Glimmers of Hope

I started writing this post last June, then put it down so I could look at it with fresh eyes later. Health issues and work/family life took priority, and I am just now coming back to it, and alhough it has required some timely revisions, the message still resonates today.

So much has happened in the last year or so. A friend was diagnosed with cancer, a colleague’s 4-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer, and a friend from years back ended her own life after years-long suffering with mental illness. A friend’s mother suddenly had a stroke while grading final exams for her college students and died soon after. Fast forward a few months, and hurricanes took hold of places in Texas and Florida, and devistated Puerto Rico. In the wake of mass shootings, gun violence has become a popular national conversation again. We also hear about the political mess our country is in and the refusal for people to really listen to one another. With all this tragedy and discord, we see how devistating life can be.

However, life can also have glimmers of hope. People have come together to help the family of the little girl with cancer and the friend with cancer. People try to understand menal illness a little more, and carry the spark of those they lost. Like-minded people come together to support one another as their hopes crumble in the political climate. Teenagers find purpose that can bring good to this world. Friends learn about parental love and frustration as they foster young children and navigate the tumultuous waters of the foster care system leading to adoption. A teacher friend moves from Tennessee to Alaska to find a new life with her son when she decides that it is time to move on, then decides to move back to help loved ones. A super hero movie comes out about a woman who can save the world and does not need a man to define her, empowering women all over the country. Later, another super hero movie comes out celebrating African culture, and empowering African Americans to embrace their culture. Celebritites raise money to help rebuild Puerto Rico when our government falls short. Women finally feel emboldened to speak up about sexual abuse and harassment by those in power over them. People reach across faith differences for a common goal of peace and love. People sacrifice themselves to protect others.

Most of all, we just try to keep going. Whether we try to make a difference, or just try to survive, we keep going. Even those who cannot keep going have left a mark on the rest of us. The human spirit has hope, darkness, and perseverance. Although I am not sure that most people are inherently good, I do believe that most of us have the capacity for good. The question is how do we use our good? Personally, I try to teach my own children to be compassionate and responsible. I try to show care to the students who seem to be lost in the shadows, and raise expectations for those who need to be challenged to grow. Sometimes, I fail at using my good, and frustration spills out of me. However, I cannot allow those moments to keep me from trying anyway.

What do you do? What do you stand for? What do you stand against? Who do you help in doing so? Who do you harm? Do you know? Who do you choose to follow? How do you lead? Sometimes, these can be very hard questions to answer. More complicated than a meme. More complicated than a tweet.  Life is nuanced, precious, difficult, confusing, and beautiful. Let’s be hope for one another. Sometimes, being that hope also means speaking out against those who cause pain and abuse power. Let’s stand up for the oppressed, comfort the hurting, heal the sick, and feed the hungry. This is what we, as humans, are called to do. We don’t necessarily know each other’s stories, but we can learn and we can help. A very simple but profound piece of advice I received several years ago as a military spouse is to “go with your gut.” It sounds silly and simplistic, but it works. What do we know deep down in our souls to be the answer when those around us are hurting? 

Life can truly be devistating. However, we must remember that we must make sure others are not alone. Hold the door open for that mom or dad pushing the stroller. Call or text that loved one who has been going through a rough patch. Tell your children you love them after they make poor choices. Tell your coworkers that you appreciate them. We can also be vulnerable enough to reach out and realize that we are not alone. Admit to someone else when times are tough. Subsequently, we can allow hope into our lives and bring hope to those around us.

As we go through our daily lives, we can take a moment and be that light for someone else. A friend, a coworker, a child, a stranger, a relative…anyone. Sometimes that light can just come from a kind word, and sometimes it comes from great sacrifice. Sometimes those simple “kind words” moments can be very difficult. However, regret from not saying them is worse. Let’s not have these regrets. Let’s commit to bringing light and beauty to those dark corners, bringing hope to lives of those around us.

About what 9/11 means to a veteran’s family.

This post took many months to compose. I wrote it, then left it to sit for a while. I worked on it a little more, then asked my husband to read it. He advised me that it was too sanitized, so I worked on it again. This is raw…what it was really like for me. Out of respect for him, some of my husband’s story is left out. Mine, however is all here.

I married my husband while he was still in college. A year later, he graduated and was commissioned into the U.S. Army. This commissioning magically turned him into an Army officer, and me into an “Officer’s Wife.” I didn’t know it at the time, but these titles would become a significant part of our personal identities, and would greatly influence our worldviews.

His first duty station was Ft. Campbell, KY. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this was not just his duty station, but our duty station. He was pursuing his career, and I was in graduate school. I was also going to the events that were expected of an officer’s wife…coffees (monthly evening social events for officer spouses), hail and farewells (monthly social events for officers and their spouses), sometimes meetings for the unit’s family readiness group. As an introvert, these were excruciating events for me. I hate small talk, and I don’t make friends easily…the revolving door of membership in these communities added to the discomfort. However, I understood that politically, my presence was expected. I hosted and co-hosted coffees, and I was at my husband’s side at other events. On the other hand, I loved hanging out with my friends from graduate school, and found myself enjoying their company more frequently when my husband was away for various training events and missions. 

Then came 9/11. My husband was away for a deployment (de-mining operations) in Kosovo, but things changed back home. Soon there was talk of war. When he returned home from Kosovo, he was promoted, and it was time to plan the next move. We relocated to Ft. Leonard Wood, MO for several months of training and the birth of our daughter.

When our time at Ft. Leonard Wood was complete, our next duty station was Ft. Hood, TX. After about a year there, my officer husband deployed to Iraq. I became more involved in the military community, and enjoyed taking care of our daughter. He, on the other hand, was experiencing horrors I would know nothing about until months or years later. He also lost a fellow officer during this deployment. At home, I started having strange sensations…being fully “in the moment” when the phone rang, wondering if it was bad news…feeling like my heart was about to pound out of my chest when there was a knock at the door (to this day, I despise solicitors at my door). Modern technology helped us keep in touch easily, but on those rare occasions when I didn’t receive my daily emails at the “regular” time, I worried until I heard from him. Holidays were depressing. Birthdays were a struggle. Anniversaries were ignored.

When my husband came home a year after he left, the adjustment to being back together was tenuous. While he was away, I had learned how to live and parent without him, so I needed to learn how to live and parent with him when he returned. He needed to be comfortable around us again, and get to know our daughter, who had been about 18 months old when he left. Adjustment is not the only challenge. Although families are happy to be back together, the unrelenting stress and experiences in war can come back to haunt the soldier, which, in turn effects the family as well. We experienced some very dark moments in our marriage, and I was unhappy. Eventually, we found our footing, our second child was born, and it was time for my husband to deploy again. A series of terrible events happened during this deployment, which riddled me with depression and anxiety. There were times when I hated my life, and the only reason I got out of bed in the morning was because I knew my children depended on me.

Before my husband returned from his second deployment, I moved the family from the military community to be close to my family, and it was time to leave the Army behind us. Although I was happy to be with family again, part of our identities were gone. We had known how we fit into the military world, but felt out of place in the civilian world. I preferred not to be around other people because I knew that there was no way they could relate to my experiences and the identity that I had left behind. I felt bitter toward everyone, and resented people for complaining about the little things or making excuses for not being responsible. My life had been turned upside down because of our sacrifices, so I had no patience for anyone who fell short of my expectations. Although I was able to function by holding a steady job and taking care of my children, I was miserable. I’m sure I was miserable to be around as well. My husband finding a steady job also proved to be much more of a challenge than either of us anticipated. After a couple of false starts, he found a civilian contractor job…in Kuwait. Yep, he had to leave again for another year. Our marriage had deteriorated so badly by then that I gave up while he was away. By nothing short of a miracle, I had a change of heart, and we found hope again before he returned.

In all, it took us about 5-7 years to adjust to civilian life. In a way, we are still adjusting. We’ve been married for 19 years, but have just now lived together for a little more than 2 years without at least a month (usually 4-12 months) apart. Those horrors he experienced on the streets of Iraq still haunt him at times, and occasionally, he allows me to see a glimpse of that part of his life. After years and time to reflect, I have learned a little more about why we struggled so much when he returned the first time.

My point is this. As a military family, 9/11 changed our lives, so when you choose to honor veterans, allow yourself to consider that these are multidimensional people, who represent more than simply a uniform. Think about their sacrifice, with the understanding that you may never know the full extent. If you can, be willing to listen when they speak, and be willing to do more than stand and applaud in a stadium full of people. (Many times, these gestures ring hollow for veterans.) It may take a little extra patience, but be a friend. The sacrifice of combat veterans and their families can last far beyond the time that was sacrificed, and likely has several layers that are difficult to navigate. We developed resilience during active duty, but we needed it most after the military days were over, when we were left with broken pieces. Only through the God’s grace did we find a way to put those pieces back together.

My Thoughts About Freedom of Religion

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Full Definition of RELIGION

1 a :  the state of a religious <a nun in her 20th year of religion> b (1) :  the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) :  commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance

2:  a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices

3 archaic :  scrupulous conformity :  conscientiousness

4:  a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

Full Definition of FAITH

1a :  allegiance to duty or a person :  loyalty b (1) :  fidelity to one’s promises (2) :  sincerity of intentions

2a (1) :  belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) :  belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion

b (1) :  firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) :  complete trust

3:  something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially :  a system of religious beliefs <the Protestant faith>

on faith :  without question <took everything he said on faith>

What does Freedom of Religion mean to me as a Christian? To me, it means that I may go to the church of my choice and worship in the manner that suits me best (as long as it does no harm to others). Freedom of religion also means that I, as a public school teacher and an employee paid from taxpayers’ pockets, I do not impose my Religion on my students or their parents. However, I do get to practice my Faith. To me, there is a significant difference between religion and faith. Although religion and faith are aligned, and sometimes used interchangeably, they are not necessarily the same. In this format, for religion, I will use Webster’s definition 2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices. For faith, I will use Webster’s definition 2a (1) :  belief and trust in and loyalty to God.

All four gospels state that Jesus communicated a new commandment: To love our neighbors as ourselves. (Shout out to the Pilgrims Sunday School class at HCUMC!) Wow! That’s pretty big! Now, I ask, how do Christians love others when they attempt to use the state or federal law to further their own Religious beliefs? Remember, I see religion as an institutionalized system. My faith is belief, trust, and loyalty to God. So, in my faith, I love my students and their parents. Certainly not perfectly because I am human and sometimes my human frustrations with other human decisions cloud my judgment. However, I, in no way believe that my freedom of religion is being denied. It is not up to me, as a public school teacher, to impose religious beliefs on students. However, it is up to me as a Christian to be a vessel of God’s love. Maybe, at some point, my students and their parents will recognize God’s love through me. However, no one will stop me from praying for, worrying about, or brainstorming for my students.  Similarly, I do not want my own children to be influenced by the religious beliefs of their public school teachers. Maybe I do not agree with the teachers about religion, and do not want my children swayed to pray in ways that I disagree with. No one will stop my children from quietly praying at school or for their classmates and teachers. (FYI- Texas schools continue to say the US pledge and the Texas pledge, which each include “under God,” and many have a moment of silence every morning.) My choice is to take them to a church where we, as members of the same denomination, share similar beliefs and values. This sharing of beliefs is what family and church are for. My church has adults who teach, guide, and care about my children, and choosing my church was intentional.

When people who stand on their “Christian” beliefs in order to implement law to impose them on (and sometimes oppress) others, I wonder whether it’s really about Freedom of Religion, or about thinking everyone else needs to believe what they believe. Freedom of Religion in the United States is not just Christianity. It’s also Judaism, paganism, Muslims, and others. So, when Christians ask for prayer in school, do they want Freedom for all Religions or just their own? What about freedom to deny services or health care benefits? Should I be denied services by a Muslims because I do not cover my head? How about Scientologist business owners… should they deny health care contribution for Psychiatric care?

Why do some Christians not spread the message that our God is a loving God? Why must some Christians use their religion to invalidate (and sometimes oppress) others, and then cry lack of freedom of religion when they are challenged? Now, I know it gets pretty ugly, and some people may be pushing the Christian business owners a little too far, and that is sad. However, to me, standing on religious beliefs rather than spreading God’s love through faith is not what being a Christian is about (as I’ve mentioned in a previous blog). The fact that some pastors are saying that they will not be forced to perform marriages of gay couples is a little silly. Of course they won’t be forced to do so! They are part of religious establishments. Maybe they use their churches as businesses, so they don’t know the difference between a business and a church? Maybe they just have not actually read the first amendment? Maybe they are just using their black robes as a platform from which to send the message that they don’t approve? I don’t know. Whichever way you look at it, it’s ridiculous because they should know better an ALL accounts. Hence, I am so glad I’m not being forced to attend their churches (which is freedom of religion)!!

So, my Christian Friends, I just ask you to please be careful when you “preach” freedom of religion. How are your religious practices really being imposed upon, and are you really representing Jesus’ primary commandment to love others? Also, do you really want to promote politicians who use your faith to advance their political aspirations? (It seems I heard something about that in a sermon recently…) No, I’m not perfect…I have a nasty little spark in me that can use ugly words to bring grown men to their knees. I’m not proud of it, and I work to keep it under control. However, I also intentionally teach my children to love others, regardless of their abilities, their sexuality, the color of their skin, the languages they speak, and the religions they practice.

Yes, I’m a little defiant. Why wouldn’t I be? Growing up, I had two families and two religious denominations. One believed in their “close” communion, and the other welcomed everyone to the table. One continues to bar women from pastoral leadership roles, and the other has ordained women as ministers for many years. I am married to a veteran, and together we have experienced some of the grittiness in life that many people only hear about. I have spunk and fight in me. However, I also have compassion. I am compassionate toward the parents who are doing their best to bring up their children with very few resources. I am compassionate toward individuals who know firsthand that you don’t choose who you love. I am compassionate toward the teenagers who are struggling with their sexuality and to those who have chosen to end their pregnancies because they felt like they had no other choices. Christians should not deny these people their stories . These stories are theirs, and they get to own them.

Oh, and by the way, yes, I pick and choose my definitions of religion and faith. I also pick and choose scripture. Everyone does, but not everyone admits it. I cut my hair, I have 4 tattoos (which I must conceal for work but not for church), I used oral contraceptives for many years (without remorse), and I actually speak directly to the pastors at church (I don’t  go through my husband first). I am so glad I have the freedom to worship at a church where I am welcomed and valued – tattoos and all!

About those tests…(thoughts on standardized testing)

As we come upon a crazy week of tests in our schools across Texas, I want to address standardized testing.

I was having a conversation with my husband the night before I administered one of the STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) exams a few weeks ago. He asked about why I don’t like standardized tests because I had voiced my frustration over the previous weeks that my students, who are supposed to be on a modified curriculum, do not have access to modified tests. In response to my husband, I stated, “I don’t like standardized tests because we don’t have standardized kids.” I meant this in all ways…My students (who receive special education services), other students (who perform at grade level), gifted students, and our own personal children. Students who have Individualized Education Plans are being set up for failure. We are supposed to fill in the gaps for them, but they are somehow supposed to be prepared to take a grade-level test? How? What kind of message are we receiving as educators, and sending to students and parents when we tell them that they no longer have a choice about which tests the students take?

As an educator, it is important that I not cause too many waves…I do want to keep my job, after all. I also acknowledge that the purpose of the test is to make sure the students are learning what the state has put forth for them to learn, as outlined in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). However, I believe there has to be a better way to do this, especially for students with learning or intellectual disabilities.

Part of the issue is that some tests are not consistent with what we understand about child development. We should not be testing children in ways that are developmentally inappropriate. Additionally, the focus on testing has resulted in a lack of focus on helping students develop a firm foundation of basic skills and conceptual understanding, and more focus on rushing to more complicated skills. Seriously… many kids (mine included) don’t know how to write letters (“pencil strokes”)…they draw shapes that look like the letters and numbers. Some students (not just those who qualify for special education services)  also don’t understand basic number concepts, such as what number pairs make 10 and what it means to add 10 to any given number (they are still counting on their fingers). I try to fill in this gap, but I also need to teach (amongst other skills) how to compare fractions with different denominators, 2 digit x 2 digit multiplication, long division, and how to work multiple-step word problems. We are tasked with making sure that children who are not reading on grade level can write 4-paragraph personal narratives with complete sentences, organized thoughts, grade-appropriate spelling, and capitalization and punctuation. Like I said, I’m trying to fill in the gaps at the same time I am tasked with preparing students for these tests that are a challenge even for students performing at grade level. My heart goes out to these children.

When thinking about how our children approach testing, I believe it is important to communicate that the test is not a measure of our children as the amazing growing humans that they are. It does not reflect my son’s energy, creativity, amazing knowledge of dinosaurs, and loving heart. It does not reflect my daughter’s love of reading, compassion, clever wit, and creative spark. I spoke with my children during supper one day this week and discussed the purpose of the test as well as my expectations of them. My message to my children and my students is this: Do your best, but don’t stress. Teachers and administrators get anxious about these tests, but our children do not need to become anxious. They need to know that they are celebrated for all of who they are, not simply for how they perform on standardized tests.