Awesome Mrs. Ostrich…

I believe that all elementary school teachers go to Heaven, and that there is a celestial expressway reserved especially for the ones who teach kindergarten.  They are the true warriors of the profession, as far as I’m concerned.  I teach college freshmen, which is a breeze compared to the sticky, germy job of teaching kindergarten during cold and flu season. I wouldn’t be able to stand the suspense of knowing that at some point I was going to get barfed on by someone I wasn’t related to. And then, there’s all that sneezing. Can I just say that teaching an entire generation of kindergarteners to sneeze into the crooks of their own arms was pure genius?  The college instructors of the world have kindergarten teachers to thank for that.  We owe you. Big time.

Do you remember your own kindergarten teacher?  I still remember mine.  Her name was Mrs. Breault.  She had a perm and black cat eye glasses and wore pastel polyester pantsuits and sensible shoes.   She read us Dr. Seuss books and let us color with her good smelling pointy crayons everyday.  I don’t remember much more about her except that I’m sure that she made kindergarten a fun, safe, place for a round-faced little girl with straight bangs and serious blue eyes who was prone to worrying about such things at the age of six.

When my son began kindergarten,  he went full days instead of  half days, as I had.  We lived in the country so he rode a school bus every day for nearly an hour each way.  Some days, he fell asleep on the bus coming home and the older kids would have to wake him up when the bus got to our driveway.  He was five. A young five, at that.  A lasting memory of mine is standing at our dining room window watching him trudge up the driveway one February afternoon looking as weary as a coal miner and thinking, “I made a mistake. You look exhausted, small boy. You are not ready to ride that big yellow bus to a place full of strangers with so many expectations.”

But luckily, he had Mrs. Austrum, a trim, petite dynamo of a woman with cropped salt and pepper hair and running shoes who “got” little boys and kept it real as far as any expectations were concerned.  She read Dr. Seuss books and let him color with good smelling, pointy crayons.  Her classroom was the place where he learned what I’d learned years so many before – that school was a fun, safe place to be even for just barely five-year old coal miners who think their teacher’s name is Mrs. Ostrich.

Mrs.Ostrich is retired now. When I ran into her during a brief visit to Wisconsin a couple of years ago,  she wanted to know all about the handsome, brown-eyed young man I raised who’ll graduate from college this spring.  The one who called her Mrs. Ostrich.  I pulled out my cell phone and as she scrolled through recent photos of him, she said, “ya know…they get bigger, but their faces never really change.  I would have known him immediately.”

Now, I’ve been a teacher long enough to know that you remember some students better than others, so maybe she says that to all the moms. Or maybe, just maybe,  in addition to everything else, maybe remembering every little coal miner’s face they’ve touched is really just another  kindergarten teacher Super Power.

Yep. Pretty sure it’s that second thing.

Six degrees….

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.”
Martin Luther King Jr.

Sometimes you find things you didn’t even know you were looking for.

Santa brought me an iPad for Christmas this year, and so I am learning what my new little friend is capable of during this long and lonely month when my closest friends seem to be the chickadees outside.  They are not on Facebook, where the rest of my friends live, so it’s good to have someone to complain to in person who doesn’t tell me to “get over it”  when I get too maudlin in January.  The biggest challenge I have (aside from trying to decide whether to leave the house every day) is trying to outwit the neighbor dog who, I’m pretty sure, stole the suet I’d hung from a high branch last week.  Based on the number of dog tracks at the base of the tree, that’s my best guess of where it went. It could have been a wolf, I suppose, but my money’s on Lola.

When I’m not teaching online, or wallowing in winter self-pity, or contemplating the digestive tracts of wolves,  I am spending an inordinate amount of time on my iPad, doing research on things I didn’t even know I was interested in.  If anyone looked at my web surfing history in January, they would lock me up.  For real. They would.  This is mainly because the Internet is a HUGE place.  You start on Facebook, and then make a left turn at Pinterest where it is entirely possible to spend the rest of your life or at least the rest of January if you have no self-control or a career that you actually have to get dressed and leave the house to do, which I don’t.  And don’t even get me started about Etsy.  Or Google. Trust me on this.  Just. Don’t. Go. There. You will never be able to find your way back out and then someone will find you, all shriveled up and bug-eyed from staring at a small screen for hours on end Googling random stuff like how to crochet a chicken sweater.

All the photographs I’ve ever taken with my phone were magically transferred to my iPad by the Girl,  so that’s been another fun way to waste time.  I’d totally forgotten that I’d  saved so many photos of former students with their kids.  As I swiped through photos of the dozens of young men I knew as college freshmen with football dreams dancing in their heads before they became husbands and fathers,  I thought about how teaching students of other races and countries and religions has changed how I see the world and measure its size.

Through the magic of Google, I learned more about the theory known as “six degrees of separation” first proposed by the Hungarian writer, Frigyes Karinthey.  It’s the belief that everyone on this planet is connected to every other person through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries. Just think of that for a minute. Seven billion or so people on Earth and only five people separating you from getting to know as many as you choose to get to know. Kind of blows your mind, doesn’t it? I know it blew mine. What if we are all on one big Facebook Friends list, after all?

I don’t know if Karinthey was right,  but I still choose to believe in a cosmic connection that links us all, one to the next, in a chain.  In January, particularly, as  I watch the snow fall softly and ponder the lives of a few skinny chickadees and a mystery canine with a greasy face and a bad case of indigestion.

They are connected.  I guess it isn’t such a stretch to imagine that their human relatives are, as well.



Lizards and blizzards….

Winter is not a season, it’s an occupation. ~Sinclair Lewis


It is the longest month of the year. Christmas has mainly been put away, save for the one wreath over the stairs. The tree has been relocated to a spot outside my office window. I redecorated it with bird seed bells and suet for the birds who will  use it as a shelter and feeding station until spring.  The darn thing blew over four times in one day last week during our little mini-blizzard.  Four times I cursed because it meant putting on my down jacket and boots and staggering out to put it back up.  But I did it, anyway. As a matter of principle.

Because I am more stubborn than January.

This is what I keep telling myself. That January will not beat me. I test myself  by watching shows like “Island Homes” on HGTV and use MapQuest to chart a fantasy, one woman road trip southward, planning how I’d split up the 1600 plus miles of freeway that separate me from a white sand beach somewhere, anywhere, in January.  I’m not picky.  Any beach would do. Actually, a parking lot near a beach would do.  I would sit there in my car, watching dolphins.  Until April.  Then I would drive home.  That is my fantasy in January.  To sit in a car in a parking lot while I watch dolphins.  This is what it has come to.

Meanwhile, the man I live with contentedly skis through January and tells me that there are snakes in Florida. Yes, I think.  There are snakes.  And other crawly things, too.  And even dolphins, actually.  And they are smarter than we are because they do not live in Minnesota in January.  He tells me that leaving would also mean leaving my “people” and I think, my people are fools. They live where the air hurts their faces, just like me.   I convince myself that I would not miss these people, much.  That I would come back to them when the air didn’t hurt anymore.  That maybe they would even miss me enough to visit me. We would watch dolphins, eat oranges off trees, and avoid snakes.   He does not understand that longing for a sunny spot to ride out the winter months is in my DNA, and that he married a lizard, not a woman who was born and raised in northern Minnesota.

And so, in January, I keep looking longingly at maps and charting my imaginary, some day, lizard-y exodus from all things cold as I watch the birds outside who clearly don’t have any  more sense than I do fluff their tiny down coats and hunker down in the branches of a somewhat crooked spruce tree covered in white, waiting for spring.

Just like me.

Golfing buddies….

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting a tall, well-dressed man with cochlear implants who happens to live in apartment complex for senior citizens in Rochester, the Golden City of Healing made famous by the Mayo brothers.  It is not an exaggeration to say that I was instantly smitten by this bionic man who, I was told, still golfs when the weather is good. Oh. Did I mention that he is in his nineties? And that he didn’t look a day past seventy?  I have been thinking a lot about him ever since and thinking about what it means to grow old in 2015.  I’m not talking about the  “They’re throwing a retirement party for me” type of old, or even  “Wow! I’m 75 now!” old.  Nope, I’m talking about the “Well, what do you know?  I’m 90 years old and I actually woke up again this morning!” kind of old. That old.

In my grandparents’ time, it was almost unheard of for a person to live past the age of 90, and equally rare for the senior citizens in a family to live anywhere but with their grown children or other relatives who were there to help them navigate the inevitable twists and turns that come with aging.  Things have changed. More and more senior citizens are living alone well into their eighth or even ninth decade of life. Often, it’s a choice to remain independent as long as possible and sometimes, it’s more the miles, careers, and responsibilities of sons and daughters they raised that have older people going solo the day the struggle bus for seniors makes a stop outside their door and toots the horn.  This takes a special type of bravery, as far as I’m concerned.

And so, when I meet someone in an assisted living facility or senior high rise or nursing home who has made the best of things despite this, waves the bus past and chooses to continue walking with a spring in his step like my golfing friend, I will admit that I get a little gushy and star-struck.  Mainly because I admire the courage that it takes to meet each new day as it comes with grace and good humor. It makes me want to stop and talk to him, find out his secret, and then file it away for future reference.

Maybe, at any age, it is choosing to focus on your blessings instead of your aches and pains.  Or spending time with the friends you still have left or finding a way to be useful to someone, anyone, each day.  Maybe it’s marveling over the fact that you can still hear, or see, or pee, or walk thanks to medicine and technology and those smart, young wizards at “The Clinic” downtown.  Maybe it’s being braver than you ever thought you’d have to be and continuing to walk rather than take the bus even when it hurts.

Or, maybe, on a gloomy January day when even the artificial Christmas tree in the lobby looks tired and ready to be put away, it is nothing more than believing in the possibility of one more June morning when you know that there’s a tee time with your name penciled in next to it.  A fine, soft, day when you’re pretty sure that the birds are singing softly, and your buddies are flirting with the pretty little gal in the snack shack next to the ninth hole and you’re right there, riding in a golf cart with the sun warming your back.

Maybe when it comes down to it,  it really is as simple, and as complex, as that.