to ask, she ordered an ultrasound. She seemed to know before turning on the machine – the heartbeats had disappeared. We had lost the twins.
While I’d experienced the decline and ultimately the loss of my dear grandparents, I had never experienced anything quite as traumatic as this. I thought I had empathized when friends had lost babies but, as usual, I was just kidding myself, I was playing at empathy because I really didn’t know. I really couldn’t know the depth of the pain, the sadness or loss.

It was unbearable to think about not being able to have children. It took so long to conceive and the blessing of new lives within me seemed to disappear as quickly as it had emerged. We were told that I couldn’t go back on the fertility medicine for several months because of complications from the miscarriage.

The clock was ticking and I was spiraling. I was depressed. I wasn’t clinically diagnosed but I had lost hope. I found myself beating myself up daily for making all the wrong choices in life. I had a great vita but that didn’t matter in larger scheme of things. Suddenly all of the things I had devoted my attention to in life faded away. How had I lost sight of what really mattered? Why didn’t I know better?

As usual, I pretended my way into happiness. I had created this identity for myself that included being positive, in control, happy and helpful to others. Tim knew though. Of course he shared my pain. But we carried on.

One Saturday morning we were driving to aerobics class. If you know Tim it won’t surprise you to know that we listen to NPR, read the newspaper or listen to a book on tape when driving. On this particular morning, Tim drove and I read the paper to him. The cover story focused on the rescue of a brand new baby girl from a trash dumpster at Sandy’s. The manager thought he heard a cat crying in the dumpster and so he opened the lid to check. Low and behold he found a beautiful, healthy baby girl. The manager and his wife had been on an adoption waiting list for quite a long time and they were hoping (as I’m sure all of the readers across the state hoped) that they would be given the gift of this child. As I finished this intimate little read aloud, I looked over at Tim and tears were gently rolling down his cheeks.

This story challenged us to ask the big life question. Why? Why had this negligent mother been given the gift of a child when we knew we would love, treasure and care for a child? What the heck?! We would never even consider spanking a child, let alone abandon a newborn in a dark, cold, disgusting dumpster. Why, why, why?

After asking the unanswerable question, Tim posed one we could actually wrap our heads around, “Maybe we should think about adoption?”

“Yeah, I’ve never been opposed to it, it just seems as if we got sucked into the medical journey,” I responded. “Try this for three months, then that for six months, then engage in more tests only to try a different set of procedures for several more months, yadda, yadda, yadda,” I continued. Remember, I was depressed and so clarity was not my forte at that moment. It’s also important to know that my sister had similar difficulties conceiving initially and she had two healthy children and happened to be pregnant again, this time with twins.

Tim had planted an important seed with his question about adoption but it hadn’t taken root in my heart or mind quite yet. We chatted about it casually for a couple of minutes and then the idea faded away as we parked the car, walked into the gym and started working out.

Later that afternoon I was in my home office responding to student work. It was life as usual…. working on weekends to survive or thrive professionally, depending on how you looked at it. I was totally immersed in my students’ work and then suddenly it happened. I didn’t actually see anyone or hear voices. All I’m saying is I suddenly KNEW with every cell in my body, KNEW deep in my heart, KNEW without any doubt whatsoever. I KNEW WE WERE SUPPOSED TO ADOPT. It wasn’t an intellectual kind of knowing. It was clearer, more powerful. It was purely spiritual. All I’m saying is that I had the epiphany of a lifetime and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. And there was a sense of urgency about it. We were supposed to adopt and we were supposed to act immediately!

Somehow knowing just what to do, I picked up the phone and called my dear friend and colleague, Amy Donnelly. I left a message about my epiphany (as if it happened all of the time) and asked her to call her doctor friend who does private adoption. I told her we were too old to go through DSS and so we needed him to tell us what to do. Then Tim and I went to see "The Grand Canyon". There it was again. Adoption played a key role in the movie plot. Adoption was everywhere.

As we drove home, we chatted excitedly about the possibility of adoption. Just six hours earlier the thought hadn’t even occurred to us. Now it was part of our life plans. We just knew it.
The phone was ringing when we entered our condo. I picked up the phone and knew it was Amy and I knew what she was going to say. Before she even had time to say anything I announced, “He has a baby!”

Amy responded tearfully, “Yes! How did you know?” She continued without taking a breath, “The doctor has a young girl six weeks from delivery and she has entrusted him to find just the right parents for the child. He has a very long waiting list of parents who want to adopt but he and his wife have been waiting and praying for just the right parents for this child.” We alternately laughed, cried and screamed with delight at the prospect of Amy being our adoption angel. And she was. She made one call and that’s all it took. That’s all it took because we all knew it was meant to be. Amy convinced the doctor and his wife (the ultimate decision maker) that Tim and I would be just the kind parents they envisioned for this special birthmother and child.

And the blessings kept coming. The doctor outlined the steps we needed to take down this new path to parenthood. Our attorney and case-worker were simply delightful. They offered just the right balance between logic and intuitive wisdom to scaffold us through the adoption process. We sold our two-bedroom condo and moved into a three-bedroom condo within weeks and were painting the nursery when we got the call from the doctor.

Devin Mills O’Keefe was born on March 16, 1992. He weighed 6 pounds, 2 ounces and was one of the most beautiful babies we had ever seen. He was an amazing child and has grown into a remarkable young man.

A.D. - After Devin

Just when Tim and I thought our lives couldn’t be richer, happier or more complete, I started feeling sick and tired. Devin was nine-months-old at the time. Low and behold, Colin Mills O’Keefe was preparing to expand our little family. His coming would bring new joy and love into our lives in unexpected ways.

I always suspected I led a blessed life. Now I know it. Some say Devin’s adoption story was simply a series of coincidences. Others say we were very lucky. I know it was more than chance. There was guidance from within and beyond. It was a miracle.

Monday, October 13, 2008

You've Got to be Carefully Taught

Years ago I was a band called Emerald.  It was mainly a vocal band with some pretty rich harmonies if some pretty basic guitar.  We never really made any money, we had a few paid gigs but mostly we played for tips at this cool little coffee house/restaurant called The Daily Grind.  But we didn't really play for the money.  We just loved playing and singing together.  John Carlile, Rich Hill and I wrote most of the songs we sang all those years ago.  Whenever we wrote a new song, we couldn't wait to play and sing it for the others.  Everyone would add a little something.  A harmony, a little rhythm part.  If no one else liked it, we did.  

Anyway, we also played some covers.  I believe it was John who taught us this one.  We did it acapella  in three part harmony.  It came from a show tune called South Pacific, written by Rodgers and Hammerstein.  The whole show came under fire for its controversial views on race.  The lyrics before the song say something like, "Racism is not born to you.  It happens after you are born."

You've got to be taught to hate and fear
Day after day, year after year
It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a different shade
You've got to be carefully taught

You've got to be taught before it's too late
Before you reach six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You've got to be carefully taught

I teach this song to most of the classes I teach.  Little kids, right?  Seven and eight year olds.  And they get it.  They understand what racism is.  They understand how it is spread and how we are not born to it but rather taught.  

I watched in horror how a woman at a John McCain campaign rally was just livid.  She didn't trust Obama... She had read about him and, "He's an ARAB [meaning Muslim]."  Even on its face that kind of remark is as racist as it gets.  Let alone the fact that the woman is totally uninformed and anti-intellectual.  

To McCain's credit he stood up for Obama.  "No, Ma'am, he's a decent family man that I just happen to have disagreements with."  But that woman and lots of Americans, had to be carefully taught.  Carefully taught.  Even some church folks I know are deeply prejudice about Muslims.

When I have conversations about race and social justice with my students, they have a depth of understanding that so many adults I have known don't.  It's not that they don't see race.  They love each other for their differences and see race as something that makes us different and unique, a cause to celebrate.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


I was raised Catholic.  My brothers and sisters and I went to Catholic schools.  We were steeped in Catholic tradition.  Fasting before communion, mass in Latin until I was 3rd grade, confession every week or so.  My brothers and I were altar boys.  When we sat down to dinner we said a long blessing in unison.  I'll never forget it.  

Bless us, oh Lord,  and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord.  Amen.   

And then the Hail Mary.

Hail mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.  Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.  Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen.

We got to the place where we could say the whole thing in one quick breath, a droning monotone that, after a while, meant nothing except...  Let's get this over with so we can get to the food.  There is nothing wrong with the prayer.  It is  a fine prayer.  It was more what I had done with it.  Droning it out, not even thinking about what it means.  I might as well have been saying the alphabet backwards.  It would have meant the same thing.  

We have gotten to the place with our own kids where we take turns saying a spontaneous prayer to bless our food.  It's nice.  The kids usually say thanks for the day, the weather, the opportunity to spend time together, their friends, etc.  They are simple.  Sweet.  Immediate.  Sincere.  It has made me pray differently.  Also, I hang out with church friends who pray out loud.  They do it so well.  Growing up I never would have prayed aloud except for the rote prayers we were taught in school.  Now it feels right.

This is a little prayer I keep in my wallet.  Said over and over enough it would become like the blessing we said over our food when we were kids.  But I read it often and say it every now and then.  It feels right.

Oh, Heavenly Father,
We thank thee for food and 
Remember the hungry.
We thank thee for health and
Remember the sick.
We thank thee for friends and 
Remember the friendless.
We thank thee for freedom and 
Remember the enslaved.
May these remembrances stir us to service, 
That thy gifts to us may be
Used for others.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Rwanda 1

During the summer of 2007 I went on a life changing trip to Rwanda.  I went with Immaculee Ilibagiza and a bunch of other brilliant, wonderful, giving people.  I learned so much.  Not just about geography, but about the history of the world, human nature, forgiveness.  In 1994 Rwanda was the scene of a genocide.  We didn't hear much about it here in The States.  I'm not sure we cared that much.  Too much other stuff going on.  O. J. Simpson's trial.  You know, really important stuff.  In that genocide well over a million people were murdered.  In ways almost too unspeakable to write.  Immaculee was a genocide survivor.  She wrote about her life in a book called Left to Tell.  If you haven't read it, you should.  You will be sad but you won't regret it.  I have chronicled my trip on a blog called "White Boy in Rwanda".  From time to time, I'll cross over and take some of that blog/notebook and reprint it here.  This little piece was written on my way to Rwanda.  I had just met the group I was to travel with.  We were all pretty exhausted but, as always, I couldn't sleep on the plane...


Thirty five thousand feet in the air. Humans have only been flying at all for 105 years. Now we are cruising at thirty five thousand feet above Nova Scotia. By the time we land in Rwanda we’ll cross six time zones. Three continents. Three hundred people, cruising at seven miles above the earth, going six hundred fifty miles per hour, getting ready to cross the Atlantic Ocean. 

It’s 7:39PM where we took off in New York City. It’s 1:39 AM where we’ll land in Brussels. I’m looking at a monitor that shows our progress as we cross the ocean. A tiny picture of a plane with a dotted line showing our direction, where we’ve been, where we’re going. Soft drinks, coffee, TV shows, magazines, ear buds, multi-channels in our arm rests, overhead lights, flight attendant call buttons, reclining chairs, fancy little pillows, portable DVD players, MP3 players, headphones that cancel flight noise, laptop computers, expensive hardcover books bought in the airport, battered paperback books, the Bible, The Koran, Skymall catalog. Perfume, a baby crying, laughter, playing cards, adolescent boys punching each other in the arms, irritable stewardess, lovers holding hands. 

Humans are amazing. Onemilliononehundredseventeenthousand deaths in the Rwandan genocide (that we know of so far… rounded to the nearest thousand). The US fussed about whether or not it was genocide. We watched. We knew. We did nothing. Humans are more than just amazing.

Clinton and Albright apologized for not trying to stop the genocide in Rwanda. Sincerely. How long before we apologize for not stopping the genocide in Darfur? Digital watches, iphones, ipods, handheld videogames, in flight movies, CBS Sports on TV, sitcoms with canned laughter. Flying seven miles high over the Atlantic Ocean. 

Onemilliononehundredseventeenthousand Rwandans were killed in one hundred days. Over ten thousand a day. Humans are amazing. Onemilliononehundredseventeenthousand stories. It’s almost too big to imagine, too big to believe, too immense to even think about. 

FREE PARIS HILTON. That’s what a sign said at the nursery and garden center by my house. FREE PARIS HILTON. Humans are amazing.

What I'm Grateful For

What I'm Grateful For
I woke up today at 5:00 and thought I'd keep a mental list of the greatest parts of my day. Now it's 10:15 on Friday night. I'm looking at the sleeping form of my wife on the couch. She fell asleep watching the news. As I end this day, I think of Heidi, the greatest blessing in my life. We met in a college class in the winter of 1976. I have been deeply in love with her ever since. I remember the very day I fell in love (I cannot speak for her). I remember it clearly.

Back to today's blessings...
*Waking up. At all. Just waking up.
*Waking up to the beautiful sleepy face of my wife, Heidi.
*It being Friday.
*Hawaiian coffee. Light roast, very strong.
*This new book I'm reading - Same Kind of Different As You.
*The warm sleepy goodbye hug and kiss from same Heidi.
*John Fogerty's new album on the way to work.
*NPR, perhaps the only "fair and balanced" news on the radio.
*This subtle, graceful, pale blue/gray sunrise. Overcast. Breezy.
*Early fall.
*Time alone in my classroom.
*The anticipation of a great Friday with my second graders.
*The sounds of children through my door. Hearing their excitement at being at school.
*The first hugs, fist bumps, high fives and handshakes of my earnest children as they come into the classroom at the very beginning of the day.
*Playing chess with a seven year old.
*Helping kids understand some challenging math.
*Talking about the news with little ones.
*Learning about animals, addition with regrouping and place value, sharing a favorite book with second graders (The Prince of the Pond by Donna Jo Napoli).
*Discussing writer's craft with young writers. Finding craft in their writing.
*Talking about the election with an earnest group of learners.
*Watching history unfold with young children.
*Lunch with my students. Making each other laugh. Sharing story.
*Recess on our dusty field.
*The tears of a little one who has fallen.
*Playing the best playground game ever .
*Laughing, running and sweating with my new group of best friends.
*Walking to the public library. Looking for animals all the way there.
*Helping children check out good books.
*Walking back to school. Looking for bugs the whole way. Finding lots. Gold.
*Singing songs with children.
*My fingers which, however feeble, allow me to play guitar.
*My voice which, however creaky, allows me to teach these young ones to sing.
*The good sense to stop singing when they have learned the song.
*Listening to my best teacher friend, Tameka, read one of my favorite books (More Than *Anything Else) to my old class and my new class. 45 of the best people I have ever known in one room. Gold.
*The quiet school building after the kids and teachers have gone home.
*Driving home.
*The moon, rising through the hazy early evening sky.
*The early fall colors just now being revealed. The anticipation of another beautiful fall.
*Pulling into my neighborhood.
*That first evening kiss as I see Heidi.
*My dog's smile as she wags her entire body in greeting.
*Our Friday evening together.
*Sharing our respective days.
*Remembering our own children when they were small.
*Looking into the beautiful sleeping face of my true love as she snoozes on the couch.
*Knowing that tomorrow is Saturday.
*The anticipation of my sleepy boys waking up tomorrow (I'll probably be asleep before they get home).
*My home.

The thing is, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The tip of the tip. Even as I sat writing this,
I knew that in a single day I have so many blessings that I couldn't name them all. We all do. Make a list some day. It feels good.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Food Not Bombs

On Sundays I usually head downtown (in Columbia, SC) to work with this cool group called Food Not Bombs.  A bunch of people meet there, each with a big old pot of food, to feed whoever shows up.  It is one of the highlights of my week.  I'm not a member per se.  I just come.  Usually with a big pot of pasta.  I crank up my brew kettle and do a big batch of "bachelor food".  Sometimes its mac and cheese ( x12 boxes), other times its spaghetti with a bunch of plain sauce and whatever is around the kitchen.  A couple pounds of hamburger or ground turkey.  Fresh garlic, tomatoes (some from my modest garden if there are any ripe ones).  It is a wonderful, eclectic bunch of people who serve, and those who show up to eat as well.  The servers are usually a bunch of lefties who are proud of it.  We talk politics, all current events, what's happening at our churches (if we attend) - you know, all of the things that you aren't supposed to bring up with new friends and acquaintances.  Usually it all goes well.  

Between 125 and 150 folks show up to eat every week.  Those folks are as diverse as you can imagine.  Homeless, well dressed straight from church, old people, children with their parents, young guys just down on their luck, etc.  A few weeks ago I met a man who has lived in a tent for quite some time.  One regular guy is really old.  He walks bent over with the aid of a walker.  When I introduced myself to him he said his name and, proudly, "...the grandson of a slave."

In the middle of the summer, when the weather is steamy, some can get a little cranky.  A few weeks ago was one of those days.  It had to be near 100 and tempers were flaring a bit.  There may have been a little shoving, some taking two plates, some cutting in line.  What are you gonna do?  Anyway, a little man came through the line with his shirt around his waist.  His body was glistening with sweat.  He had two plates, one for himself and one for his "pal".  By the time he got to us his hands were completely full. (If you get there early, you leave full -it's  practically guaranteed).  Sweat was pouring down his face and into his eyes.  He could hardly see.  It was obvious that he was one of the poorer ones.  He had on blue jeans with ripped out knees and the sweatshirt tied around his waist was dirty and tattered.  By the time he got in front of me he literally could not see for the sweat pouring in his eyes.  His frustration was palpable.  Two paper plates of food he had nowhere to put down and blinded by his own sweat.  It wasn't an emergency or anything, just a really uncomfortable moment for him.  There was a very poor woman behind him.  Her clothes were extremely worn and dirty.  Her hair hadn't been washed in a while.  He paused and pulled over from the food line, turned to the side to try to blink the sweat out of his eyes.  The woman behind him reached out.  Reached out.  "Here," she said simply.  As he faced her she took her hand and wiped his head and face.  He looked at her with gratitude.  It was a simple act.  A kind act.  Then she wiped her sweaty hand on her shirt.  Out of context, that probably seems gross.  It wasn't apparent that they knew each other.  He was African American, she was white.  He mumbled his thanks and moved on down the serving line.  

She stood in front of me holding out her plate for my spaghetti.  "That was so kind," I said.  "So sweet."

She looked a little embarrassed.  "It's just that God has been so good to me," she said.  "So very good.  I have so much to be thankful for."  

The girl serving next to me recognized the beauty in that little moment as well.  "This is my church on Sunday," she explained. 

I totally related to her sentiments.  This was one of those ordinary things that happen from time to time that remind me of how blessed I am.  This woman was poor by most American standards.  She wiped the sweaty face of a stranger and seemed humbled when her act of kindness was recognized.  She was thankful to God for her blessings.  Her blessings.

As I walk toward my car each Sunday with my empty pot and spoon, I see this sign posted by the Food Not Bombians.  Note that it was written a long time ago.  By a Republican president.  So much truth.

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."  Dwight D. Eisenhower  - The Chance for Peace  April 16, 1953

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Basic Skills - A Teacher's Story

In 1986 I moved to Columbia, SC from southern Indiana.  I admit there was a bit of a culture shock.  I had never really traveled south of Indiana before except a day trip to Kentucky and flying in to Florida for a spring break once while in college.  I flew down to Columbia, SC to interview, flew back home, then drove down with all our stuff to live here.  Since this is a teaching story, I feel compelled to say that it was NOT all goodness and light in Indiana.  I worked with a principal who had lost track of what was important.  My last year there I team-taught with a teacher who really seemed to hate teaching.  There were some rough spots in my first job in SC.  But, like all things related to teaching, it is the children who make teaching what it is.  Not the administrators, not the teachers down the hall...  the children.  This is a story I wrote last year in remembrance of my first year here.  

Part of being a non-fiction writer is like being a photographer.  If it works, it is often because of being in the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment.  Being a teacher makes me blessed.  I am always at the right place to witness and share in the wonder and drama of living and learning  with a bunch of wonderful people.  

One of the amazing things about writing to me is that is helps one to recall.  When I started this story, I didn't know how much would come back.  It happened over 20 years ago, after all.  During the process of writing this piece, Antwan and Bridget and Mr. Litton and others all came swimming back to me.  I can recall Antwan's shining eyes like I saw them just yesterday.  Bridget's radiant, crooked-toothed smile and her pony tail bouncing as she jumped as I turned the rope at recess - it's like these 20 years have vanished and I am there with them.  They would be 33 or 34 years old now.  I don't know if I would recognize them if I saw them walking down the street or in line at the grocery store.  But those 11 year old faces?  I would recognize them in a heartbeat.

For my first year teaching in South Carolina I was a Basic Skills Instructor. I worked with small groups of kids in two different schools. These were children who tested in the bottom quartile on the Basic Skills exam. These were typically kids who didn’t get their homework done, didn’t finish class work, often spent their recess time “on the hill” trying to complete workbook pages and handouts. These were the kids who never caught up. Often they were discipline problems. They were the ones sent to the office for behavior referrals. School for these children was a constant mountain of unfinished papers, tests they couldn’t do well with, teachers they didn’t get along with, work that was too hard. They were the unmotivated, the outcasts, the disruptive, the students other teachers didn’t want to teach. It was my job to pull these kids out of the classroom and put them together in small groups for short periods each day. These were the Basic Skills kids and these were my students for the year.

I worked with groups of four to six kids for a half an hour at a time. Of course I had to get them to and from their classes so we only had about 25 minutes to work together each day.

At first the children came with workbook pages they hadn’t finished in class. The teachers wanted me to be sure the work was finished. They wanted me to be their enforcer.

I tried this for a week or so, nagging the kids to do the kind of work I disagreed with. The kids were pretty harsh with me in return. They saw me as an extension of their own classrooms where many were already failing. They saw me as another authority figure trying to make them do work which they saw as worthless, work they hated. They saw me as the enemy.

I resented the role as well. I was used to writing curriculum and lessons with kids. I wanted our time together to be interesting and worthwhile. I wanted the Basic Skills time to be important. I couldn’t take being the “workbook dragon” day after day, insisting that kids fill in blanks on workbook pages or drawing lines from questions to correct answers. The system wasn’t working for them. It seemed like a waste of time for the students and for me.

I went to John Litton, my new principal to see what could be done. When I entered his smoke filled office (this was in 1986 – before smoking was banned from public buildings). I told him about my problem. I didn’t think I was serving the students very well by making them do worksheets and workbook pages. I said that my time would be used more appropriately if the students were doing real reading and writing and math projects. He listened carefully to my lengthy complaint and philosophy of education. When I was finished with my monologue he smiled broadly, his white beard yellowed from years of cigarette smoking. He smushed out his cigarette in a butt-filled ashtray and said, “Sure. No problem. Whatever. Only YOU get to tell the teachers about your new role.”

I took the coward’s way out. When the kids came to me with workbooks I sent them back with the same unfinished work. I never told the teachers directly but soon they got the message that the Basic Skills kids were going to learn different kinds of basic skills. They didn’t know what yet, but the 3rd, 4th and 5th grade teachers at R. Earle Davis Elementary became accustomed to not sending worksheets. They would have to trust me for my little half hour, three times a week.

It took a while for the other teachers to get used to what we were doing. For one thing it wasn’t what you would called joyful school. It was dark in almost every sense of the word. The walls were dark. The carpets were filthy. It always smelled of cigarettes smoked by the office staff and the cigars smoked by the head custodian, Mr. Steverson. The windows were dirty, grudgingly allowing in dim and dusty daylight.

Many teachers hollered constantly… “How many times do I have to tell you?… I said SIT DOWN!... What on earth is WRONG WITH YOU?” I do not fault them. It was just their way. It was how they grew up as teachers, as though the only way to get through to kids was to bring the volume up, to speak sarcastically and to threaten the students into doing their work. It may never have occurred to them that perhaps the kids weren’t working very hard because they saw no real reason for it.

For most of the children, writing was a series of exercises: drawing lines from questions to answers, filling in a blank with a word from a word bank or answering comprehension questions about a story they could barely read.

When they passed by our door the teachers would hear us laughing (sometimes hysterically), writing and acting out plays, reading and writing responses to pen pal letters, listening to chapter books, videotaping plays we had written, etc.

Ours was a motley crew. While these children were considered to be “low end” academically, they were actually quite bright. Most had never gotten along well in a pencil and paper system. Some were still struggling to read and do basic math but many demonstrated great ability in other areas. One student, Antwan, was a child with an amazing sense of humor and a sunny disposition.

He and his best friend Bridget usually came in giggling over some private joke. Eventually they warmed up to me. They got my jokes, shared my love of story and, although neither was a tremendous reader, they loved it when I read aloud. They were expressive and energetic kids. They invented unusual names for me including “O’Theif”, “O’Boy”, “O’Man” and “O’Teeth”.

Antwan was hard for me to get to know at first. He wouldn’t look me in the eye when he spoke to me. He was a nice kid but I felt like I didn’t know him well. Once on the playground I was turning the jump rope for Bridget and others. “What’s up with Antwan?” I asked her.

‘What you mean?” she answered.

“Why do you think he doesn’t like me?”

“It’s not that, O’Teeth.  He just doesn’t trust you is all.”


“You don’t know much about Antwan, do you?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You don’t know what happened to his family?

“Why don’t you fill me in?” I said.

She motioned for me to follow her away from the others. “He stays with his grandparents, right?” I answered that I had heard that. It wasn’t uncommon for many of my students to live with family members other than their parents. “Do you know why he stays with them?” Her beautiful black eyes never left mine.

“No, why?”

“His daddy’s in jail. His mamma’s dead.  His daddy killed her.” I paused, not really knowing what to say. “It don’t mean nothin’ now. You just need to know is all.”

We went on with our routine and eventually Antwan began to open up to me as a friend and not just his teacher.

Pen pal letters were the favorite project of all of the groups. My wife is an instructor at USC. At the time she was teaching undergraduates, mostly young women, how to teach reading and writing to elementary children. It was the perfect match. Heidi’s undergraduates exchanged letters with my Basic Skills kids once each week. The kids learned the real purpose of writing. And they were getting to know some neat people through their letters. The USC students were coming to understand writing development for third through fifth grade students. They were also forming bonds with young people most of whom had never written a letter to anyone in their lives. It was what my wife called “Curricular Heaven”.

Because our time was so short, I had the letters on the tables as the kids came in. The computers were on for kids who wanted to compose their letters at the keyboard. This was our busiest and most fulfilling time together. The kids were unbelievably focused. They tore into their envelopes, helped each other to read, shared funny parts, laughed and wrote. These were the days when my job was easy and gratifying. All I had to do was to put out the letters and writing supplies and get out of the way.

By January we were in a comfortable routine. Wednesday was pen pal day and the Basic Skills kids were in their second set of USC friends for the year. We had only exchanged a couple of letters with the new group when Bridget’s group came in one cold day without Antwan. Bridget took me aside to let me know what was going on. There was no smile in those bright eyes. I had never seen them so solemn, so sad.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “Where’s Antwan?”

“He’s at home. So’s his sister. Their grandpa died yesterday.”

“They were close, weren’t they?”

“He loved his grandpa so hard, Mr. O. His grandparents took care of him, you know?”

“I remember,” I said lamely.

“When his mama died, his grandparents took Antwan and his sister to live with them,” she reminded me. “They was the ones raisin’ them. They was really old. Now he’s only got his grandma left.”

“I’m so sorry, Bridget.” I knew Antwan and Bridget were best friends – not boyfriend and girlfriend – just best friends. They had been since they were little kids.  In some ways they were closer than boyfriend/girlfriend.  They were life friends.  I knew that she was hurting too. “What can we do?”

“How 'bout we just save the pen pal letters for him when he gets back?”

That’s just what we did. The day of the funeral the Basic Skills kids listened to me read a short story and we discussed it. Bridget was with her best friend in his time of sorrow and need.  The group was subdued. There was no kidding around, little teasing and laughter. It wasn’t the same without Antwan and Bridget. We had friends who were hurting and we were feeling some of their pain.

The next day Antwan and Bridget came in with the rest of the group. I remember it like it was yesterday. In some ways it was a day that changed me as a teacher.

Antwan had on his parka with the hood zipped up all the way. I couldn’t see his face. It was a cold day outside but rather warm in the room. I wanted to comfort Antwan, to tell him that I was sorry for his loss. He wouldn’t look at me as he plopped himself into the usual chair. His arms were crossed. His head was down.

Bridget looked at me expectantly. I told everyone that we saved the pen pal letters for today so Antwan and Bridget could be here. We all were a little jumpy and tense but gradually busy noise filled the room. The usual kids chose to work at computers while the others plucked pens or pencils from the can in the center of the table. Antwan and Bridget sat side by side at the computer work stations. Bridget kept looking over at Antwan. He hadn’t budged. Just over a week ago Antwan tore into his letter with delight. He had received a photo of his pen pal, Monique, and she was a beauty. He had delighted in the ribbing he received from the others. Now his letter lay unopened on the table next to him.

I approached cautiously. The Antwan I knew as a happy little cut up, who laughed easily and who teased me mercilessly was not there. The joking, smiling, laughing Antwan I knew was somewhere deep inside that parka. As I scooted my chair up to him tears fell from his hood. I slowly put my arm around his shoulders, something I had never done before. “I’m so sorry about your grandpa, Antwan.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. His life had just changed in the saddest way imaginable. I couldn’t begin to understand his pain.

“Yeah,” he muttered, still not letting me see his face. “He was a good guy.” More tears fell.

There was an awkward silence as I thought of what to say, what to do for my sad little friend. “Do you want to write to Monique about it?  I think she’d like to know what’s going on with you and your family.”

He didn’t answer but instead picked up Monique’s letter, tore it open and began to read. I moved on to the other kids. I didn’t want to make Antwan any more self-conscious by hovering over him.

I looked over from time to time. He was slowly composing his note, one letter at a time with his right index finger, his left hand in his lap except to capitalize. While I couldn’t see his face (his parka hood was still up) tears leaked out and dripped into the keys of the computer.

The children worked steadily for about 15 minutes. Antwan had barely shown his face all morning. He was hidden deep within his coat, deep within himself. When the period was over the kids handed me their letters on their way back to their classroom. Antwan printed his letter out on the old dot matrix printer and handed it to me without a word. Before he walked back to his classroom I reached out and touched him on the shoulder. “I’m sorry for your loss, Antwan.” He pulled his hood off and our eyes met. His were red and puffy; his cheeks wet with tears. “My grandmamma said that it was just his time, that he lived a good long life. He's with God now."  He paused, and then, "He was a real good man, O’Keefe. Real good. Nothin's gonna be the same without him.”

That moment is etched in my mind. The others were out the door. Antwan and I stood there, both of us so sad. He because he would never look into the loving eyes of his grandpa; his protector, his guardian, his provider and friend. I was sad because Antwan was being forced to grow up too fast. He already had a life filled with too much violence, too much sadness. Now, at 11 years old, he would be the man of his little family.

I asked him if I could copy his letter for his file. He said OK and turned away without another word.

I had the next period free for planning. Antwan’s letter was left on the computer monitor. As I read his simple and sincere note; my tears joined his as they fell into the keyboard.

Dear Monique,
It was nice to get your letter. Did you have a nice time in Atlanta? I hope you feel better. I will dream about you. In my family my grandpa died. He took care of me. He was my best friend. Now I will not have no one to hug. No one to kiss. No one to TELL THINGS TO. No one to love and give things to. I will still go to see him but I will not dig him up because I am not that kind of guy.


Your friend,


He had never met Monique before. They had only exchanged letters a few times. They had barely established their friendship before this tragedy hit Antwan’s family. Antwan bravely poured out his emotions to Monique although they were really only acquaintances. He used writing to explain feelings that spoken words could not. I had never truly realized the power and potential of writing. I knew that the pen pal correspondence was an important part of our time together. I knew it was a real reason to write. At the same time, it was not much more than a great project or activity. I knew that it was important to write to communicate to someone but I didn’t understand the true significance; the true potential.

Antwan told Monique something he had never told me. That single, most powerful word was love. Writing allowed him to cross the barrier, to express himself in important clear ways, to be open and honest. It freed him from the boundaries of face to face communication. Through writing, Antwan was able to explain his complicated emotions; to let out some of the saddest feelings he had ever had. He connected to Monique in his letter. I am still awed by his frankness, inspired by his honesty.

Later that semester, after exchanging at least 15 letters the USC pen pals came to Davis Elementary to meet the Basic Skills kids. Like most of the others, Antwan was shy when he met Monique. His words were few and quiet. But his letters were always friendly, newsy and personal.  He and Bridget and most of the other Basic Skills kids were dressed in their Sunday clothes.  Antwan had on an ill fitting suit and Bridget wore uncomfortable shoes and a pretty, if worn pink dress.  Bridget's hair, always in a loose pony tail, was braided into tight cornrows.  She told me they hurt.  But those two shined bright that day.  All the kids did.  

I have long since lost track of Antwan but his face stays with me along with his humor and feisty spirit. His shining black eyes look back at me through all of these years. In my mind he will always be eleven. In my mind he will always be that fragile little boy - my friend and one of my greatest teachers.