The 2017 graduation season has been an eventful one for the Lawrimore family and friends. First to turn the tassel this year was our soon-to-be daughter-in-law who received her undergrad degree from UNC. As for high school, we have two nephews, one niece, and our daughter’s boyfriend graduating.
It’s a big year. And I won’t make it to all of the ceremonies (two happen at the same time on the same day), but I’ll do my best to get to most. Those graduates who I don’t get to see in person will know I wanted to be a part of their day. They will know I am not casually dismissing this moment in their lives.
Now, I love graduation ceremonies. I don’t even mind bad ones. Wait. That’s not exactly true. There is one exception: a 2016 graduation ceremony I attended at a “Christian” school was so offensive that it required every iota of self-restraint I possess to keep from opening up a great big can of Aunt Aileen all up in that place. To be fair, I was already ticked off at the school because I felt they had done an awful job of educating my beloved nephew. As a whole, they missed the blessing of his uniqueness, his gifts, his potential. (If I’m completely honest, I’d concede that a good bit of Aunt Aileen had already been spilled in these judgmental halls that, by their infinite ineptitude and unmerciful demeanor, had in essence been using the name of God in vain. But I digress.) Anyway, the graduation for less than 40 students lasted for over two hours. Not much fun for Angry Aileen.
Still, I’m glad I went. In fact, I would do it all again to be there when my nephew graduated. Totally, completely worth it.
In general, though, I love the pomp and circumstance of graduation. I love the academic regalia of the faculty, the students in caps and gowns, the formal presentations. But even if I couldn’t stand that stuff, I would attend graduations. You see, I believe that it is positively irrelevant whether or not I enjoy the graduation ceremony. On that day, at that moment, it’s not about me; it’s about the graduates.
Let’s say I’m attending a graduation and I don’t like the speaker. Or the music. Or even the institution where the ceremony is held. Maybe it’s the experience that is unpleasant. The seats are uncomfortable; it’s too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet; or the ceremony is way too long and if someone had just thought this through, for goodness sakes, we could have been done a long time ago.
It doesn’t matter. Here’s what matters: it matters that I’m there. And it matters that you’re there too.
By attending graduation, you are saying a number of things. First, you are telling your beloved that you care about transitions. High school graduation is the first major transition for these kids since they left home for kindergarten. It’s a big, big deal. By being there at the moment of transition, you are saying to the student, “You are not making this change alone. You, graduate, are not being thrown out of school, into a black hole of uncertainty all by yourself. I am right here with you.”
Secondly, you are telling the graduate that you will be there for endings, not just beginnings. You will be saying to them, “You know how you are concerned that the friendships you’ve made over these last years will end? Know this: your relationship with me? It is forever. I will still be your sister, brother, uncle, aunt. I will still be your mother, your mentor, your lifelong friend. I know it feels like everything familiar is ending. But I’m not. I’m here. I will always be here.”
Thirdly, you are saying, “Your celebrations are my celebrations. When you succeed, I delight.” Sure, these graduates will have other—probably (hopefully) more significant—accomplishments over the course of their lives. Celebrate those too. But graduation offers a unique opportunity to celebrate the completion of an extended task. Finishing that which we have begun is an important habit to develop and maintain. By attending graduation, you are saying, “Finishing things matters. This is a big deal.”
Finally, you are saying to your graduate that inconvenience will never be your primary concern when it comes to milestone moments in that student’s life. So what if you had to drive all night to get there? Who cares if the experience isn’t exactly pleasant? You are there to witness three things: the processional, the graduate’s walk across the stage, and the recessional. Everything else is just extra.
It’s true: I love graduations. But I love the graduates more. So I’ll be there in the audience, watching for my graduate. And when I make eye contact with my beloved, I hope the message is clear: “You matter to me and I will always be here for you. Always.”
Complaining about snow days. It’s what we do here in Western North Carolina
The problem? The weather here is anything but homogenous. Seriously. A friend who lives less than five miles from me can get six inches of ice and snow when I get not one flake. The southern part of the county might get a foot of snow while the northern districts get only a few inches. At my house, I can have just a dusting, then hear from a friend in the western part of the county who is looking at a two-inch sheet of ice on her street. It’s crazy.
Not only are the conditions markedly different from district to district, we have roads that coil around the mountains and are tricky when it’s 70 degrees and sunny. And that’s in my Honda. Can’t imagine what it’s like on those roads in a school bus. (Nor do I ever, ever, ever want to find out.)
All this creates a situation uncommon in counties where the roads are straight and every resident gets equal precipitation. I call it the Snowless Snow Day.
Here in Western North Carolina, we have all at some time experienced the Snowless Snow Day. Consequently, we start talking about whether or not schools will close as soon as we see flakes in the forecast. We are not at all deterred by the fact that it does not matter what we think. Indeed, no one cares if we want or need a snow day. The principal of our school doesn’t care. The superintendent doesn’t care. The weather channel certainly doesn’t care.
Truly, the question, “Do you think we should have a snow day,” is about as relevant as “Do you think penguins prefer salmon or flounder?” The answer to either question has no impact on upcoming events. (Unless, of course, you are a salmon. Or a flounder. Or a chef for penguins with discriminating tastes.)
Me, I’d rather schools be closed when there is a chance they could have operated without incident, than to be open when safety is questionable. I think about the teacher driving a mini-van risking a wreck trying to get out of his icy neighborhood; the school bus driver traveling those icy corkscrew roads; and the teen driver who hasn't had nearly enough experience driving in ice and snow.
But I do know that it is not that simple for some folks. As I see it, these people fall into two groups.
Obviously, even if you do have a valid reason for your frustration with the status of school closing, it won’t change the decision. But at least you have legitimate cause to be upset. The rest of us are merely inconvenienced know-it-alls who have suddenly become experts on road conditions across the county.
Snow days are wonderful or hideous, depending on your circumstances or maybe your perspective. But one thing I know for certain is that all the fussing in the world (even if it’s on Facebook) won’t change a thing. So I’m going to try to spend the mental energy I would have wasted on school closings on something more important. Like, what kind of fish do penguins eat?
Published originally 2/22/09
Some years ago, I was overcome by a sense of hopelessness after volunteering in a fourth grade class at my children’s school. (In the story below, I've changed the kids’ names and details for their own sakes.) That day, I wrote about my experience. This week, I found myself discouraged again for the children who make up the “least of these” in our school system. I remembered this long ago day and the lesson I learned and was relieved to recall that I am not the creator of hope, only a servant of the One who is.
The story from way back when. . .
“What’s this?” I asked the teacher, spying Chris folded under his desk.
"I’ve called the counselor, but who could blame the kid. He's been here since 7:00," his teacher told me in confidence, knowing that I knew the situation as well as she did.
“What? The school doesn’t even officially open until 7:30.”
"That's when they dropped him off." Chris was staying in a group home at the time, his dad having once again proven his ineffectiveness as a parent.
My heart aching for Chris, I turned to the other student I'd come to tutor. "She's wearing makeup!" I said, astonished that this nine-year-old child was dabbling in teenage foolishness already.
"I know," the teacher remarked, "We aren't allowed to use any cleansers near their eyes. She's been like that since Monday." It was Friday.
I took Polly by the hand and led her downstairs, where, amidst protests, I helped her wash her face. "I am a volunteer," I told shocked staffers. "Fire me!"
Back in the classroom, we worked on her multiplication tables. She was getting pretty good at ones and twos and we were moving on to threes. She’d be in fifth grade in months and could not possibly be prepared. But that was not the worst of it. Polly and her brother lived in squalor with their single-parent mother who worked, but changed boyfriends with alarming frequency. The child’s self-esteem was pathetic, what with her poor academics and her questionable home environment.
Desperate, both of them: Chris, with his father, an unemployed, abusive alcoholic; Polly with her pitiful academic skills and horrendous home-life. I left the school wringing my hands and wondering how my tiny handful of flour could be leavened in such a cold, discouraging atmosphere. I felt overwhelmed, under-equipped, and depressed. I saw no way around the mounting barriers these kids faced. It took me longer than I'd like to admit to realize that it truly was not humanly possible to bring hope to this hopeless situation. But, since God had put on flesh in Christ Jesus, hope was within reach.
Broken, lonely, heartbroken. Jesus.
Precious, loving, heart-healing. Jesus.
I can't get Chris a new daddy, but because of Christ, I can reach out and lift up. I can't give Polly grade-level understanding and a morally sound home-life, but I can love her as Christ Jesus loves me, wholeheartedly and unreservedly.
In my life as student and as parent, I’ve been blessed to know a number of outstanding public school principals. Among this elite group, is Oakley Elementary School’s former principal Linda Allison. What I loved most about Linda Allison was that she never put process ahead of pupil. Her compassion for students was matched only by her commitment to their success. Seriously, Ms. Allison should train new principals. She is that good.
When I learned that she was retiring (after I dried my tears), I wrote a story in her honor and later read it at her final faculty meeting. That was about 9-10 years ago. This year, my oldest will graduate from college and my youngest from high school. Their brother is finishing his sophomore year of college. But despite the passage of years, I remain so grateful to Ms. Allison for her leadership, dedication, and just her natural intuition as an educator.
So for this thank you note, I offer the story I wrote for Ms. Allison—the Little Red Hen of Oakley Elementary School. Thank you Linda Allison for setting the bar so high. I count you as one of the great blessings of my life. And so do my little chicks.
Once upon a time there was a little red hen who lived on a teaching farm that existed solely to train young farmers. The chickens on the farm, all one big family, got together and chose the little red hen as the principal of the farm. The little red hen was honored. She found great joy in sharing her life and work with her many brothers and sisters. Together they kept the farm running smoothly.
Unfortunately, the little red hen also had to work with three other animals who thought they owned the whole farm: a turtle named Wright Procedure who moved very slowly; a parrot named Polly Tisshun, who maintained a spotless image, talked a lot, but did very little, and an elephant named Feddy Govment who thought he knew everything, even though he didn’t even live on the same farm as the little red hen.
One day, the little red hen came upon a child and his parents.
“We want our child to have the best education, the best learning environment, and the best playmates the world can offer,” the parents instructed as they hugged the child and got back in their car, “We can’t stand around talking about it though, we have jobs, you know!” The parents drove away, leaving the child with the little red hen.
“Oh my, aren’t you a fine young fellow!” clucked the little red hen as she pulled the tyke under her wing. “Welcome to our farm!”
About that time a few of her brothers and sisters came down the path and she introduced them to the child. “Let’s get busy and teach this child how to feed the animals!” She smiled at the spark in the child’s eyes and in the eyes of the teachers.
But before the other chickens could even respond, Wright Procedure, the turtle who moved very slowly, poked his head out of his shell and said, “Stop everything! Don’t do anything until we get these forms filled out. We’ll need permission from the parents and clearance from the pediatrician. Plus, we’ll need a waiver signed by each of the animals the child will be feeding. Also. . .”
While Wright the turtle droned on, several of the little red hen’s sisters took the child down to the barn and started the lessons. The little red hen, back in the farm office, filled out the necessary paperwork. She called the pediatrician who put her on hold: “Important, urgent issues demand the doctor’s attention!” Once the little red hen had completed the child’s file she went to check on the child’s progress.
“WOW!” she said to her siblings “You have done a great job teaching the child how to feed the animals. I believe we can promote the child to animal grooming.”
“Well, I certainly agree,” cooed Polly Tisshun, the talkative parrot with the spotless image. She smiled to the camera operator who had come along with her. Wouldn’t you agree, Little Red Hen that my program Accelerated Feeders has, well, haha, accelerated this child’s progress?” The camera clicked more pictures as Polly fluttered over and perched herself on the child’s shoulder.
“Well, Polly, I’d be happy to talk to you about that,” said the little red hen, as she motioned Polly off of the child and toward her office. The other chickens stepped in and hurried the child onto the next lesson.
But before the little red hen could leave with Polly, Feddy Govment the elephant who thought he knew everything, lumbered down to the barn. “Has the child mastered animal bathing yet?” he asked, his ears flopping.
“Well, no,” said the little red hen, about to explain that the other chickens were just beginning that phase of the training.
“What’s wrong with those teachers?” Feddy stomped his feet upsetting the animals and causing the teachers to cease training long enough to settle the animals. The child observed, learning, in the process, how to calm animals in the event of a disturbance.
“And anyway,” Feddy shouted, “Look at that kid! He’s not DOING anything! And the teachers are just running around like chick. . .well, like chickens do sometimes.” Feddy looked around, waving his trunk from side to side and looking everywhere except at the little red hen.
The little red hen started to explain. “The child has made remarkable prog. . .”
“Then give him the Animal Grooming Test!” thundered Feddy.
“I have one right here,” said Wright Procedure, the turtle who though he moved very slowly, always managed to find his way into the middle of any activity.
The child did not pass the test and so he had to take the actual course material. The teachers received official reprimands for their negligence and the farm was placed on probation until the child passed the test.
In the midst of the crisis, the little red hen was called away to meet with Wright Procedure the turtle, Polly Tisshun the Parrot, and Feddy Govment the elephant. A committee was formed to study effective teaching of animal grooming and the three friends recommended strategies for school reform that might, in time, bring the farm up to par. Their first recommendation: they would visit the barn immediately following the meeting. As the meeting ended, the little red hen’s cell phone rang.
“The child’s parents are here,” said the chicken on the line. We need you back here at once.”
The little red hen arrived at the barn before Wright, Polly, and Feddy did. (They had, as it turns out, been left behind.) The parents appeared worried, tired, and confused. They had seen the news and gotten the test results for the school.
“Welcome,” The little red hen said to the mom and dad, genuinely happy they'd come. She listened to their concerns, made notes for herself, and responded to their comments. They left, after a quick tour of the barn, saying they felt much better.
Time passed and in what seemed like a moment, the child had completed the requirements for Elementary Barn and it was time for him to move on. The little red hen, gathered friends and family and asked, “Who will help me celebrate this child?”
“I will!” said Wright Procedure, sticking his head out of his shell. He began designing a flow chart so that he could celebrate properly.
“I will!” said Polly Tisshun, wearing her red plume that she saved just for such occasions. “My camera crew is all set up to capture the moment.”
“I will!” said Feddy as he galumphed through the door and tried to take over the room.
“OH NO YOU WILL NOT!” Said the little red hen fluffing herself up to her full height and glaring at Wright, Polly, and Feddy. The little red hen extended her wing and gestured at the teachers who stood between the child and the three intruders.
"We will celebrate this child. We prepared this child. We taught this child We love this child. My brothers and sisters and I will celebrate this child.”
And they did. While Wright Procedure, Polly Tisshun, and Feddy Government looked on, completely befuddled.
In a continued celebration of my 50th birthday on 7-22-2015, I’m writing 50 thank you notes in 50 weeks. This one to Ms. Linda Allison is #15. Please click on the tag "50 Thank You Notes" to read the others.
After all, Tracie is less than 200 points shy of a perfect 2400 on her SAT; she’s made the highest possible score on all five AP Exams she’s taken; she has a solid GPA; she has studied abroad; and she’s even started her own small business. No one thought Tracie would be denied admission anywhere.
Yet, she’s heard from all four schools to which she applied. She was admitted to one: her last choice, her safety school. She’s wait-listed at one and denied—flat-out rejected—by the other two. Crazy.
Caveat: All along, I’ve thought Tracie should choose the state school closer to her home. It is an excellent university and I think she will thrive there. And anyway, I never have cared for those exclusive schools with the skinny little admission rates.
Still, I cannot believe she did not get into the schools she dreamt of attending. It makes no sense. But then, the fact is the admissions process is not fair. It’s just not. You can do everything nearly perfectly, as Tracie did, and still not make the cut. (You can also do very little right and get admitted, but that’s another blog post.) At many schools, when it comes to the final decision, it is almost random selection.
So students (and parents) dealing with college admissions disappointments, listen up. I have something to say (I do go on). You may feel free to read these aloud. Preferably while looking in a mirror.
*Name changed for privacy.
But I believe that if we are to find real solutions to racial tension in America, we must find ways to bridge the distance between opposing views. It seems to me that one way to do that is to identify a point where we all agree. Let’s take the Ferguson situation. There are a number of facts in this case that few would dispute. Here are a few of them.
Agree? Okay. Now, while we are all on common ground, let me make one more statement that I don’t believe anyone will contest.
So let’s just start there. What can we do to see that all the baby Michael Browns grow up to become the men we all want them to be? Well that depends on who you are. But let’s say you are a person of a different race not directly connected to the baby. Here are a few things that might make a difference.
What else? How can you be a part of the solution?
“What is a minister?” Zach* asked.
It was Wednesday afternoon and seven-year-old Zach was one of about 12 kids in attendance at Kids for Christ (KFC). This program meets weekly after school and includes a variety of activities including Bible Buddies. The KFC’ers get off the school bus at the church and their parents come for them at 7:00 pm.
That afternoon I was helping Cozette, the Bible Buddies teacher; we were focusing on Isaiah 66:13 and talking about mothers. (It was the Wednesday before Mother’s Day.) Both kids and leaders shared stories and talked about what we had learned from our moms. I showed them a picture of my mother and explained that she taught me a lot about ministry.
“When I was a little girl,” I told the kids, “My mother often cooked twice as much supper as we needed so that we could share a meal with another family. She also visited people, wrote notes, taught Sunday school, and did lots of other things that showed me how to be a minister.”
That’s when Zach’s hand shot up. “What is a minister?” he asked.
“Great question,” I told him. I wanted to answer accurately: the word itself could relate to positions outside a church. “A minister is someone who takes care of people and spends time with them. Like me, I work here at the church and I am the Minister with Youth and Children. So, I spend time with you guys and help take care of you.”
“And I’m a minister too,” Cozette, said. “I visit people in group homes and I help them with things they need.”
“Oh!” Zach said, nodding. “Like a teacher.”
Wow. What a response. See, Zach—a loveable and bright little guy who is eager to learn—is not the quietest fella you will ever meet. My guess is he does his share of squirming, speaking out of turn, and just generally pushing the limits of acceptable classroom behavior. And yet, the description of a minister, made him think of teachers.
Teachers. Teachers who are overworked, underpaid, and up to their lanyards in standardized tests. Teachers who stay afterschool for special events and come in early for conferences with parents or students. Teachers who spend their own time and money because they love what they do and they want to do it well. Teachers who take time to minister to a fidgety little boy who sometimes forgets the rules.
“Yes,” I told Zach. “A minister is like a teacher.”
*Name changed for privacy.
This teacher—I’ll call her Miss P, short for Miss Pedagogy—has been teaching since 1985. She has a master’s degree in her field and has completed independent study with experts of international acclaim. Long ago she lost track of how much money she has spent on her own continuing education. In addition to those costs, Miss P spends an average of $1000 a year on her classroom. Much of that money goes to student needs and resources that enhance learning.*
“I love teaching. I love my students; I even like most of them,” Miss P said, chuckling the way you do when something used to be funny, but isn’t anymore. Her attempt at levity flattened as she continued. “But I can’t do it anymore. I just can’t.”
Those who know the life of teachers could guess possible reasons.
Indeed, these things are frustrating for Miss P, but not frustrating enough to make her leave the career she loves. She talked about how expectations of parents and administrators have changed over the years. In fact, let’s just think for a minute about what we, the consumers of public education, expect from our teachers. We expect them to
Oh. We also expect them to take a bullet for our kids if some maniac comes onto the campus brandishing assault weapons. And do you know what? I am positive that nearly every teacher I know would do just that. Miss P certainly would.
But it’s not these expectations that have caused Miss P to spruce up her resume and scan websites for job openings. Nope. It’s something else.
“The thing is,” she told me, “no one ever gives me the benefit of the doubt anymore. Not the parents, not the administrators, and certainly not the school board. There’s this assumption that I’m going to harm the children in some way; that I am the enemy, not the advocate, of students. It’s exhausting.”
Here's what I think. I think teachers should receive higher pay and better benefits; and I think we ask way too much of our educators. We need to address these things and correct them. Period. And in the meantime, let's start with this: respect. Seriously, let’s just go ahead and treat our teachers like the professionals they are. The average teacher is an enthusiastic expert in her field, not a mediocre bureaucrat manipulating the system of tenure. Despite her dwindling wages, she works long hours and attends school events after work and on weekends and (get this) loves doing it. Extraordinary!
So, can we please stop talking about the occasional incompetent teacher as if she is the norm? Instead, let's give our teachers the benefit of the doubt; let's start saying “Thank You," and “I'd like to help.” Seems to me that's the least we can do for those who daily give their lives—both literally and figuratively—for our children.
*Some of Miss P's money goes to cleaning supplies. At her school, the maintenance staff does little more than trash collection in individual classrooms (budget cuts, you know). Plus, her school is infested with mice. She’s complained for years, for more than a decade actually, about the ubiquitous mouse poo that testifies daily to the pests’ presence. Until she gets an active response, Miss P will try to keep the room as clean as possible in an effort to deter those furry little delinquents. All in a day’s work.
According to the World Bank(http://go.worldbank.org/F5K8Y429G0, World Bank, accessed August 29, 2012), “Investment in girls’ education yields some of the highest returns of all development investments, yielding both private and social benefits that accrue to individuals, families, and society at large . . ."
Know what that says to me? It says something like, “Jesse Derrick Martin is one smart investor!” (Some people called him "JD," others "Jesse;" I just called him "Granddaddy.")JD was brilliant.
His teachers had high hopes for him, certain he would become a medical doctor: the pinnacle of academic success in his day. Years later, when technology advanced enough to make it possible, we grandchildren developed a favorite game. One of us operated the calculator; the other called out computations. The goal was to see if the calculator could arrive at the solution before Granddaddy did. It was no competition: Granddaddy (in his 70’s by then) always won.
But Granddaddy never did become a doctor. In fact, he did not even finish two years of college before he dropped out to go to work. “What a shame,” you say. “What a loss.”
Loss? No way. A legacy. What an incredible legacy. Here’s what happened.
JD, had a bunch of siblings. Among them, twin sisters, just ahead of him in school, and a sister two years younger. Money was short for the Martin family, as it was for most back then, and college education seemed an extravagance no one could afford. But my granddaddy thought differently.
“See,” he would explain decades after the fact, “I knew I could get work even without an education. Men find jobs a lot easier than women.” (Keen insight for that turn-of-the century Georgia boy.) “But the girls,” he’d shake his head, sighing; “The girls would have to have an education to support themselves.” (Please note he said an “education,” not a “husband.” Radical thought in his day. Radical.)
So Granddaddy went to work, freeing up family finances so his sisters could get their degrees. And as far as I know, Granddaddy never looked back. My great aunts all finished college. The twins, Elma and Wilma, both became teachers and taught from graduation to retirement. Elma taught elementary school; Wilma taught Latin and eventually got her Master’s degree. Their younger sister also became a teacher.
In the early 1920’s, JD Martin met Louise Cobb, they fell in love, and married. They had five children: three sons, two daughters. Just as with his sisters, Granddaddy was determined to see his daughters finish college. His oldest, Marie, graduated around 1950 with a degree in Home Economics; she later took up teaching. One of her daughters, my cousin Linda, achieved her bachelor’s and then her master’s in education and has served in the classroom over 30 years.
My mother graduated with her bachelor’s in 1960, my sister in 1985, and I in 1987. My sister and I both have graduate degrees. Like Aunt Wilma, my sister became a Latin teacher. She’s built a strong Latin program and is renown in her field. I’ve done lots of different things, the latest of which is teaching in a community college and serving as campus minister at a regional university.
Linda’s sister Kathi wasn’t able to attend college; but she had two boys and one of them has a daughter. That young lady, JD Martin’s great-great granddaughter, just started at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Mississippi. And my daughter, Trellace Marie, started at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
Nearly 100 years ago, around the time women got the right to vote, my Granddaddy made a sacrifice, a sacrifice that would have appeared completely foolish to his contemporaries. He had crazy ideas, my Granddaddy. He believed that women were independent individuals, separate from their husbands. He believed women were capable of and deserving of higher education. And he believed the cost of that education—whatever it was—was worth it.
Of course, the women who have descended from JD Martin have been blessed with a host of other forbearers along with role models and mentors who valued learning. But Granddaddy’s sacrifice is certainly one of the gifts we girls have been given. See, because he paid that price, thousands of children have been educated in the classrooms of his sisters, daughter, and granddaughters. Because Granddaddy didn’t go to college, because he knew the education of women was worth the sacrifice, his daughters and theirs, his granddaughters and their granddaughters not only went to college, but inherited the legacy that Granddaddy left behind: education of women must be a priority, no matter what the cost.
"The good leave an inheritance to their children’s children . . ." Proverbs 13:22