Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Poor SC

South Carolina is the butt of a lot of jokes. We are last or nearly last in so many of the important aspects of life in a free society. SC is 5th from the bottom in unemployment and personal income, 49th in traffic fatalities involving a drunk driver, 46th in overall health. We are the 8th laziest state in the nation. (

We rank 46th in infant mortality, 48th in prenatal care, 49th in violent crime and 49th in high school graduation. ( We have one of the highest incarceration rates among the fifty states (524 per 100,000 citizens -

None of these statistics include Mark Sanford's Appalachian Trail.

So it is a wonder why there are so many leaders in our state who seem to be working against public education, the one way we could ensure a better future for our state. Is there any question that a better educated citizenry will bring us up in every single category listed above (well, maybe not the Appalachian Trail thing)? The following story is printed from SC's The State newspaper from today's paper.

Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed $213 million in proposed state spending Tuesday, including $76 million for K-12 education and $12.4 million to buy new school buses.

Haley vetoed $106 million in the state’s proposed $6 billion general fund budget, including:

• The entire $1.9 million budget for the state Arts Commission

• $6 million for the Educational Television network

• State money to pay for the 2012 Republican presidential primary

The governor also vetoed $107 million in spending from a separate state reserve fund, including $10 million for economic development, $5.5 million for tourism advertising, $38 million for maintenance at state colleges, and $13 million for the state’s technical schools to train workers for Boeing’s new North Charleston aircraft plant. Haley said the state should save the money to head off future budget shortfalls.

Lawmakers will meet today to debate whether to sustain or override Haley’s vetoes.

Education hard hit

Education was the hardest hit area, accounting for $95 million of Haley’s general fund vetoes for the fiscal year that starts Friday.

Those vetoes drew criticism from school groups.

“It makes no sense to say you are for more jobs and at the same time dismantle the very tools – public schools – necessary to ensure a strong economy,” said Debbie Elmore, spokeswoman for the S.C. School Board’s Association. “Her actions today … will cause many to question her commitment to public school students, their future and, in turn, our state’s economic future.”

Haley defended the vetoes as part of her push to emphasize school performance, rather than school funding. (OK, what exactly does that mean other than public schools will have about the same funding as they did in 1996 with far more students? - Tim) Even with the vetoes, she said, classroom funding would increase by more than $100 million from this fiscal year.

“We could give double this budget to education and there would be people saying it’s not enough,” Haley said, without specifying how much money public education should get. “It needs to go to students in the classroom.”

But Kathy Maness, director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, said Haley was off the mark with her veto. “The money is going to the base student cost (that pays for direct classroom spending) so that we’ll have smaller class sizes; so we’ll have books and instructional materials,” Maness said.

Haley also vetoed spending for ETV.

Prodded by Haley, the Legislature had eliminated $9.6 million in taxpayer cash for ETV, replacing it with fees that state agencies would pay the network for its services. Haley vetoed nearly $6 million of that spending swap.

“It needs to be privatized,” Haley said of ETV. ”We need to make sure that they are a pay-for-service organization, and we’re working with that board to help make that happen.”

Read more:

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Devin's Adoption Story

I posted this story from guest blogger Heidi Mills in October of 2008. I have a couple stories in the works but my week is up and we will going to my niece's wedding and won't have the opportunity to sit at the computer for a while. The one or two people who read this probably aren't reading my blog anymore so it's probably new to you.

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.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

That Old Boat

I was reading a blog the other day from someone reflecting on turning 40. Like her, I remember getting ready to turn 40 and thinking, HEY! No big deal. It’s just another number, just another day. It’s not like I’m dying here. In the front of my mind I kept insisting that it wasn’t a big thing. There was no big party with black balloons. No, “LORDY, LORDY, TIM’S TURNING 40!” banner.

I can’t say there wasn’t a part of me that didn’t recognize the roundness of that number. 40 is round. 50 is rounder. Now that I’m 54 (the same day that Bob Dylan turned the big round 70), 40 isn’t quite as round as it once was.

The other day we sold our old boat. The boys were both happy about it because we went and got ourselves a bigger, nicer, faster, used boat. It will have the wake they need for better wake boarding. It has a really nice sound system compared to our old boat. It is fast and clean and shiny and… newer. It is so nice that we have to build a shed to house it in. No more just putting the tarp on it and parking it in the woods.

I kept it to myself, but I was sad at selling that old boat. It held such important memories. We got it when our boys were quite young. I remember vividly the days when they were little guys and we taught them to water ski. And every year when we put it into the water for the first time, we’d clean it out, polish it up. When they got a little older, and skiing was passé, we installed a wake board tower. Their first wake board was simple with bands that held their feet in place. We celebrated every little hop over the wake. And every year we watched the boys get better and better.

I watched Heidi ski every year on that old boat, marveling at her grace and beauty as she sliced through Lake Murray, never falling, and how she never got her hair wet, and how she smiled when she cut through that water. And it always made me think of how she taught me to slalom ski all those years ago when we were in college.

Whenever that old boat was broken, we would fix it. When the wood got soft on the back of the seat cushions, I replaced it. Whenever something happened with the engine (about once a year) we had it fixed. I replaced the lights on that old trailer a couple of times.

I know it’s silly, it’s just another possession, one more thing in a life filled with stuff. But it held such memories. Devin and his girlfriend hung out with us all the time when they were younger. Colin and his best friend Reid kept pushing each other to outgrow themselves as wake boarders. We fished, and watched the purple martins flocking and swarming over the big island and watched countless sunsets from that old boat. We hauled it with us on vacations. We snoozed and picnicked and drifted and dreamed in that boat. We watched our boys grow up there. But it is just another thing.

We put it on Craig’s List and a guy came from Camden to check it out. I know it’s weird, but it was important that I like him. We weren’t just selling him an old boat; we were selling him a bunch of memories. I did like him. A lot. He has two boys of his own and he asked all the right questions and when he talked to his wife on the phone he was really excited and sweet. He told her he loved her before saying goodbye. Right in front of me. I liked that.

So we have a new boat now. It is in the shop (of course). And I know that we’ll make memories in it. But the boys are older now. I’m sure they would rather be out in that new boat with their friends than with their parents. I would feel the same way probably if I were them. But they won’t lose teeth in that boat, or picnic as much with us. They won’t be as amazed at the birds or love just drifting around sharing stories as much as they used to when they were little.

Selling that old boat was just another symbol for the passing of time, just another age and stage. Heidi will still water ski gracefully, but more and more it will be just the two of us. And that’s OK too. Devin and Colin are men. And I love them for who they are right now. But I will always miss those little boys. I will miss that time when they saw wonder in everything, when there were so many firsts in their lives, when we were the most important people in their lives, when they looked forward to spending a day on the lake with us.

It seems like James Taylor had it so right when he wrote about the Secret O’ Life.

The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time

Any fool can do it

There ain't nothing to it

Nobody knows how we got to

The top of the hill

But since we're on our way down

We might as well enjoy the ride

The secret of love is in opening up your heart

It's okay to feel afraid

But don't let that stand in your way

'cause everyone knows that love is the only road

And since we're only here for a while

Might as well show some style

Give us a smile

Isn't it a lovely ride

Sliding down

Gliding down

Try not to try too hard

It's just a lovely ride

Now the thing about time is that time

Isn't really real

It's just your point of view

How does it feel for you

Einstein said he could never understand it all

Planets spinning through space

The smile upon your face

Welcome to the human race

Some kind of lovely ride

I'll be sliding down

I'll be gliding down

Try not to try too hard

It's just a lovely ride

Isn't it a lovely ride

Sliding down

Gliding down

Try not to try too hard

It's just a lovely ride

Now the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time

Saturday, June 11, 2011

What I Will Miss

Morning songbirds, announcing their joy at the new day; at being alive

Autumn leaves changing the light, washing the world with crimson and gold

Lightning flashing across a springtime sky, stark, bright, dazzling the night, spearing the darkness

Icy winter river in a midwestern forest, unpredictable, clear, edged with feathered lace

Godlight radiating from a sunset over Lake Michigan waves, bright golden flashes of fire on jade green surf

Night sounds of crickets, cicadas, katydids, spring peepers – the chorus of humid darkness

Apples left hanging heavily and lazily, yellow-gold on a gnarly, generous, old, giving tree

North wind, invisible but for the tops of crested waves and the bending dune grass and stinging cold touch

Transparent, glossy wings of the dragonfly, darting across meadow grasses, hungry, seeking

Morning glories, honeysuckle, wisteria, jasmine, gardenia

Elegant simplicity of a fern as it unfurls, pale green, delicate, to awaken and stand upright among others of its kind

Light through deep green sassafras leaves, dappled and alive on the forest floor

Ancient live oaks with spanish moss beards, spreading, reaching and wise, home for countless others

Northern lights, silvery green curtains of surprise and wonder

Ocean spray from Pacific's crystal waters, green sea turtles, coral, tropical fish, singing sands

Milkweed seeds, floating on silky clouds, fearless seekers of the soil, feeders of magic

Adventurous crows, blue black, swaggering, arguing, intelligent, bold

I’m a bit all over the place with this post. Writing reflects that, so it is fitting.

It was just exactly a year ago that I wrote the poem above. As a rule, I hate accrostix poems. More than anything, they show lack of creativity. When second and third graders write poetry, and they discover this form, their previous brilliance goes out the window in favor of writing their friend’s names vertically and a word to describe them horizontally for each letter.



Apples (because she likes apples)



So, exactly a year ago, I ignored my own advice to young writers and wrote an accrostix poem of my own. I thought it was cagey. I thought that if I just put it out there without any other explanation that my few constant readers would read it, appreciate the nature images and go to the next blog on their blog scroll.

It was a weird time for me. It was exactly a year ago that I had surgery to get rid of this bizarre thing that had invaded my body and created its own little bad cell factory, potentially a doomsday mechanism that would spell my demise. And I went there. To the darkest places. Totally. (Play Darth Vader’s Theme here in your head.)

Anniversaries are funny, aren’t they? Birthdays. Deathdays. Weddingdays. 365 and ¼ rotations on our axis. One revolution around our closest star. Exactly one orbit. That’s all it takes to remind us of something and bring it back into close focus. I know a guy whose birthday is also the anniversary of the day his mom died. THAT is a powerful anniversary. So it is my anniversary of my wide excision, my sentinal node biopsy. My bad boob job.

On a related topic, this is the time of year that you hear a lot of (white) people talking about their tan. They want one. They work on it. That healthy glow. That sign that they have been outdoors, relaxing, playing, getting, you know… healthy. A tan is like a status symbol that doesn’t cost anything. Your teeth and eyes just look so much brighter with a tan. Your hair gets more highlights. Your palette changes. Suddenly yellow, which made you look sickly in the wintertime, looks so bright and accents your healthy glow. Guys leave their shirts off. Girls wear shorter shorts. Immediate gratification.

I must liken this situation to cigarette smoking. OK, there might have been some people who really didn’t know that smoking would kill you. Now, I don’t really think there are many folks who don’t know. Yet, look at how many still smoke. Go by teenage hangouts and see how many young people are deliberately getting themselves hooked on something that will most assuredly shorten their lives. Immediate gratification.

So it is with getting that healthy glow. The healthier the glow, the more dangerous in the long run. And we know it. And we keep on doing it to ourselves. Our media hypes the tan ones. A tan line is sexy. Even when we know the dangers of sun exposure, the immediate gratification factor outweighs the dangers. Someday barely exists in our minds.

Surgeon and cancer researcher Adam Riker recently published a paper with his colleagues on the growing dangers from skin cancers like melanoma, which are becoming more common. They write, "Melanoma is the sixth most common fatal malignancy in the United States, responsible for 4% of all cancer deaths and 6 of every 7 skin cancer-related deaths." They estimate that 1 in 5 Americans will develop some form of skin cancer in their lifetimes, which means that each year there are at least 1 million new cases in the U.S. alone. Balk adds that nonmelanoma skin cancers basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) are also on the rise, with 2 million new cases every year.


So here I am, on my one year anniversary, my single earth-orbit since my surgery. I feel good. Being a pinky, I was never a sun worshipper. Sunburn hurts us pinkies. But I got too much sun in my 53 years. Had I known when I was a kid that all that sun would be harmful, I would have worn a shirt before there were sunscreens, and I would have definitely worn sunscreen more carefully when such things did exist. Had I known that a single bad burn before you are 18 doubles your chance of getting malignant melanoma, I would have been more careful. God only knows haw many bad burns I did get. Once a year? Twice a year? Now I wish I could let my younger self know what was going to happen to me when I reached the ripe old age of 53.

Thanks, Emily.

Monday, June 6, 2011

I'm Gonna Miss Us

The Three Best Reasons To Be A Teacher: June, July, August. – Anonymous

I couldn’t disagree more with Mr. or Ms. Anonymous who wrote the blurb above. I doubt very much if that person was a teacher of little kids. (It was probably the same Anonymous who penned Those who can - do. Those who can’t – teach.) Don’t get me wrong. I do enjoy some time to catch up on some of the things I put off during the school year. For one thing, I don’t seem to be able to read as much as I should during the year. The list of chores stacks up like cordwood. I could never sleep in much, but at least in the summertime I don’t have to get up at 5 AM. I don’t get the chance to really read the news as much as I would like on weekdays during the school year. That newspaper on the early morning porch with a cup of strong coffee instead of coffee in the car with a shot of NPR is not quite the same. So I do enjoy the summer break.

But that last day of the school year is not something I really look forward to. Saying goodbye to my little best friends is never easy. The way we teach at my school is very personal. The curriculum – the stuff of teaching – is critical, but is all about relationships. In this occupation, you spend 180 school days building relationships. The end comes quickly, but when you teach little ones the growth is amazing. Being there to help arrange conversations, set up demonstrations and investigations, to read and write and share strategies along with 22 other learners is a pretty cool way to spend the day. When that comes to a close in the spring (Friday was our last day with kids), it is a sudden shift in life. But that is my rhythm. It has been for 32 years now. My life is measured far more by school years than birthdays or calendar years.

You try to prepare for the last week of school, then the last day, then the last hour. You try to keep it light, but productive, busy but personal. The kids are antsy. How could they not be? You have to keep things moving ahead or it turns into indoor recess. But at times it feels like you are just riding a rocket and you are doing well to steer it in a reasonable direction.

All emotions are increased during those last few days. When we laugh, we laugh harder than usual. When things are upsetting, there are more tears. At least my class will be together again next year in grade 3. That is the beauty of The Center for Inquiry. We get to stay with our students for two years. And the kids get to stay together from Kindergarten to grade 5. So our last day on Friday was just the end of second grade. In a couple months we’ll be together again. It’s all good.

During that last week of school we reminisce a lot. Someone will spot a picture book I read aloud when we first met and ask that I read it again. We sing songs we learned together back in the old days – long ago last August or September. We talk about our student teachers and big events from the year.

It was almost exactly a year ago, when the kids were just finishing first grade with my good friend Jennifer as their teacher. Brandon, a future student, came up to me with something in his hand. He had this excited grin on his face. He handed me a ziplock bag with something inside. “Thanks,” I said. “What’s this?”

I knelt down and there was a tiny dead bird inside. It was a male ruby throated hummingbird. “We found this in my garage,” he said shyly. “I heard you like things like this.”

“I do,” I said, feeling a little odd that my penchant for examining dead animals was part of my reputation. “Thanks for sharing this with me. It’s a beauty.” I gave it back and he walked away looking a little dejected.

The next day he sought me out again and handed me the bird-in-a-bag. “This is for you,” he said. “You can keep it.”

“I tell you what,” I said. “Let’s put this in Miss Tameka’s freezer. We’ll bury it in the fall and dig it up in a couple months and see if we can reconstruct the skeleton.”

That’s just what we did. One of the first projects in the fall was to bury that tiny frozen bird in a mesh bag; the kind you buy oranges in. We left it there for a couple months and then excavated it. During that last week of school, we sifted through that soil and found as many bones as we could. After separating out the bones we looked closely at a Zoobook about hummingbirds and glued those tiny, fragile bones down in some semblance of order. We arranged that skeleton to look as if the bird was flying.

Almost a year to the day after I first accepted that odd gift from that tiny little stranger, we completed our work on the bird skeleton and displayed it on the wall with the other skeletons I had assembled with classes in years past. It seemed to be just right. There was a funny little full circle of that gift being buried then resurrected and then becoming part of the permanent artifacts of the classroom. Now we had become the very best of friends.

A couple days earlier, when we had about a week left, Allie from our class said, sort of out of the blue as we were all coming in hot and dusty from a game of dodge ball on the recess field, “I know we’ll have a good summer, but I am going to miss us.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know. Us - the class. I am going to miss us all being together.” And I did know. And I do know. I’ve only been away from us for a couple days. No more than every weekend. But the thought of Monday morning rolling around and not being together for a couple of months, makes me miss us.