Teachers Rule

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In my last post, I extolled the virtues of the best teachers and pointed out how important good teachers are to the development of our children. Yet as I wrote that post, a contentious contract negotiation has been taking place (or getting stalled) between our high school district and its teachers.

The school board is trying to hold the line on teacher pay raises and at the same time ask the teachers to shoulder a greater portion of health insurance premiums. Much is being made about the fact that the teachers in our district are already some of the best paid in the state. To which I respond, Touché! Bravo for us! But in order to attract and retain the best and brightest teachers, we need to continue offering the most competitive salaries and benefits in the area.

I understand that school boards need to be fiscally responsible. And no one wants to pay more in taxes – except maybe Warren Buffett. But it’s not as if we are making teachers rich while we languish in poverty. For that reality, our community should consider itself luckier than many. As a matter of fact, a highly regarded school raises property values for the entire community, whether or not you have school-aged children.

Our school facilities are not the most up to date. Both high schools could use major facelifts, it’s true. But in our district, we taxpayers put our money where it counts – into teacher salaries. After all, a gleaming new school building with state of the art equipment is meaningless without the students and teachers that fill it each day.

As summer wanes and we prepare to send our precious cargo (aka, the kids) off to school in the fall, let’s remember that it will be our teachers who welcome them, nurture them and help them grow intellectually and emotionally. Just as happy moms make for happy families, happy teachers create healthy schools.

In Loco Parentis

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This morning I read a post entitled “I Don’t Think Teachers Know What They’re Doing.” No, it’s not a diatribe about the poor state of education in America. It’s a lovely homage to the teachers who have graced the lives of the writer’s children. As I read the piece, I reflected on how true that statement is, in both the positive and negative sense. Teachers have no idea the dramatic impact they can have on a student’s life – for better or worse.

The number one criterion for a teaching certificate should be a love for children. I just don’t understand why anyone would want to spend his or her days with dozens – or in the case of secondary school – hundreds of students without being absolutely crazy about kids. My children’s elementary school has seen a succession of lackluster and, in some cases, even mean-spirited principals. Finally the district asked for parental input on choosing a new one. The predominant request from parents was simple: a person who likes kids. The feedback worked! The school now has a principal whose former students adore him, who plays guitar, and who recently sent home a video of himself roller blading through the hallways of the school to “check on” the facilities. Who wouldn’t love to go to a school with such a man at the helm?

On the negative side, I have seen souls crushed by cold and unfeeling teachers. When my oldest child was in kindergarten, she had a cold and controlling teacher. Each afternoon she had the children line up to shake her hand and say goodbye. My daughter, an affectionate six-year-old, would always give her a giant hug, but Mrs. M. never returned it. I had to wonder why this woman would choose to teach, not just children, but the youngest ones.  A kindergarten teacher should be a second mom or dad, not an authoritarian dictator.

Our schools are known to function in loco parentis, which means literally “in place of the parent.” I believe educators should see this role beyond its strict legal definition. School should be a child’s home away from home, especially when many children’s home environments are stressful and chaotic. And when you think about it, on a school day children spend more time interacting with teachers than with their parents. Teachers are so much more than dispensers of knowledge and skill. They shape students’ lives.

My senior year of high school, I had a curmudgeonly but lovable old teacher named Mr. Stringfellow. When Mr. Stringfellow put that British Lit anthology under my nose and expounded on the beauty of literature, he truly did not know what he was doing. He was creating a future teacher. When I became a teacher, my students were almost literally my kids. I cared about them and tried to nurture their curiosity and creativity along with their reading and writing skills. I went to their athletic events, concerts and plays. When my first batch of students graduated four years later, I was like a proud mama as I watched them cross the stage to receive their diplomas.

Of course we should expect our teachers to be well educated and smart. Good teachers need sound mastery of their subject matter and an arsenal of teaching and discipline techniques. But they also need a large and generous heart. These are the teachers our children will remember and perhaps credit with some of their achievements.

If you would like to read the post “I Don’t Think Teachers Know What They’re Doing,” please click on the following link:  https://womenwithworth.wordpress.com/2014/07/23/i-dont-think-teachers-know-what-theyre-doing/

That Greener Grass May Be a Dye Job

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Do you ever look at other people and think: They’ve got it made. How I wish I had that beautiful house, those perfect kids, that nice car, that gorgeous hair, that svelte body? I have had such emotions throughout my life. When I was a child, I envied girls with straight hair and kids who were allowed to go on sleepovers. In high school, I wished I could be like the popular cheerleaders, who had all the cutest boys fawning over them. Even as an adult, I have had occasion to envy others who seem to have it all together.

What parent has not gnashed her teeth when she saw the perfect family lining a pew at church – four shiny kids wearing dresses or polos and khaki pants, not a hair out of place (meanwhile feeling chagrin as she licks her hand and tries to smooth her son’s unruly cowlick and subdue a rowdy toddler). While I am engaging in an epic battle with my kids, I feel certain that my neighbors and their children are quietly discussing the weather and kissing each other on the cheek.

Living in a picture perfect suburb sometimes convinces me that I just can’t measure up. I want that life of confidence and ease that I see when I peek over the garden fence. But the older I get, the more I realize that everyone, young and old, pretty and homely, rich and poor, has issues and imperfections. 

Nothing made me realize this more than an experience I had about 10 years ago. I attended a women’s retreat at my church one fall weekend. We were welcomed and fed, and the atmosphere was warm and friendly. I recognized many of the women I would see regularly at Mass, in town running errands, on the sidelines of a soccer game, or at my kids’ school.

Then some of the women got up and took turns telling their personal stories. To my shock, one attractive, professionally dressed woman told about her marriage struggles and subsequent divorce. Another shared her health crises. Yet another woman wrenched our hearts as she described the loss of a young child.  As each of these women pulled off the mask of suburban perfection, their bare hearts revealed the same insecurities, shame, loneliness, and heartbreak that I have at times felt myself.

In one of my favorite novels, To Kill a Mockingbird, a major theme is repeated. Atticus Finch tells his daughter Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” After that weekend, I learned not to judge the people I saw from appearances. I learned to be kind to people. After all, who knew what they might be going through? And most importantly, I learned to be grateful for who I am and for the things and people in my life.

 

Embrace the Unexpected

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When I got out of bed this morning, I put on my athletic wear and planned to head out the door for an early morning walk. The day promised to be hot and humid, so I wanted to get my exercise in early. Downstairs in the kitchen, my husband was fixing himself a bowl of fruit and announcing to me that he planned to work at home this morning so that he could take my daughter to a soccer tournament downtown.

This was a pleasant surprise, so I decided to linger and have breakfast with him. While my husband went off to make a business call, I made coffee and started working on a crossword puzzle. To my surprise, I heard the pitter patter of my daughter’s feet as she made her way down the stairs, cell phone in hand. It was only 8:00, a full hour before I was planning on rousing her from her summer “sleep-in.”

I decided to make her a big breakfast to fortify her for her soccer game. While the smells of bacon and French toast wafted through the house, my husband wandered in and sat down. Breakfast for three, I thought to myself. No sooner had I served everyone and sat down than my teenage son bounded down, fully dressed. He too could have been sleeping until noon, as he was on a brief hiatus from summer football. Maybe the cooking smells enticed him, but he also informed us that he was going to lift weights.

It was such an unexpected pleasure to sit with my family on an ordinary weekday. As we ate, we chatted about such disparate subjects as the soccer tournament, learning Spanish, and teenage curfews. We were all so relaxed, and I realized that I could not have planned a better way to start the day.

I spend so much time planning family dinners and special outings, such as the Buckingham Fountain excursion I mentioned in an earlier post. I get disappointed when my elaborate plans don’t work out as perfectly as I had hoped. This morning reminded me that the best experiences in life are usually spontaneous, and if they occur, I had better seize the moment.

I did finally tie my gym shoes and go out for my walk. And although the summer sun was already high in the sky when I ventured out, I had a bounce in my step and a smile on my face. It had already been a beautiful day.

HELP!

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Dear Readers,

I am applying for a position as contributing columnist for my local hometown newspaper and plan to submit one of my blog posts as a writing sample.

Can you help me decide which post might be the best choice to appeal to the editors? They are looking for articles of general interest for the readers of our paper, The Hinsdalean. The publication features local news, information, and human interest stories, as well as opinion pieces that range from local issues to parenting to humorous observations about life.

If you have a favorite post of mine, please let me know in the comments. And thanks for reading!

 

Sincerely,

Mary Rayis

The Ten Suggestions?

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images-13 Most everyone from the Judeo-Christian tradition is familiar with the Ten Commandments, the laws Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai after he got up close and personal with the Creator. Growing up, I dutifully memorized these rules but didn’t really dwell too much on their meaning. But I was thinking recently about how hard it can sometimes be to know if what we’re doing is right or wrong.

To be sure, some of the commandments are cut and dried: Thou shalt not kill, thou shall not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery. I can say with some confidence that I have not had a hard time steering clear of these sins. But some of the laws are a little bit more open to interpretation. Take, for instance, the prohibition against worshipping false gods. Obviously, I don’t bow down in front of little statues or golden calves in my spare time. But are there other idols in my life? Is it okay to want more money or clothes? What about spending time reading trashy novels or seeing violent movies? Should I be ashamed of getting goo-goo-eyed when I see a celebrity?

Another vague commandment is the one to honor your father and mother.  In the Bible, dishonoring parents was punishable by death. By those standards, all my children would be dead! I could really use some clarification here, Lord. I love my mom, and I would never do anything intentionally to hurt her. But is that enough? What is the line between living my own life and being a cause of shame to my parents?

Then there are the commandments that are just so hard to follow. I don’t know anyone who never takes the Lord’s name in vain – that is, if saying, “Oh my God!” is taking His name in vain. This expression has become so commonplace that I scarcely notice when I or other people say it. But does that make it okay? Our parish priest recently admonished us that such epithets are mortal sins. But I have a hard time buying the idea that off-handedly muttering, “Oh my God” is on a par with killing someone.

The anti-coveting commandments are also tricky. When I was learning the commandments as a child, I think the nuns left off the “coveting thy neighbor’s wife” rule. But I certainly learned not to be envious when my brother got a new bike and I was stuck with an old one. In practice, it’s often hard not to wish we were the ones with the brand new car or bigger house or cool clothes when we see friends or acquaintances have such good fortune. So when does mild envy turn into sinful covetousness?

Luckily, the Bible has an app for that. It’s called the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So I guess that’s what it all comes down to – love. If we can strive to make our lives ones of loving actions for others, maybe those Ten Commandments will take care of themselves.

You Can Go Home Again

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For the nearly nine years I lived in Los Angeles, I pined for home. Of course I missed my family and friends back in Chicago. But I also missed summer thunderstorms and fireflies. (Chicagoans call them lightning bugs.) I missed block parties and reliable public transportation. I missed the change of seasons, and I recalled my mother admonishing us, “Get outside! It’s a beautiful day!” In L.A., every day is a beautiful day.

I missed deep dish pizza, Italian beef sandwiches, and Fannie May candies. But most of all, I missed the down home friendliness of Chicagoans. Where I lived in L.A., residents did not mow their own lawns or trim their own bushes. Kids did not run back and forth across the street to play with the neighbor kids. And, of course, there was no snow to shovel.

When my husband, two kids and I moved back to Chicago in 1997, I was determined to relive my fondest memories. But White Castle hamburgers just didn’t taste the same. And when my husband and I took the kids to our favorite hotdog joint in the city, I found the place dirty and disgusting. Maybe my former enjoyment of the place had been influenced by alcohol and being in love. And when the first good summer storm hit, my kids and I were terrified, not thrilled. I was starting to agree with the title of the Thomas Wolfe book You Can’t Go Home Again.

But that summer, I did get a taste of the simple pleasures I remembered from my childhood. Around the corner from our house was the public pool, and the kids and I spent countless hours there swimming, getting out of the pool for “rest period,” and eating ice cream sandwiches at the snack bar. In our neighborhood, kids really did run back and forth across the quiet street to play with each other. And at dusk, I noticed lightning bugs starting to glow in our front yard. So I grabbed the kids and a glass jar with holes poked into the lid so that we could go out and catch the bugs as they lit up the lawn.

One afternoon I got the idea to recreate a childhood memory by taking the kids downtown to visit Buckingham Fountain, which sits majestically overlooking Lake Michigan. As a child, I went there countless times with my family of 13, who made the most of any activities that were free. We would run around the fountain until dark and then ooh and aah at the spectacular light show. My husband warned me not to get my hopes up with my “vision thing,” as he calls it when I get nostalgic. And my kids whined during the long car ride in traffic on the always busy Eisenhower (aka the Ike) Expressway. By the time I parked the car and we walked through Grant Park to the fountain, I was feeling discouraged.

But when the kids saw the fountain, they exuberantly ran around and around it until I got dizzy watching them. My son was undeterred by the low metal fence that surrounds the fountain to discourage people from getting too close. So I spent a lot of time grabbing him and keeping him from jumping in the fountain. But the real magic happened at dusk. To the tune of lively classical music, the water began to leap and dance and the lights changed colors from orange to deep red to blue to deepest indigo. My kids oohed and aahed, and I knew I was home again.

 

Patriot Games

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The Fourth of July holiday has come and gone. All that’s left are flags still flapping in the breeze, the detritus of fireworks on summer lawns, and leftover hotdogs, hamburgers and beer in the fridge. The sounds of high school bands as they marched proudly in parades down main streets of American towns are a distant echo in our ears.

I have been left pondering the idea of patriotism. The symbols and anthems of American pride can bring tears to my eyes. The sight of veterans marching or waving from parade floats gives me a sense of gratitude for my freedom and their sacrifice. Yet the celebrations of Independence Day are just a tiny part of what it means to be a patriot.

During the 2008 presidential election, there was a rumor circulating that then-Senator Barack Obama refused to wear a flag pin on his lapel. Although the rumor was untrue, I remember thinking, So what? Does wearing a flag pin make someone patriotic? What about waving the flag or singing “The Star Spangled Banner”? We equate the symbolism with the reality at our own peril.

A perfect example of the disconnect between these gestures and reality is in the treatment our active duty soldiers and veterans have received over the years. During the Iraq War, bumper stickers with the slogan “Support Our Troops” started appearing on vehicles across the country.  Yet at the same time, reports came out that the armed forces were given insufficient armor and outdated equipment with which to go into battle.  Similarly, since at least the Vietnam War, veterans’ medical, financial and psychological needs have been underserved. I don’t know about you, but I would rather have adequate protection in battle and appropriate medical attention when needed than all the flag-waving, yellow ribbons and bumper stickers in the country.

I have also noticed that Americans who voice any criticism of our country are viewed as traitors. A Facebook friend posted an article declaring that such songs as “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen and “Pink Houses” by John Mellencamp are anti-American because they are critical of the Vietnam War and of poverty and racism in the United States. Yet dissent is one of our most cherished rights as Americans. Only by looking at ourselves with a critical eye can we make our country better.

I am not advocating disrespect. I would never endorse flag-burning or using expletives to refer to the President of the United States – even though these actions are protected by the First Amendment. But true patriotism means caring about Americans and trying to make life better for everyone in our cherished republic. 

Actions speak louder than words and symbols, and it is our actions by which we should be judged. For me this means keeping myself informed, voting for public officials, and advocating for freedom and justice. Flag waving optional.

Procr&*!tination

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When I was teaching high school English, I used the word “procrastinate” in the classroom, and one of my students gasped, “That sounds like a dirty word!”

“It is,” I assured him.

Procrastination has been a bad habit of humans since Neanderthals were saying, “I’ll go hunting and gathering later.” As a matter of fact, I started writing this post about a month ago – but I put it off. That’s pretty low, procrastinating on an article about procrastination. What can I say? Even the indomitable Scarlett O’Hara was always declaring, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

Why do I stall around instead of acting? I only procrastinate when I find the task difficult, distasteful, or frightening. For instance, I have a hard time dragging myself out of bed in the morning. But once up, I make a beeline to the coffeemaker and brew a pot. Similarly, if one of my kids were to ask me to read him or her a book, I would jump to the task. But when asked to fix them a meal, I dawdle. Checking email or Facebook? I’m on it! Clean the bathroom? Maybe later.

Nowhere has my tendency to procrastinate been worse than in the area of writing. For years I entertained fantasies about publishing a novel and going on a book tour or seeing my short story in a magazine. Yet when faced with a blank sheet of paper, or more recently, a blank Word document, I would find a million other little things to do instead. I gave myself a hundred excuses to give up on the idea of being a writer. I was too overwhelmed with work or my children; I felt too isolated being at home with just my own thoughts. And hadn’t my mother always noticed how unobservant I was? A good writer observes the myriad details of life to inform her prose. No, I convinced myself, that wasn’t me.

I have recently realized that what was holding me back was fear. What if my writing wasn’t good? What if no one wanted to read what I wrote, or worse, disparaged it? What if I hurt someone’s feelings by writing about my personal life? Luckily, I had a friend and mentor to encourage me, some inspiration from other writers, and finally, a determination to go for it no matter what. Now when I sit at the computer for the day’s writing, I take a few deep breaths, and like a swimmer, I dive in. What I create may not always be great, and it may never be published. But in the process of writing, I am finding a sense of freedom and the feeling of truly being myself. To me, that is success.

Procrastinating? I’ll do that tomorrow.

Hobby Lobby Decision an Assault on Women’s Rights

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It’s time to resurrect the ERA. Are you old enough to remember the unsuccessful push to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the Seventies and Eighties? I was young and idealistic in those days and fervently supported passage of the amendment to the US Constitution. Looking back, I realize that sporting shorts with “ERA NOW” plastered across my butt was probably not the best way to promote the cause.

Yet Monday’s Supreme Court decision in favor of Hobby Lobby has convinced me that it’s time to enshrine women’s rights in the Constitution. The Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby is within its rights to object to providing some aspects of the contraceptive coverage provision in its company health plan on religious grounds.  Mind you, Hobby Lobby was not being required to hand out the so-called “morning after pill” to employees. They were simply being required to provide health care coverage with which their employees could make their own PERSONAL health care decisions.

Conservatives are trying to downplay the implications of the decision by emphasizing that it was a narrow ruling that only covered certain types of businesses and certain types of birth control. Yet such decisions are a slippery slope. Catholic hospitals are already allowed to refuse to perform sterilization procedures such as tubal ligations. Will this new ruling allow them to prevent their employees from seeking such procedures at all? What about a mom and pop drug store in a small town? Will women be prevented from buying contraceptives there because of the owners’ religious objections?

There is always a balance to be struck between individuals’ competing rights. I would never want to require a Catholic doctor to perform an abortion, for example. But there is a huge difference between promoting something to which one has religious objections and allowing others to make that decision for themselves.

In the case of Hobby Lobby, there is also the hypocrisy factor. If the owners are so adamantly opposed to such contraceptives as Plan B and IUDs, they should not invest in pharmaceutical companies that manufacture said drugs and devices. (Source: Huffington Post)

The gains women have made in the past 40 years have been due in large part to their ability to control reproduction. The advent of reliable contraception coincided with the huge influx of women into the work force in the 1970s. The advancement of women’s causes has made our nation stronger.

It’s time to pass an amendment to the Constitution to protect women’s rights and advancements. ERA NOW! (This time I’ll get a t-shirt.)