Family: The Gift that Keeps On Giving
This past weekend we drove to Oklahoma for a cousin’s youngest daughter’s wedding. Though I have only one sister, I have a large extended family, including a gazillion cousins. This weekend was a touching reminder of how special it is to spend time with family.
Out of all my cousins, the ones I feel closest to are Mike and Mark. Only one or two years apart in age, we literally grew up together. They’ve been with me since almost the beginning of life as I know it.
They were the brothers I never had. When my parents moved from their small town in Oklahoma, we lived in the garage apartment behind their house. We lived a block away from where Lee Harvey Oswald lived, though we didn’t move there until a year after President Kennedy’s assassination.
We were always outside, running around, climbing trees, playing games. One of our favorite things to do was play Tarzan. Poor Mark always had to be either Boy or Cheetah, and sometimes he played both rolls. Their mom, Aunt Faye, was like a second mom to me and my sister. Despite the chaos and aggravation of raising three boys, she and my Uncle John usually managed to see the humor in the boys’ crazy antics.
Eventually we moved out of the garage apartment and got our own house, but it was still only a few miles from theirs and we saw each other often.
When we got to high school, my aunt and uncle decided to move back to the small Oklahoma town they grew up in. Since just about my entire mom and dad’s family still lived there as well, we visited often.
We’ve stayed close through the years, even as adults. One of the best times of my life was one fall through summer when Mark and I were both divorced and heady with freedom. I would drive up for the weekend and we would spend our time on his friends’ pontoon boat at the lake, followed by country and western dancing at the local honkytonk. There were family reunions and camping trips, and lots and lots of laughter.
There’s something about being with family that’s unlike any other time you spend. Family who’ve known you since you were born, who’ve seen you grow and change and mature, who’ve seen you become a parent and even a grandparent. It’s like a deep exhale. It’s like being yourself again, after years of pretending to be someone you’re not.
We’re kind of old now. I see my cousins and they look so different, but I know their younger selves are still there, just hiding beneath the surface. Mark smiles, and I see his evil grin and flashing eyes signalling some trick he’s just played on one of us when we were kids playing in front of my grandma’s house. Mike looks down shyly, and I’m reminded of how quiet and introspective he always was, even when other boys his age were full of bravado and showing off.
I love them both so much.
I know that no matter what I do, where I go, how different I can be, or how many times I stumble in life, they will always be there for me.
I can’t say that about many other people, even other family members.
I was so touched watching Mark walk his last child down the aisle, her veil covering her face. I cried when he tenderly pulled back the veil and kissed her on the cheek, before returning to his seat. My first child is getting married this summer, and I thought about what it will be like for me when that day comes.
After the wedding, Michael and I, and Mark and his wife Terri, all went back to Mike and Kym’s house at the lake, and sat on the patio around a fire. Surrounded by pine trees and a full moon, we drank beer and reminisced. I got to know Kym and Terri a little better, and they got to know Michael. We talked about life in a small town, our lives as adults, and our children. We talked about growing old.
Mostly, we laughed. We laughed a lot. We had the best time. It felt like being home.
It felt like family.
I’m Going to Live Forever
I’m feeling the passage of time. My first childhood crush, Davy Jones, died last week, and I feel old. I thought he looked great when he died at 66, but he still looked a lot older than the image I had of him in my head. It’s funny how the mental picture and reality don’t always line up.
I watched a bio of The Monkees on the Biography channel. There was Mike with his cute little knitted skullcap and Texas accent, goofy Mickey behind the drums, and witty Peter, who I also thought was cute. Now they’re older, just like me, but I still feel like I’m ten, watching them on TV after school each day, sandwiched between Bewitched and The Brady Bunch. How the heck did time go by so quickly?
This summer I’m going to our family reunion. I have a ton of cousins. We used to have massive Easter egg hunts when we were all kids. I told my aunt I’m not one of the kids anymore, now I’m one of the Old Folks. She said that made her one of the Ancient Ones.
I never really thought much about getting older until a few years ago. There were signs in the mirror, but they weren’t extreme. I brushed thoughts of getting old out of my mind.
Then I started becoming aware of how much older everyone else is getting, and realized it was happening to me as well. It might sound strange, but it surprised me. I mean, I walk around the house barefooted, wear cutoffs, live in t-shirts, jeans, and Converse sneakers, and am musically sophisticated. Is there a point in time when I’ll officially be “too old” to wear cutoffs and listen to loud music in the car?
I watched the Oscars, and some of the actors who are twenty years older than me now look twenty years younger, thanks to plastic surgery. I think they look strange and robotic. It seems to be mostly the women who think they need to tighten themselves up, but I suspect many men are getting work done as well.
The other day I was flipping through daytime TV. If you want to see bizarre looking actors who’ve had way too much plastic surgery, check out The Bold and the Beautiful. I’m being tacky, but honestly, some of the people I see on TV these days don’t look human anymore, and they certainly don’t look like anyone I know.
It makes me sad that so many people are willing to pay thousands of dollars to try to erase time. I don’t like aging any more than the next person, but I wish we didn’t idolize youth as much as we do in this country. Europeans have a different take on aging and beauty, one that is much more realistic and compassionate. When I lived in Europe, our local retirement center had a playground in the park. I used to take my children there to play, and the old people loved watching and playing with them. What a great way to bring young and old together.
The other day a former student of mine sent me a friend request on Facebook. I thought she was someone new to our running group. It took me a few days to realize she was one of my fifth graders all grown up.
The most shocking thing I’ve had to face this week is that my daughter will soon turn twenty-nine. 29!!! I have a daughter who is almost thirty! 30! (Of course, I gave birth at a shockingly young age.)
It seems like only yesterday when I was twenty-nine myself and decided I had to cut my long hair when I turned thirty because, well, I was turning thirty. It was so old to me back then. I’ve cut my hair and grown it out so many times since then I’m surprised anyone recognizes me anymore, and I have quite a few friends even older than myself with much longer hair.
Even Rodney Yee, my favorite yoga master from the Gaiam DVD’s, is starting to show a little gray and has just the slightest hint of a paunch when he does Side Angle Forward Bend. Time spares no one, not even the very physically fit amongst us.
Oh well, I don’t know why I’m complaining, because I’M GOING TO LIVE FOREVER!
When I was young, I used to look at older people and be glad that I wasn’t them. They seemed so uncool. Of course, I never thought that I would be old myself one day, just like I never thought that I could ever die. Now that I’ve lost a few people I care about, and know for a fact that I will indeed join them one day, I can’t delude myself about the inevitability of death. I haven’t truly accepted it yet, but I don’t exactly have a choice, either.
In the meantime, I’ve been wondering lately what it was exactly about older people that I found so uncool. I remember feeling that I was nothing like them, that there was no common theme we could discuss. Now that I’m older, I wonder if my younger friends think the same thing about me. And for the record, I was never cool when I was younger, so it’s laughable that I thought there was someone even less cool than me at the time.
When I was in my 20’s and 30’s, my friends were rarely my own age. Part of this was the fact that I lived overseas and had two children by the time I turned 25, when most of my friends waited until their mid to late 30’s to get married and have children. I didn’t return to college until I was 27, so most of my friends were younger–and weren’t trying to juggle full-time college, part-time work, and single motherhood. I guess I did things backwards from most people. My kids are grown now, and I finally have more time to devote to myself and my own interests.
Maybe it’s also that older people today are choosing to live their lives as if they are ageless, that age no longer determines what you should or shouldn’t be doing with your life. Maybe it’s a false perspective on my part because I am hesitant to accept the fact that I now officially fall in the “middle-age” category, but older people seem younger today, kind of like “50 is the new 40.” Some of us actually seem kind of cool.
I mean, I run, I hike, I camp, I listen to new music, I like good movies, I like to dance, I knit (yes, that is cool again). Even the music I listened to in the 70’s is still cool (except for John Denver, RIP, I still love you!, and yes, I know, JD was anything but cool). Actually, I’m still doing the same things I’ve always done, I’m just older now. The big difference is, however, I don’t care what anyone thinks. I could care less if I’m cool or not, or if someone thinks I’m too old to be rollerblading down the Katy Trail listening to Weezer. And that’s the best part of getting older–letting go of society’s expectations and playing by your own rules.
When you reach a certain point in life, you have to give up all the trappings of “shouldn’t” and “can’t.” I’m starting to realize that the grains of sand are halfway down the hourglass and I’ve still got a lot of things to do. I think a lot of our fears about aging and changing have nothing to do with reality, that they’re only the voices of the past holding us back because we don’t want to look silly. Or uncool. Or younger than we are.
At some point you have to accept the face in the mirror that stares back at you, even if you can’t believe it’s yours. You have to accept that everything in this world changes, from the tallest tree to the smallest grain of sand, and that includes yourself. You can go spend thousands of dollars on a facelift, or hours in the gym lifting weights, or you can sensibly work out to stay healthy, and celebrate all the stories that put those lines on your face in the first place.
Now, go strap on your roller blades, turn up the Pearl Jam, and start thinking about your next adventure. You’re not done yet!
Who Says You Have to Grow Up?
My failed interview at the charter school may have turned out to be the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time. Feeling old has taken on a new healthy life of its own. It’s certainly caused me to think a lot about aging and why we’re all so afraid of something that’s going to happen whether we like it or not. I’m even thinking of letting my highlights grow out and going naturally gray. Why not? I’m old anyway, so what’s the point of trying to look like something I’m not? Must I be forced to join the legions of former brunettes who drink the blonde kool aid merely because I’m officially “middle aged?”
I read an interesting article in Time magazine about “amortality.” Per Catherine Mayer, the author of the story, “The defining characteristic of amortality is to live in the same way, at the same pitch, doing and consuming much the same things, from late teens right up until death.” Maybe this is merely a reaction to the interview, but I’ve found myself going out of my way lately to question whether something makes me old or not. For instance, last weekend I tripped on a run and my back has been hurting ever since. Is this what it means to be old? I look in the mirror and see new lines on my face and wonder why I never noticed them before. A student in class will say something I can’t make out and I wonder if my hearing is starting to go. Am I wearing my hair too long for my age, should I cut it? When does a woman cross the hair threshold and have to keep it short, and who makes up these rules?
I don’t think I’m necessarily interested in being amortal. I don’t want to live my life the same way I did when I was in my late teens, or even my twenties or thirties. I like slowing down and not having to explain everything I do. Things that once seemed so important simply don’t anymore, and I’m able to laugh at myself and some of my quirks and particularities. I’m glad my kids are grown and I can focus more on myself again. I don’t really care as much what other people think about me, and I’m starting to care less about the way my looks are changing (I’m still working on this). I’m getting used to feeling invisible around certain younger crowds, and I think I cringe less when someone calls me “ma’am.” I certainly feel more confident than I did when I was younger, and I’m in better shape, too. I’m not afraid of spending time alone.
I think I’m more interested in living as if aging doesn’t matter. I’ll just keep doing the things I want to until I either don’t want to anymore or my body can’t handle it. I’ll make my own rules as I go along. I’ll keep running marathons, knitting, listening to Pearl Jam, country, and opera, hiking, wearing tight jeans, and drinking good beer. It’s a good place to start.
I Never Felt Old Until My First Job Interview in Twenty Years, Part II
I went home and thought about what had happened in the interview. I had tried to defend myself during Mr. Charter School’s tirade against veteran teachers. I told him I had excellent test scores, that I stayed in my district for so long because I truly believed the inner city students I taught deserved to have a good teacher, and that I had always kept abreast of new innovations and pedagogy in teaching–on my own time, with my own money. I told him how my friends from college were all amazed when I put off grad school and went into an alternative teaching program to teach kindergarten in an elementary school, how they all told me how lucky the school system was to have me, and how I put so much into teaching those first few years that I never made it back to grad school. I told him how I’ve stayed with teaching, year after year, despite serious discipline problems, lack of supplies, educational quick-fix programs, and the crush of mindless paperwork from people above me making twice my salary who need the paperwork to justify their jobs. I told him I created my own curriculum because the district’s was sub par. I told him I have great test scores.
More than anything else, though, even more than feeling old, I couldn’t help but wonder: When did I become the enemy? What about all those first year Teach for America teachers, would they be in the same situation as me if they stayed with teaching nineteen years? Will their years of experience be seen as a negative if they try to change schools after so many years? When did public school teachers become The Evil Ones? Yes, there are bad teachers. There are also bad doctors, bad lawyers, bad hairdressers, bad plumbers, and many bad principals and superintendents. Yes, teachers get great vacation time–but we don’t get paid for it. We only get paid for the days that we work, which to me means it actually is a pretty decent salary–but it still isn’t great, and certainly no one goes into teaching for the money. In my state there is no teacher tenure and teachers’ unions have very little power. Since we are a “right to work” state it is illegal for teachers to strike. I sign a new contract every year.
Charter schools, like the one I interviewed at, may choose their students by lottery, but they can kick them out at any time, especially for discipline. Public schools can’t. We take everyone who walks through the door, regardless of if it’s the first day of school or the last, and we are held accountable for every single one of them, specifically through test scores. One disruptive student can make all the difference in the classroom, and can keep the other students from getting the education they deserve. A good teacher will be able to handle most discipline problems, but there are extreme cases, and administrators are not always willing to assist. Neither are a lot of parents.
Some years, especially like now when economic times are tough, the classroom can turn into a revolving door of students coming and going throughout the year. Poor families seem to move a lot, and it is not uncommon to have a student enter a classroom who has already attended five or more schools in the current school year, and may only stay a few weeks in your classroom before moving on again. Children come to us whose parents are in jail, are dead, or are on drugs and are being raised by their grandparents or aunts and uncles. They live in one bedroom apartments and sleep on couches with their brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. We take them all, and we teach them, and we love many of them. We are strict, we don’t feel sorry for them, and we give them everything we can. I’m not making excuses, but when did choosing to stick with it and not give up become a bad thing?
For the record, I don’t intrinsically have anything against charter schools. I was interviewing at one, after all. What I do have a problem with is all the hype, all the articles and stories and news clips about how public education is failing in this country, and more specifically, how teachers are the problem, especially veteran teachers. Bull. I’ve always said, it’s all about the money. Massive amounts of federal funds go to public education and everyone wants a piece of the pie. If public education is failing then let’s fix it, but let’s start at the top, not down in the trenches with those who are doing the real work. If more schools become schools of choice, and public schools are merely the schools for those no one wants, what will happen to those children who’ve been dealt a rotten hand in life? What will happen to our society? Will we simply raise the white flag and build more prisons instead of schools?
In the end, I decided not to go for that second interview with Mr. Charter School. I debated going in and giving a killer sample lesson, and defending myself vociferously in our scheduled “extensive interview,” but I knew deep down that I didn’t want to be there. Instead, I sent a short email apologizing for canceling and telling him I didn’t think I was the person he was looking for. I decided it wasn’t the school, it was him, and he was someone I didn’t want to work for. Mostly, I took it as a lesson on not beating myself up over someone’s perception of me based on their own stereotypes.
I’m not ready to mail in my AARP card just yet. Even with all the cool discounts.
I Never Felt Old Until My First Job Interview in Twenty Years, Part I
I knew this was going to happen. Here I was, happily skipping along life’s highway, content in my ignorance and denial, when out of the blue it hit me square in the face: someone thinks I’m old. I didn’t feel old before yesterday, but after my first job interview in twenty years I not only know that I am indeed old, apparently I am also washed-up, burned out, and probably not willing to try new, innovative ideas. (Hmmm, I guess someone didn’t read my blog about change a few weeks ago . . .) All this because I have been teaching for nineteen years.
The truth about being old has slowly crept into the face that stares back at me in the mirror. I didn’t think it was so bad. I really don’t mind the way my face has changed through the years. I like the way a woman looks when she’s allowed life to leave its footprints on her face. Seeing the plastic, wide-eyed, taut skin of today’s aging celebrities is disturbing to me. It’s disturbing because I know I’ll never be able to afford to have my own sagging body parts fixed, but also because I don’t want to have them fixed. Creepy.
My first job interview in twenty years was a beating, plain and simple. First there are all the new interview questions: Describe a time when you had plans that were canceled at the last minute. How did you handle that situation? Or, Describe a situation when you had to deal with conflict at work. Or, Tell about a time when you had too many tasks to accomplish in a short time frame. How did you manage to get everything done? Really???? Who comes up with these questions? Are there really job seekers out there who can’t give good answers? How could the interviewer possibly know if their answers were nothing more than pure fabrication?
That was the first part of the interview and it went very well. The second part was unscheduled, but the HR person felt the director would want to see me. He was young, intense, and talked so fast I had to watch his mouth to catch it all (and no, I’m not hard of hearing). He looked over my resume, noting my university, degree, magna cum laude, work history . . . Then he realized I had been teaching for–gasp!–nineteen years!!!
You would think that when you’re interviewing for a teaching position that nineteen years of experience would be a good thing, right? Not with Mr. Charter School. Instead, I got a long speech about how studies show that teachers stop changing after the first three to five years of teaching, that a teacher with my years of experience is probably inflexible, unwilling to be innovative, and is used to closing her door and doing the same thing year after year. He told me he took a chance on a veteran teacher once and got badly burned. He even–I swear I’m not making this up–threw in something about teachers’ unions. Then he told me that his other teachers were all first year teachers.
My bright balloon from the first interview slowly sank towards the floor.
I didn’t take it personally, and actually appreciated his honesty. But it also ticked me off. It stunned me. Mostly, it made me feel disheartened and dejected. I felt like I had become the walking stereotype of the old, burned out veteran public school teacher, the one who has the same old yellowed outdated posters up on her wall year after year, and who changes the date on the same old lesson plans year after year, and even uses the purple ink ditto machine to run off the same old tests–year after year. In my head I heard all the hype, how American public education is the worst in the world, how our children lag behind in math and science, and how it’s all the teachers’ fault. I felt as if he had stepped straight out of “Waiting for Superman” and would have thrown stones if he had any. He asked if I had ever heard of Teach for America. I told him they also teach for us. I was definitely batting on the losing team.
He wanted to see me teach a sample lesson, and I made an appointment, with misgivings. I walked to the parking lot feeling like I could barely lift my feet from the ground. I was exhausted. Wiped out. Emotionally bare. Stripped clean of any illusions. Mostly, I felt old.
Getting those AARP letters in the mail was bad enough. Now this.