Sunday, March 19, 2017

On Alabama and Icebergs and Grace

"Children, you have homework tonight.  I want you to go home and ask your parents if they can donate a Christmas tree.  It would be so nice to have our own tree here in the classroom.  So ask them tonight - don't forget!"

My second grade teacher Mrs. Hellums was one of my favorite teachers ever.  She had brown curly hair and said I looked like the girl who played Laura Ingalls on TV.

On heavy hot days when our un-airconditioned classroom felt like a clay oven, Ms. Hellums would call us to the front of the room to sit in a semi-circle at her feet for story time.  We worked our way through the entire Little House on the Prairie Series, hour by hour after lunch.  When the heat became so heavy that even she couldn't stand to read anymore she would ask us all to close our eyes and imagine that we were floating on an iceberg on the South Pole.  She would ask us what it felt like ("cold!") and what we heard ("water splashing against our iceberg") and what we saw ("a polar bear swimming by").  The most important lesson we learned in her classroom was that we had the ability to imagine our way out of difficult circumstances and into a better reality.

Years later I would learn that polar bears are only found at the other end of the globe, in the Arctic Circle.  I'm glad I didn't know that at the time because it was a lot more fun with the polar bears there with our class floating on an iceberg on the South Pole.

After school I met my older sister Christi in front of the school for our 30-minute walk home.  The very best part of the walk came first and the very worst part came right after that.

The best part was the catwalk.  It was a rusty cement and steel platform encaged by chain link walls that spanned over Skyland Boulevard.  We loved to pause on the catwalk above the four lanes of traffic, cars whizzing by below us and making the catwalk tremble beneath our feet.  It was thrilling to be so close to speed and danger and yet to escape unscathed every time.  Sometimes an 18-wheeler came by and we would pump our arms into the air, and on rare occasions the driver would honk their horn just as they passed beneath us.  That was a story worth telling at the dinner table that night.

Years later I would learn that a catwalk was also a platform that models walk on at fashion shows.  I'm glad I didn't know that because I prefer to think of it as a platform that school children walk on and get 18-wheelers to honk at them.

The worst part of the walk came right after the catwalk.  The hill towered before us, daring us to try to scale its steep sidewalk.  We had to though because there was no other way home.  The only way over the hill was one exhausted breath at a time.

Two years prior, Mrs. Hellums had been Christi's second grade teacher as well so she too knew the imagination trick.

"I'm going to invent a car for us to get up this hill," Christi told me.  She didn't look at me, both of us were facing forward and keeping our eye on the sidewalk in front of us.  "It's going to fold up so I can keep it in my desk during the day at school and then when we get to the bottom of the hill we can unfold it and sit in it and ride it up the hill."

"What else ... is it going ... to have?" I asked.  Christi had a vivid way of describing things and her enthusiasm was stoked by an eager audience.  One day she would make her living off of this talent of hers and it would take her as far as the White House. 

But for now we were just two tired and sweaty little schoolgirls trying to get up a monster hill.  "And when ... can you have this thing ... ready?"

"Well, it's going to have a Coke machine in it too.  Like at McDonald's but it will be our very own Coke machine.  I mean, we can share Cokes with other kids if we want but it's going to be ours.  The Coke machine is going to be right there above the steering wheel and we can have as much Coke as we want.  And there will be a place where you can get Sprite out of it too.  And in the glove compartment there will be snacks.  Different ones every day, but always Ho Hos every day."

It was almost too much to dream about.  Although the car was never built, the possibility of it nudged Christi and me up that monster hill every day inch by steady inch until at last we crested it, right at the corner where Mrs. Hellums lived.  She let the kids chain their bicycles to the stop sign at the corner of her yard in the mornings because no one dared to ride their bike down the monster hill.  Even with brakes, that ride would kill you.

Years later I would learn that the stop sign was city property and it was against city ordinances to chain our bikes to it but I'm glad I didn't know that at the time.  It was so much nicer to think that our bikes were safe and legal in Mrs. Hellums' yard all day.

Christi never told me when the fold-up car would be ready because dreaming about something is one thing but committing to something that you know you can't deliver is quite another.  We grew up in a family where story-telling was encouraged, but once you promised something you were expected to deliver.  Besides, we didn't need the car.  We needed the dream of the car to get us up that hill every afternoon.

We were almost home when we passed Mr. Smith's house on Crestline Drive.  He was having the pine trees cut down in his yard, which was a practical and smart thing to do in Alabama in the 1970s because the pine trees were home to millions of cockroaches, who migrated from the trees to the nearby houses and back.

I burst into tears.

"Why are you crying, Mel?" Christi asked.

"Don't you think that's sad?  All those trees?  Just dying?"

We stood on the street looking at each other, each confused about why the other didn't understand.

My mother was always in the same place when we got home - standing at the formica countertop in the kitchen, in the corner next to the stove.  I told her about the trees and how sad I felt about them.  She reminded me about the cockroaches and said that was probably why Mr. Smith was having them cut down  Also, his wife had recently died and perhaps he was getting his house ready to sell.

"Maybe," I said.  "Oh, and Mrs. Hellums wants people to ask their parents if they can donate a tree for our classroom," I said.  I knew it was a stretch for my parents to have a tree for our own house, and that donating one for a classroom was impossible.  Besides, my mother was relentlessly fair so if she was going to buy a tree for my classroom, she would have to buy one for three other classrooms as well.  The math in our house was always in multiples of four, and when you multiply by four even a cheeseburger becomes too expensive.

I don't remember if it was my mother or me who put together the tragedy of Mr. Smith's pines and my classroom's need for a Christmas tree but soon my mother was on the phone with him.  The curly white phone cord stretched from the base of the phone to the pantry, where my mother was talking to Mr. Smith.  It wasn't that the conversation was private - she was just trying to hear him and let him hear her.  Although the house was fairly quiet right at that moment, you never knew when our house was going to get noisy.  Maybe a sister would sit down and start practicing the piano. Maybe a door would slam.  Maybe someone would start fighting.  Noise was like cockroaches in our house - it appeared suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere.  And so when we talked on the phone we went into the pantry.

"Mr. Smith says he'll deliver a tree to your school tomorrow," my mother said as she hung the receiver back up.

"Really?" I asked, grinning.

"That's what he said," she said as she hugged me.  "But let's wait and see what happens tomorrow."

Alabama pines did not make great Christmas trees.  They were scraggly and their needles were a dry and pale green.  If a plump Douglas fir says "all is merry and bright", a recycled Alabama pine in your living room says "this will have to do for this year."  As a young child I learned the value of tinsel, which does great things to distract from the skeletal appearance of an Alabama pine.  We knew the value of something shiny long before it was a thing.

The next morning when I got to my classroom our Christmas tree was already there.  An admiring throng of students was gathered around it.  Mrs. Hellums clapped her hands in delight when I joined them.  "Look how beautiful it is!" she said.  "Your neighbor delivered it early this morning."

It really was beautiful.  The needles were a lush, dark green.  The tree was plump and full and it chuckled "all is merry and bright."

It was not an Alabama pine from Mr. Smith's yard.  It was a Douglas fir, which he had purchased at the grocery store and delivered to our classroom.

In the second grade my teacher Mrs. Hellums taught me the power of my imagination. 

My mother taught me that tragedy and need can sometimes come together to produce something wonderful.

And Mr. Smith taught me the true meaning of grace. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

On Japan and Generosity and Jewelry

When I went to Japan to teach English at a middle school in 1992 I thought Japanese kids were going to love me.  Mostly because kids in the US always did.  I was a Sunday School teacher and a babysitter and a Girl Scout and a big sister, and where ever I went I found little kids and they found me.  

When I reported for the first day of school at Anesaki Chu-Gakko in Ichihara-shi, it was an oppressively hot and humid Monday morning.  A group of girls was standing in front of the school and they noticed me right away.  As a tall Westerner, I stood out.  I waved at them and waited for them to run towards me.  

Instead, they ran away screaming.  

I tried to imagine how I was going to do my job under these circumstances.  As a JET (Japanese English Teacher), the Japanese Ministry of Education was paying me to be in the school for the year to form relationships with the kids and encourage them to use the English they were learning in the classroom.  

That was going to be hard if I couldn't get the kids to stop running away from me screaming.  

As a first step, I got the kids used to being in the same room with me.  Of course I was there for their English lessons.

I also spent time with them outside of class.  At lunchtime instead of sitting in the teacher's lounge with other teachers I sat in the classrooms with the kids.  When it was time for o-soji, I cleaned the glass windows and swept the hallways, right along with the kids.  (Japanese schools typically don't pay for janitors, instead the kids spend about 15 minutes each day cleaning their own space.)  At some point the kids started coming to my house on weekends and they invited me to theirs.

Over time they warmed up to me and soon I found myself once again surrounded by children all the time.  They asked a lot of questions about what life was like for teenagers in America.  And they wanted to know what Michael Jordan and Madonna and River Phoenix were like in real life.  

To be clear, I never met any of those people.  

One day, a sweet quiet girl whose name I can't remember gave me a necklace.  Her friend had given it to her and she gave it to me.  It was a tiny coral star on a delicate gold chain.  There was a school rule that students couldn't wear any kind of jewelry other than hair ties.  As she gave it to me she said, "I can't wear this but you can."  

I thought that was the sweetest sentiment in the world.  I can't use this but it will make me happy to see it on you.  

It felt like the purest sense of generosity.  I wore that star to school a lot and it always made her happy.

Over the years I've acquired and lost a lot of jewelry.  Typically I don't buy expensive things so I don't have to be upset when I lose them.  But that coral star has somehow stayed with me.  From Japan to the Monterey Peninsula in 1996.  From Monterey to Silicon Valley in 1999.  From Silicon Valley to Beijing in 2005.  From Beijing to Nashville in 2011.  Somehow that coral star always managed to get into my bags and relocate with me.  

Coincidentally, coral has become one of my favorite colors.  Or perhaps that's not a coincidence at all, maybe it's exactly what you would expect given the way the color  came into my wardrobe via that first little star.  The other day I wore a coral sweater to work and that little star was a perfect complement.  During conference calls that day I found myself wrapping my fingers around it, the pad of each finger settling into one angle of the pentagram.  I thought about that sweet little girl and her generous spirit.

I have long since lost touch with her but where ever she is I hope she's in a place where she can wear whatever jewelry she wants.

And I hope she still has that sweet sense of generosity. 

And if by some chance she sees this post and wants her necklace back, nothing would make me happier than to give it to her.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Post Where I Thank Donald Trump

"I need to know there are still rational people in this world!  I need to be surrounded by them - thousands of them!" she said though her tears, a flame in her dark eyes.  "I just need to know I'm not the only person left in this world who sees how crazy he is!"

Of course there are rational people who voted for Trump.  One day Audrey will learn to say, "I don't agree with your views but I can appreciate why you feel that way."  But this was not the time for that.  One day she will develop empathy and understanding for others' viewpoints, but for now she needs to fully express her own. 

It was late Thursday evening, the night before Trump's inauguration and the mood in my house was somber.  I had just flown in from a business trip to Ft. Lauderdale, a trip that had been physically and emotionally taxing for me.  I was looking forward to a slow, quiet weekend at home that looked something like this:

coffee with my bestie
walk on the greenway
soccer with Grant
make something in the crockpot
bubble bath
hot almond milk with ginger

But my roadmap for a peaceful weekend started to crackle and burn at the thought of making a trip to Washington D.C. for the Women's March.

Would we drive?  That would mean at least 20 hours of driving in one weekend, all to be at the march for a few hours.

Would we fly?  At this point tickets were at least $1,000 per person and I wasn't sending Audrey into that chaos alone.  I would need to buy two tickets. 

I felt tired just thinking about the trip so I tried to make the case that there  was going to be a march in Nashville and that according to the latest estimates there should be 2,000-5,000 people there.  That was thousands.

And frankly, I felt a little scared at the thought of making the trip.  A drive through the night to D.C. would be dangerous in and of itself, and a protest like this one might attract violence.  I didn't feel ready to handle any of that.  

But my daughter was sitting on the sofa next to me with tears in her eyes, asking me to take her to a place where she could see that she was not alone.

And so we made our plans to drive to D.C. as soon as I got off work on Friday.

Then at work on Friday I found out that my coworker Shai was also planning to go for the march.  Weeks ago she had joined the team that was organizing the Nashville March and at the same time had bought a bus ticket to D.C. for the weekend on a crowd source bus.  Across a crowded conference room I yelled to Shai, "Audrey and I are driving!  Go with us!!!

And then there were three.  

So in the evening of Friday, Jan. 20, Shai and Audrey and I started our drive through a long and foggy night and as the sun rose on Jan. 21 we pulled up at my sister Christi's house in Maryland, where we slept for two hours and then got up and took the metro into town.

With each metro stop the train turned a deeper shade of pink as we picked up more and more pussy hats and protest signs and mothers and daughter and sisters.  We cheered and clapped for each other, and I thought, "There are so many of us!  Even this far away from the Capitol, there are so many of us!"

That feeling of 'so many of us' - that intensified as we exited the subway onto the street level.  Metro stations around the city were dumping buckets of pink pussy hats into a swollen river of marching men and women.

There were several police officers and as we passed we thanked them each for their service.  They smiled back and said it was their pleasure.  Statistically speaking, at least half of those officers probably did not agree with our views - but there they were, fighting for our right to express them.

That made me love my country and our Constitution more than ever before.  

As we got closer to the Capitol the river of pussy hats broke the riverbanks and started to flood the entire valley of the Mall.  There were so many of us that we couldn't even march - we stood and soaked in all of the energy and beauty of it all.

"Yep, it isn't just us.  There are lots of people who feel the way we do.  And our democracy is still strong enough for us to come out in throngs like this and protest," I thought.  Tears streamed down my face and I didn't even try to wipe them away.  Surrounded by my sisters - and many brothers - crying felt like a totally normal thing to do.

(This was my favorite sign.  "They tried to bury us.  They didn't realize we were seeds.")

A woman walked up next to me and smiled.  "It's amazing, isn't it?"  She nodded at the crowd all around us.  I smiled and nodded and cried some more.  An unspoken understanding passed between us. "I don't love crowds and I'm a little afraid right now but I know you are too and yet this is more important than all of that.  Thank you for helping me be strong."  I have never felt as threatened and as safe all at the same time.

(This was my second favorite sign.  "Barack, you rest.  We got this.")

Audrey hugged me.  "Thank you so much Mommy for doing this for me."
 ("Let's try to get a better picture of you," Audrey said.  
"Honey I think we can give up on the thought of there being any good pictures of me this weekend.  I've been awake for two days now.")

"Is it what you hoped it would be?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, looking out at the flooded pink landscape, punctuated by colorful protest signs.  "This is exactly what I needed.  Thank you so much."

Messages of goodwill were streaming in through social media.  Friends who agree with our views cheered us on and thanked us for representing them.  Even those who don't agree wished us a safe journey.  And the early reports said that the crowd in Nashville had already far exceeded initial expectations - instead of 2,000-5,000, the streets were packed with 10,000 protesters. 

After several hours of floating in the lake of pink protest, we were ready to drift back to our homes.  While the trip to D.C. had been dark and foggy, the trip back home was dark and rainy.  It would have been a hard drive under any circumstances but Shai and I had been awake for almost two days now.  We fueled ourselves with Dr. Pepper and Mt. Dew and happy conversation until finally, at 1:00 in the morning we arrived back in Middle America.  We dropped Shai back with her husband and baby, and then Audrey and I went home and went straight to bed.

When we woke up the next morning we were both starving, so we made a breakfast of English muffins and eggs and smoothies and coffee.  We sat together at the kitchen table and convinced each other that the whole thing had actually happened.  Audrey thanked me again and again for taking her, and I thanked her for getting me to go.  I wouldn't have gone if it hadn't been for her, but now that it was over I was so grateful that we took this chance to raise our voices.  

The amazing thing about that weekend is that so many forces came together to make it possible.

Without me, Audrey would not have been able to go to the march.  And without her, I would not have dared to make the trip.  

Without Shai, I would have been the only responsible adult on that perilous journey.  And without us, Shai would have been sleeping on a bus for two nights. 

Without Donald Trump, I would not have found my First Amendment Voice, and I wouldn't have had this amazing weekend adventure with Audrey and Shai.  

And so with a grateful heart, I say thank you and amen to all of those things.