Dear Husband,

It’s been eleven years since we’ve wed and we have come to a pivotal point in our relationship whereby it is necessary to renegotiate the terms of our contract.

This morning, as I was pulling up my stockings, I let one slip. It was audible, and as I glanced at our bed, I was relieved that you had already gotten up to make yourself a cup of coffee. Our daughter, with headphones on and iPad in hand, was oblivious to my morning salute.

I grew up in a family where farts were, and still are, hilarious. I can clearly picture my grandpa, with his tanned skin and thick gray hair, asking in feigned innocence, “Who stepped on a frog?” His smile would always betray him.

My father has always been a fan of the old “pull my finger” trick. It delighted him so to simultaneously cut the cheese as one gave his pointer a tug. Long after we knew better, we reluctantly played along just to avoid disappointing him.

I know you find humor in human hydrogen bombs too. Remember the first time my mother had us over for dinner after we were engaged? She let one rip in the kitchen and gleefully announced, “Welcome to the family!” Just like that, you were christened.

Together, we laughed till we cried over a fart machine cleverly taped beneath a dining room chair at Thanksgiving or tucked between the sofa cushions in the first home we shared. Even the memory of a well-timed wind serves to amuse.

Still, despite the joy that flatulence has brought to my life, I have, for over a decade, tried my best to shield you from the gas I expel, with one exception: pregnancy.

In the nine months that my body was taken over, I lost all bodily control. I remember the night that I lumbered out of bed for the sixth or seventh time to go to the bathroom. While lowering my big belly and even bigger bottom, a toilet-bowl fart echoed through the night and roused you from your slumber. You–who have slept through earthquakes, screaming babies, and smoke detector alarms. There was a strange look on your face, a mix of horror and amusement, when you realized the source of the sound that woke you hadn’t come from your alarm clock, but rather from my back door.

A few weeks later, we found ourselves in the hospital giving birth to our first baby girl. She was so precious and tiny that it caught us off guard that very first night when we heard a man-fart erupt from our newborn daughter. We stared at each other in disbelief. How could something so small wallop with such gusto? Suddenly, those three trimesters of trouser coughs all made sense. It wasn’t me; it was her!

 As soon as I resumed control of myself again, I quickly returned to the self-imposed prison I had created. For over a decade, I have clenched my cheeks, I have stepped outside to walk Donald, I have blamed my SBDs on the dogs.

Having children has filled our lives with music, and we have found their symphonies entertaining, yet despite the few times I accidentally joined the band, I have tried my best not to toot my own horn in your presence.

Yet knocking on 40’s door, things are starting to go. I see it in my skin. I feel it in my body. I smell it in the air. These days, I find myself losing control more and more, and it happens when I least expect it: pushing a shopping cart in the grocery store, bending over to tie my shoe, blow drying my hair.

I can no longer blame my butt burps on a baby, but I also can no longer keep my bombers at bay. It’s only a matter of time before I am one of those women in yoga who applauds her own downward dog.

And so, Dear Husband, as we enter a new stage of our relationship, one that you neither asked for nor can deny, please remember: If I blow you a kiss with my bum, it’s only because I love you.

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In Memoriam: The Best Teacher I Ever Had

When I was a senior in high school, I had a lead role in the school play; I also had an emergency appendectomy. The latter resulted in the stage manager/understudy performing in my place. She happened to be a girl whom I had been “best friends” with, but like many high school relationships, we had drifted apart. On opening night, I sat in the first row of metal folding chairs and watched, silently mouthing each word she spoke, words I had been memorizing for months.

My love for theater was cultivated by Mr. Brennan, an English teacher at my small, rural high school. When I took his AP English class, I saw a future for myself that I had previously thought impossible, so when I told him that I couldn’t even afford to apply to college, he made me go to the best counselor at the school, a colleague and good friend of his. There, I told her what I had been too ashamed to admit to anyone other than Mr. Brennan. I left her office with a fee waiver to apply to four SUNY schools and renewed hope.

I enrolled at SUNY Oneonta as a theater major. After all, Mr. Brennan made me believe I had a talent, so much so that I had given up cheerleading to be in his plays. From rehearsals to cast parties, we were a strange tribe of misfits, but I never felt more at home.

Later, when I became an English teacher myself– one that directed the musicals at the school where I taught– it was all thanks to him.

To complete observation hours for my undergraduate degree, I went straight to Mr. Brennan. I hadn’t stepped foot in my high school since graduation, but if I was going to be a teacher, I wanted to be Just. Like. Him. Watching him with his students, I longed to be back in his class, participating in the discussions, reading the books–Well, most of the books. I never could make it To The Lighthouse, no matter how many times I tried.

Between classes, Mr. Brennan listened to NPR from an old stereo. When one of his students spoke, he leaned in close and wagged his long finger when he approved of what they were saying. His classroom felt like a stage set as a well-loved living room, complete with worn-in couches.

One time, he confessed that when he arrived at work earlier than usual, a custodian was sleeping on the couch in his classroom. Whether the man was homeless or just didn’t want to go home, Mr. Brennan quietly slipped back out without waking the man, refusing to risk embarrassing him.

You see, it didn’t matter who you were, Mr. Brennan afforded everyone their dignity.

On October 26, I left my classroom to head home for the weekend. As I was walking to my car, I checked my phone and saw a post on Facebook that stopped me. At the age of 76, Mr. Brennan had passed away. Immediately, I was filled with a deep sadness.

There isn’t much I can say about Mr. Brennan that hasn’t already been said. In the wake of his passing, innumerable tributes have been written in his honor. Every story shared captures exactly the kind of man he was. To many, Mr. Brennan was an inspiration, and I am no different. What he did for me, he did for countless others: He made us believe we mattered.

That time when I had my appendix removed, Mr. Brennan came to see me in the hospital. I remember waking up to him standing at the foot of my bed. But I wasn’t special. An article that appeared in The Suffolk Times in honor of him told how, “when Liz Casey Searl’s brother died at only 21 years of age, Mr. Brennan showed up at the 1995 Mattituck graduate’s home to ask how he could help.”

He did that sort of thing…for all of us. He showed up. And by showing up, you knew he cared.

For my final Senior project, I recited a poem I’d written about my father’s alcoholism. When I looked up, Mr. Brennan had removed his glasses and was wiping tears from his cheeks. Whether words poured from our mouths or bled from our pens, he made us feel like what we had to say was worth hearing. He didn’t discredit us for being angsty teens with too many hormones and not enough pre-frontal cortex.

As I worked towards becoming a teacher, Mr. Brennan told me that I should never take any grading home. It took him many years to figure that out, but, he said, it was better to stay at work till 5 in the evening than to leave with a stack of papers in hand. In the 16 years I’ve been teaching, I wish I could say I have heeded that advice.

These days, I often stay at work till 5. I don’t teach in the small, rural town I grew up in where you can’t find a class with more than 25 students, and the expectations of teachers grow with each passing year. Yet at the end of the day, the most meaningful thing we can do in our classrooms is to build relationships with our students, to show them that they matter.

I might not be able to keep my weekends free from grading, but I can show my students that I care. Mr. Brennan’s passing has reminded me of that. In many ways, he’s still my teacher.

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{via Mattituck High School’s Reflector, 1991}

Mr. Brennan is remembered for his plaid flannels, his work boots, the mints he carried in his shirt pocket and sucked on throughout the day. He is remembered for the gas-station coffee he drank and for the way he laughed without making a noise. Head thrown back, mouth open wide, he found humor in so many of our adolescent antics.

When I graduated from high school, I drove to his home with a copy of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. In it, I had penned a heartfelt note. I no longer remember what I wrote, but I do remember the sentiment behind it. This was a man who had given me—had given all of us—so much, and he had asked for nothing in return. He gave us crowns to play king of the forest. He provided us with shade or a quiet place to sit. He was there for us as we grew. Even when we went off to start our lives, he remained. So much of what we needed was found in him.

I can only hope, that in giving us his all, he got something in return.

I can only hope that in the end, the tree was happy.

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{via Mattituck High School’s Reflector, 1991}

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#MeToo

It wasn’t rape. There was no penetration. I was not beaten, nor was I abused. I wasn’t a young girl. I hadn’t been drinking. There were no drugs involved. I didn’t wake up the next morning questioning my memory of the events that had transpired.

Every year in June, I remember. Every time I see that tailored dress from Banana Republic in my closet, I am reminded. The truth is, I won’t ever forget.

As a high school teacher, the two events I like to chaperone are prom and graduation. Both rites of passage, at prom I get to relive my own high school memories as girls kick off their high heels as soon as possible and boys offer their dates their tuxedo jackets to keep warm. Graduation is the culmination of all the work we do; it is the ultimate goal for both students and teachers.

Several years ago, I volunteered to work graduation; I haven’t done it again since.

I wasn’t thrilled to learn that I had been assigned to supervise the boys’ waiting area. Separated by gender, there are two rooms where students leave their personal belongings and put on their caps and gowns. They act as holding cells until the students are told to line up. The energy is high. You can smell it in the air. I would have preferred to be with the girls, holding mirrors for them while they reapplied make-up and fixed their hair. Instead, I was caged up with the boys, counting down the minutes.

When the time had come, this mass of young men assembled in the hall and waited for the doors to open to begin the procession towards the stage. The girls, positioned down another hall, would enter through separate doors. In alternate colors, they’d meet as they walked in. Purple, White, Purple, White, Purple, White.

It was in this hall, packed with eighteen-year-olds on one of the most significant days of their lives, that I experienced my Me Too. As I made my way through the crowd of bodies, a hand grabbed my right butt cheek and squeezed, hard. Then it released its grip.

It shook me. I stopped and turned towards a sea of purple robes. Panicked, I quickly exited the hall.

There was no way of knowing who had done it, but I still felt the imprint of that hand on my bottom. Finding a friend, I told her what had happened, but I was embarrassed and ashamed.

What if it had been one of my former students? The thought deposited my stomach in my throat. Yet I was aware of the statistics: most sexual assaults are performed by someone the victim knows.

I am a professional. I was professionally dressed. I was a couple of decades older than these boys. And yet, I was stripped of all of that by one faceless grope in a crowd. I felt dumb, and young, and vulnerable. I felt disrespected as a person, as a woman, and as a teacher.

Part of me wanted to get far, far away from what happened, but a part of me wished I could go back, grab that wrist, yank that pervert from the crowd, see his face, identify him, drag him to administration, demand that he not be allowed to walk the stage, pull his parents from the audience, make him explain to them why he was not able to get his diploma that day, press charges even.

That was what I fantasized because that would have given me back my power. But like all the comebacks I’ve never spoken, I didn’t react quickly enough.

I was powerless: a common denominator of Me Too.

I imagined this being some kind of testosterone-induced dare. How many other students were in on it? I envisioned the same boys next year as college freshmen, gang raping a sorority girl. I thought about how I’d never once walked a campus at night without practically running, holding my keys like a weapon.

As co-workers met after the ceremony at a local bar, I told a male colleague what had occurred. “I heard,” he said. “A bunch of kids were talking about it, but when I approached them, they all clammed up.”

My integrity was stolen and they were bragging about it? But I wondered, why hadn’t he done more? Why hadn’t he rounded them all up, made them confess? In my mind, I told myself that it was because no one thought it was a big deal. So a kid grabbed your ass. So what?

Someone suggested I take it as a compliment. Degraded, I left and went home.  

When my husband asked how graduation went, I told him what happened. His first response was a chuckle of sorts. With tears welling I looked at him, and for the first time, I saw him as one of them. How could you laugh? I was sexually violated. He quickly apologized and admitted that he had the wrong reaction; he wasn’t sure how to react. Of course he was upset by this. Of course he was angry. I believed him if only because I couldn’t fathom the ramifications if I chose not to.

This past Sunday, when I started seeing the posts on Twitter and Facebook of friends and family members who were writing Me Too, that memory surfaced. It’s always there, but I hold it down until something triggers it to rear its head, take another gasp of air, and sink back to where it continues to dwell.

 “And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me…”            

                                                                                              –Richard Wright

Earlier that same weekend, my book club met. We were discussing Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Four white women, we quickly turned from discussing race to discussing gender. Often our book talks veer off-topic, but we hadn’t been sidetracked. This was how we could relate. We are not black, and we are not black men, but as women, we all knew fear, and much of what Coates writes about is fear.

In Between the World and Me, Coates is speaking directly to his teenage son. He tells him, “You have seen so much more of all that is lost when they destroy your body.”

When they destroy your body…

That when, I read, as inevitable. It is bound to happen. When you are born black, they will destroy your body. Coates was speaking to his son with the knowledge that one day, he too, would be destroyed. Perhaps that is why this line made it hard for me to breathe.

As I look at my beautiful daughters, I know in my heart that a day will come when they each will face a Me Too. I can hope it won’t happen, but I know the statistics: because they are female, because they are girls, because they will grow to become women, it probably will.

Soon, I will need to have a very real, very painful conversation with each of them about the risks they take just by existing in this world.

In the meantime, I pray: Let them not be raped. Let there be no penetration. Let them not be beaten. Let them not be abused…

I may not have posted it on my Facebook feed. I may not have Tweeted it to the world. I couldn’t bring myself to like anyone’s status, nor can I share anyone’s story but my own though I have been witness and confidant to many more. But for each post I saw, I thought, Not you too.

I went to sleep that night and with great sadness, those words replayed in my head: Me Too. Me Too. Me Too.

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STOP SEXUAL ASSAULT

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To Forgive, Divine

I picked up my copy of Rising Strong in the airport while we waited for the first leg of our flight that would take us to Mexico. As my children browsed the souvenirs, I perused the titles of paperbacks with no intention of buying anything. After all, I had a book I needed to finish for my book club and I’d packed my Kindle with a memoir I’d downloaded that I was prepared to start as well, but by the time I boarded the plane, I also had Brené Brown’s latest title in hand.

Mexico was the vacation that we had hoped it would be. Instead of visiting family in Florida or New York, we took our children to a place where we knew no one, where we were tourists. We lounged by pools while waiters offered us happy hour drinks all day long. They brought our children cheesy nachos and brought us salted margaritas all while the sun turned our skin different shades of pink.

For one whole week, I turned my cell phone off and never once checked email or social media. We watched baby sea turtles make their way to the ocean, and despite the birds that circled overhead threatening to pluck them from the sand, we didn’t interfere. Later, I watched my own children playing together in the brackish waves; I felt extremely blessed to have witnessed both in the same day, knowing these were memories I would cherish forever.

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We didn’t realize when we booked our trip that we were headed to Mexico during their rainy season, but we didn’t mind the few afternoons when the thunderstorms cracked open the sky. We watched from the balcony as sheets of rain danced from the sea towards the mountains and lightening sizzled through the humid air. These interruptions in paradise were just another part of our experience, but there was a darker storm approaching.

While returning from the pool one afternoon, I sat next to my oldest daughter on the golf cart that would shuttle us back to our hotel when she turned to me and said, “Your stomach is really soft and jiggly.”

Of all the ways I could have responded, I settled on, “That doesn’t make me feel good.”

And it didn’t.

And it didn’t and it didn’t.

You see, from that moment on, I scrutinized my cellulite in the mirrors of the elevator, I ordered the salad instead, I declined dessert.

I was still on vacation. I was still stifling my laughter as my husband attempted to speak the language. I was still holding hands with my children, jumping into the pool together. The sun kept trying to peek through, but that squall was inside me.

I thought about my own mother, a woman whom I had only ever seen as beautiful. As a child, I don’t remember ever intentionally saying anything critical of her looks because I never thought there was anything to criticize. Why did my own children not see me the same way?

“Maybe she just has a different perception of beauty.” My husband’s words, meant to console me, offered no solace. Maybe I’m not a good mother.

Each night, as I dressed for dinner, my husband showered me with compliments, but they couldn’t permeate my own belief that I wasn’t beautiful enough.

She’s right, I told myself. My stomach is soft and jiggly. I am not the best version of myself. I have failed. I am a failure.

Brown writes, “The most dangerous stories we make up are the narratives that diminish our inherent worthiness.” Yet here I was in Mexico, with this story stuck on repeat. I had fallen into this narrative and despite having finished the book, I was not rising strong.

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Had I been home, I likely would have taken to the gym. I would have sat down to write or meditate. I would have engaged in some retail therapy, a little time by myself till those clouds rolled away. Here in Mexico, the maid left chocolate every night by the side of my bed. Every morning I needed to don a bikini again; I hadn’t even packed a cover-up! And the drinks were TWO for ONE for crying out loud.

I could escape neither storm nor story.

Back in the states, I woke the next morning and headed straight to yoga. The following day, I hit the treadmill. Popping in my ear-buds, I scrolled through my podcasts. Knowing I could benefit from something inspirational, I decided on Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations. Two episodes was all it took.

The first episode I listened to was a conversation with Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements, a book I had read ages ago. Oprah and Ruiz discuss how 95 percent of what we believe is not true, they are stories we tell ourselves, and behind those stories lie our fears—fears that we are not good enough, are not beautiful enough, are not worthy. This sounded familiar—it sounded like Brené Brown.

Don Miguel Ruiz says, “The human is the only animal on earth that pays 1000 times for the same mistake.”

How many times had I beaten myself up over this same story? How many times had I questioned my self-worth because of what I thought I, or someone else, saw in me?

The second episode was a conversation with Michael Singer, author of The Untethered Soul. I haven’t read this book (yet), but here I found the answer to the bigger question: How do I break this cycle?

Singer uses the analogy of a thorn embedded deep in one’s skin, touching a nerve. He says we have two choices: We can live with the thorn and try to avoid all those things in life that disturb it, or we can grab our tweezers and take that thorn out.

In keeping the thorn in, we not only alter how we live our lives, we also train everyone around us so they don’t ever touch that thorn. That’s what I was doing, wasn’t I? Through my reaction and my behavior, I was training my family that this was a thorn not to be touched.

On the contrary, if we remove the thorn, we don’t ever have to deal with it again. We can start to enjoy life, and that, Singer says, is spirituality.

Whoa.

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Oprah asks, “How do you know what your thorn is?”

Singer’s answer: “Disturbance tells you. Just like pain happens outside, disturbance happens inside.”

Singer claims that the moment something disturbs you, if you don’t let it pass right through you, the energy of it will drag you down. “When a problem shows up with that chitter-chatter in your mind, the first reaction must be to lean away from it.”

Ruiz believes, “forgiveness is the most important thing.” Oprah explains that by forgiveness, he means to “let it go; do not be tied to the past.” While my daughter had apologized, I didn’t need to forgive her, I needed to forgive myself.

My daughter’s words to me were not what hurt me, nor did she intend to hurt me. My daughter’s words disturbed my thorn, a thorn that I have carried around with me for a long, long time. But in that moment, I had a choice, and I chose to take it personally when I should have chosen forgiveness.

The second of the four agreements is Don’t Take Anything Personally. When we take something personally, it “is the maximum expression of selfishness because we make the assumption that everything then is about me.” Mexico wasn’t supposed to be about me. Mexico was supposed to be about us. I was making it about me.

If I could go back to that moment when my daughter turned to me and said, “Your stomach is really soft and jiggly,” I would lean far, far away from my discomfort—even if that meant falling off the damn golf cart. I don’t want another internal storm to cloud an otherwise amazing family vacation. Yet maybe this storm was necessary in realizing what needed to be washed clean.

I’ve since ordered a copy of The Untethered Soul. I plan to turn the pages with my tweezers in hand.

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Read The Damn Book

There was a litany of things that needed to be done before our wedding– everything from seating arrangements to floral arrangements. We poured over menu options with the caterer and we tasted cake. We met with DJs and photographers, and then we met with Pastor Wally.

Funny and laid-back, we both liked Pastor Wally despite that we weren’t regulars at his church. When we met with him to discuss our upcoming nuptials though, we were too young and too unmarried to absorb much of his advice. Still, Pastor Wally gave us our first wedding gift that night. It was a book called The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman.

We left the church that evening holding hands, our future before us. Upon returning home, I was thrilled to learn that the book contained his and her quizzes, so we quickly set to work figuring out what our love languages were, and then we set the book down. With our wedding only weeks away, we had more pressing matters to attend to.

Years later, we were reminded of The Five Love Languages yet again. This time, it was our counselor who mentioned it as we sat in therapy together. My husband and I marched back home, found the book, blew the dust off it, and took our quizzes again. Surprisingly, our answers hadn’t really changed all that much, but this time, after tallying our scores, I read the damn book.

I’ve picked up plenty of self-help books over the years. I’ve read tons of parenting books, everything from How to Speak So Your Kids Will Listen to The White-Trash Mom Handbook. I’ve tackled books that told me You Are a Badass and books that encouraged me to begin my own Happiness Project. Yet for all my reading, I hadn’t had another book on marriage in my hands until recently when, whilst scrolling through Facebook, something caught my eye.

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100 Ways to Love Your Husband and 100 Ways to Love Your Wife are two companion texts for couples written by a husband and wife team. Believing that the books would be some type of 100-day challenge, I clicked on the link and read through the comments.

While reviewers praised the books, it appeared they were also faith-based, and I wasn’t sure exactly how faith-based they would be. Several weeks later though, when I came across the online advertisement again, I decided that there was only one way to find out. I ordered the books, and once I had, I was excited for us to both begin reading them.

Unfortunately, my book did not start off on the right foot.

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“Always choose love.” Ummm, okay. Given that there are more words in this blog post than in the entire book, I wasn’t holding out hope that I’d be provided suggestions on how to do that. But then there was that biblical reference. Maybe I was supposed to read I Corinthians 13 for the answer. Where was my bible? Wait…Do I even own a bible? I could probably just Google it. I’d try that later, for now, I kept reading. Surely the book would improve.

Sadly, it did not.

By number 6, I was told to pray for him. I tried to imagine what that might sound like.

Dear God. Please watch over my husband as he does the laundry. Help him see the lights, and separate them from the darks. Amen.

Number 20 told me that I should care about my appearance and “freshen up a bit” before my man came home. The first thing I do when I get home is take off my bra and put on my pajamas, but apparently, the key to a successful marriage is to “pretty-up a bit.”

Annoyed, I put the book down.

Later that night, I picked up my husband’s book to see what kind of hogwash they were selling him. Skimming through its pages, it seemed better than mine, and I was a little miffed at this. Because it was written with a woman in mind, perhaps it just made more sense to me.

Run her a hot bath. Buy her expensive chocolate. Kiss her often.

Unlike praying or brushing my hair, these were things that he could do for me that I would notice. Maybe all was not lost.

In the end, I forced myself to read the damn book—all of it, which to be honest, didn’t take that long seeing as how it is primarily composed of one-liners. At times, I felt like I was getting antiquated advice from June Cleaver, but then I would wonder if that wasn’t sometimes what a marriage did, in fact, need. To write a love letter rather than sending a text. To walk and hold hands rather than to Netflix and chill. To cook dinner together, and afterwards, to wash the dishes alongside one another.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t suggest you buy these books. Truthfully, I was disappointed in them, but strangely enough, my marriage benefitted from reading them. I noticed that my husband was being more attentive, more affectionate. I was trying to do a better job of listening when he talked and stopping what I was doing to give him a kiss and a smile when he came home…even if I hadn’t just applied fresh lipstick.

Despite what the books said, by reading them, we took time to think about our relationship and to remind ourselves that marriages require work. We started putting in a little more effort, and without consciously realizing it, we started speaking each other’s love languages once again.

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In Their Own Words

I get a ton of emails at work, many of which get deleted without ever having been opened, but when I received an invitation from Goodreads asking teachers to “Join the Conversation,” something told me I should read on.

Goodreads and Netflix had partnered up to promote the adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir First They Killed My Father, a soon-to-be released Netflix Original directed by Angelina Jolie. They were asking teachers to share the trailer for the film with their students, to open up a dialogue with them, and to submit an essay that captured their student’s thoughts.

Since my classes would be reading To Kill a Mockingbird in the weeks to come, and since genocide is intolerance at its worst, I figured we could use this opportunity as another lens through which to look at discrimination.

The Khmer Rouge took control of the Cambodian government in 1975. I was born in 1978, roughly around the time this genocide came to an end. Only 40 years ago, the mass murder of two million Cambodian people took place while the rest of the world did nothing to stop it. In the twentieth century alone, we have experienced several more genocides: Rwanda, Bosnia, Dafur. Yet in classrooms across America, children are largely ignorant to these suffering. They have all been taught about The Holocaust, but when some of them realized that the more recent genocides took place around the time they were born, they were shocked.

As I shared with my classes some background information and then the trailer for First They Killed My Father, a boy questioned, “Why is this the first time I am hearing about this?”

Yet if we only rewind a few weeks, images of hate flood our screens: the angry faces of Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, the Alt-Right. Their expressions are illuminated by the same tiki torches that shine on my children on warm summer nights as they roast marshmallows for s’mores, their innocent laughter filling the evening sky.

While the riots in Charlottesville have certainly been mentioned in my classroom, there hasn’t been a direct discussion about them. Perhaps it is easier to talk about The Scottsboro Boys as it relates to a work of fiction than it is to look in our own back yards.

So what did my students think after first learning that there was a genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s, and then after watching the atrocities of it viewed through the dark, attentive eyes of a 5-year-old? What follows are their own words, collectively woven to express why it is important to learn from stories of hardship like that of Loung Ung’s.


Nowadays, we are more likely to pay attention to our own first-world problems. This, in turn, leaves third-world countries to basically do whatever they want. That’s why we learn about the Holocaust and not about more recent acts of mass murder. The same goes for mass terror. We’ll never forget 9/11, but we’ll easily forget the war on terrorism happening in Syria.

The Holocaust was one of the most horrendous genocides. When Holocaust survivors saw the white supremacist groups in Virginia carrying the Nazi flag, they were horrified. A dark-skinned reporter who was sent to interview the Ku Klux Klan was threatened to be burned alive on a cross.

Everyone has scars.

Stories like Loung Ung’s allow people to experience their pain, it forces people to remember. Forgetting the victims is probably the worst thing we can do, because if you forget, it’s like their struggles, and even their lives, never existed. At the same time, stories like Luong Ung’s allow us to appreciate our own lives more fully.

Humanity is losing its empathy towards people because society doesn’t want to read a book. These stories are what teach us to be empathetic. The main thing pushing us to read and learn about the history of our country and the world are our teachers.

Learning about genocide educates us on humanity—and it proves what some people are willing to do out of fear and blind hatred. But just because we learn about the past does not mean that we will prevent it from happening again. People have the power to be cruel, and some will—unfortunately—take that opportunity.

We need to realize that our world today isn’t perfect, it isn’t always a nice, beautiful place. Today, people are still vying for power. Today, people are still unkind. Today, our country is still fighting the same battles we fought in the past.

If it is true that history repeats itself, then we must be prepared for when it does by looking at how we could have prevented previous tragedies.

It is always possible for some dictator to reign over the innocent. If enough people with the same beliefs got together today, and they had the proper resources, they could control anyone; we can’t let awful, horrific ideas pollute the minds of others. With biological and chemical warfare, another genocide could occur tomorrow. Mass murder could come at the click of a button.

There will always be evil people in the world who believe that the only way to remedy a situation is to completely start over. Genocides happens for many reasons, and none of them are good. None of the people who start them are good either. And the villains who lead these events don’t disappear as history moves on.

We should have learned to not let a horrific person rule, but it is 2017 and we are letting history slowly repeat itself. If power is in the wrong person’s hands, then the most unimaginable things can happen; unjust and corrupt government leads to destruction. All it takes is a careless leader and hatred for the human race.

Racism, political beliefs, and religion all divide us. We need to accept people for who they are and not make judgements. The world demands that we learn from past mistakes so we don’t fall further into a hole of corruption, greed, and abused power. As a country, we need to stand up for unjust acts.

The most important lessons to learn are how to treat people, how to stay courageous, how to stand together and protect others against torture and discrimination.

When we learn about the past, we are forced to think about what kind of future we want to have. We can learn to become better people and to bring different countries together peacefully.

Everyone is making history right now.


Whether discussing the Luong Ung’s of yesterday or The Dreamers of tomorrow, the words of my students emphasize the importance of having courage in the face of adversity. With kindness and empathy, there is hope for a better tomorrow.

 

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Taking Matters Into Our Own Hands

In Oklahoma, a third-grade teacher by the name of Teresa Danks stood at a highway intersection panhandling for money to buy school supplies for her class.

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Not long before I heard about Danks, my friend and I had joked about doing the same thing. We envisioned our colleagues uniting–holding signs and strumming guitars–as we found a creative way to raise money for things like paper, printer ink, and toner for the copy machine.

While Oklahoma ranks 49th out of 50 states in terms of teacher pay, Nevada is 49th out of 50 in both education and per-pupil spending, so I understand the frustration that drove Danks to wave that sign at passing motorists.

Here in Northern Nevada, the economy is on the rise, although our schools face a 13-million-dollar budget shortfall. Despite whisperings of teacher layoffs, early retirement incentives, and increased class sizes, the district is still looking for ways to make ends meet.

In the week before the school year began, custodians wheeled additional desks and chairs into my room to accommodate the bodies that would soon sit there. In my classes of honors freshmen, there are 38 eager adolescents. There are 38 students raising their hands. There are 38 kids who have questions they’d like answered. Thirty-eight of them are trying to share their writing or present to the class, and there simply isn’t enough time.

The day I looked at my rosters and saw 38, tears of frustration pooled in my eyes. For me to lose composure at my workplace is rare, but in that moment, behind my back, I felt the ropes tighten around my wrists.

Yet this is just one of the struggles I’ll face this year. Like every year though, I will do my best.

I will sit for hours on a weekend grading essays. I will meet with students before school and at lunch to give them the one-on-one attention they cannot get during class. I will answer their questions via email and text throughout the evening as I cook dinner for my family and make sure my own children get their homework done. I will find innovative ways to arrange my desks so that we can get up and move around without tripping over backpacks and books.

I will give my all till I am completely depleted.

I will vent to colleagues and I will vent to my husband. I will sit in meetings where the mission of “every name and face to graduation” is spouted, and then I will walk back into a room filled with 38 names and 38 faces and I will try to develop relationships and build rapport with all 38. Every day, each time the bell rings, I will do that again for another 38, and another, and another.

The contradictions in education are exasperating. We want students to achieve, but we limit available resources. Despite endless research supporting the correlation between smaller class size and student success, we continue to pour pupils into desks. We are expected to be twenty-first century teachers, yet it is suggested we reach into our own pockets to buy bulbs for projectors or audio equipment that might enable our students to listen to a TedTalk or take part in a Skype session with a guest speaker.

Come May, my wrists will be rubbed raw.

Here is where I could talk about teacher burnout. I could share with you the statistics on how eight percent of teachers walk away from the profession every year, and how hundreds of thousands more aren’t even pursuing it to begin with. Even though I know why they are leaving, and even though I don’t blame them when they do, even though I see how other career paths would be more desirable, I have never regretted my decision to spend my days in a classroom.

Much like Danks though, I have been driven to a place I never thought I would go. I am panhandling for my classroom. Rather than on the side of the road, I have taken to the internet, to DonorsChoose.org.

donorsThrough DonorsChoose, I am asking for contributions towards books for my students. My project, if met, would allow me to place high-interest texts of both fiction and non-fiction into the hands of all 38 students in both of my honors classes. Books that deal with issues like the cultural and social impact of technology on the adolescent psyche, mental health, racism, the immigrant experience, and the achievement gap. Books that they can relate to that will help them to build empathy for others and to make sense of their world.

Because, let’s face it: often our world doesn’t make sense. When I look at education in this country, it most certainly doesn’t make sense. But at the end of the day, I can complain about it, or I can work towards a solution.

DonorsChoose is my attempt at a solution. It won’t change the number of students in my classroom nor will it affect the district’s budget, but what it will do is allow me to wiggle my wrists ever so little, to help this teacher to burn on rather than burn out.

To contribute to my project, visit DonorsChoose.org

 

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Love, Learn, and Eat Crow

We both agreed. We were not going to be those parents who had our kids enrolled in so many activities that we spent our evenings driving from one place to the next, eating take-out in the car, unable to sit down together for family dinner and with little time to spare for getting the homework done.

No siree.

Well folks, for family dinner tonight, we’re eating crow, and my husband and I are both having a plate-full.

This last week of summer break, my daughter finished her first season of golf and began her first season of soccer. Practices were stacked back-to-back. Simultaneously, she is working towards her black belt in karate, and shortly after school resumes, Girls on the Run will begin. This Fall, she’ll likely be at a game or practice of some sort six days of the week.

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We have no one to blame but ourselves. We are the ones who completed online registrations and took her to buy cleats. We are the ones who dropped her off at the golf course and we are the ones who remind her to practice her Heian Shodan and her Pal Gue 2. It is I who will be her running buddy for her 5k in November and her father who will cheer her on as she crosses the finish line.

The little girl who only ever wanted to come home from school and play with her baby sister is growing. Her interests are expanding, and we are eating crow.

One evening, on a trip to Target, my daughter mentioned that she’d like to give soccer a try. She found a pink ball in the sporting aisle and carried it all around the store, so I bought it for her. In the following weeks, she’d kick it around the back yard with my husband and take it to the park. I watched her long, tanned legs dribble the ball and her ponytail swing as she ran after it. She was already signed up for her running program and already involved in karate, but she wanted this experience too. After much discussion and deliberation, we signed her up.

Perhaps it was the what-if that made me agree to a three-sport season. What if this is what she gets really passionate about? What if she goes on to play soccer in high school? What if it earns her a college scholarship? What if I said no?    

So I said Yes. I said Yes despite all the times I hollered from the hilltops that I would never.

One of the many things I have learned as a parent is that anything is possible, so it’s probably best if we stopped speaking in absolutes.

It’s like that State Farm commercial where this couple gets engaged after the man swears to his buddy that he’s never getting married. Then, as they are flying on an airplane with a screaming child behind them, they both agree that they are never having kids. The scene cuts to the woman giving birth, after which the now family of three sits around their dinner table in their swanky apartment insisting that they’ll never move to the suburbs…which they do, along with purchasing a mini-van and having yet another baby, both things they said a firm “no” to in the previous scenes.

Women everywhere are guilty of claiming that they are never going to be that mom, whatever that mom is for them: the mom who is 100% organic or the chicken-nugget-mac-and-cheese-hot-dog-mom. The mom who vaccinates or the one who doesn’t. The mom who hasn’t made it to a single back-to-school night or the president of the PTO.

We’ve all shook our heads and tsk-tsk-tsked at that which becomes our own reflection in the mirror.

Even if I never proclaimed it out loud, I probably thought that I was never going to feed my children Goldfish crackers for breakfast, but that went down on more than one occassion.

We definitely weren’t going to let our children sleep in our bed, and so when we bought new furniture, we stuck with a queen-sized mattress.

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In hindsight, we should have gotten that king.

I was never going to make my children a separate meal from what we were eating for dinner, but after one taste of my Cajun crab chowder, I was back in the kitchen slapping together two grilled cheese sandwiches.

Likewise, I thought there would never come a day when we would be putting golf clubs in the trunk while taking shin guards out, yet here we are, and really, it’s okay.

As moms, we have all reneged on parenting choices we once said we would never do.

There’s no one-size-fits-all. What you thought might work failed. Situations and priorities change. People change. Maybe, as in the case of “I’m Not a ‘Crunchy’ Mom Anymore,” life threw something into your well-oiled machine, and as a result, you realize: This is who I am now. You accept it, or you forgive yourself, but either way, you let that shit go because, quite frankly, in the end, it doesn’t really matter whether you used cloth diapers on only one of your children, so long as you loved and you learned.

 

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Beach Etiquette 101

“Why do they need all that space?” my mother asked.

We had just arrived at the lake and while it was only 9:00 in the morning, it was already packed. To the left of us were four pop-up shade structures and two beach umbrellas all belonging to one group, which at the time only consisted of half a dozen people. When my husband and I were first living together, we rented a cottage about the same size as the real estate they were taking up.

I knew from experience that within the hour there would be many more joining them. In hindsight, I wish we had picked another place to lay our blanket down, even if that meant lugging our cooler and dragging the Wonder Wheeler filled to the brim with buckets, shovels, inflatables, and beach chairs a mile through the sand.

Come they did. Grandparents and aunts and uncles and mothers. Fathers, children, cousins, and friends. Babies in diapers and sulky teenagers. Elderly women who never left the shade and rowdy kids who tackled each other in the water. All of which was fine. After all, when at the beach, I expect that a small child will waddle across my blanket trailing sand in his wake. I expect that a couple of boys with water shooters will accidentally spray me. When you are at the shore, you are going to get wet.

What wasn’t fine was the way our new neighbors seeped out from their rather large expanse and began invading our small plot of sand. They seemed to think that as they swelled, we would shrink, but they’d clearly never met my mother.

They encroached, yet my mother refused to budge. It was the principle. To accommodate them meant that we would begin crowding our other neighbors, and my mom didn’t think that was right. She dug her heels in the sand, but at one point, I turned around and saw that she’d been surrounded.

There was an empty baby stroller on one side of her, a camping chair set up behind her, a blanket on which more people sat to the other side of her, and a couple of teenagers were hammering in yet another umbrella at her back while a chubby baby tried opening our cooler. My mother was barely visible in the sea of people who literally set up camp around her.

That day, we left the lake hours earlier than I normally would have. It was not my sanctuary. A place I normally go to relax, I departed irritated and annoyed; the cooler I had begun packing at 7:00 in the morning was still half-full.

When company visits, the trip to Lake Tahoe is usually the gem we offer them. Regardless what they think of Reno, they will suck in their breath and break out their cameras at the sight of those turquoise waters surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

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Unfortunately, the one day I had to share this with my mom was marred by beachgoers lacking etiquette.

Proper seashore decorum is not difficult to master. All you need to do is consider a few things:

Music: Not everyone has the same tastes, so if you bring music to the beach, think about volume. For the people around you, your music, like gentle waves, should become a subtle part of the background. It should not feel akin to standing outside a nightclub. Likewise, if you are next to a family with youngsters, please refrain from sharing your love of gangster rap, even if you have small children of your own. While your parenting decision may be early exposure to expletives, my parenting decision is Kidz Bop, so kindly save 2Pac for the ride home in your car.

When Your Child Won’t Stop Crying: Children cry. Sometimes they cry a lot. However, if your child will not stop crying, then may I suggest you try something besides ignoring them. I know you think that what they need most is a nap, but the truth is that there are other people at the beach who also like to nap, and your child’s blood-curdling screams are preventing that from happening.

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Maybe you need to take your child for a walk, or let them play in the sand for a little while longer. Maybe they’d like to splash in the water. You are not at home, your schedule has been disturbed, and it’s likely they won’t doze off till they are back in their car seat. For the sanity of all of us, the beach is not the right place to practice sleep-training your child.

Personal Space: At the very least, there should be twelve inches between my blanket’s edge and yours. This boundary makes it clear to your toddler which items belong to you and which are mine, that way I don’t come back from a quick swim to find your little darling sticking his finger through my kid’s PB&J or dumping out my purse while you talk on your phone.

And About Kids: They are going to splash and scream and run past blankets kicking up dirt. Children are oblivious to the world around them, but adults are not. If your offspring are acting like ass-hats, it is your job to discipline them. When your boy lobs a fistful of wet sand at my gut, remind him that isn’t cool.

A Note About Activities: If you are going to play in the water, try to find an area away from where people are swimming. When your volleyball smacks down on my daughter’s head as she snorkels, or you tackle me trying to catch a football, I might get a little upset.

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To the man who brought his drone to the beach and flew it above my blanket: I don’t know what you are doing with your footage of pasty moms in bikinis, but you and your drone need to go.

When Your Activity is Getting Drunk: Want to stand in the water guzzling cheap beer and talking about last night’s party that you’re still drunk from? Although your conversation does remind me of all the reasons I’m glad I am no longer in my twenties, try to remember that water carries voices, especially ones too plastered to realize they are yelling in the first place. Since you chose to come to a family friendly beach, your sordid tales are best kept to a whisper.

Additionally, if you have been sucking back Bloody Marys all day, it’s probably better if you didn’t initiate conversation with your neighbors in the sand. When you see my children with their summer tans and ask me, “What are they mixed with?” it is time to switch to water.

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Beach etiquette is fairly simple. A good rule of thumb is to try to not disturb your fellow-beachgoers, mentally or physically. If you think what you are doing will, then find a stretch of sand slightly more remote. After all, everyone comes to the beach for the same reason. In the end, we’d all like to return home a little more relaxed.

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The Universe is Speaking

I am 39 and The Universe is speaking to me. Or maybe, I am 39 and I have finally started to listen. Either way, there are signs all around me as of late; I am paying attention to them and they are leading me places I otherwise may not have travelled.

At 39, I have found my authenticity. I make time for myself in ways I never would before. I am learning to say no to others and learning to say yes to me.

Last winter I took a class in meditation simply because I wanted to. The email that informed me of the course came from the city’s recreation department, but The Universe hit send. Establishing a meditation practice has not been easy, but it’s been beyond valuable. Summer mornings, I roll out an old yoga mat and sit on my deck; I close my eyes, pop in my earbuds, and listen to guided meditations that remind me to breathe. I tell my children not to disturb me unless the house is on fire and for the most part, they don’t. I hear the chirping of birds in my back yard as I inhale and exhale to the voice of someone I’ll likely never meet.

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The more I meditate, the less I want to drink, and the less I drink, the healthier I feel. I can tolerate more and am better equipped at dealing with stress, which ironically is why I drank in the first place. I stopped coming home at the end of a long work day and pouring a glass of wine; I poured, instead, a cup of tea. For this unexpected gift, I have The Universe to thank.

When a friend of mine spoke of her newfound love for reflexology, I thought, I’d like to try that, so I did. Though the reflexologist kept telling me how healthy I was, I learned that it wasn’t reflexology that I needed–I needed to hear other things she had to say. The Universe had sent me there to receive those messages.

We talked about homeopathy and our casual banter led to her mentioning Arnica, a remedy used for healing. For my father, being scheduled for double knee replacements only a few weeks later, this message from The Universe was perfectly timed. I immediately bought and shipped him the small blue vial along with the instructions for him to begin taking it three days prior to his procedure. In the coming weeks, I felt more at ease about his going under the knife knowing that The Universe was looking out for him in ways I personally could not.

The reflexologist and I also spoke about our love of TedTalks. One of her favorites was by Brené Brown. Currently, she was reading one of her books on vulnerability but she mentioned another called The Gifts of Imperfection which sounded vaguely familiar.

It wasn’t until a few days later when I was searching for something that I pulled out that very book from my nightstand. A gift from my friend who, much like my mom, sends me links to articles and buys me books that she thinks I will benefit from; it had sat within arm’s reach of my bed untouched for several years. I blew off the dust and began reading. The Universe had spoken. (My friend would probably have you note that she had also spoken about three years prior, but I wasn’t listening then…nor was she “The Universe.”)

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It was within the pages of this book that I learned about shame. At 39, I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t fully understand what shame was or how it operated. Oh I struggled with guilt, but shame was not something I would have admitted to. I was prone to claiming no shame to my game…but there was, and now that The Universe pointed it out to me, it was abundant.

When I finished the book, I checked out Brené Brown on Ted where she said that, “for women, shame is do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat.”

For so many years I have been a self-proclaimed perfectionist, but do I really want to be the woman who runs the vacuum before the babysitter arrives? Those gourmet sandwiches that I packed for the beach were delicious, but each time my friend suggested we menu plan for an outing, I felt my anxiety rise. All I needed was a PB&J and a juicy plum from the cooler but there was this pressure I felt to say yes, to do more, to be better.

Brown says, “Shame for women is this web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we are supposed to be. And it’s a straight-jacket.”

When I became a mother, my instinct was to put the needs of my children before my own, but I clearly forgot I had needs altogether. As women, we nurture and we please to the extent of our own detriment.

In a Dear Sugar podcast, The Power of No, the Sugars suggest only saying yes to those things that feel good, that light a spark within you. People shouldn’t feel shame or apologize for having their own needs. Later, when they interview Oprah Winfrey, she shares her own journey with learning to say no.

“I used to be spread so thin, there was no room in my life for me. There was No Room in My Life for Me.”

As a wife and a mother and a teacher, I felt like Oprah. It has only been in the past few years that I have started to make time for me—time at the gym, time to write, or simply extra time by allowing myself to serve chicken nuggets for dinner. Thanks to The Universe, I’m making room with shameless abandon because I want to raise children without shame and guilt, and I cannot do so without first modeling what that looks like.

I’m still practicing the art of no. As it turns out, the easiest person to deny is yourself. Yet as I learned with meditation, there are twenty-four hours in each day; you are worth ten-minutes.

In the preface of her book, Brené Brown writes, “People may call what happens in midlife ‘a crisis,’ but it’s not. It’s an unraveling… a time when you are challenged by the universe to let go of who you think you are supposed to be and to embrace who you are.” While I cringe to think that I have hit the mid-point of my life, I am certainly unraveling. After being wound tight for so very long, there is freedom in that.

She then adds, “The universe is not short on wake-up calls. We’re just quick to hit the snooze button.”

I am 39 and The Universe is speaking to me. It hasn’t suggested I grow out my hair or buy a Harley, yet the other day, after I told my friend about my upcoming Reiki appointment, she jokingly questioned: Who are you? Rhetorical or not, I responded: This. This is who I am. And I felt confident in that answer in ways I never had before.

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