Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Mama...I found Ida..."

It was 1999 when Mama mentioned Ida again. Daddy had been diagnosed with cancer but hadn't gotten really sick at that point so she was reflecting on getting older, how quickly things change, and just mentioned she'd like to know what had happened to her friend.

I had heard stories about my mother's friends all my life. Juanita, Deloris, and Ida had been Mama's roommates when they were seventeen. World War II was bringing bad news left and right as my mother watched the entire male representation of her high school graduating class leave and go to war, so these girls hung onto each other...for emotional and financial support...and for entertainment. They were the 1940's version of BFF's.

My mother and her friend Ida, in their younger days...
Ida on the left, Mama on the right

My mother met Ida when she was hired as a waitress at the Fairview Restaurant in Sanford, North Carolina. After that they lived together in a couple of different places, eventually leaving one house after awakening to the screams that accompanied an illegal abortion taking place in the next room. My mother has graphic memories of those screams, and of what a baby looks like when a pregnancy is terminated at six months, and that story probably kept me pure and chaste for longer than a lot of girls I know.

Not long after they relocated, a man came into the restaurant and offered to make both of them famous in New York. He was "an ugly man, with bug eyes," my mother said, and she didn't believe he was legitimate. But Ida did. And off to New York she went. She did, in fact, become a model, and soon my mother saw her picture in the newspaper: "She was standing there, holding an umbrella, looking so pretty."

My mother married a soldier, as they did in those days. "We were afraid they would go to war and die. So we married them too quickly; we didn't spend a lot of time getting to know each other. Ida 'cried and cried' when I told her I was getting married."

That marriage didn't last, but Ida's career took off. She eventually married a New Yorker and lived there until returning home in her later years. It was there I found her, after an internet search, in 1999. My mother called her, and she and Daddy visited, Ida cooking "grilled chicken on a George Foreman grill" at age 73. They kept in touch for awhile.

But then Daddy's cancer took its toll, and my mother's caregiving duties became overwhelming. After his death in 2004, Mama's health began to fail, too, as she moved more and more slowly, shuffling her feet as she went. But recently, after rehabilitation from a fall and a broken hip, she's been asking about Ida again, although her friend's phone number has been long misplaced. She says that more and more of her friends are gone now; she sometimes feels that she is the "only one left."

So a few months ago, I returned to the internet, only to find that Ida's address listed was the same place where that chicken dinner was held, about an hour away from my mother and me, but there was no phone number this time to accompany it. I searched through obituaries, finding none that matched. I even drove to Ida's house, only to find it closed up as if uninhabited. I assumed she had moved to some type of elderly assisted living facility.

A few weeks later, while driving out of town in that direction, I drove to the house again. A gentleman answered the door this time and said that the lady who had lived there before was gone, but he didn't know where. He directed me across the street to another elderly lady, one who would surely remember her friend.

The nice lady let me in immediately, with no fear for her safety, even though I was a total stranger. As I asked her about Ida, she said, "Oh, I remember her!" I asked if she knew where she went. The lady replied, "Who?" I started over. Our conversation went around like this for several minutes. Then I told the lady goodbye and reminded her not to allow strangers in her home.

Last week I went back to the internet and actually paid a small fee to search for my mama's friend Ida. This time I was given her same address, the one I had visited...but another address also popped up. I hoped it was the address for an elderly care center, a place I could take my mother to visit Ida, a place where she could make some more friends.

Today I had a chance to make the drive to that address. After driving in the rain, over and around winding country roads, I found myself in front of a beautiful, tall brick home in a residential neighborhood. A black lab barked at my approach, and I really felt that I was in the wrong place. No 84-year-old woman would live in a house like this. But I rang the bell anyway.

I said to the nicely dressed, middle-aged woman who answered the door, "I'm probably in the wrong place. I'm looking for Ida O'Neal. She was a friend of my mother's."

The lady's face fell, and she looked puzzled. "That's my aunt," she said. "I'm actually on the way out the her funeral."

I almost fell off the porch.

I had looked and looked for the girl whose picture sits on my mother's end table in her den. And I had found her...on the day of her funeral.

Ida's niece went on to tell me that her aunt had been in assisted living for five years because she was suffering from Alzheimer's. She had died four days before and would be buried in the next hour, not enough time for me to drive and pick up my mother and get her back there. Not enough time for Mama to accept the news.

I was invited in, and I signed the guest book. I looked at a table full of pictures of a lady who had been on my mind for months. I kept thinking, "I'm too late, too late. I'm too late to give my mother a piece of her youth back, too late to give her someone to talk to in her last days, too late to tell Ida goodbye."

I thanked Ida's niece and told her how sorry I was. I drove away numb and shaking toward my mother's house and pictured myself sitting down beside her on her couch.

"Mama," I would say. "I found Ida..."

Monday, February 21, 2011

What About The Children of Wisconsin?

In case you've taken a Waldenesque break in the woods and don't know it, there is quite the uprising being played out in the Wisconsin legislature these days. You can read about it all over the place, but you may get different versions depending on who's doing the reporting.

Some say the Governor has rushed to pass a budget that will strip unionized workers, including teachers, of their collective bargaining rights. The Governor says Wisconsin is broke, and he has no other recourse but to take away benefits and union bargaining rights from public workers.

One side says Wisconsin wasn't broke until this rookie Governor gave tax breaks to his big-business pals. The other side is pointing fingers at fourteen legislators who have fled town so that a voting quorum can't be reached.

The blogosphere and Twitterworld are hot right now, with points of view being fired off from all directions.

And then this morning, an intelligent former student, an adult now with a child of her own, posted on Facebook in a respectful manner:

"Are there scab teachers teaching the kids in Wisconsin? If there is no one watching out for the education of those children, shame on those teachers. I admit that I don't fully understand what they're protesting, but can someone explain to me what it is that's more important than the future of the children that are being left out in the cold?"

She continued with a comment to her own post:

"Please do not think that I am anti-teacher in any way. I am just trying to figure out why the kids are of such little importance. Please someone help me understand this."

Here is my response to her:

Dear Kristen,

Because we live in a Right-to-Work state, teachers here in North Carolina have a hard time understanding the ins and outs of collective bargaining. We don't have teacher unions and, therefore, are at the mercy of our education associations (and their lobbyists), our governor, and our state legislators when it comes to benefits and pay. We have to hope that we've voted the right folks into office.

So I don't claim to be an expert about what's going on in Wisconsin. But I know teachers in Wisconsin, and I know children in general. I have to believe that what the students are learning is more powerful than any history lecture they may have had the opportunity to hear in the past.

I've taught the Civil War, I've taught the Civil Rights Movement including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's I Have a Dream Speech, and I've taught all about apartheid in South Africa. Although my students have always appeared somewhat interested, it has been apparent that they are so far removed from either the place or the time (or both) that they don't really grasp the meaning. Oh, I try to make these events relative. We stand in a circle and hold hands - Black, White, Hispanic alternating - and I tell them that when I was in elementary school, this type of activity would have been illegal in the South. They don't get it. They don't believe it. It feels like a story to them. Fiction.

To the students of Wisconsin, this isn't a story. This is a real civil rights issue. And even if they don't know exactly why their teachers are missing, they do know that they are off fighting for what they believe in. Some students, referred to as the "soul of the protests," have even joined their teachers, staging sleepovers in the legislative building and waging war via social media. Some are joining forces, linking arm-in-arm to cheer like it's a Friday night football game:

"Everywhere we go-o-o-o,
people want to know-ow-ow
Who-o-o-o we ar-r-r-r-r-e,
a-a-a-a-nd we tell them,

We are stu-u-u-u-dents,
mighty mighty stu-u-u-dents.

The students of Wisconsin are learning the valuable lessons of free speech, standing up for a cause, and basing opinions on carefully sought out facts. I saw one of the fourteen legislators on the news this morning. Interviewed in the "undisclosed" hotel in Illinois where she was staying, this mother of two small children answered to leaving them at home by saying she hoped this experience would teach them to stand up for themselves some day.

I have a friend who teaches in Madison. You'd never meet a more open-minded, talented educator who loves everyone and embraces all types of ideas. This week she has been at the protests, subjected to name-calling and other harsh opposition. She believes she is representing what's best for her students, her family, and her state. But she has been called selfish and greedy because she merely wants to be able to advocate for herself when it comes to salary and benefits. Is this not a practice that occurs in the business world daily? Are teachers some type of sub-citizens, unable to make the same requests?

My friend, the peacemaker, has even stepped in between opposing protestors on the steps of the capitol in an effort to defend everyone's right to free speech. She has been called an idiot, a terrorist, a spoiled brat, and a knuckle-dragging mouth-breather.

This is how Americans are treating Americans. (Remember the Civil War? Now is it relative?)

Yes, Kristen, there is much for the children of Wisconsin, and the United States of America, to learn. I hope the parents of school age kids are talking to them about what they see on the news. I hope they will participate by sending emails to their elected officials or maybe even visiting the capitol themselves. History is happening in Madison, Wisconsin, and although the subject matter may be a history class lecture in a few years, right now it's real.

And I hope students there will never look at the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement the same way again. Those events aren't just stories either.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Where is the Love?

In 1972, on any given day, I would hear the song "Where is the Love," recorded by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, on my portable radio. It was popular, rising to #5 on the pop charts while taking the #1 spot on the soul and easy listening charts. Sometimes a song like that will find its way into the inner recesses of my brain and stay there, a repeating chorus that seems to grow louder and louder. I can't coax it out even when I try to sing the birthday song or "Jingle Bells" over top of it. It's still there - and today, Valentine's Day, "where is the love?" is pounding heavily on my eardrums as I attempt to work, eat, have a conversation...that song is IN THERE!

It was there, humming right along this morning, as I read an article about everyone's favorite former chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools, Michelle Rhee. I'm not a numbers kind of gal, but the best I can tell from my reading, under Rhee's leadership, 250 teachers were fired summer before last with 229 escorted out right after. Then 241 were fired for "performance-based reasons" just last summer. To that I must say, "where IS the love?"

This particular article addresses 75 probationary teachers in their first or second years who had not yet come to the end of their first two years of teaching, teachers who were being let go because they received "negative performance evaluations after their first year." And to add insult to injury, these teachers were only given a "brief letter" indicating they had been terminated; there was no reason given, no opportunity for growth afforded.

Thank goodness an arbitrator has ruled that these 75 teachers were "improperly terminated" so maybe they'll have a second chance. I can tell you from experience that second chances can be the ticket to finding an educator who is committed to the profession, who is willing to do whatever it takes to make a difference to children. I know - because that very teacher is me.

I was not evaluated in any way during my first year. But I can tell you I would've been the first on Michelle Rhee's hit list had I worked for her. I wasn't comfortable in my own skin as a teacher, 22 years old and teaching high school seniors. The year was so tough I resigned at the end of it and didn't return for seven years. And I found upon my return that age hadn't improved my classroom management skills. I was, in fact, evaluated during that year, and there were some "below standard" markings on that final evaluation.

But I didn't get fired.

I got help.

First I found myself an unofficial mentor, a teaching wizard across the hall who held children's attention like he was a rock star. I watched everything he did and emulated every move he made. To this day, I pull from things he taught me, catching myself thinking of his words during classroom situations somewhat like we hear our parents' voices from long ago: "Don't run with scissors," "Look both ways before crossing the street."

The next year I had a real live "official" mentor, and I was at her classroom door daily with every "What do I do?" and "Do you have this?" and "How can I make that better?" that I could conjure up.

Fast forward thirty years, and you'll find a teacher who just may have made an impact on a kid or two (and on a teacher or two for that matter.) So....what if I had been fired? Would it have made a difference? Who would've taught Juanita to read? Who would be taking money, right now, to a student in jail who I haven't taught in five years?

I wish we could look in our crystal teacher apple and see how these 75 teachers turn out. But we can't. What we can do is support them in every way possible, provide exemplary mentoring for them, ensure they have all the resources they need, and give them opportunities to develop over short, show them the LOVE.

Today, Valentine's Day, my principal bought red velvet cupcakes for every staff member in the school. In our mailboxes we found candy and a note that read, "Happy Valentine's Day. I love you and Peace."

I wish love and peace to Michelle Rhee as she practices her "tough" version of school reform. I just hope she doesn't continue to destroy young teachers in her path as she goes. So to her I have to ask, Hey Michelle, where is the LOVE?