Speed

I had a moment on the playground today.

I volunteer as a helper a couple of times a month and this morning, as I watched the second graders run by in their half-constructed Halloween costumes (their parade was this afternoon), it was as though I was actually seeing one of those uber-fast time-lapse sequences that are shown in movies whenever the director wants to particularly toy with your emotions.

And I saw Ella in her costume in second grade – and kindergarten and first and third and fourth – but, like, actually SAW her in my mind’s eye, tromping confidently in the Halloween parade. Glowing Skeleton! * change scene * Maleficent! * change scene * Snow Queen! * Ice Witch! * Bellatrix! *

They flew by in an instant, melding into one another in a faded blur. And then, in my head, I heard the voice of our neighbor – one of Ella’s closest friends – telling me how excited she is for Halloween but how bummed she is, now that she’s in sixth grade, that her school no longer has a costume parade.

The realization hit me with actual force. I felt it, somewhere deep in my stomach and my chest: This is Ella’s last Halloween parade. This is the last year that I’ll see her stroll by with her friends, laughing with her teachers. The last year I’ll hug her each month as she runs across the playground to join her friends. The last time I’ll be able to volunteer in her classroom, get to know her teachers, drop by just to see how things are doing.

She will be in a new school, middle school, navigating it on her own. We’ll know what she wants us to know and will see what she brings home, but beyond that, we will be largely in the dark; the window I now have into her days at school will become a door, maybe even a wall. Which is exactly how it’s supposed to go, this Growing Up and Maturing thing.

But somehow, in that moment on the playground, watching the little ones squeal and climb, remembering how Ella used to do the same but now would rather just talk with her friends than play, these past five years came barreling into me so hard and fast, I had to collect myself before I could resume my responsibilities.

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Last week, we flew to Las Vegas for my brother’s wedding. It was a wonderful trip but unfortunately, Annie wound up not feeling well in the middle of it. She and Nick headed back to the hotel to rest up before the rehearsal dinner, leaving Ella and me with a few hours to explore part of The Strip. I’d been talking for weeks about bringing the girls to see some of the hotels – the roller coaster at New York New York, the tigers at The Mirage, the Bellagio fountains, the decor of Paris or Caesar’s or The Venetian – and they had responded with mild enthusiasm. Now that my words had become reality, Ella was unconvinced that she would enjoy herself; perhaps it would be more fun back at the pool.

Seeing as how I didn’t want to drag her from hotel to hotel if she wasn’t into it, leaving both of us miserable, I searched for the right way to phrase it so that maybe she’d acquiesce. It didn’t take long for me to find the perfect olive branch: “How about we go shopping?”

My girl loooooves to shop. Not necessarily to buy things (although she likes that, too), but just to look, to see, to hold trinkets up close and examine how they work, to pick up clothes and feel how the fabric falls between her fingers. And so we window shopped, marveling at the French-inspired “streets” in Paris, devouring a banana and Nutella crepe, looking with awe and horror at the absurdly high-end shops at Caesar’s.

I’d asked an employee when the fountains at the Bellagio would be going off, so I positioned us at the water’s edge just moments before the show began. I commented to Ella that everyone had their cameras out; she, in turn, asked for her iPod and began videoing the performance. The fountains were set to Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman’s “Con te Partiro” and they followed the melody accordingly – lightly swaying, gently rising. Ella seemed to be paying attention but not really thinking too much of it.
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Then, the voices came together and the music rose and crested and the fountains soared into the air. I looked over just in time to see Ella’s jaw literally drop. It was comical, really, the absolute stereotype of shock and absolute awe. Her joy and astonishment were practically tangible. I didn’t know what to do for the rest of the show – watch the fountains or watch my girl watch the fountains.
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I know it’s blurry but I don’t care – I was too busy trying to capture her glee to bother to refocus.

I loved every bit of the (less than) five minutes of the show. I loved walking with Ella through the hotels, contemplating which souvenirs were worthwhile, imagining what the rooms were like. I loved strolling The Strip with her, giggling at the ridiculous outfits, admiring the architecture, stopping to take in street performances. We took a cab to the restaurant for the rehearsal dinner, sharing sideways glances about our driver’s cringe-worthy braking. Together, after talking with several employees of the large mall, we figured out where the dinner was being held… and then she was off, visiting with her grandparents, talking with her uncles, checking in on Annie.

But for those few glorious hours, we two took on Vegas. That Ella is old enough now to be a genuine shopping and tourist partner (albeit a short one who thinks heavily bejeweled iPod cases are to die for) is… incredible. I cannot wait to see what her future – and my future with her – holds.
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I know this is all going just as it’s supposed to. She is growing up and I am enjoying it, really and truly. Each age is better than the last; I don’t miss her being little, don’t yearn for the days when shoe-tying was a major affair and there were tantrums thrown because the lunchtime cup wasn’t the right one. I love being able to reason with her, to share a joke, to use sarcasm, to have fascinating and interesting conversations.

It’s just that every now and again something comes along to remind me of the lightning speed at which her Growing Up is happening and I have to deep breathe on the playground and stop the tears so the second graders don’t think something catastrophic has happened near the monkey bars. My friends who’ve done this – whose children are older than mine – tell me it will all be okay. Yes, there will be hard times, times when maybe I will, in fact, long for lunchtime cup tantrums… but it will be good. She’ll just be an older version of the Ella she is now, and our relationship will grow and change to match.

I know this.
But still.

Today was Ella’s last Halloween parade. It was chilly but there was no rain; she was psyched to don her Luna Lovegood (of course) costume, the one that she designed herself, and walk with her friends and teachers, past the hordes of parents. I watched her go and didn’t cry, not even a little.
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But tonight, I’m going to watch her video of the Bellagio fountains just so I can hear her catch her breath in the background. Maybe I’ll even watch it in slo-mo… just to take it in a little bit longer.

It goes by so. damn. fast.
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Help Me Help You

Teachers! You are fantastic. I appreciate you. I value you. I deeply respect you.
I would love to buy you a drink (or several).
I also could use your help.

See, I love subbing for you. I want to be as good sub as possible – following your plans and leaving the classroom in great shape so when you return, you don’t have to waste time backtracking or re-teaching or wishing you’d dragged yourself into school despite the positive Strep culture because omg what a disaster.

But here’s the thing: subbing is, by its very nature, unpredictable. Since no two assignments are alike, I try to be prepared for anything. No matter how prepared I am, though, there are still some things that would make subbing easier.

Here’s where you come in.
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In the immortal words of Jerry Maguire: “Help me help you!”

Having been a classroom teacher for nearly ten years, I know how difficult it can be to plan for a sub. There were many times when I decided it wasn’t worth it to be absent, no matter how crummy I felt or what I’d miss with my family, because leaving thorough plans and trusting someone to actually follow them was more trouble than it was worth. Planning for a sub is a pain in the rear. I get it. I know. Truly.

With that said, a little help from teachers and schools can make the subbing experience go more smoothly – which makes returning to the classroom that much easier on your end! Best of all? Most of these can be done well in advance so you’re not frantically cramming even more into your sub plans. Woo-hoo!

Still with me??
Here are 10 things you can do that would help make subbing go extra super duper well.

1. Have a sub folder in an obvious place, with the obvious information — fire drill procedure, your schedule, etc. — clearly stated. A set of emergency plans is also fantastic for those mornings when your three year-old vomits all over her sheets ten minutes before you’re due to leave for work.

2. Tell me where the bathroom is – preferably the teachers’ bathroom, although any set of working toilets would do in a pinch. Nothing says “I’m new here!” like wandering the halls of an unfamiliar school when you desperately need to take a leak during the three minutes you’ve got between classes.

2. Make sure I’ve got a class roster. A seating chart is also super helpful; I’ll either look like a fool or a jerk when kids insist that this is where they’re supposed to sit and I have no idea if they’re pulling my leg or being honest. Even if name tags are attached to desks, a class list and a chart are pretty rad – when I’m trying to determine if everyone actually turned in their reading log or am asking for volunteers from across the room, having something to reference makes things much easier.

3. If a kid’s name is difficult to pronounce or is pronounced in a non-standard way, write the phonetic spelling beside it. Yeah, when I take attendance, I can self-deprecatingly explain that, since I’m new, I may make mistakes, and I’ll ask the kiddos for clarification, but it automatically sets me back when I pronounce Carolina like the state and everyone admonishes, “It’s Car-oh-LEEna! HAHA!!” Likewise if Marco goes by his middle name or Jacob only responds to his nickname, “Mooch” (true story). Help a sister out so I look like I know what I’m talking about, at least a little.
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4. What’s your bathroom/drinking fountain/nurse procedure? Do kids sign out? Is there a pass? How many students can go at one time? Is it okay to leave during silent reading or should they wait until snack? This is true for specials teachers, too… When kiddos come to you room, they seem to arrive with their bladders bursting. Do you allow them to make a mad dash for the loo? Only in emergencies? I can invent a response on the spot, but when I say, “Please wait until the quiz is over” and I’m met with an indignant, “Mr. So-and-so ALWAYS lets us go whenever we want!”, it creates tension – not to mention I have no idea if the kid is telling me the truth or punking me.

5. Tell me your magical attention-getting cue. Do you use a special clap? Ring a bell? Turn the lights on and off? Use a call-and-response phrase? (My daughters had an awesome art teacher who utilized popular commercial jingles to get her classes’ attention. They’d be art-making and the teacher would say/sing, “We! Are! Farmers!” and the whole class would say/sing back, “Bum, ba dum bum bum bum bum!”) If I know what it is, I’ll put it to good use. If not, I’m stuck whispering, “If you can hear me, touch your nose!”, using the Teacher Classic, “I’m waiting…”, or thrusting my hand in the air and announcing, “Give me five!” while they look at me quizzically. I can raise my voice with the best of ’em, but I’d rather just do whatever you do.

6. Do you have a reward/behavior system? If so, how does it work? I can do my own thing, but if you’ve got something going, I’d love to continue it. Kids dig the consistency. If there are prizes to be earned and the appropriate benchmarks are achieved, may I dole out the loot? If so, where do you keep your stash? Either way is fine, but letting me know is way helpful because I feel like a schmuck explaining to little Miss that even though she read her tenth book, I have no idea whether or not she’s allowed to visit the prize box.

7. Let me know what happens during transition times. Is there a bell? Does it ring at the end of class? The beginning? Both? Is there an end-of-day bell or signal? Do I simply let the kids out of the room whenever the clock reaches a particular time? Also, for littler ones, let me know what my role is in their transitions. Your plans say: “10:15 – 10:45, Library.” Do I drop them off? Remain with them? Will they come back on their own or should I pick them up? After recess, will someone get them or should I go to the playground? Inquiring minds want to know!

8. Fill me in on some of the peculiarities of your classroom. Do you regularly allow kids to take their work into the hall? Is food permissible? Do they often spread books on the floor to have more room to work? How strict are you about tardies? Is partner work cool or should this assignment be done solo? Is chewing gum perfectly acceptable or grounds for staying after class? These may seem almost inconsequential to you, but I promise you that as soon as I stray from your routine, the kids notice.

9. If you can, keep some extra supplies handy. I’m not talking anything extravagant, but a spare dry erase marker or two, some tissues, a few band-aids, and a bottle of hand sanitizer that contains more than fumes can be tremendously useful.

10. Tell me something about your students. If someone’s really into the guitar, let me know; we can talk Fenders. If another kid just got the cast off her arm, I’d love to hear it; I’ll be sure she can sit out during recess, if she’d like. While I don’t want to hear a whole string of negatives – I can form my own unique opinions without you trying to convince me of yours – a bit of background can be really helpful. If you’ve got one kiddo who has trouble keeping hands to herself, tell me; I’ll try to redirect her before she bugs a classmate. If someone is easily distracted, fill me in; I can give him some extra one-on-one time to help him focus on his work. More than once, I’ve had teachers pick their classes up from music, ask how things went and – upon hearing that the kids were a little rowdy – say, with a laugh, “Yeah, they get out of control easily!” Had that information been relayed before we started, I might’ve held off on handing out the maracas and tambourines until we’d established a good rhythm (HAHA). I promise not to pigeonhole anyone; I just want this experience to be successful all the way around, and a little bit of background can make a world of difference.
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An apple for the teacher: not just a myth.

~~~

I realize that not all of these apply to every teacher, and obviously no one can be expected to relay every single nuance of their classroom… but if you can at least hit on the highlights so I’m not flying completely blind, I would be ever so grateful.

If things go well, maybe you’ll call me back again – which would be awesome, because Mooch was nearly finished with his All About Dolphins poster and I’m dying to see the final masterpiece.

Do what you need to do. I got this.

A Lesson in Living

Last Saturday, I lost a longtime friend to cancer.
It is something I’m absolutely not okay with.

Sara was funny. She was witty. She was an incredibly talented artist and craft-person, sewing and knitting and taking photos with the best of them. She even owned a lovely boutique that sold fabulous goodies. Sara loved to bake, to play games, and to play music. She spoke often of her faith in God and Jesus – certainly after her diagnosis, but before, too. She was creative and clever and generous and devoted.
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The girls wearing the Easter outfits Sara made for them, circa 2009. 
Ella’s skirt was super-cute – she and Annie saved it for dress-up long after it had become too small for wearing otherwise – but it was the dress Sara created for Annie (complete with apron — an apron!!) that absolutely stole my heart. 

Sara was diagnosed five short months ago. She fought valiantly and hard, remaining hopeful that she would be able to beat this cruel and unpredictable disease. She came home for hospice just two weeks before she died.
She was only thirty-nine.

Sara and I met on the same December 2004 Moms message board where I met Sarah, Karen, and Jenifer; we’ve been friends for nearly eleven years. Her three children are young – the youngest is a December ’04 kiddo, like my Ella. Just imagining them trying to navigate this world without their mama makes my heart hurt. Cancer is so effing mean.

Like so many friendships, Sara’s and my relationship did not take a linear path: meet, become pals, happily ever after, the end. Although we met in person, joining together with other December ’04 friends in Atlantic City for a rather, um, epic long weekend, the bulk of our communications were online. Because we weren’t accustomed to seeing one another face to face, it was all too easy for months to go by without getting in touch.

The first time that I sent Sara a Christmas card and didn’t receive one back from her (we’d been exchanging them for years), I assumed that she and her family hadn’t done cards that year. By the second year, I didn’t know if they weren’t sending cards, period, or if she simply wasn’t interested in sending one to me anymore, for whatever reason. I sent a card anyway, happily imagining her opening it. This went on for a few more years until I heard through the grapevine that Sara had moved; thus, the time came when I copied her address label in my Excel spreadsheet from the “current” list to the “no longer” list. I didn’t really want to, but if she wasn’t even receiving the cards, it seemed silly to continue sending them. Our communications essentially ceased.

And then, lo and behold, I received a Facebook friend request from Sara this past December! It had been several years since we’d been in contact and I’ll admit I was wary to accept her request. Would it feel strained? Weird? Too much water under the bridge? In the end, I decided that I didn’t care about the water; I cared about the bridge.
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Sara and me on our Atlantic City trip, 2006.

We kept in touch on Facebook, commenting on one another’s photos or status updates. I loved seeing how her kids had grown in the years since we’d last talked, loved seeing what Sara was up to. When she was diagnosed in the spring, the years of not keeping up with one another seemed to disappear. All that mattered was that my friend was sick and needed support, love, encouragement, and prayers.

It’s easy to see what’s really important when things become really hard. Funny, that.

So often folks are hit with a crisis or a tragedy, people are quick to quip, “Live each day as though it were your last!” I get it: don’t put off your dreams until later because who knows if that time will come, live with joy, tell people you love them, don’t wait to do that thing you’ve always wanted to do because it may be too late.

That’s well and good, really it is. But I’m not terribly interested in living each day as though it were my last. If I thought that I’d be gone tomorrow, I sure as heck wouldn’t spend today doing the laundry. I’d be buying airplane tickets – first class, baby! – to visit family and friends, pulling the girls out of school, and making sure to drink my weight in Starbucks salted caramel mochas.

And as for regrets? Well, I just don’t see how it’s possible to live without them. If I were to bite the dust next week, I’d be bummed as heck that I never took up the cello or visited the Great Wall of China. I’d be devastated to think I’d miss Ella and Annie growing up. I’d be super annoyed that I didn’t get to see the new Star Wars that’s coming out in December, and I’d definitely regret having spent this morning working out instead of watching the first few episodes of Modern Family.

Alas, living like it all could end in a moment simply isn’t practical. Neglecting the laundry would result in a nasty situation pretty fast. First class tickets would destroy our savings. As much as I do want to learn to play the cello and visit the Great Wall – I absolutely plan to do both, someday – and it might seem tempting to say, “Screw it! Carpe Diem! I’m taking lessons and booking a trip to China next month!”, it doesn’t always work that way. Not every dream is meant to be realized at the same time.

Sara’s death – and our friendship – taught me something much simpler. It’s not that you need to live every day as though it were your last, but rather that you should live openly, wholly, with the good and the bad and everything in between.
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Sara also made the silkies that Annie so cherishes. She was devoted to them at age one… and still now, at almost-nine. I love that this little bit of Sara’s goodness is still bringing such happiness into our house.

The thing is, living openly can be really freakin’ hard. It’s easier not to reach out. It’s easier not to forgive. It’s easier to assume that you’re right rather than trying to see things from another person’s perspective. It’s easier to let past hurts get in the way of present joys. It’s easier to keep difficult times to yourself rather than sharing them with others.

But being privy to Sara’s battle with cancer – as weird or hard to believe as it sounds – was such a gift. She shared her treatment plans and hospital stays with us, her diagnoses and aches and pains, her optimism that she would beat this, her hope and her deep faith. Instead of it being depressing and overwhelming, it was tremendously healing and connecting; I felt like I was with her, even though we were hundreds of miles apart. Her honesty and vulnerability were compelling and beautiful. I thought of and prayed for her all the time, but also gained a perspective and sense of awareness of my own life and priorities that might not otherwise have been present had Sara not allowed herself to be open with all of us.

Through Sara, I learned that not only is it okay to ask for help or to ask people to send you good wishes, it’s lovely and wonderful. Every time she updated her Facebook status, even when she was relaying bad news or saying she was in pain, Sara managed to put a positive and humorous spin on things. I couldn’t help but feel hope – mingled deeply with devastation and helplessness, yes, but still hope – when I read her posts. How amazing is that!

And to think I might have missed out on all of it if I’d been too afraid to accept her friend request.

As I mentioned recently, I know there are times when we all need to curl inward rather than open up. We need to protect ourselves, to heal, to recharge, and that’s okay. I’m so thankful, however, that through Sara, I discovered how powerful it can be to take a leap of faith and go forward with something that is uncertain or scary, how freeing it can feel to open your heart again.

I’m so very sad that Sara is gone – sad for me, sad for the hundreds of people who were able to attend her funeral and who miss her terribly, sad for her family, and most of all, sad for her husband and their children. No child should have to grow up without their mama. It simply isn’t right.

But I’m so deeply grateful for Sara – for her sense of humor, for her intelligence, for her kindness, her ingenuity, her cleverness, her faith, her enthusiasm, her friendship. I’m so grateful that she showed me the beauty of vulnerability, and for everything she taught me about grace, forgiveness, second chances, and always looking for the silver lining.

Thank you, my friend. Godspeed.
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Beautiful photo of Sara taken from her public obituary page.