Building the Bookshelf

I am the daughter of a hobbyist woodworker. My entire life my father has been making things: bookshelves, dressers, tables, benches, etc. I grew up knowing that many things were possible with a saw, but never learned from my father how to use power tools. I’m not sure if it was because I never showed an interest or because my father thought his four daughters had no interest in woodworking. Either way, it wasn’t until adulthood that I learned how to use power tools and discovered the many things I was capable of doing with different power tools, including saws.

Ever since we moved into our house, we’ve discussed some projects that we would like to undertake, especially to take care of furniture needs that no furniture store appears to be be able to fulfill for us. One of those desires was new bookshelves to replace the bookshelves that were ruined in a pop-up shower as my husband headed back to our house with the last load of household items that had been housed in a storage unit for six weeks.

Our living room was a hodgepodge space that never seemed organized and was difficult to rearrange, but I knew that the bookshelves we had did not work because they didn’t hold all of our books. We needed something new if I was going to rearrange the storage in our house.

A couple of weeks ago one of the houses in our neighborhood had an estate sale. Since one never knows what one might find, we stopped and discovered a radial arm saw in the garage.

In the 24 hours that followed our “new” purchase, we were looking at Youtube videos to figure out the best method for the shelves I desperately desired. We finally found plans for shelves that flanked either side of a doorway. Suddenly, I wondered why I never thought of it before. We started planning to make this our first project.

Our first “free” weekend (those don’t really exist but it was less packed than other weekends) we headed to Lowes, at which time we purchased three pieces of 3/4 inch MDF, two pieces of plywood, a can of white satin paint, wood veneer edging (which we ended up not using), 6-inch cabinet paint rollers, and new sawhorses (since we didn’t have any).

To elevate the bookshelves over baseboards so that they could be flush against the wall, we had to build a plinth using lumber we found in our garage.

We started by cutting the three pieces of MDF into twelve 12-inch wide pieces. Ripping the large pieces of MDF through our new saw was difficult on the first pass, just because the wood was so large, but we took a nighttime break after the first piece was cut up (and after I started getting irritable) and had a much better run the next afternoon. The rest of our Saturday afternoon was occupied with cutting the sides (80 inches), the tops (39.5 inches for one side of the door), and five 38.5 inch shelves. (I miss measured the first time and we cut 38 inch shelves. Thankfully, the other side of the doorway needs shorter shelves.) Then we used our new Dado saw blades to make a half lap joint for the top and sides of the shelving unit. We resized the Dado saw blades to make 13/16 inch wide and 1/4 inch deep notches to slide in the shelves. While we know that makes the placement of the shelves permanent, we made sure they were twelve inch tall spaces, which gives us plenty of room for all of our books. The bottom shelf is slightly bigger but it helps us fit those bigger children’s books. We did this for both sets of shelves.

Next I painted both sides of all of the pieces with three coats of white satin paint (Olympic paint plus primer). This included painting the 4X8 plywood for the back of the shelves. Thanks to two warm, breezy Texas days, the paint dried quickly, which made the work go much faster, especially after I discovered that our shelves for the unit were shorter than they were supposed to be and we had to cut the new pieces.

Then, using wood glue and our nail gun, we put together the outside of the shelves and then measured the unit one more time. Now that it was all together, we discovered that we had not accounted for the extra 3/4 inch that resulted from half lap joint as we had constructed the shelves. Just to make sure, my husband and a friend carried the unit inside. It didn’t take long to discover that it was absolutely too big for the space. New long shelves were cut to fit the new size and I painted those pieces while the guys went shopping. By the time they got back, the shelves had fallen over and we could now start over by cutting down the top and bottom by another 3/4 inch and new half lap joints.

My husband cut down a piece of 0.197 inch, 4×8 plywood for the backing of the bookshelves and we reassembled the tops and bottoms, again using wood glue and the nail gun. After squaring up the unit, we attached the plywood backing, moved the unit back into the house where it fit into its spot on the right side of the doorway, and then screwed it to the wall. We measured for shelves, cut them all down to the appropriate size, and slid them into their spots. I then spent the remainder of the evening painting the fronts of the shelves and touching up spots that needed it. While there is a gap on one side due to a wall that is not square and one corner that was put together differently than the others (we screwed up the matching of the half-lap on that corner), we were proud of the completed first half of our project. Or at least we felt accomplished.

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It took us until this weekend to complete the other side. The wall on the other side is slightly shorter, so our plinth was assembled with 35 inch by 10 inch pieces of wood, getting us the offset look on the left side that we didn’t get with the right side.

Remembering to account for the half-lap joints, we measured top and bottom pieces at 35.75 inches for our 36.5 inch wall. The sides were again 80 inches. We cut the pieces down to size and I got to work painting the remaining pieces. Assembly of the box was much smoother than the last time and I drew out the lines for the plywood backer. Once it was squared up and nailed on, we discovered that one side had some slight hangover so my husband used the planer to cut it down so that it would fit in just right. With the help of the same friend, we moved it inside and it fit like a glove. Shelves were cut to the appropriate lengths but once they were installed we discover they were a little too deep. We took them back to the saw to rip off the edges, put them back in, and they fit nearly perfectly. I again got to work painting the front of the shelves and doing touch-ups.

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While it’s very clear that one unit was a practice unit for a much better second shelving unit, we feel like we can call our first furniture making venture a success.

Now it’s time to start looking at dining room table plans…

Going Without the Playroom

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As I gingerly step across the minefield in our daughter’s bedroom I wonder why I ever decided to move all of the kids’ toys into their respective bedrooms.

Then I remember that all of these toys could be strewn across the first floor of our house.

Yeah, I think I can live with my daughter’s mess, as long as I don’t have to look at it.

It was one of the things I wanted in our new house, and it was one of the things I had to do without: a designated playroom. Our last house had at least 1000 more square feet than our new house and our family room was large enough for a TV viewing area and a play area. Nearly all of our kids’ toys had a home away from their bedrooms.While that made it much easier to clean their bedrooms, our family room was always another story.

When we moved into our last house, our daughter was one and we were a year from another baby. We were moving from a house that was a third the size of our new home. Not only did we have plenty of room to spread out, we took full advantage of it. Large toys such as a play tunnel, musical instruments, big blocks, and large wheeled toys weren’t a big deal. For five years, that was our norm. Not only was that our norm, but we comfortably expanded into that space. The biggest problem? The large room wasn’t just a space for our children, it was a space for the whole family. It was the space that we occupied when we wanted to watch movies or play video games. When we had people over, it was our nicest finished space, so we had to make sure that ALL of the toys were put into their designated spaces and pray that they fit.

I’ll fully admit that I am far from the world’s best housekeeper. My mom once suggested that I look into paying for a cleaning lady to come clean our house once a month since I clearly didn’t have time to do so as a full-time wife, mom, and teacher. Besides being unable to afford the luxury, I couldn’t imagine having someone else come in and clean around our mess, especially since we would still have to pick up the floors and clean off surfaces. I also have a SLIGHT problem with paper piles. Add all of that to a family room full of toys big and small and you have a huge, stressful mess when company is coming. Not only that, but we were also living in that huge, stressful, and sometimes painful mess.

The toys were out of control. The mess was out of control. The stuff was out of control. Something needed to change but I had no idea what or how.

Then we moved halfway across the country.

We looked at several houses, some that had a room or loft that could easily be a designated play space. I wanted it for now and for when our kids got older so they would have a place to hang out with their friends. But as we continued to look at houses it became clear that the play space was going to the bottom of the “must have” list. And the house we bought had everything we wanted EXCEPT a playroom or loft.

We moved into our new house and put a new rule into place: toys stay in bedrooms. There were no exceptions.

I was nervous. After all, the kids had a lot of toys and we had to figure out how to get them to fit neatly into their rooms. But we did it and every toy has a place, even if their rooms usually look messier than this.

It’s not a perfect system. Honestly, I try to stay out of their rooms just because I can’t handle the acrobatics necessary to cross from my daughter’s bedroom door to her bed. But it also means that the mess is in their bedrooms. And while the rest of our house still needs a lot of work, it is not nearly as overwhelming as it was two years ago. It has also forced us to help our kids manage their toy collection, as they need to fit their toys into their bedrooms; they know the rule is that they have to find a home for the toy or get rid of it. They aren’t always ready to purge when necessary, but it is certainly easier to motivate them when it is their own space and not the space occupied by the entire family.

I know that the decision to get rid of the playroom means tolerating more concentrated messes, but the payoff in our family comfort has been significant.

Now, if I could just figure out how to break that 30+ year paper habit.

What I Wish I Knew in My 20s: I Need a Budget

This blog was originally posted as “Budgeting 101 with Sarah” on The Newbie Nesters.

I grew up in a lower middle class household  with a father who is a church worker (and believe me, the average church worker doesn’t make much money) and a mother who stayed at home until all four of us girls were in school. That means I didn’t grow up with much. I watched friends get Cabbage Patch Dolls and little pink boomboxes and Barbies galore and I had to be happy with my two Barbies and the Barbie pool I received from my young and childless (at the time) aunt and uncle. What little money I did get in the form of an allowance I hoarded like a mini-Scrooge, and from middle school on, any and every job I worked slowly contributed to a growing savings account that rarely, if ever, saw a withdrawal. A natural saver, the first time I ever allowed myself a spending spree was the fall semester of my junior year of college. After months of saving every penny from my job serving tables at a local upscale restaurant (or at least upscale for southwest Michigan), I spent it all traveling around western Europe while attending classes in London. But besides that one semester, I continued to save, only spending what I had and only when necessary, all while watching my boyfriend, and then fiancé, spending slightly more than he was making.

And so in our early 20s a spender married a saver and lived happily ever after. Kind of. It is fair to say that the spender and saver are still happily married in-spite of the money mistakes that we made all through our 20s. Some of those mistakes we made together, some of those we made separately, but both are having a lasting impact in our late 30s.

Unfortunately, when I got married and graduated from college, those saver habits started to change. At my core I was a saver, so every unnecessary penny spent hurt, but I found that buying things could also be fun. Once I had a full time job and some disposable income, I found myself buying things that I didn’t really need. This was especially true of items that I felt I had been robbed of owning all through my childhood. One of those things were collectors items, particularly collector’s edition Barbie dolls, most of which I still own.

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These Barbies have won a display position in the guest room.

To this day I still don’t know a good way to display them and several of them are hiding in a closet in our guest room.

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These Barbies have been relegated to the closet.

Immediately after we got married I had an apartment to furnish, so I would buy fun decorative items on sale to cover for all the hand-me-down furniture. I needed a new teaching wardrobe so I would buy various clothing items that I really liked, as long as they were on sale. Sales became my friends and I learned the hard way that habitually shopping sales can actually lead to more spending than saving. Over the last fifteen years post-college graduation I don’t know how many unused or barely used items I have donated or sold at garage sales. Now I don’t buy something unless I know exactly how I am going to use it or where it is going to go in our house. While I’m not ready to get rid of all of our books and movies and other items, I am slowly learning that less is more, a lesson that slapped us in the face a year and a half ago when we lived for six weeks in our 30 foot camper. I am also trying to do a better job of spending my hard earned money on a few quality items over many junky items. I relearned that particular difficult lesson this past year when I decided that I needed a much better camera that I could use in my yearbook adviser work. My husband had tried to encourage me to do just that two years ago when I bought our last camera. At the time I was too cheap to buy the SLR camera I desperately wanted so I just bought a nice standard digital camera. So instead of a single purchase two years ago I ended up spending much more money overall, eventually buying the camera I really wanted.

Another 20s financial failure was dining out, way too much. While dining out (or dining in if you’re the take-out type) can also destroy one’s waistline (as it did for us), it also did a number on our budget. But dining out was so easy. For the first three years we were married my husband was working in Michigan, I was working in Illinois, and we were living in Indiana. By the time both of us got home from work we were too exhausted to cook. And that’s ignoring the fact that when we were first married, my cooking skills were embarrassing, to say the least. I once screwed up a box meal. You know, one of those “just add water and mix” meals. When we moved to Indianapolis and we were both living and working in the same city, the situation improved some. We both starting learning how to cook more and I found that I sometimes enjoyed it. But I was also teaching English and directing the high school theatre program at the same time. There were times during the school year when Chinese take-out and wings nights at Buffalo Wild Wings was just way easier. When we moved one more time and I was only working part time, we discovered that it was financially essential to eat at home. In the last seven years since that move we have learned that cooking at home is way more affordable, tastes significantly better (seriously, the only thing we haven’t been able to “perfect” has been certain pasta sauces), and is way healthier. During those rare weeks when we don’t cook much at home, my husband and I both feel gross and more often than not, we regret our decisions. If I could go back and do my early 20s over again, I would force myself to learn how to cook something better than Hamburger Helper.

While eating at home more would have helped our checkbook, we also should have been smarter about where that home was located. This is probably the one area of our finances on which my husband and I still disagree. We spent the first year and a half of marriage living in apartments and then decided, before we were 25, that we were ready for home ownership. At the ripe old age of 24, we bought our first house. Now we both loved our first house. It was a nice starter home, it was fun to paint and decorate, and it allowed us to get our first puppy, but in terms of our finances, we had no idea what we were doing. We bought a house with more property than I think we intended and ended up spending significantly more on property taxes than originally thought. Or maybe we were just ignoring the extra property taxes because we had stars in our eyes. I had fun decorating but didn’t really consider how much money I was spending trying to emulate the interior designers on TLC (before HGTV became the place all things home design). And we stupidly fell for a buyers club pitch thinking that we would be buying so many things for our new house that the club would help us save significant amounts of money, only to discover that it was over $1000 that we would never see again. My husband wouldn’t change a thing about THAT home purchase, but if I could do it over again, I would have found a house to rent before buying, at least to give us a homeownership test run. A complete rundown of our other homeownership issues can be found here. Let’s just say our experience has been a mixed bag.

But all of the above mistakes could have been avoided if we had just learned how to budget when we were in our early 20s. For the first twelve years of our marriage we never knew how much we were spending, living on faith that we wouldn’t bounce a check between deposits. Our debt increased, our spending never decreased, and it was a constant potential for conflict in our marriage. We took a finance class three years ago and while we are far from perfect and still have a lot to work through, we finally learned the why and how of budgeting.screen-shot-2017-02-20-at-7-25-25-pm Now I regularly use the website You Need a Budget (which has free plans for students) for all my budgeting needs and we are constantly working on a plan for becoming debt free. It isn’t easy, but I wish we had started doing it before we got married. It would have eliminated many a fight and helped us learn the above lessons much sooner. Not only that, but our retirement savings (which are ok but not great) would be significantly better.

No one ever REALLY wants to talk about money, especially when they are young and don’t have much of it, but I would count my lack of financial literacy one of the greatest regrets of my 20s. Do a better job of spending and planning in your 20s and then you’ll be able to really enjoy your 30s and beyond. Trust me. It will be worth it.

 

To redshirt or not to redshirt

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I was a June baby. In fact, I graduated from high school a couple days before my eighteenth birthday. When I started kindergarten over 30 years ago, the state of Michigan required new kindergarteners to be five years old before December, six months after my fifth birthday. While my kindergarten teacher warned my mom that she wasn’t sure she was ready, for my mom it was a no brainer; I needed to go to school because I needed to be around other kids and she wasn’t going to put it off. My kindergarten teacher’s fears were unfounded and I was fine. As soon as I was in the classroom I took off and my love of learning never died. Apparently, all I needed was some structure and a little push. Of course, by the time I graduated from high school, I was one of the youngest in my graduating class, but the fact remains that I was ready to start school when I did and there was no reason for my parents to look back and re-evaluate their decision.

When we had our own June baby nearly six years ago, the plan was always that he would follow the same academic schedule as his older sister. Our kids are two years and two months apart and the best of friends. We didn’t want to do anything that would mess with that closeness and we had mentally prepared ourselves for having kids that were two years apart in everything, including school. Our daughter entered pre-K with a natural aptitude for sitting mostly still, filling out worksheets, and gladly learning how to read and write all of her letters. The summer before she entered kindergarten she regularly sat down with paper and a pencil, asking me to spell out word after word as she carefully scrawled them out in her imperfect handwriting. She took to reading almost immediately and has never struggled with learning new words. In short, there was never any doubt that she was ready for school. In fact, we were probably less prepared for what she would have to do as a kindergartener than she was.

As children usually are, our son, equally as inquisitive and intelligent as his older sister, proved to be the complete opposite when it came to school preparedness. As a educator, I spent the first five years of his life watching out for the signs, a task that was still difficult for me because my expertise is in children over the age of fourteen. I read articles on expectations on American pre-schoolers, I read about early literacy, I read about the differences in school for boys and girls, I paid attention to trends and talked to friends and colleagues who were also considering what decisions they were going to make about their summer birthday children. And I watched our son. I watched as he gained favor with his teachers, as he interacted with his classmates, and as he refused to learn how to color in the lines and to tell us his letters. Our son loves books and he loves being read to, but when we asked him to identify letters and sounds he would look at us, shrug, and say “I don’t know.” When I attended his pre-K Christmas party during his first round of pre-K, it became abundantly clear to me that he was younger and less mature than his classmates. While he got along great with his classmates and had many friends, I could see the differences between our son and many of the boys who were six or more months older than him.

We conferenced with his pre-K teacher multiple times during the course of the year. Already at his first conference, his teacher was trying to prepare us for the possibility that he might need one more year before kindergarten. He was progressing, but his interest in “academics” was spotty. When they started working on stations, he matched or surpassed many of his older classmates in problem solving skills. But then when we compared his letter and number knowledge with the same classmates, he was behind. We had to make a decision between having our son continue to kindergarten with the risk of him struggling to keep up or giving him one more year to mature so that he could be a “rock star” once he got to kindergarten. Complicating that decision was the desire to keep him with his friends. While he is still young and friendships continue to evolve at his age, we had already uprooted him one year before when we made the move from Indiana to Texas. We had forced him to leave friends he had spent the last three years of his life getting to know through both daycare and preschool. Now we were once again contemplating keeping him back from a new group of friends. That would mean two years in a row of social adjustments with a child who treasures his close friendships and does not do well with change.

Parenting is hard. It just is. We make decisions about and for our children all the time, decisions that we know will have lasting consequences. In the end, after multiple conversations with his teacher, we finally came to a difficult conclusion based on the following factors:

  • Our son still needed nap time. Now he complains because “nap time is a waste of time because (he) could be spending that time playing,” but when the school year started, he was still a little boy who turned into a little monster when he was tired. Pair constant activity with increased cognitive expectations and less scheduled rest during the day, and there was potential for disaster. Now, on most days that he is at home, he is still fairly functional when he hasn’t had an extra nap, meaning next year he will be more cooperative at school and at home because he shouldn’t be too sleepy. At least, that’s what we’re hoping for.
  • Our son wasn’t ready for formalized literacy. He loves the English language; he sometimes talks like he is two to three years older than he really is, but last summer he still had minimal interest in learning how to decode the English language. During the two and a half months off I attempted to have him complete Star Wars activity books, thinking that the theme would entice him to do the activities, but even those appeared to be a chore for him. That doesn’t mean that our son struggles with understanding complex texts. Our son, who a year ago showed no interest in letters, absorbed the entire Harry Potter series when we started listening to the books on our family vacation to Michigan. There were even times that he comprehended things before his big sister (who will probably finish reading the whole series herself before her eighth birthday in less than two months) did, including the death of Sirius Black. But when it comes to young literacy, the US appears to be pushing kids to read far earlier than other countries, yet our children are not necessarily better readers. As an English teacher one of my biggest fears is that my children will lose their love for the written word. I’m hopeful that now my son will be ready and eager to read instead of frustrated at his lack of progress.
  • He’s had extra time to play, an important part of child development that is disappearing from schools around the country. With the increased pressures for testing and the many additional expectations related to standardized testing practices, schools feel like they need to spend more time on academics and create less time for play. This counterproductive practice is starting all the way down in pre-K programs nationwide. While we are lucky enough to send our children to a private school that makes creative play a priority, this is not the case for most of our country’s children. Putting kindergarten off for one more year gives some of those children who really need it more time for developmental play before they are required to sit still.
  • We haven’t had to deal with homework. Yes, homework. For those who haven’t been near a kindergarten classroom in the last 20+ years, it has become common practice to have kindergarten students do homework every week. The amount of homework and the timeline for the homework varies from state to state and even from school to school, but the general consensus nationwide is that five and six year old children need to be doing homework. I personally have mixed feelings about this because I can see both sides of the argument, but since I can’t change this fact of early childhood education I am just glad that I didn’t have to fight with a little boy who was not ready to sit still and complete worksheets or read me an assigned book after coming home from school. But now our son has started to demonstrate a readiness to sit still for longer periods of time, working on coloring, drawing, and other activities. Pair that with an actual interest in sharing with us what he has learned during the day (a dinnertime ritual), and I’m hopeful that homework time next year will be more him doing the work and less me standing over his shoulder making sure that it gets done.

While the above have been the immediate positives of keeping our son out of kindergarten for an extra year, there is plenty to be said for the long term effects of “redshirting” preschool children as well. According to a recent study, middle class children who are held back for an extra year of preschool before being sent to kindergarten report being much happier with their lives once they reach their middle school years. It is important to note that this is only the case for middle class children who have financial access to an extra year of academic enrichment. Lower class children will typically spend that extra year either at home with a caregiver or in a daycare situation that is not attached to a preschool program. As a result, they are not getting an extra year of planned academics (no extra writing, reading, or numbers practice) and they are not around teachers who can notice early developmental red flags, such as speech or cognitive issues. While this brings up other issues related to early childhood education, it appears that for those children in a consistent educational situation (like our son), putting off kindergarten for another year can have a life long positive effect.

Last year our son’s pre-K teacher repeatedly told us that we knew our son and it had to be our decision. While we asked for a lot of feedback and extra evaluation, all of the teachers involved  refused to tell us what we should do. Despite our son’s tears and insistence that he stay with his friends (and my husband’s many reservations), we gave him that extra year and it continues to make a huge difference. And while our son started the school year saying that he was going to just skip kindergarten and move right on to first grade, I believe that he will be incredibly successful (and happy) with his current classmates once they are all in kindergarten next year.

And that is what matters most.

Learning to Listen

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I am an introvert, which means I spend a lot of time in my own head. A lot of time in my own head. And I’m ok with that, really. In fact, I began composing this particular blog piece while I was driving my kids home from soccer practice, lost in my own thoughts while the two of them were lost in their own mutual world.

As an introvert, I’ve always been a better writer than speaker. I’m much better when I can sit down and write things out, revise, think, revise again, and then publish my perfectly reasoned, articulate thoughts. I would have been terrible in high school debate. Not because I wouldn’t have been able to come up with something to say. I just would have come up with the perfect response while sitting on the bus on the way home. And maybe that is why I have found social media to be my perfect medium because, over the years, I’ve come to see it as the perfect place to share the thoughts, opinions, ideas, theses, theories, etc. that have been forming in my introvert brain for decades. I could share these things after carefully wording my thoughts, revising them, checking the comments for unintentional snarkiness, and then posting so that my voice could be heard. I didn’t comment on social media because it was a way for me to hide behind a computer screen; I commented on social media because writing is the only way I can guarantee that I can put together a well reasoned, fully coherent thought.

Then 2016 happened.

If I’m being perfectly honest, I really do love and appreciate the invention known as social media. I didn’t jump on the bandwagon until MySpace was dying out, so I have only ever had a Facebook page, but I opened my Facebook page well before my first pregnancy. That meant I got to share all baby related news with family and friends in real time. I didn’t have to wait to tell everyone I was pregnant. I just announced it on Facebook. I didn’t have to spend a lot of money mailing pictures to everyone so they could see what our new bundle of joy looked like. I just posted the photos on Facebook. And this became the modus operandi for nearly every single major life change from that point on: our move to another city, the start of grad school, a new job, another baby, the loss of a dog, the decision to move to a different state, the addition of two more dogs to our family, our many adventures. Social media allowed me to get back into contact with high school and college friends and I have watched some of those friendships grow. It has allowed me to stay in close contact with former students, former colleagues, and even former instructors. While I refuse to venture into other forms of social media for time’s sake, I love what social media has allowed me to do in terms of my relationships and in opening up my world.

Then 2016 happened.

Somewhere in finding my “voice” during the 2016 election cycle, I discovered that many, many others had also found their voices. And as they shared their voices, wounds that had appeared to heal over the decades and centuries were suddenly ripped back open. I hurt, not because I felt personally attacked (well, I did a couple times but my husband helped to talk me back from the ledge on those occasions) but because the words they said and shared hurt me to my soul. I tried to stick to issues about which I was very knowledgeable  or in which I had a stake, but I found myself sucked in on issues about which I had no expertise and yet I felt the need to “correct” what I saw as “incorrect” thinking, if only to encourage others to see another perspective. Sometimes I jumped in because I felt that the echo chamber had become so loud that no one was considering the other side at all and I naively wanted to bring the conversation back to earth, only to be sucked into a poisonous vortex from which there appeared to be no escape. During the last year there was a lot of talk about people who gave up friendships and cut off ties because of things they had seen and read, and while I did block a couple feeds from my wall, I tried as hard as I could to treasure the diverse views I saw on a daily basis. I only “unfriended” a small number of people, mostly because I didn’t want their rhetoric spilling onto my own Facebook page. I got through the 2016 election with my Facebook friend list, and my genuine friendships, mostly intact. But I also knew that a change was needed.

And so in 2017, I have decided to step back and learn to listen, really listen.

As someone who thrives on deep, meaningful conversation, taking a step back to just listen is not easy. I love to hear what other people have to say, but then I want respond, sharing my own experiences and insight, sometimes jumping in well before I should. Again, this is something that has become increasingly easy to do, thanks to the “magic” of social media. Unfortunately, it has also been the cause of many a destroyed relationship nationwide over the past year. And so I have resolved, albeit not perfectly, to only comment when I have an “expert” voice to throw into the ring, and I have attempted to do so with respect to those with whom I might disagree. And when I don’t understand another’s point of view, I have resolved, again albeit not perfectly, to ask questions so that I can better understand. I haven’t been perfect. As an educator I have publicly expressed my irritation at the appointment of Betsy Devos to the post of Secretary of Education. While I don’t regret speaking out against her, I did post some things that were more inflammatory than I intended and I got called on it by a couple people I respect. As always, my intent was not to offend, but to inform on an issue about which I am passionate, and an issue that affects me on a daily basis. In other areas, I have chosen to take a step back and listen. A month ago I joined a large Facebook group with the intent of working towards racial reconciliation. One of the rules of the group is that new members cannot comment or post anything for the first three months. At first, I thought that this requirement was excessive. Then I started reading posts. To be honest, the more I learn, the more I discover I don’t know. I’m glad the rule is there. It has forced me to internalize and process a lot of things I might have otherwise spoken to without actual knowledge. Additionally, I’ve decided to listen to more podcasts about different topics so that I can be both better informed and have a stronger base for my own personal beliefs. I continue to listen to and read fiction and non-fiction books that cover a variety of issues and genres. Some of these selections affirm what I already know and believe, some of these books challenge what I have always “known” and believed, and some of these books just challenge me to see things in a different way. It is important to expose ourselves to ideas that run contrary to our own views. Not because it helps us to better understand our “enemy,” but because it helps us learn how to dialog with fellow humans. If we understand why an individual sees the world differently than us, we will be better equipped to converse with them instead of talking at them. I continue to be thankful for a diverse friend base that both affirms and challenges me to see things in a different way, and I am thankful for those friends with which I am able to “agree to disagree” without losing our mutual respect for each other. In short, I have decided to take a step back and practice an important ingredient for empathy: listening.

All of this does not mean I won’t occasionally pontificate on issues about which I am knowledgeable and it doesn’t mean I won’t occasionally step in to try to get someone see a different perspective, to encourage them to “be still” and listen as well. I don’t want to give up on social media. As a woman who has lived all over the country and who has friends and family all over the US and in several places around the globe, I don’t want to give up the amazing connection that social media gives us to share our lives with each other in real time. I also want to continue to access the open forum, the ability to discuss and share and challenge each other. But I want to challenge my friends to listen to each other. If someone shares an experience with you that contradicts all that you think you know about the world, it may be a good time to ask questions and listen to answers without feedback. It may be time to step out of the echo chamber and into the unknown.

World peace may just be a beauty pageant dream, but world understanding is possible if we just take a moment to learn to listen.

Kids These Days

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In high school I was part of a performance of the musical number “Kids” from Bye Bye Birdie. At the time it was an amusing look at the curmudgeonly cycle of referring to the current generation as “disobedient, disrespectful oafs / Noisy, crazy, sloppy, lazy, loafers.” As a teenager tired of hearing adults disparage my peers and me, I found it amusing to see that this was not a new rhetoric. Amusing and frustrating. Because as much as I wanted to laugh at the ridiculousness of this cycle of irritation with the next generation, it frustrated me to know that my parents and their peers had been treated the same way when they were my age, and yet older people saw us as sloppy (cue longish hair and baggy clothes), lazy, loud, and crass.

Yes, when I think back to my teen years, those angry 90s when we listened to Nirvana asking to be entertained and Alanis Morissette’s angry girl laments and Meredith Brooks pointing out the paradox that is most women, I’m reminded just how cynical we really were. But there was more to the bridge generation known as the Oregon Trail Generation than met the eye. We were more than a mix of grunge, hip hop, and mosh pits. As Anna Garvey stated in her blog post “The Oregon Trail Generation: Life Before and After Mainstream Tech,” we had “both a healthy portion of Gen X cynicism, and a dash of the unbridled optimism of Millennials.”

When I started teaching in the fall of 2002, only five years older than my oldest high school seniors, kids who were the same age as one of my younger sisters, I came face-to-face with the generational shift to the Millennials. I didn’t get my first cell phone until I was 24. Most of my students already had one. I didn’t get my own email address until my senior year of high school. They had been using the Internet since middle school. By my third or fourth year teaching, note passing began to disappear as texting increased. Before smart phones became a new way to do homework, I would take away cell phones from students with a flourish, proud of my ability to catch students in their latest cell phone infraction all while lamenting the fact that I couldn’t catch them all. The more distanced I became from my students, the more prone I was to the “kids these days” thinking.

But as someone who spends every day with the tale end of the Millennial generation and the start of the post-Millennial generation, I find critique of “kids these days” sad and seriously misguided. This critique often comes from people who don’t regularly spend their days with young people under the age of 25. They see these young people on the news or in stores or out on the street and their automatic social media reaction is:

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Memes like this oversimplify issues and avoid facts. They are meant to demean instead of generate honest and open discussion. Based on my experiences, I choose to believe that Generation Z, the “kids these days,” are the hope of the future. So why am I so optimistic about this generation of young people?

  • Because they are incredibly driven. No really, they are. Do you remember what your senior year of high school was like? Better yet, do you remember what your junior year (which is typically considered the hardest year of high school for today’s students) of high school was like? Do you remember the number of activities you were involved in and the classes you were taking and the homework load that you had and maybe, just maybe, that part-time job that you had just so that you could afford to put gas into your car? I do, and I can tell you right now that my students are doing way more and working way harder than my peers and I did when we were their age. My students don’t sleep. And no, it’s not just those little glowing screens that they are holding in their hands every waking moment. They go to school, then practice or games (for a variety of activities), then they might get dinner, then by 8:00 pm, they are sitting down to do their 3.5 hours of homework for the night. And that is an average night. They are taking more AP classes, more dual-credit classes, spending more hours on extra-curriculars, and competing for fewer desired college admissions spots than ever before. Twenty years of NCLB and Race to the Top have left these kids exhausted and yet they keep at it because they want to succeed. And our society has made it harder than ever to do so. You want to know why kids are marching asking free college tuition? Because twenty years after I entered my private liberal arts college, students today are paying twice as much in tuition. Because the minimum wage job that I held while a college student probably wouldn’t pay the rent on our senior year apartment. Because American culture has told them the lie that the only way to be successful in this country is if they have a four-year degree, yet only 36 percent of full time students complete college in four years. And it’s not just that they want it for themselves. Earlier this school year I had a discussion with one of my Generation Z cousins (I’m the oldest of 23 grandchildren so we have quite the age spread). His reasoning for arguing for free college wasn’t because of him, it was because of a couple of his good high school friends who he feared were doomed to be stuck in unskilled, minimum wage jobs for the rest of their lives because they couldn’t afford school. While I disagree with him that free college tuition is the solution to that problem, his heart is in the right place. He doesn’t just want success for himself. He wants it for his friends as well.
  • Because they are compassionate and desire to be informed. It would be unfair to say that my generation doesn’t care about others. While I have been disappointed by the words (and some actions) of my peers in the last year, I’ve seen plenty that demonstrates my generation cares. In college I saw classmates travel to Haiti and India and Costa Rica. They went off on Habitat builds and worked in struggling communities. They’ve adopted and fostered and cared for kids who needed it. And apparently the next generation was paying attention, because they’ve taken it a step further. My students know more about their world than I ever did at their age. I was in high school when the Rwandan genocide happened and knew nothing about it until Hotel Rwanda came out when I was in my 20s. They read books (yes, they really do), watch documentaries, listen to the news, listen to podcasts, and push themselves to take courses that help to inform as well as teach skills. A lot has been said about campus “safe spaces” and there have been far too many comments referring to younger Millennials and older Generation Z-ers as “snowflakes.” There is a lot of valid debate on both sides concerning these campus issues, but what those discussions ignore is the fact that, thanks to social media, college students are more aware of what their peers are thinking and feeling than ever before. And it isn’t because they care too much about how they are perceived; it’s because they care about how others treat their friends. Where I was raised on an unhealthy pro-life rhetoric of “baby killers” language and exposure to pictures of aborted fetuses, my pro-life students today don’t talk about doctors and clinics. They talk about babies and caring for mothers, even after birth. They give me hope that maybe someday we really will be able to change the conversation. “Kids these days” care about their peers around the world. When they see a Tweet from the other side of the globe they want to know what is happening and how they can help, even if it is just raising further awareness. Yes, there are some who have abused social media, but more and more young people are using social media show compassion and become more informed.
  • Because they don’t just say they want to make a difference, they actually go out and do it. At the private school I taught at in Indiana, several students made the January trek to Washington, D.C. to participate in the March for Life, determined to see an end to abortion. In recent years I’ve watched my students show me over and over again what it means to not just follow Jesus, but to BE Jesus to a broken world. I’ve seen more and more students over the years participate in mission trips, getting their hands literally and figuratively dirty. This last year I saw former students and younger cousins dive into their support for various political candidates with the hope that somehow, someway, their candidate would win to make their nation better. I saw some of these same students peacefully march on the weekend of the Inauguration to stand up for a variety of causes. In the last month I’ve seen more of these same young people joining organizations so they can actively make a difference. When a former student sent me a message and asked me what she should do, I told her to pick a cause and go after it. That is exactly what she decided to do. And last month I stepped outside of my own comfort zone and joined a group of my students in a poverty simulation, spending an entire weekend learning what it is to live in poverty and in the trap of homelessness. Watching these kids that I taught last year make discoveries about themselves, their community, their country, their world, and their role as Christ followers was one of the most rewarding teaching experiences of my life.

And if we Gen X and Oregon Trail Gen-ers are willing and careful, we can help to mentor and guide these generations towards their endeavors. Instead of criticizing, we can build them up. My five-year-old son helped me discover this near the beginning of this school year. As we were walking from the Early Childhood playground to the Elementary playground, where my daughter was playfully waiting, he noticed some much older boys making fun of a couple workers who were fixing up the playground. He left my side, walked over to them, and told them to cut it out. When he returned to me he was visibly upset, asking, “Mommy, why were they being mean to those workers? They were just doing their job.” I was shocked and proud in the best of ways. The boys appeared to see two Hispanic workers doing minimum wage labor on a playground they weren’t even going to use. My son saw two men who were serving him and his classmates by fixing up their playground. I never want him to lose that empathy and desire to help humankind. I want better for my children. I want better for my students. But I can’t just expect better of them. I need to make sure that they have ample opportunity to grow and mature and do everything they can to make their world a better place. And I need to be willing to stand by their side as they do so.

Do I still get irritated by my students’ frustrating lack of practical technical knowledge despite the fact that they have technology in their hands at all times? (Seriously people, how hard is it to insert a hyperlink into a PowerPoint?) Am I still appalled by the number of young cashiers who are completely incapable of giving me the correct change when I give them cash? Do I still struggle with two children who clearly demonstrate their privilege by throwing mini-tantrums when they don’t get what they want when they want it? Yes, yes, and yes. But since the beginning of creation there has not been a single flawless generation and I refuse to believe that one generation is worse than the next. Each generation is just a reflection of its time. And just as each generation is a reflection of its time, each generation attempts to improve upon its time.

So why don’t we give them a chance?

On second thought, why don’t we let them lead the way?

Time to change the conversation

It is time to change the conversation.

Yesterday, as I watched my Facebook feed explode with posts from friends attending marches across the country as well as friends criticizing the abortion rights focus of the various marches, I sat and contemplated. I stewed. I struggled. I mourned. Like many women around the country, I spent the last week on a roller coaster of emotions, emotions I have been trying to sort through for weeks, months, and if I’m being honest, years.

I’m a lifelong Lutheran and I’ve been pro-life my whole life. I remember seeing pictures of aborted babies when I was young, reading articles about late-term abortion survivor Gianna Jessen in Brio (Focus on the Family’s teen girl publication) when I was a teenager, and hearing over and over again the message that abortion killed an innocent life. As a child and a teenager, I couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly want to kill their baby. Then again, I also couldn’t understand how hard it could possibly be for men and women to resist the temptation to have sex. After all, God said marital sex was best so people should just not “do it,” right?

But the abortion issue got more complex as I got older. I sat with friends through pregnancy scares, I watched other friends get pregnant out of wedlock, some choosing adoption, some choosing marriage, some choosing single parenthood, and I’m going to guess that I even had friends who quietly chose abortion, but I would never know. I listened as one of my favorite professors at my Christian university confessed to our freshman seminar class that she had taken a friend to get an abortion when she was in college. I got a boyfriend, and while we waited until we were married, I discovered that my young childhood belief that “abstaining from sex is easy” was incredibly naive. I got married and relied on birth control to keep from getting pregnant and then, when it took two and a half years to get pregnant, I began to wonder if that “miracle pill” was what was causing my infertility. I sat and listened with an achingly empty womb as the mother of one of my senior boys (a boy who had been an academic and behavioral problem for two years) lamented that her son was struggling because his girlfriend was pregnant and he was dealing with the reality of graduation and impending fatherhood. Admittedly, I was less than sympathetic and I bitterly asked God why it was so easy for this boy’s girlfriend to get pregnant by mistake while I sat in doctors’ offices trying to figure out what was wrong with my uterus.

Over the years of reading and listening and observing, I came to understand just how complicated the issue of abortion really is. And I came to lament the way we discussed abortion from both sides. So much fighting. So much talking past each other. So much hand wringing and marching and rhetoric. And all this time the laws haven’t changed and we have become more and more divided and more and more extreme in both views and approach. And millions die while we keep fighting.

We need to change the conversation.

I’m tired of misguided Christians voting for unqualified politicians because of a singularly focused hope that laws will be passed and Roe V. Wade will be overturned. I’m tired of being midjudged because I am pro-life and I’m tired of seeing my pro-choice friends misjudged because they believe women should have the option, not because they believe women should take the option. And I’m tired of watching my fellow Christians fight so hard to save the life in the womb and then ignoring all the problems outside of the womb.

We need to change the conversation.

Pro-choice or pro-life, I believe there are very few women who see abortion as a good choice and many pro-choice women would never pick it for themselves but they want women to have that option. Pro-life women don’t want them to make that choice. But what if all women fought to make sure that all women have access to safe, effective, affordable birth control to prevent unwanted pregnacies? What if we made adoption easier for birth mothers and adoptive families? What if we made sure that young mothers have access to quality, affordable child care that allows them to work and finish their schooling? What if we insisted on overhauling the prison and justice system so that we keep non-violent offenders out of prison so that young men can be with their families and away from a system that will turn them into felons? What if we taught our daughters how to really understand their bodies, their cycles, to take charge of their own fertility? What if we improved housing to take away the biggest hurdle for poor families in bettering their own lives? What if our churches decided to open their arms to young, unwed mothers to help them instead of vilifying them? What if our churches opened their doors to victims of sexual assault to offer them judgement free help? What if we worked to improve nutrition in our nation’s poorest neighborhoods so kids could focus in school and be successful? What if we insisted that businesses take care of mothers and give them the necessary paid maternity leave to give them a chance to heal and learn how to properly care for their children? What if we insisted that businesses give their fathers paid paternity leave so they could help mothers heal while also allowing them to bond with their families? What if we encouraged a more flexible work environment that allowed families to care for sick children? What if women doctors and scientists worked to develop effective birth control methods that would help prevent pregnancy without crazy mood swings, depression, and potential long-term physical effects?

What if we did all of the above? I believe if we did all of the above, abortion would go away. Why? Because most pregnancies would be planned, most families would be in a financial position to care for a child, and because young women would be putting off sexual activity because they would feel safe and secure and be focused on their futures.

We need to change the conversation. We need to come to the table. We need to listen to each other’s stories and learn from each other. And we need to stop putting each other down. My pro-choice sisters, I do not want to invade your privacy. I do not want to take away your rights. Just understand that I believe that abortion ends a beating heart and I want to do everything possible to avoid it. My pro-life sisters, we need to stop saying that we are pro-life if we don’t want to take action to help women after they have made the decision to keep their babies. We need to make sure they are loved, they are cared for, and that their children have a real future. We need to stop judging each other.

All life is precious, but it needs to be precious from womb to the tomb. And if we are willing to change the conversation, more people will see it that way.

Time To Admit We Have a Problem

I am a white middle class American citizen and I am living the American dream. I have a Master’s degree, a good job, a husband with a good job, two beautiful kids (boy and girl), two dogs, two cars, and I live in a nice middle class neighborhood with well-kept yards and homes. To say that I was handed those things would be a lie. I had to work hard through college and grad school to get my degrees. I put in years of sweat and tears to work my way up to being a department head at the private Christian high school where I currently teach. My husband and I are struggling through our post-housing crisis difficulties when we had to move and were unable to sell our home. We are working through our debt and look forward to the day when money will be going into our savings account instead of to pay off loans. Our kids do have many things that I didn’t have when I was a kid but they hear the word “no” far more than they would like. Yes, there are times I wish for more, but when I look at my life, we have it pretty good and we continue to work to have it that way.

But don’t think for an instant that I don’t realize that my race and socio-economic status doesn’t give me an unintentional advantage over others. I realize it all too well.

When the shooting of Alton Sterling made it across my news feed, I chose to read but not comment. It appeared to be riddled with problems for people on both “sides” of the issue and I wanted to wait to see what information came out in the investigation. But then the news broke about the shooting death of Philandro Castile. And then my husband shared with me the Facebook post of a high school classmate of ours and I needed to comment. And after I commented, I realized that I had even more to say. You see, this particular high school classmate was one of the few black students in our graduating class. A large teddy bear of a guy, this particular former high school football player wouldn’t hurt a fly. And yet today he posted about the fear that he has when he leaves the house. The concern that he has about whether or not he will do something that could be so misinterpreted that it would cause him to not get safely home to his family on any given night. And then the thoughts started to snowball. I thought about my brother-in-law who is also a larger black man who some might see as a threat in the “wrong” neighborhood at the “wrong” time. And I thought about the student who told me this year that he, at 16, didn’t realize that racism was alive and well until he was told by a friend that her father didn’t want them dating because he’s black. And I thought about the female student I had a couple years ago who openly discussed the looks she gets from store clerks when she is out shopping with her white friends. This is a young woman who is currently studying for the medical profession. A young woman who added an intellectual depth to my classroom that was appreciated by teacher and classmates alike. And yet she felt singled out when going to the mall. And then I thought about my young son and realized I was thankful that I don’t have to be afraid that other people will be afraid of him as he gets older because he is a white, middle class kid of Dutch and German descent. I’m not afraid that his clothing, car, choice of music, or even choice of friends, will be seen as a threat to law enforcement or fellow civilians.

To my white, Caucasian friends: I realize that many of you don’t understand the driving forces behind the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and in the world most of us have grown up in, the idea that deep racial hatred, bigotry, and injustice still exists seems foreign. But it’s not foreign to those who still experience it. There are many who are a part of the 20160318_153152.jpgmovement who were part of a civil rights movement that was full of violence. These are individuals who cannot forget being forced away from protests by dogs and firehoses. They can’t forget being arrested and watching their friends and family being arrested because they were fighting for their constitutional rights. They were told stories in their childhoods about family members who were slaves and denied basic human rights. The Civil War (and slavery) ended 151 years ago, but that didn’t end injustice. That didn’t end the killing. That didn’t end the abuse. This past Spring Break my husband and I took our children across the border into Louisiana to see the Cane River Creole National Historic Park.
Part of the visit was touring two plantations, one of which housed tenant farmers well into the 1970s. For the first time ever, I truly understood the roots of institutionalized racism and poverty in the Deep South.

In the time that we were there, my husband and I talked to our two young children and tried to help them understand just what life was like for slaves on those plantations. It was a lesson that finally took root when our daughter recently finished reading Meet Addy from the American Girl series. We whites like to believe we live in a “post-racial” society. We’ve grown up more enlightened than our grandparents and great-grandparents. We see interracial couples and wonder why people are making such a fuss about a Cheerios commercial. We have friends of different races and are sure to point it out. We rail against social injustice. We vote for a black president (or just accept him as our president after “our” guy lost) and proclaim it as progress. And yes, we’ve come a LONG way folks. But racism and injustice still exists.

Because friends, systemic racism isn’t about white police officers intentionally going after black men with the purpose of killing them. I do not believe for one minute that any police officer, regardless of their feelings, leaves the police station on a given day and says “today I intend to harm a member of another race.” Systemic racism is about the attitudes and beliefs that drive our every action and reaction. It’s about the fear that people feel when they see men of certain races walking down a well lit street in a middle class neighborhood because somewhere along the way they learned to be afraid of what “that” person could do to them. It’s about a white male college student convicted of rape getting coverage that highlights his swimming stats and a black male shooting victim getting his rap sheet analyzed by the press. It’s about casting popular white actors as other races in films because audiences know who they are and it will certainly draw a bigger audience. It’s about claims that films with primarily white actors are more frequently worthy of Oscars when one glance at the Tonys demonstrates that the entertainment industry is full of every race and color. It’s about not being surprised when we see an Asian student at the head of his or her class (in fact, we expect it, right?) but being violently angry because a Mexican class valedictorian admits to her illegal status in her graduation address. It’s about national news coverage of police shootings of young black men but ignoring similar incidents involving young Latino men. It’s about praising the Cambodian refuge from a Communist country but fearing the Syrian refuge who fled similar tyranny, death, and destruction just because they are Muslim instead of Buddhist. It’s about unfounded claims about a president being secretly Muslim but being ok with a white candidate who’s religious roots promoted a theology of polygamy and blood atonement. It’s about standing with Paris but not with Istanbul. It’s about immediately attacking Islam and all Muslims after the most deadly shooting in US history, but remaining silent about the 200+ Middle Eastern Muslims killed by ISIS in the final days of Ramadan. It’s about insisting that the solution to our nation’s gun violence problem is to arm all Americans but then blaming a police shooting victim for his own death because “he had a gun, what did he expect would happen?” It’s about hearing the horrified voice of a police officer caught on video after he shoots and kills an innocent man, realizing his mistake far too late because even though he had initially followed correct protocol, even though the man in the stopped car was following his instructions, something deep inside convinced him that the man was enough of a danger to him and his partner that he needed to shoot multiple times. Something innate. Something that was planted a long time ago by a society too blinded to really truly see itself in the mirror.

Children see and recognize differences because they are constantly observing the world around them, but they have to be taught to FEAR differences. They have to be taught that those differences are somehow “bad.” My grandmother likes to tell the story of visiting us when we were living in Detroit. One of my best friends was our next door neighbor. Melissa is African American. My grandmother recounts a conversation I was having with her when I was two or three and I told my grandmother that my good friend was “dark,” but that was the end of the discussion. She was my friend, we liked to play together, we had bedroom windows that faced each other, and I enjoyed watching her mother do her hair in all kinds of fun braids, especially since my silky, long blond hair was so boring. Any differences that we may have noticed were as inconsequential as our height.

When I see my students and my children I have hope for the future, hope that our country will heal. But then within an hour of completing the first draft of this post, police officers were being gunned down in Dallas at a Black Lives Matter protest. More loss of life igniting more fear and anger and polarizing an already polarized population. More loss of life highlighting our need to all take a step back and start talking and listening to each other. More loss of life emphasizing a need for empathy and compassion, not misguided assumptions about lives we know nothing about because we are too afraid to step outside of our comfort zones.

The first step to recovery is admitting one has a problem. So when is our country going to wake up and start its own 12-step program before it is too late?

A Test Run Vacation

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We got to put the Illinois sticker on our camper map after our stop at Fern Clyffe State Park.

We bought our camper with big dreams. Sure, we wanted to have an “easier” way for our family to get out into nature and to camp, but even bigger than that was our desire to see the country and to have our children see as much of the country as we could as a family.

Of course, dreams are those pie in the sky goals that we hope to someday achieve, and then there is reality.

Our first big trip with our camper was when we moved from Indiana to Texas last summer. We rushed the trip (well, as much as you can rush a trip at 60 miles an hour) and made only one real “vacation” stop: St. Louis. Otherwise, we were focused on getting down to Texas so we could start the house hunt and get ready for school. A true vacation was out of the question.

For awhile we discussed what we should do for vacation this summer. Then my family made plans for an anniversary celebration for my parents and our vacation plans were made: we were going to Michigan for summer vacation.

We’ve known about the trip for months, but between work, school, and still trying to get settled into our new home, we honestly kept forgetting about we were even taking a vacation. We had no idea when we were leaving and we had no idea when we were returning. All we really knew was when we HAD to be in Michigan and then when we HAD to be in Indiana (so my husband can do some in-house work there). It turned out to be the LEAST planned vacation we have ever been on in nearly 15 years of marriage. But plans or no plans, last Thursday night we packed, cleaned and folded clothes, made snacks, and got ready for the big load up with the camper. Friday morning we dropped the kids off at VBS, picked up our camper from storage, and then parked in front of the house while we ran in and out of the house packing everything that we thought we could possibly need for up to three weeks on the road.

We left with no plan except to stop after we crossed the Arkansas border with the intention to get to Michigan by Sunday night. My husband got behind the wheel and we packed two adults, two kids, and two dogs into the truck, ready for the nearly 1200 mile trip north.

Our first leg of the trip lasted much longer than we anticipated. We took the risk of leaving without reservations anywhere and ended up traveling nearly 400 miles for over seven hours before we finally found a roadside RV campground. It came with a playground for the kids and absolutely no place outside to put our dogs, but it worked for night of sleep.

The next day was much of the same, only we left earlier and actually had a goal. While we didn’t have reservations, we were going to drive to Illinois so we could put the Illinois sticker on our camper map and we were going to try to camp at Fern Clyffe State Park. We travelled for nearly five hours before our first stop. For five hours my husband drove through the entire state of Arkansas, a state that I have decided is worse to travel through than Iowa, and this is coming from a person spent many miles driving across Iowa in four and a half years of attending college in Nebraska. When we finally crossed the Missouri border we discovered that we had another 20 miles before we would arrive at the welcome center. Our whole family was relieved to finally get out of the truck so we could get food, water, and go to the bathroom. We also discovered this playground.

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I ran back and forth, filling our many water bottles while my husband watched the kids playing and held the dog leashes to keep the dogs from escaping down the Interstate. Our seven-year-old daughter has recently discovered that she can successfully cross the monkey bars at any given playground. Our five-year-old son has decided that if his sister can do something, so can he. Before I headed back into the rest area to fill up yet another set of water bottles, I watched our son attempt the first two monkey bars and then safely drop from that height to his feet. Thankful that he didn’t break a leg, I left to fill the water bottles. I returned to discover my shaken husband comforting my wailing son. After I left, our son decided on another attempt across the bars, slipped from the first bar, landed on his feet and then fell on his wrist. We found as cold of an ice back as we could, I dug around for some children’s ibuprofen, and then we headed back on the road with me in the backseat trying to comfort my son while the kids settled in to watch some Zootopia. Yesterday we discovered that that little playground mishap is our first childhood broken bone. I guess that I’m thankful that it is at least his wrist and not his legs, right?

When we finally arrived at Fern Clyffe State Park, we found it was beautiful and full of empty spots. Another playground, another place to walk the dogs, and a much roomier place for our whole family to settle in for the night.

Day three was more of the same, only this time driving through most of Illinois, the northwest corner of Indiana, and finally arriving in Michigan, where our camper is currently parked in my in-laws side yard. Six states, three days, and 1200 miles later we are parked for a week of time with family.

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We learned that we can do at least three days of road tripping with the camper. My husband arrived exhausted (I refuse to drive with the camper attached because it is one of the few times I will readily admit that my husband really is the better driver and I don’t want to kill my whole family) and we were all ready to stretch our legs, but we can do it. Now we have to plan for the trip home and actually plan for places that we can visit along the way. So far, it has been a good test run, so I guess now we can actually start planning for our dream trips, right?

 

 

When You Walk In Another’s Shoes

 

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Reading teaches us empathy. It puts us into another person’s world and forces us to see the world from their perspective.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his young daughter, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

I first read that line at 15. I have read it many times since. Each time I read Scout’s coming-of-age story, where she realizes that all is not as it seems and that life is a lot more complicated than good against evil, I’m reminded of the importance of empathy. The ability to feel and express empathy enables us to effectively relate to our fellow human beings. We expect children to learn the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We teach this, not just because it is a way to keep their behavior in check, but to help them understand that other people feel pain as well. A couple weeks ago we had our four-year-old son’s best buddy and family over for dinner. At one point the two boys were gleefully running away from our six-year-old daughter, causing dramatic tears because they didn’t want to play with her. The next week this same friend and another friend at school did the same thing to our son during the school day. Feelings were hurt, discipline was enforced, and the boys are back to being best of friends. As apologetic as our son’s pre-school teacher was, we were semi-thankful for the experience. It gave us the opportunity to talk to our son about experiencing the same hurt that he had inflicted on his older sister just days earlier. He learned an important lesson about empathy.

I’ve always tried to keep the vast majority of my political and social views private because 1) I hate conflict and 2) I don’t feel it is my place to tell people what to think. I am the stereotypical INFJ and I’ve come to accept that about myself. But because I am a typical INFJ I also have a significant amount of empathy, which sometimes makes it really hard for me to keep  my mouth shut because even when I agree with someone I want them to try to see things from another’s perspective. Life experience has taught me that most issues are incredibly complicated and I try to listen to what others have to say. I have a lot of friends, conservative and liberal, with whom I share opposing views, but when we share those opposing views, I try to see why we are on opposing sides before I criticize those views. Do they have personal experience with the issue? Do they have family members with personal experience? Have they lived in other places and seen things that I haven’t and therefore their life experience is broader than mine? I don’t just want to know what they believe, I want to know WHY they believe it.

Earlier this semester my Pre-AP students read Richard Wright’s memoir Black Boy. It was my first time reading the book and as I prepared to teach the memoir I initially struggled with the idea that I had to teach the text. Wright’s life growing up in the deep South at the turn of the 20th century was incredibly difficult and even at a young age the experiences he had were colorful, to say the least. But the further I got into the book, my attitude shifted from “I have to teach this?” to “I HAVE to teach this!” Why? I teach a fantastic group of mostly white students and I knew that reading Wright’s memoir would be eye opening for them, and it was. It led to deep discussions about where our country was 100 years ago and where we are today. And I hope and pray that it helped them gain a greater understanding of the struggles their non-white peers are still facing around the country and the deeply rooted cultural beliefs behind that struggle. It opens up conversation. Knowing where someone comes from allows an individual to honestly and respectfully critique another’s opposing view. A person can say “I get where you’re coming from but this is why I believe that you are wrong. Is there some kind of middle ground we can come to so that we can work together to both create positive change?”

Failure to practice empathy doesn’t just lead to discord, it leads to societal dysfunction. My seniors are in their last days studying Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. While my favorite focus when teaching Frankenstein is on the role of modern science and its relation to the novel, we spent a spirited class period discussing Victor’s character. My personal view of Victor has evolved from villain to a more middle of the road anti-hero, which allows me to still see him as a seriously flawed man. He creates a monster and then deserts it because his creation disgusts and frightens him. He leaves his creation without any kind of mentor, any kind of parent figure to help him figure out the world into which Victor dropped him. Everyone the monster meets fears and hates him and he grows to hate mankind because of the treatment he receives. When he tells his creator all of this and then requests that Victor create a companion for him, Victor initially refuses and then eventually destroys his female creation before he can bring her to life. This destroys the monster’s one hope of having a companion. Victor lacks empathy for his creation and as a result loses his best friend, his wife, and his father to the monster’s vengeance. His life and the lives of all of his loved ones are destroyed because he fails to see things from his creation’s point-of-view.

And that is what is happening to our country. We are watching our government approach the cliff, the point of no return, and we are all asking what happened. You know what happened? We the people finally realized what we should have realized a long time ago. Somewhere along the way, the men and women who went into politics with good intentions and the desire to change the world forgot who they were serving. They forgot to empathize with those they serve and see them as human beings and instead started seeing them as a vote, a number. They stopped seeing each other as human beings and started seeing their political opponents as adversaries in an epic battle of “who is right and who is wrong.”

And we the people are the ones left on the battle field. We’re the ones left picking up the pieces while the political battle rages on around us. People are responding with frustration and anger and are thinking with their hearts, not their heads. I see memes making fun of Bernie Sanders supporters saying that they just want the government to pay for their stuff. However, most of my friends who are Bernie Sanders supporters are honestly doing just fine financially. They are intelligent, middle class millennials who have empathy for their fellow man. They are concerned about the people who are struggling and they see a candidate who appears genuine and who expresses empathy towards those who are struggling. I see the people supporting Donald Trump and, while I fail to see the allure, I understand their anger towards a Republican party establishment that has failed to do what it said it was going to do and a Democratic party that threatens to pass legislation that will take away some of the very rights that they hold dear.

And where does that leave us? It leaves us with front runners who are some of the worst candidates in US history. It leaves us with the ugliest campaign of my lifetime and we aren’t even to summer yet. It leaves us cheering on candidates who echo tyrannous voices of the past. It leaves us compromising the very ideals and values that have historically made America a leader in this world. As Padme Amidala says in Revenge of the Sith, “This is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause,” and I feel like I’ve been watching fiction become reality as I’ve watched the last couple debates.

I’m glad our Founding Father’s don’t have to watch the debacle of the Republican debates and the dismantling of the Constitution suggested by some. I’m glad that Harper Lee, the woman who taught me the power of literature in arousing empathy, no longer has to watch her country falling apart. But the world is watching. Our Founding Fathers (and Mothers) were far from perfect. They each had their own personal flaws and they disagreed with each other concerning the best course of action for our young country. They fought and hurled eloquent insults at each other and met each other on the dueling grounds of New Jersey. But they found some way to work together to form a Constitution and then they worked to find a way to make the American Experiment work.

Our country doesn’t have a flawless record. Far from it. But even in the darkest days of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln empathized with the very people who had turned against him. He fought for the end of slavery while understanding that those states returning to the Union after the war needed to be welcomed back into the nation’s embrace. Blood had been shed. The price had been paid. It was time to be whole again.

Let’s start asking each other why so that we can figure out how to fix this. Maybe then we can stop this runaway train.