Unfolding From the Fog

I am up before dawn, cursing this stage of life that doesn’t let me sleep late on a Saturday. I grab sweats from the floor and dress in the bathroom, while my husband sleeps on.

Downstairs, my dog prances around my feet, eager for her food and walk.

I bundle up for December, unprepared for the mild outside air. I step out the back door into another realm, my backyard transformed. Grateful now for an early awakening, we wander and linger as the sun rises through the fog.



The call comes in over the intercom.

“Lockdown, lockdown.  This is a hard lockdown.”

Today it’s just a drill. I pray we never have to use all our practice for the real thing.

If you were a child in the 1950s and early ‘60s, you may remember fire drills, tornado drills, and air raid drills, hiding under your desk. The air raid drills, that could never have protected anyone from an atomic bomb, have gone by the wayside. Today’s students practice a safe escape in case of fire, taking shelter in case of tornado, and evacuating the building in case of gas leak, attack, or another emergency. We also teach students what to do if someone comes into our building with the intent to shoot everyone there.

We do not tell elementary students that someone with a gun could come into our school. I introduce the idea of the drill this way.

“Boys and girls, you know how we practice fire drills even though our school has never had a fire? And we practice tornado drills even though we’ve never been hit by a tornado? Next week we’re going to practice another kind of drill. In this one, we’re going to practice what we would do if someone bad came into our building. This has never happened and I don’t think it ever will, but we’re going to practice just in case.”

We go over procedures, pretending that I’m the shepherd and the big, bad wolf is coming. But my third graders know the difference. They imagine details far worse than any I provide. I think it says something about our culture of violence that most of my little boys promise to beat up any bad man who would come in.

I won’t give you the details of the drill or procedures. No point in advertising. If you have children in school in the U.S., ask them. What they say may surprise you.

The FBI says, “Odds are one in 1 million that a student will die at school as a result of a violent act.”

For the parents at Sandy Hook, that statistic can provide no comfort.

The unfortunate reality is that no amount of drill practice can prevent a shooting. The best we can do by teaching these skills is to minimize the number of casualties. As a police officer assisting with one of our drills told me, the shooter’s primary target will be shot.

But our state requires the drills, as well as the sign at the front door. It warns that no guns are allowed in our building, as though that will stop an individual with intent. Just as in so many other areas of crime prevention, we put our emphasis on preparing potential victims, rather than using proactive prevention, a multi-faceted approach.

There is no single cause for school shootings. But something I know after more than thirty years of teaching is that violent people are unhappy people. Certainly, caring and awareness are essential first steps.

People often say that shooters are people who have been bullied and this is how they are striking back. This can be true, but it can also be just the perception of being treated unfairly that provides the “reason” for the attack. Feelings of alienation can be the cause of outward violence, but also of self-harm. We need to reach out and always be kind.

One theory often proposed is that school shootings are caused by mental illness. It’s true that our country has repeatedly failed in dealing with mental illness. We’ve gone from jails to horrific psychiatric institutions, then back to prison and homelessness. Our funding, facilities, and public attitude toward mental illness have progressed very little since the 1800s. According to a Mother Jones timeline, the ratio of psychiatric beds to population today is the same as it was in the 1850s.

So, does mental illness cause attacks? Sometimes, yes, but the reality is that mentally ill people are more often victims than perpetrators of violence. The New York Times and This American Life tell a frightening story that partially resulted from the increase in armed security guards in hospitals. More guns are clearly not the answer for mental illness.

Sandy Hook parents have banded together to provide free information on prevention. They want you to know the signs. One is, “Exhibiting excessive over-reactions or aggressive behavior for a seemingly minor reason can signal someone who cannot self-regulate their emotions or control their anger.”

Reading this rings bells for me. A major issue in education today is working with children of trauma. Paul Tough in The Atlantic writes about the results of “severe and chronic stress in childhood” which results in that hair-trigger fight-or-flight response. Poverty is strongly correlated with alcoholism, family instability, violence and more. Sadly, over 50% of students in schools today are children of poverty, most of whom are the working poor. We must address income disparity, but children also suffer trauma in wealthier communities. Issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual abuse sadly happen to children everywhere. Programs for partners and children from the CDC can be a first step.

Then there is the smoking gun. Critics would say that guns don’t kill, people kill. True, but the reality is that automatic weapons significantly increase the number of people someone can kill. School shootings are largely an American gun-culture phenomenon, as shown on this annotated list detailing events since before the Revolutionary War. In time, weapons have increased in number and efficiency. We need screening, monitoring, and restricted access for youth and those with mental illness.

We must act. To reach out to those on the outside. To compassionately serve those with mental illness. To combat sources of childhood trauma. To control the availability of firearms for those who cannot be trusted to use them safely. Until then, we will continue to read the headline, “Another School Shooting.”

Whose school will be next?




Last Saturday my sister and I each drove from our homes, to a town we’d never been to before, to spend the afternoon together. We ate lunch at a restaurant called Spoons and walked along the two block downtown wandering in and out of shops.

In an old-school music shop, the clerk greeted us and asked how we were.

“Good,” we answered. “How are you?”

“Great!” he said. “I’m doing what I love.”

I recognized a man who wanted to tell a story, so of course I asked. After “retiring,” he looked around his house at what he had collected all his life. He considered what his kids would do with the three rooms of albums he had lovingly acquired and knew they would just want to sell them. So, he opened the shop. Now he gets to talk about music all day long and sells his albums online across the country.

My sister is retired herself, from a career in tech. Just a few months in, she is still feeling her way. She thought she’d see if a community orchestra could use a flute player, but when there was a waiting list for flutes, she agreed to play the bass drum. Now my sister is just an inch taller than short little me and, while she clearly reads music, has never played percussion. She says it’s a little nerve-racking to lose your place in the long periods between her parts. I mean, it’s not like you could hide the boom of a bass drum coming in at the wrong time. Still, it must be exhilarating to get it right.

She shared a story from The Moth with me.  Cynthia Riggs had a degree in marine biology and a career as a boat captain. She reinvented herself once to join her mother in running a bed and breakfast, then again to become a mystery writer at age 70. Her life took a further turn with a late-in-life love story told here, but that’s another tale.

I have a good friend who retired early from teaching when the stress became too much. She went back to school to become a massage therapist. These days she massages two days a week, as well as being an elf at Christmas and the Easter Bunny in the spring at a sporting goods store. In the summer, she adds on ushering at baseball games. She says she’s having fun with it all and she loves being appreciated everywhere she works.

As I get closer to the point where I might want to retire myself, I’m finding that it’s more of a beginning than an end. Not quite the open options of when we were eighteen, but certainly full of possibility.

After our shopping, my sister and I drove around looking for a park to stroll through. As happens in small towns, a wrong turn led us out of town, down winding country roads. We stopped at a canal and took a walk down the trail, enjoying the sunshine.

You never know what you’ll find at the next turn in the road.



Getting Even With the Dentist

I went to the dentist today. (Do I sense cringing out there?) I don’t enjoy dental visits, but they don’t scare me either. I think that’s because of my mother’s brainwashing all through my childhood.

She’d always say, “Now that they have high-speed drills, it won’t hurt.”

I’m really not afraid of pain at the dentist, but the sound of scraping and drilling can get to me too.

My childhood dentist was Dr. S, a middle-aged guy with laugh lines around his eyes and salt and pepper hair. My mom would schedule appointments for all four of us and he would see us one after the other. And we had lots of cavities.

Going to the dentist, I’m five years old again. I can remember being small in the big chair. Dr. S had to put up with a lot from us. I remember screaming from the moment the drill was turned on, before it even touched me. I don’t think I was really scared. It was more making my dissatisfaction heard above the grinding whine of the drill.

Another time, Dr. S said, “Open.”

I opened.

With his fingers still in my mouth, he said, “Bite.”

And I bit him. Hard.

Fortunately, Dr. S had a sense of humor. “Well, I did say bite.”

He and his assistant, M, would joke around while they worked. M was a round woman with a ringing laugh. Every visit, after Dr. S rinsed your mouth out, he would squirt you on the nose and M would laugh.

Just counting my family, over the years from when I was four to eighteen, Dr. S saw us and squirted us about 110 times. But it wasn’t until around the 108th time that my twelve-year-old brother got even.

He played it straight throughout the appointment. No one noticed that he kept his hands underneath the paper bib. No one noticed until Dr. S gave him his traditional squirt on the nose. That’s when my brother pulled out the squirt gun and shot him back. M’s laugh could be heard clear out in the waiting room.

Sometime after I grew up and moved away, Dr. S retired. His son took over his practice. I wonder whether another generation continued the nose squirting routine.

My adult dentist, Dr. T, saw my kids through their childhood. She is calm and gentle and kind, and they were never afraid. She never squirted them on the nose. At every visit, she asks about my girls and I ask about hers. I like her and my kids did too. But I doubt they’ll look back at their childhood appointments with the same fond amusement that I do.

Dr. S’s son is still practicing dentistry in the same office I went to as a child. Dr. S is an old man now. I wonder if he ever thinks of the boy who squirted him back.


 (Truthfully, I was third out of four, but hey, you’ve got to take success where you can get it!)

Life Songs

For EllenBest24.wordpress.com
because she asked so sweetly 😉 from a prompt at https://ladieswholunchreviews.wordpress.com/2017/03/29/song-a-day-2/

(A week’s worth of not my favorite songs, but definitely symbolic)



After a childhood of singing along,

The will to leave arrived in a song.

Perspective gained, I moved along.

I willed my babies tall and strong.

A life worth living, happily long.

(Except my version was Diahann Carol and much better)

(Can you believe that hair?)

(Best choice I ever made)

(You go, girls!)

(First verse!)


https://byebyebeer.wordpress.com/ and
want to give it a try?


The Universal Language of Loss

It was the day after I found our dear black lab dead next to the road. The day after my husband had to leave work to bury her, before the kids would have to see her there.

They had seen me cry. Our five-year-old was old enough to grieve with us, but we didn’t think our two-year-old could understand.

That day after, we played outside in the sunshine, being normal though it didn’t feel normal without our dog running with us.

Out of breath, I boosted myself up to sit on the tailgate of our pickup. My littler girl reached her arms up to me. I picked her up and sat her next to me.

She had few words at that age, but used sounds and gestures to let us know what she wanted to say.

She patted my leg to get my attention and said her word for our dog’s name, “Detta.”

“No,” I answered. “She’s gone. She can’t come back.”

“Uh,” my daughter said pointing to a passing truck. Then she slapped her own leg.

“Yes,” I agreed. “A truck hit her.”

My little girl pointed at me. “You,” she said, then ran her pudgy fingers down her cheeks and whimpered.

“Yes,” I said. “I cried.”

When she wrapped her little arms around my neck, I knew she understood after all.


I have written enough about cities and travel, that you might think a small-town life is not for me. I spent a couple of hours yesterday going door-to-door in support of a candidate for school board.* Everything I love about small towns was on display.

As my area to canvas I chose two streets just down from the school where I teach. No one answered at the first few houses. I hoped the pamphlets I stuck in their doors wouldn’t blow away.

The next door was opened by a young man. I told him why I was there and offered him a leaflet. He admitted he didn’t know about the upcoming election and he was new to town. Although I knew I should jump into the merits of my candidate, I switched hats.

“Do you have kids?” I asked.

He smiled. “We have a two-year-old daughter.”

“In a few years when she’s ready, there’s a great school just down the street. I’m a teacher there,” I said. “But today I’m a private citizen.”

I summed up my concerns for the election and why he should vote for my guy. He asked a few questions and nodded along.

Several more doors opened enough for a smile and to take a pamphlet, but not long enough for conversation.

At one house, a small child peaked out the window. Then I heard him yelling, “Mom!”

A few minutes later, a woman came to the door in a bathrobe. I felt bad that I disturbed her shower. She took the flyer and moved to shut the door. I thanked her and turned away. I was almost to the next house, when she leaned back out and called to me.

“Are you for A.?” she asked.

“Yes!” I called back.

“Sorry about that,” she said, meaning being abrupt, “I’m voting for him!”

“No problem!” I said. “Thanks!”

Other doors were opened by a business owner with a fussy dog, and in another block, the police chief. I know them and have had each of their sons in class, so we exchanged pleasantries. They took the flyers I offered, but we didn’t discuss the election further. They may or may not agree with me, but it’s probably best that they don’t publicly take sides.

The race is contested, with several open seats, and feelings are running high on all sides. I didn’t stop at houses that already had three signs in the yard. For most people who answered, I didn’t know which way they will vote. A few told me that they will vote for my candidate. No one yelled at me or slammed the door in my face. Most just accepted the pamphlet. Small towns, at least in the Midwest, are nothing if not civil. Once the election is over, we may agree or gripe about the decisions the winners make, but we’ll bide our time and wait for the next election. Once the ballots are counted, we still need to get along.

An older woman leaned down to manage her rambunctious dog, never looking as though she was in a hurry to get rid of me.

The woman who came to the next door is the parent of one of last year’s students. I know her political views are far different from mine, but she smiled at me warmly and asked how I am.

Around the next corner, two parents worked in their yard, while their little kids played around them. I approached the wife, who was closest to the street. She took the flyer and told me she knew who she would vote for, but didn’t say who. Probably not a good sign, but I just thanked her and walked away.

As the weather warmed up, I dumped my jacket in my car and kept going. More and more people headed out for a walk, run or bike ride. I greeted a few walkers and offered them my words.

I met some door-to-door competition, coming from the other direction. Two women were proselytizing. I expected to see Bibles in their hands, but instead I saw tablets. Technology has reached the churches too. I was careful not to dislodge their prayer cards when I stuck my flyers in the doors and hoped they did the same for me.

In another block, I heard a voice calling my name from above. “Mrs. S! Mrs. S! I’ll come down and let you in!”

As I walked up to the door, my student opened it, smiling. “I’ll get my mom,” he said and ran away.

“Mrs. S is here!”

His mom invited me in and sent him off to finish getting ready for soccer. We chatted for a moment, but I could see they were busy, so I headed out.

I take great pains to teach social studies without kids ever guessing my political opinions. But I love that when I talk to the kids about voting and how our government works, this one will know I practice what I preach.

After a couple of hours, I called it quits and drove over to my candidate’s house to drop off the remaining flyers. A friend saw my car and pulled over to chat. Next time we’ll see each other on purpose.

And that’s what small towns are. Families and single people. Businesses, government and churches. Differences of opinion, but mostly civil discourse. Your political opponent may need your purchases to keep her business going, and you might go to the same church. A police officer may pull you over for speeding, but will have the same butterflies that every parent has when they come to a parent-teacher conference. Your kid’s teacher may be holding mini conferences in an aisle at the grocery store. You must be careful who you complain to about anyone, because you never know who is related. Like a large family, people disagree and get along.



*If you’re local, I’ll be happy to tell you who I was campaigning for and why.

The Good Guys

It was the night of the November election. I was, by turns, doing some work I’d brought home and checking polling results on my phone.

My daughter’s first text came in about eight o’clock.

“I’m worried!”

I worry about the country on a daily basis, but my heart breaks for my daughter. Like all her generation, she was taught in school that, although our country had a shameful tradition of slavery and human rights violations, all that was behind us. With first the victories of Martin Luther King and later the election of Barack Obama, the only president in their adult lives, America had triumphed over bigotry and hatred. They were sure that we could only move forward.

While I know that there were many reasons that voters supported Donald Trump, an unfortunate consequence of that support has been the openness with which some people now express their anger and prejudice. It remains to be seen whether those reasons will justify the fallout in the end. To get the supreme court justice they preferred, or the manufacturing jobs he has promised, or the tax reforms he swears he will bring, or the illegal immigration he will build a wall to attempt to prevent, his supporters ignored the other words he has spoken or tweeted, the lies he has told, the manipulation he has strategized. Though it is not a bargain I was willing to make, I understand that, when desperate enough, voters did.

My daughter and many of her generation embraced the idealism of Bernie Sanders. The harshness of Trump’s message has been a bitter pill to swallow.

She jokes, “Will you visit me in Canada?”

My daughter is not naïve. She works with people in poverty, some of whom came to America recently trying to find a safer, more prosperous life, as immigrants have for generations. She understands much more than most of us the issues that poor families face. She sees parents every day, who range from being illiterate to having graduate degrees, working hard at manual labor to make better lives for their kids. As a child born to the privilege of education and a stable home life, she feels the need to give back. She wants leaders who see what she sees and a way to move forward to improve the lives of the families she serves.

Though we are texting, I imagine the anguish in her voice, and I want to reassure her, as mothers often try to do. I tell her to remember the balance of power, how congress and the judiciary must cooperate before too much damage can be done. I know it is a weak argument for her sorrow of this moment.

We sign off, but I can imagine her thinking, “How could Americans vote this way? We’re supposed to be the good guys.”

But I want to let her know, “Honey, everyone thinks they’re the good guys.”




I saw the movie Fantastic Beasts not long ago. My favorite quote from the film was “My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice.”

I confess I’m bit of a worrywart. If I have something on my mind, I tend to fret and plan and try to eliminate any uncertainty till the event comes up. I’m a mess in the days leading up to a vacation. But the reality is that the things I stress over are seldom the things that actually go wrong. Most of the time I don’t “suffer twice.” I just suffer once needlessly. How much better it would be, instead of fretting over events that never happen, to spend that time savoring life as it happens. But sometimes life is just scary.

Way back when, we were a childless couple with a devoted black lab and a colorful Eastern Rosella parrot we could never tame. He whistled at us and flitted from the top of his cage to the door and back. He seemed content.

I was pregnant with our first child, planning my six-week maternity leave. The first contraction woke me about 5AM. It wasn’t a work day, so I let my husband sleep for a while. I went in the other room and averaged grades and wrote my sub a final note, before the real pain started. By the time my husband got up about six, I was timing contractions and resting. I remember feeling such excitement, relief, and nervousness too, that pregnancy was almost over and I’d finally get to meet my baby.

Around 10AM labor seemed to stop and severe back pain started. With nausea starting too, I went back to bed, fearful that something was wrong. Who knows what my black lab thought was happening, but she stayed close by my side. The bird sat on top of his cage looking down at me.

While my husband called the doctor and I threw up into a trash can, the parrot chose that moment to fly around the room. When he unexpectedly landed on the floor, my retriever chose that moment to pounce. With the phone still in his hand, my husband leaped for the dog.

This moment is frozen in my mind. I see the look in my young husband’s eye as he stood over the dog, who ducked her head with the bird in her mouth. I remember the fear I felt for all of us in that moment.

“Drop it!” he commanded.

But she held onto her prize.

“Drop it!” He smacked her rump.

Finally, she let go. The parrot dropped limply to the floor, before flapping the dog drool off his wings. My husband held the dog by her collar and put the birdcage on the floor. The bird climbed up the side and in, miraculously unscathed.

Seven hours later at the hospital, with my husband at my side and two animals safely separated at home, I gave birth to a healthy baby girl and the world returned to joy.

There were so many things to worry about that day and it was just Luck that not one of them came true. Thank goodness.