Betty Big Cheeks Becomes a Teacher

Throughout my educational journey, I had some alternatively great teachers and some stink bugs. I’m awed at the ones that stick out of my mind’s tree. These branches are the strongest and most vibrant. Like words, I would not be a complete teacher without all of their pieces lining up and standing for something, giving it meaning. I can feel their tremendous influences but I am not weighted down by the pedagogical-pedestal that I have given them.

I don’t remember much about the day that Marsha Chapman altered my course indefinitely, but I do know what I was reading. It was 2002, and the beginning of my junior year of high school. While my friends were reading Sara Dessen books, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, I was in 1958. I was listening to Connie Francis, Ricky Nelson, and Elvis. I was spending time with Truman Capote and reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

I was early, per usual, for my American Literature class. Capote rested atop my collection of notebook, text, and school novel, Ethan Frome. Edith Wharton’s lovely words spent days bubbling in my teenage brain. Ms. Chapman walked by my desk and paused. She looked at my shining, silver Capote cover, smiled, and nodded. She asked if I started the book yet. I told her that I had and it was really good and making me think. Our conversation was brief, but she said “you are ready for undergrad my dear”. At the time, I didn’t know what exactly the word “undergrad” meant. My parents went to college but that’s the only word I knew.

Ms. Chapman was always one of my favorite teachers. She has an energetic personality that resonates with her students. She is a quiet soul with a gentle teaching style that fosters learning and old-school understanding. She assigns writing. Real writing! Long hand drafts and tangible outlines. I was always comfortable with her and excelled in her classes. They were my favorites because of the way that the students were encouraged to not only have original thoughts but to follow them through and share them.

That day I stayed after school and we struck up a conversation. I asked her what undergrad was and she explained eagerly, checking my face for reaction. Me? I was ready for college! I was sixteen, and my favorite teacher thought I was ready for college. She was talking about concepts and using words like “analysis” and “literature based inquiry”. I was all too geeked. Ms. Chapman said I was ready for college! I was smart enough for college already! Her comments bolstered me and in that afternoon, I became Betty Big Cheeks, a name I still use to refer to myself.

I told my parents about the great declaration. This seemed not to be the shocker I thought it was. They looked at me with the “well yeah” look that all parents seem to have and know how to use well. I had not released government secrets. They knew what Ms. Chapman knew. Funny how adults know more than kids.

The rest of my junior year strolled along, taking its time, before rolling into the grail that was my senior year. Throughout the remainder of the school year, I took over the writer’s club with my best friend. We were co-captains of the cruise ship and we published two books of student writing and art work. We were able to sell our books to the student body and it was my first experience as an editor. During this time period, I also discovered poetry and began going down the path of authorship that I still stride along today.

I’d been a short-story writer but found myself gloriously stunted when it came to character development. I found poetry and began writing with a teenager’s wildly centric abandon. I had never asked a teacher to look at my poetry. I’d taken creative writing courses, and my teachers read my stories, but poetry was much more personal. There was so much more me on the page. But when I did go to a teacher, it was Ms. Chapman.  Patient and kind as ever, she read my odes and ides and provided nothing but helpful hints and taught me my first lessons about enjambment, poetic diction, and style. I trusted her. Ms. Chapman was the only grown person to read my poetry aside from my mom. She told me I was a writer, and like I believed my mom, I believed Ms. Chapman as well.

2003 finally arrived and I was a senior. Betty Big Cheeks rides again! Ms. Chapman selected me to be her teaching assistant. Every day, I spent fourth hour in her class of freshman. This meant I could grade assignments! I could file! I! Could! Make! A! Bulletin! Board!

It was the best part of my year. I watched my favorite teacher in action and I learned the behind the scenes “stuff” that made her class challenging, but yet also a safe creative space. She showed me how to plan, how to read assignments, and how to think like a teacher.

When I graduated from high school, my plan was to double major in English and history. I was going to be a high school teacher. Then I majored in journalism for a minute. Then I changed my major back to English and I minored in journalism. Throughout college, I kept going back to Ms. Chapman. I asked questions about teaching. She wanted to hear about my learning. She was an anchor. She was more than mentor can hold.

Now I teach, and I’m technically, according to the law, and general principles of mathematics, one of those smart adults. Ms. Chapman is my friend, and she is always the North Star in my teaching sky. I attempt to repeat her grace with my funk. Her quiet nature is my long laugh. I am her, and I carry her influence, but I am not her either. I am everything she taught me. I am a sixteen year old with Truman Capote. I am a twenty year old studying Emily Dickinson. I am a twenty-three year old crying because Derrida hates me. I am a teacher, and I am not sure I would be if it wasn’t for her Breakfast at Tiffany’s conversation.

Ms. Chapman was the beginning for me. She could show, not tell, me how to be a teacher. Her compassion for not only me, but for every student, shows vividly in her actions. She continues to do what is best for the young readers and writers in her classes. She is my living, breathing Frank McCourt. My teacher woman. Every time I walk into a classroom, and I see the eager faces of my little duckling college freshman, I think that I will tell one of them, “I see you in grad school one day” and see what happens.

 

This is in celebration of inspirational women and Women’s History Month

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(Above: This photo is of me when I received my bachelor’s degree.)

Esther Greenwood Found Me, By Way of Kristeva, Eating Mushrooms (It Only Took Her Fifteen Years)


I don’t know what I ever saw in Esther Greenwood but there was definitely something there; it still is. While I can’t claim to be a Plath expert, but that’s on my to-do list, I can say this about her: she understands me. And you might ask yourself how a woman that died when my mother was only eight could understand me, particularly when I’m not certain that she understood herself. But I was introduced to Plath at seventeen and she’s the reason that I was an English major in college, always write “the feminist paper”, and now teach.

I was assigned an essay in my college writing class during my senior year of high school. We were to read two works by the same author and do something thematically. I can’t remember all the details about the assignment, but I do remember making my choice off the approved author’s: Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. I’d purchased the book the summer before my junior year. I hadn’t yet read it and this seemed like the perfect reason to dive into the pages and Esther Greenwood’s story.

There was a research element to the paper too, which I think was my first exposure to either a.) literary theory (which I am sure didn’t happen) or b.) it was my first exposure to critical analysis. I remember sitting in my high school library with my friend, who was struggling with Kate Chopin, and looking up psychological treatment in the 1950s and 1960s. I recall being incensed with the expectations and limitations placed on women.

I was engulfed in Esther’s complicated world of restriction. And I wrote this essay before I knew that folding the corners of a book’s pages is tantamount to a million paper cuts on an infant’s foot. I have passages underlined and highlights throughout my war-torn book.

I highlighted this, “all my life, I’d told myself studying and reading and writing and working like mad was what I wanted to do, and it actually seemed to be true, I did everything well enough and got all A’s, and by the time I made it to college nobody could stop me” (Plath 31). In the margin, in small lettering, the word “me” appears on the page. Thirty-one pages into the book, I wasn’t yet aware that Esther and I were in two very different places mentally.


But I connected with her. She was young, and curious, smart, and she was a writer. At seventeen, I didn’t realize that the book was largely about mental illness, women, and treatment (or what passed as treatment). All I knew was that I was desperate to be a “real” writer as well.

I still connect with Esther, and I wonder today how much of her story is a frightening reflection of a reality that doesn’t seem so distant. And as much as I’d like to pity her, I don’t. While her character is one that I don’t, I can’t, see myself wholly reflected in, she strikes me as more of a heroine than a victim. Even of her own design.

To complete my assignment, I purchased Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, which is a collection of Plath’s short stories, notes, and drawings. Throughout it, I have passages underlined and page corners folded down. Again, I was embroiled in the world that she created in each of her stories, which, by the way, build thematically through the book.

My favorite line is near the end of “Cambridge Notes” from February, 1956. How fitting that I remember it in February, 2017? Plath writes, “what I fear most, I think, is the death of the imagination. When the sky outside is merely pink, and the rooftops merely black: that photographic mind which paradoxically tells the truth, but the worthless truth, about the world” (272). I highlighted that passage in 2002 and fifteen years later, I wonder about its validity and find it striking.

I am currently researching the ways in which student voice is valued on university campuses. What happens if the imagination is stifled? Maybe that ought to be my research question.

When I made good on my promise to become “unstoppable” in college, I proceeded to graduate school. Once I was in my first class, I felt like the university made a mistake. I went, crying, to my mentor and said, “Oakland made a mistake! I don’t belong in this program! I just don’t get it.”

He was kind enough to chuckle and tell me that I’d jumped from the frying pan right into the fire. The first class I took was critical literary theory and I didn’t understand a word! To be honest, I still don’t. If I occasionally want to “sound” smart, I’ll throw a Foucault into my sentence, but it’s the one phrase that I half understand.

However, there was one theorist that I did understand. I “got” Jules Kristeva and her theory of abjection.

A few days ago, a friend of mine shared a Plath poem with me titled “Mushrooms” and it got me thinking of Kristeva. Mushrooms are fungus, the abject. And wasn’t that what Esther was talking about all along? Mental illness, the abject. The things we don’t want to touch.

I began studying Plath in 2002 because I thought The Bell Jar was about a writer, and it is. But it is also about the nasty, the things we don’t want to see, or touch, admit, or deal with in any real sense.

I plan to re-read it, as I did 1984, to a shocking new appreciation.

I think Esther’s ready for me and it’s time for both of us to learn something new from our bell jars.

 

 

Work Cited

Plath, Sylvia. “Cambridge Notes”. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. Harper Perennial, 2000.

Plath, Sylvia. Bell Jar. Perennial Classics, 2000.

Tessellations

Today at school, we talked about writing research based proposal essays, and since today is Valentine’s Day, I gave my class a bit of a prompt to get them going on an in-class exercise. “Because I believe in the power of narrative, and because today is Valentine’s Day, I want to tell you the story of a failed relationship.”

The looks on my students’ faces went from that sort of “I’m with you, but not really, because it’s Tuesday and we’re tired and it’s almost break” to “say what… tell me… tell me…”

“This is the story of how my relationship with math ended.”

Some chuckles, but ultimately, interest.

Here’s the story:

I was a pretty decent student in the eighth grade, as far as I can remember. I don’t recall struggling much in classes beyond the “usual” and math was no different. Math and I have never been on the best terms but we didn’t always hate each other.

I entered eighth grade with only one fear. I had to memorize Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” and perform(?) it for my English class. We all did but back then I was still afraid to speak in front of a crowd (this is a charming trait that would carry on until I reached college). At any rate, that was my biggest fear.

Eighth grade wasn’t exactly life altering in any way. I went to school, did my homework, had fun with my friends, missed recess, and wondered why on earth the bus had to come so early. It was also the year that I’d have my first boyfriend {insert: “ooooohhhhs” from my class today}.

Remember, this is eighth grade. There isn’t a whole lot one can do in terms of “dating” when one is thirteen. Mainly, we held hands during movies and let our parents drive us, and our friends (because eighth graders travel in packs) to and from each other’s houses on weekends.

One day, my math teacher assigned a project that seemed to speak to my soul. It combined the dreaded math with art. We had to create tessellations

I came home pretty excited to embark on my new assignment. I was going to kill it. I could do art.

I sat at my parents’ kitchen table with a box of crayons and a pristine sheet of white paper. I chose to create the outline for my patterned genius in crayon to create a darker, thicker border and then my plan was to fill in my shapes with the same color, different shape, from colored pencil. See? I was thinking like an artist.

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I remember sitting at the kitchen table for hours in silence working on this. It was a beautiful sunny day and my parents ended up going out and having fun, leaving me in peace to work.

I was proud of my end result and I happily turned in in the following Monday.

I was not happy to get it back with a big, whopping, ugly, horned, smelly, red, “D+ “on it. I was astonished. I’d never gotten a “D” on anything. I’d never even failed a math test much less math art!

I took it home and I was embarrassed. I wasn’t particularly afraid of getting into trouble, but I didn’t want to bring home a giant “D” either, and we all knew that the “D” didn’t stand for “delightful.”

I told my mom that I was pretty sure I understood tessellations but that I could have been wrong.

My mom and I had a meeting with my teacher to see what we could do at home to bring my grades up.

And this, my friends, is where my relationship with math went south.

It turned out that my grade had nothing to do with the quality of the work that I’d turned in that day. “Melissa rushes through her work so she can spend the rest of the class talking with her friends and that boyfriend of hers.”

Really?

Me?

Rush?

Homework?

(And what did my boyfriend have to do with it!?)

Was she new here?

I didn’t rush anything school related. Ever. I was, and remain, the queen of overthinking the homework perhaps, but rushing it? Nada.

I think my mom and I were equal parts stunned and annoyed. I had been graded for my character rather than the quality of my work. (Thinking of this now, I am reminded of a piece I read for the class I’m currently taking. A piece of writing my Sharon Crowley questions if composition instructors do this same thing.)

I knew that I didn’t. I knew how long and hard I worked on that project and how hard I tried to make good grades.

My mom helped me with the next project I had in that class. I believe we had to draw a map of our neighborhood and calculate angles. I was genuinely afraid that I’d “fail” again if I couldn’t draw a straight line. I couldn’t then, even with a ruler, and I can’t today either. (Every single photograph on the walls in my home hangs on an angle. Oh well. It’s my house. Get over it.)

After that, I know my attitude toward the subject went downhill. Science and I would have a similar breakup, but that was a year and a half down the line.

I entered ninth grade with resistance toward algebra, but I liked my teacher so I tried. Tenth grade geometry wasn’t much better. It revisited the whole shapes and math thing. Enter my old resentment combined with a genuine dislike for everything about the class.

I got through college without taking “real” math and I’m cool with it. I still maintain that I get through every single day without using algebra.

I told this story, albeit abridged a bit, in class today to get my students to do a little pre-thinking before an in-class activity. I gave them the vague problem: “grades are no longer working” and they had to develop a proposal. The idea was for them to practice putting the pieces together and then indicating where they’d need researched support for the idea. They are doing this on their own, but the in-class activity is the equivalent to sniffing coffee beans. It clears their minds enough to return to their own work afterward with a fresh example to follow.

I hadn’t thought about the tessellation assignment in years, but if I trace my abhorrence to math backward, it lands in that eighth grade classroom. Point of origin.

While I was leaving my happy place, my campus, my home away from home, I thought about the one and only time I saw my eighth grade math teacher since then. I was in college and I’d been asked to do a presentation for the marching band kids at their summer camp. Apparently, I had a really good technique for marching and marching backward. (I continue to use this today when I moonwalk out of my classrooms on the last day of each semester.)

Digression aside.

I didn’t speak to her. I don’t think she recognized me but if she did, I didn’t care. I didn’t like her when I was thirteen and I wasn’t over it at twenty.

I broke up with math in the eighth grade and I don’t see a nice reconciliation in the near future.

However, telling this story today did make me think about my relationship with my job. I grade every single day and evaluate writing, which people might fear as much or more than math.

Because of all things, I don’t want to be someone else’s tessellation story. When I look at my students, I don’t see character flaws. Perhaps I see a bit of myself in them instead… and it might be that we’re all flawed, but that’s not for me to judge.

I’m there to teach writing.

End note: I slayed at memorizing Longfellow.

Unpacking: A Tale of Memory and of Hoarding

“And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts”- Wordsworth

 

If there is one thing more painful for me than making appointments over the phone, it’s making me, a pack rat, move. Anything. Ever.

Since late October into early November, piddling into December, and picking up serious steam in January, I worked (played, let’s be real here) at packing my home office. We need the extra room and moving my office from upstairs to our finished basement seemed like the most practical of all our options. I still vote for a She-Shed, but it’s February and I live in Michigan.

Moving my office proved to be a relatively easy affair and I did manage to purge some things. You know… unnecessary things like tax returns from 2004 and one of the two instructor’s editions of a textbook I no longer use.

Then there are the things that I must keep. And I have many of them. I have movie ticket stubs for many, if not most, of the movies I went to see with my mom on weekends in high school and in college. I have the birthday cards from a friend claiming we’d be “best friends forever” even though we’re not and haven’t been for many years. I have photos of my actual long time best friend and notes from her ranging from fifth grade through our senior year. I may even have humorous e-mails printed out (at least those put us in college). I have photos and cards from the members of my fox-squad, the girl friends that get me through the crazy day-to-day-ness of life and all its insanity.

(above: when we were kids, apparently I was on the left, now I’m on the right. Proud to be her right hand woman. And yes, if you’ve seen me recently, that’s the same puffy  U of M coat I am  still wearing. Hoarder.)

 

I saved the birthday cards that my mom and dad picked out with care and love, waiting until they found just the right one for the year. I have the Valentine’s Day cards I got as a middle schooler. I have the first Christmas card I ever received from a boy (gasp)!

I have a Happy Meal toy from the first Happy Meal that I remember my dad getting me. It’s a blue and purple toy truck (to satisfy your burning curiosity).

And these are small things, paper products, or photographs. This doesn’t begin to touch the things I have saved simply for sentimental value. It took me years to finally file the first Oxford Wildcats hoodie I received as a gift from my family. I still have the necklace that my first real boyfriend ever got me, and, I have the vase that the very same boyfriend brought me flowers in (nearly 20 years after the fact). I have the concert t-shirt from the time I saw Hanson at the Palace in 1998.

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(above: this is the shirt I refused to get rid of until I was 25.)

In short, I have one of everything.

Last week, I was sitting in my office, dutifully working on a lesson plan and a Facebook notification popped up on my phone. It was my friend, Jen, who’d posted something on my “wall.”  I thought I’d look “later”, but “later” comes quickly when you’re a teacher working on lesson plans at 7:00 p.m.  on a Wednesday night.

It was a meme about remembering “code names” that middle school girls give their crushes. For some reason, the two of us thought that “ceiling tile” and “hands” were both excellent choices for the boys we liked. Clearly, I’ve been a seventh-grade girl, and I still don’t understand their mentality. I really don’t.

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(above: me and Jen, ninth grade)

Anyway, after prompting, I even remembered who they were. I remembered “Ceiling Tile’s” first and last name. My friend has a photo of the two of them and I must say, he was a handsome young man. I remember him making me laugh and per my and Jen’s collective memory, he was in our health class. I can only imagine what the hell we found so funny.

This sparked a conversation between Jen and myself regarding our teenage years. We both agree that while we had fun growing up, we wouldn’t want to be teenagers again any time soon, if ever.

I wasn’t what you’d call a rebel. I wasn’t a rule breaker. I mostly colored inside the lines, and when I didn’t, I made sure it wasn’t something that could get me into serious trouble. I was always the grownup, and I’m sure that my longtime friends would agree.

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(above: I am fifteen years old and laughing at Legally Blonde. In this same album, I have photos of my friends and I trying to bend and snap)

 

What Jen doesn’t know is that after our conversation, I went rummaging through my boxes looking for old photos, even more than the ones I found while in the process of moving. And even though I didn’t want it to happen, I got tears in my eyes.

These were not tears of sadness. They were tears of joy. I was filled with memory. I had so much fun growing up. From putting toilets in driveways (yeah, I did that), to crazy drives (getting lost in Utica thinking we were in Pontiac), and many, many, many sleepovers and dream sessions, I have lots of proof that I was once there. I did that.

I said that I have one of everything. While that is true, and some may call it a “condition”, I call it a collection. I have one of everything.

(above: Me, Jil, and Jen. 2013, me and Jil, Santa Monica, California. December, 2016. Me and Jil, high school. Year undetermined  and undisclosed)

 

I have memories of bowling during the summer and walking to the movies after school. Band camp (yes, I know the joke). Driving. Bad poetry. Gossip. Crying about what amounts to spilled milk today.

These things, artifacts if you will, are pieces of the events that have shaped me. And even though it’s darn close to hoarding, I’m okay with it. I might be a hoarder, but I have the best memories and laughs. Even as I write this, I am surrounded by my memories. Because in the end, we all are. If we’re lucky.

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(above: my desk, as I write today….)

 

 

 

Siren Found

I hadn’t written since November. I couldn’t. It’s not that I wasn’t having thoughts; it was just that the thoughts weren’t good. They weren’t bad, doom and gloom. They were just there. Or, they were stories and ideas that I’m not ready to share.

Then, I went to California…

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(Above: Paul and I on the shores of Zuma Beach, Malibu, California)

I have always been attracted to the water, the ocean, and to marine life. I can see why I would like these things, since I am a lifelong Michigander. But here’s the thing. I don’t know how to swim. Yep. I grew up in a state surrounded by water and I don’t know how to swim.

I took lessons when I was sixteen, but I have a fear of water too great to ever “really” put them to the test. My sweet husband tried to teach me in his parents’ pool, and I can do “okay” but that’s in a safe environment.

The strange thing is, I do not have a fear of boats. I am perfectly fine to spend an afternoon puttering on the lake in a pontoon or even speed boats are fine. I can do ferry rides!

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(Above: waiting to board our whale watching vessel)

On January 2, I got to do something that I’ve always wanted to do. My husband, my best friend, and I went whale watching. There is nothing more beautiful than watching ocean life just…live.

Paul first pointed out a seal that popped its head out of the water to eat. Then he pointed out another. As we were riding, and I was open mouthed, “hi, I’m a tourist”-ing, he saw something else. “I’m not sure if that’s something over there or not…” he said. And as we got closer, we saw that the something was something. Two seals were kicked back with their front flippers up as if they were waiving to us. I bet they were thinking, “look at those…. weird creatures…ta-ta…”

I rode along, enjoying the smell of the ocean and the fresh air. It was in the mid-fifties to a Michigander in January is like a taste of spring. The ride, the air, and the mystery of the water below us filled me with a calm like I don’t ordinarily know. It was the feeling of being home after a long time away. I know very well how cheesy that sounds, but it was the truest sense of peace I can imagine.

Our captain came on and reported that gray whales had been reported 14 miles from us in one direction and 19 miles in the opposite direction. He sounded sad that we hadn’t seen whales on our whale watching trip, but I was content to just be on the ocean.

“I guess all I needed to do was say something.” Our captain came back on a few minutes later. We were approaching a pod of over 100, closer to 150, common dolphins.

I pulled my phone out of my pocket and took a few photos, but I had to put it away almost as quickly. I was genuinely afraid that I would get so excited that I would jump up and throw my phone into the Pacific, and I would not be nearly as graceful as Rose and the Heart of the Ocean. A simple “oops” wouldn’t escape my lips.

I stood transfixed and I felt tears well in my eyes. The dolphins jumped and flipped, twisting in and out of the water as though they were trying to entertain instead of just living.

This. I thought. This is the way to experience ocean life.

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I’ve not been a fan of SeaWorld, and I’ve written angry letters to the aquarium in my local mall. Yes, you read that correctly. There is a shark in the mall. And I’m not a Blackfish bandwagon movement supporter. Per my mom, I screamed the entire time we were at SeaWorld when I was two. I am sure I’ve been an anti-captivity supporter since birth.

I feel drawn to the waterfront. To the shore.

We visited Zuma Beach in Malibu and I felt good and clean and inspired. Given time, I could have parked my behind on the beach all day and just created.

I am not the first one to have this feeling—this “calling” so to speak. My favorite contemporary fiction writer, Cecelia Ahern, says, “there was a magic about the sea. People were drawn to it. People wanted to love by it, swim in it, play in it, look at it. It was a living thing that as as unpredictable as a great stage actor: it could be calm and welcoming, opening its arms to embrace it’s audience one moment, but then could explode with its stormy tempers, flinging people around, wanting them out, attacking coastlines, breaking down islands. It had a playful side too, as it enjoyed the crowd, tossed the children about, knocked lilos over, tipped over windsurfers, occasionally gave sailors helping hands; all done with a secret little chuckle.”

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I feel connected to the water. Maybe it’s a fertility thing, a woman thing, a writer thing… I don’t know exactly. They say that sirens sing and lure seamen to their demise. I think sirens sing to other women and help us find what we didn’t know we lost.

Bill Medicare For This Too Please

I cried all the way from home to town on Saturday night. It was 9.8 miles of tears and denial. I am not ready to face the fact that my grandmother is getting “old” and she’s 87.  Her health is in decline and the fact of the matter is, she’s facing a nursing home. When a person stops eating and has become (and I hate this expression) “dead weight”, requiring a wheelchair, it’s apparent that something is wrong.

This is the woman that did walks, rode motorcycles, went camping, and puttered in her flower gardens of purposely planted weeds. Until two years ago. And I’d like to place blame on the family members that told her “you’re getting old and going to die soon”. Given the opportunity, and my penchant for saying exactly what I’m thinking, it might happen.

I don’t want to face the mortality of my grandparents. I was close with my great-grandmother, and she passed when I was thirteen. It was so long ago that now, it seems like it happened to someone else. When I think about her, it feels like I’m thinking of another person’s experiences. But I suppose I am. I am no longer the teenager “me” and in all that is normal it is also a bit saddening.

If I flip the digits, the “3” and the “1” in 13, I am my current age. I am 31. Although my grandmother isn’t facing her deathbed, it is glaringly obvious to me that she is no longer young. She has reached a stage of not knowing who my parents are, and she is seeing things that aren’t there. (I do that, but it’s called imagination. When older adults do it, it’s called dementia.)

I spent a good chunk of my afternoon yesterday reviewing the percentage of coverage for Medicare and reintroduced phrases like “gap coverage” and “co-insurance” into my vocabulary. When I started teaching I thought, hoped is a more accurate term, to forget that knowledge and leave it in the recesses of my mind. Come to find out, you don’t forget that Medicare covers at a rate of 80/20 and the deductible is roughly $166.

I looked at residential care facilities near my grandparents’ home and found abysmal results. One had twelve reported “incidents” to Medicare last year. Another had eight. One’s most recent health department inspection was in 2015! What the hell! People live there. Families depend on them to care for people like my grandmother. Those are our loved ones! I’m sure that this is some sort of righteous outrage on my part, but I can’t help it.

I’m sad that I live about 150 miles from my grandparents. I hand wrote my grandfather a letter today, totally four pages, explaining what to look for and how to question Medicare and Blue Cross about their coverage. The trust I have in those closest to him in miles is dismal (at best). I wish this wasn’t happening. I wish my grandfather didn’t have to choose to put his wife of nearly sixty years into a care facility.

I wish I didn’t have a fear of nursing homes. I wish they didn’t make me panic and cry, even when I’m not already overly emotional. I wish my other “family” members didn’t plant the seed of death in my grandmother’s head. I wish that those physically closest to him weren’t two of the most self-serving individuals on the planet. I wish this wasn’t “normal”.

Most of all, I wish I could bill Medicare for this. For all of it. For me, my parents, and my grandfather. But that, my friends, isn’t covered under part “A” or “B”. That, is the co-insurance. Our out of pocket expense.

 

Get To It

Dear Millennials:

When I see you, Monday through Friday, September through May, I think a lot of things about you. Keep in mind, this isn’t judging you. This is wondering things about you. I wonder about the girl in the Beatles t-shirt. Should she “really” be an engineering major, or is her heart is music and words? About the boy majoring in business, I wonder if he should really be building things because the sketches I see in the margins of his notebook are exquisite.

Recently, I’ve read a great number of social media posts, from both people I like and people I don’t, about your “whining” over the presidential election. And for what it’s worth, I’d like to tell you something from someone that sees you, helps to educate you, interacts with you, and would like to think that she understands you.

You’re not whining.

When others look at your protests and see “babies that need a ‘safe space’”, I see compassionate young people that are doing what they can to be political without being violent. Your world isn’t safe, my world isn’t safe, the world isn’t safe, so to the people telling you that, yeah, they might be onto something. But the question to ask then is “why shouldn’t it be?” Why can’t it be?

When others look at your dismay and tell you to “get over it” ask them if anything worth fighting for has ever been accomplished by just “getting over it?” That whole women voting thing? Apparently, those ladies were supposed to just “get over it.” We see how that turned out, and regardless of whether or not people “like” it, a female presidential candidate was on the ticket this year. So, “get over it…”

When I look at the generation in front of me, I see a generation of people with compassionate hearts and a rallying cry for social justice and equality.

Are they perfect? No. Not by a long shot.

However, how many generations have claimed that the next ones to come up were “lazy” or had no work ethic? This is the same record on a new player.

These same people that tell the millennials to “get over it” are the same ones that bitch and say that “kids today don’t stand for anything.” Yet, when they do, they’re told it’s wrong, they’re stupid, and to get over it.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too Gen X’ers, Baby Boomers, and Silent Generation folks. You can’t tell these young people to believe in something and then attempt to silence them when they do. If they’re nonviolent what are they doing except showing the very values that YOU INSTILLED IN THEM?

In closing, dear Millennials, don’t get over it or get used to it, or any of the other “to its” that you’re told, except this one: get to it.

If you want to affect change, get to it.

It you want to make a more inclusive world: get to it.

If you want equality: get to it.

Words are power, and if you use yours, I promise, you have more power than you think. You have it all, and I for one, will help you use it.

Sincerely Yours,

A Not So Secret Admirer

The Note Left In Your Lunchbox

Dear Person Whose Body I Inhabit,

I know you are torn. I know you are wondering why people have acted, and are acting, the way that they are. I know you are wondering why friends, neighbors, and family members are busily tearing each other down instead of lifting each other up. And here’s the thing, so am I.

When did I get left behind? I have been with you since birth and I helped you make your first friend. I was there when you helped your friend after falling down on the playground. I was there when your best friend got dumped (he was a jerk anyway). And I was there when you received bad news, and I’m what makes you celebrate the good in others.

So when, I ask, did you leave me behind? When did you stop listening to me?

I, my friend, am compassion.

And I feel lost.

This is what compassion would say to us if it could speak. Compassion: it is what drives us, or better, it is what should drive us. I know, as I sit here in my safe, quiet space, that many people have lost theirs.

It’s no surprise to me, or anyone else, that there has been incredible backbiting and resentment from this election. And it started a year and a half ago! And what for? Why?

Does it somehow make people feel better about themselves to hurt their friends, neighbors, and family members?

I wonder.

While I believe that is important to discuss our differences, I find a remarkable difference between discourse and disrespect.

We can’t change minds with name calling. I think we’ve seen plenty of name calling to last us for quite some time.

Compassion is what is left. It is the thing that we can all do. It’s FREE. It doesn’t raise our taxes, inconvenience us, or create more work for us in any way. If anything, being compassionate is less work than displaying negativity and hatred.

And I “get it.” I really do. I know that we feel varying levels of anxiety and discomfort, but perpetuation of that is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Instead of verbally assaulting the person that doesn’t agree with you, try to understand the perspective.

Instead of sitting safely behind a computer or phone screen and running over those with differing opinions, talk to those people. Understand them.

We are all people. And at the end of the day, we are what make anything great. If you want something great, you must first be something great.

If you want a world with acceptance, love, and respect, you must be willing to not only show acceptance, but mean it. Act out of love and respect. Even for the simple reason that the person, or people, you disagree with is another human being.  If you want a world with equality and balance, you must be willing to fight for those things without fire, without hate, and without destruction in your mind and heart.

So be what you want.

And what I want, is compassion.

And listen hear please.

 

Paint Thinner

“Why. In the world. Do I have to wear scrubs?” I asked my boss. “I don’t have any patient contact beyond the front desk. I register them. That’s it.”

“New management entity, new rules.” She said.

I scoffed at how completely ridiculous it was for me, the front desk receptionist and part-time medical biller, to wear scrubs. Did this management company not know how seriously I considered footwear? Apparently, they did not and did not care either.

I was in my second year of graduate school and to pay for it, I worked at an ambulatory surgery center. The hours were perfect because I started between 5:30 and 6:00 every morning, and I was done for the day between 1:30 and 2:00 in the afternoon.

That year, the center was “acquired” by a new management firm. It was also the year that the administrator hired a business manager named John. Not only was he new to the center, but he was also going to become my immediate supervisor.  The administrator would be his boss. But anything I needed, I would ask John. I would report to him and he would be the one managing the front desk (where I worked) and the billing office, which was in the basement of the building.

I’d already been working there for over a year, and when John began working with me, we got along great. Upon arrival, we hit it off well. He acknowledged my efficiency and praised my work and my work ethic. Overall, I thought he was a nice guy. And after he observed my work for a couple of days, he left me alone and I did my job without incident.

While I was working at the surgery center, I gained more weight than I had ever gained in my life. I am a stress eater and a snacker. As many grad school survivors will say, it is stressful ninety-nine percent of the time, and the other ten percent, they were asleep. If they were lucky.

I’d started to notice the weight gain. My clothes weren’t fitting the way that I wanted them to and it was uncomfortable. So, I made a choice to commit to a lifestyle change. I had always liked walking, so I began walking regularly. That also happened to be the year that my mom walked in her first Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer 3-Day walks. We trained together for months, and I noticed that eventually, my old clothes began to fit more comfortably and I was getting down to the weight I had been.

I lost weight easier than I thought I would, and before I knew it, I’d dropped ten pounds! I was proud because I had done it by changing my eating habits and walking. I’d gotten some new work clothes and was excited to look as nice as I felt. Then, our administrator dropped the scrub bomb. In addition to the scrub bomb, our administrator also announced that John’s position would be eliminated with the arrival of the new management entity.

John’s behavior immediately changed. He became passive/aggressive and uncharacteristically picky and snide. He didn’t have a kind word for most people and spent the majority of the work day looking up other jobs and applying online from his desk.

When his last day finally came, the staff, nurses, doctors, and the administrator, had a small going away party for him. Up to that point, we had all liked John and were genuinely disappointed to see him go.

After we’d eaten lunch and had given him his farewell gifts, he made a few parting comments. Some were humorous and others seemingly heartfelt, but when he got to mentioning me, he made a comment that has altered by behavior in many ways.

        “I won’t miss Melissa’s tight ass pants.” He looked at me and continued, “they look like you have to rub them off at the end of the day with paint thinner.”

To say I was embarrassed is an understatement. I sat at the table and watched as each person turned to look at me. I was stunned and afraid to get up. In my head, I was screaming. But in reality, I sat there with tears forming in my eyes. Thank God my friend Dee pinched my arm and shook her head at me, ordering me not to cry.

He continued to talk for a few more minutes and people went back to work. I sat at the table, still staring at the remnants of my fat-free yogurt and the Diet Coke I forced myself to drink.

Dee looked at me and asked if I was okay. I shook my head and let some of the tears slip out.  I was twenty-three years old. I had no experience with public humiliation.

“Dee, I need to go change.” I said.

“He doesn’t know what the fuck he’s even saying.” She replied.

“Do they all think that? Dee, do I really look bad?” I asked and I began rambling about how I knew I’d gained some weight but I was walking and really trying to get back to my “normal” 115 pounds.

“Sunshine, did you not hear me?” She asked. “He. Does. Not. Know. What. The. Fuck. He. Is. Saying.” And uttered each word slowly, staring directly into my eyes.

I went home later feeling defeated.  Did people think I dressed inappropriately at work? I wore scrubs! How could I look bad in them? They were scrubs! Granted, I hated them, but still… Most people liked the scrubs and claimed they were comfortable. I felt like I was dressed like a robot.

I wondered what I could have ever done to him for that kind of public humiliation. I came in every day before the sun rose. I did my job. I cared for the patients. I made sure they had everything they needed before and after surgery. I continuously received praise from the nursing staff, and I was friends with a couple of our doctors.

Like many women harassed by men in a power position, I wondered what I’d done wrong.

I came in the next day, and instead of grabbing the size small scrub pants, I pulled on a medium.

I had to tighten the strings as tightly as they would go to get the pants to stay in place. They were huge and bagged everywhere. I looked like a pathetic attempt at MC Hammer’s classic style. I marched up the stairs, sat at my desk, and quietly began registering patients.

John left later that week, and on his way out he said goodbye to me. I didn’t say anything, I just nodded.

That day in the lunchroom is eight years in the past. It didn’t take me long to leave after John did, but I left for different reasons. The climate in the center changed and people that I had once called friends proved not to be. And most days, I don’t think about the place at all. But then again, I do.

I think about that place every single time I get dressed or buy pants.

Because I am, as some may say, hyper-aware about not wearing pants that “look like they have to be removed with paint thinner.”

John didn’t know that he was talking to a woman dealing with a weight struggle. But he did know that he deliberately humiliated me in front of a group of peers. John didn’t know that I would remember that comment every single time I shop for pants, and get dressed, for the next eight years. He didn’t know how I would react, but I think he did know that I would take it personally. Who wouldn’t?

John’s comment was hurtful and embarrassing. He did it because he could, and he did it because somewhere along the way, he learned that it was okay. He could humiliate me and I wouldn’t stop it. And I didn’t.

Looking back, I should have looked at that man, and said exactly what I was thinking. I might have gotten fired, and that was a legitimate concern, but it wouldn’t have mattered in the long run. It’s like the lie they tell you in high school. You will get into college even if you fail gym. You will get a job after grad school if you get fired from a non-related job while still attending.

I look back now and think, I should have risked it.

     The woman I was then wouldn’t have out of fear, but the woman I am today, she would say…to hell with you. And your paint thinner.

 

 

 

 

The Older Man

After the first date, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror at work, and I wondered when the other shoe would drop? I had a feeling all along that the relationship I was in would end and end badly. Call it a gut reaction, sixth sense, or just a keen acknowledgement of destiny. It wasn’t just the fact that dating someone thirteen years older than me was weird on its own. No, it was the fact that the man I had been dating for nearly a month was waging a war and I was on course to be another casualty.

I’d been hoping to date this particular mistake for two years. We had known each other for years, had mutual friends, and had even attended the same school (although years apart). I’d broken up with a longtime boyfriend and from the moment we split, I had my eyes, and heart, set on the older man.

My former boyfriend was okay, but our relationship had gone awry in ways that I had no desire to fix. Some of his behavior had started to irritate and in some ways scare me. I had many voicemail messages that said variations of “I know you’re on campus, I can see your car. Where are you?” My Suburban-Detroit university has an infamous parking problem, and the fact that he found my car was something of a feat in and of itself. I left the promise ring he’d given me on the edge of a sink in one of the most popular buildings on campus and walked away from it forever. I hope that it became another woman’s pretty-shiny.

The older man treated me like a kid-sister for three years, and then by some “miracle”, he asked me on a date. We planned to go to favorite restaurant of ours.

The first date went well, and I couldn’t believe that this “perfect” older man and I were officially dating, as per our determination at dinner. I left that evening believing that a good thing had just begun. But in the back of my mind, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Intuition and I have always had a remarkable relationship. She and I have kept each other out of many stupid, dangerous, and uncomfortable situations for over thirty years. Intuition and I are like peas and carrots.

That night, I chose to ignore her.

Ignored point of intuition number one: I was desperately nervous. I paced the floor at home and changed my outfit multiple times. This is strange behavior for me. Although I am a selective extrovert, I am normally fairly confident in my wardrobe selection. I figured that if I was going to feel awkward, I had damn well better kill it with my ensemble. For me, being nervous to change that many times to feel okay was a problem.

Ignored point of intuition number two: On the way to the restaurant, he changed Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” to another song, one that I didn’t know and didn’t like. This even after I jumped in the seat saying “oh! I love this song!” in response to Steve Perry’s stunning vocal styling.

Ignored point of intuition number three: It came as a surprise to our mutual friends that we were dating. They thought he was still seeing his “former” (as told to me) girlfriend, Amy. They knew nothing of our relationship.

It all came crashing down just over a month into the relationship. We sat in his living room, watching an episode of a pointless reality show. He had been quiet all evening, which I didn’t think too odd at the time. But when he finally looked at me and spoke, he used a mouse like, “un-manly” voice, and nearly whispered, “you’re a virgin aren’t you?”

My feet went cold. Where the actual hell had that come from? I didn’t know why, but I was instantly defensive. But I looked at him and replied confidently, “Yes. Why, is that a problem for you?”  He muttered a reply that I can’t remember but it made the mood sour. He was pissed and pouting.

“I’m going home.” I stood up and announced about twenty minutes later. And without any protest from the older man, I left. We didn’t make plans to see each other again that week.

I spent the thirty-minute drive home thinking about his question. Where had that come from? I was pissed. Why was this even a question? Did I even want that serious a relationship with him?  It seemed so in from left field. He hadn’t pressured me and it wasn’t a “heat of the moment” question. I was watching some show that I detested and remember counting the ways I found it’s “contestants” pathetic and drippy.

I had never been in a relationship with sex even “on the table”, so to speak. I was a twenty-first century woman with my own ideas about my body, my emotions, my choices, commitment, and what defined me. If he thought this was going to be a casual decision that I was going to make on the spot, he was wrong. That I knew. Regardless of how much, and how long, I had adored him. I had adored myself longer and I loved my self-worth more than I could have ever loved him.

The answer to all of my questions, was no.

Several days passed and we didn’t talk to each other. I was still under the illusion that we were in this “relationship” and it would be fine.

I looked in the bathroom mirror at work and knew. This is when the shoe would drop.

I climbed the stairs back to my desk and found a text on my phone. A text. On my phone. And it read, “I think we need to take a break.” I spun in my chair, unsure what to do or how to take this revelation.  Ross and Rachel took a break and look what happened to them!

“What the…. F! Does that!Does that even mean?” I yelled, thankful my office was silent.

I text back, “what does that even mean?”

I didn’t receive an answer.

He never gave me an answer, but I knew he had unceremoniously “dumped” me because I had no intentions of entering into a casual sexual relationship with him.

That evening, when he asked me if I was a virgin, was the last time we had a private conversation.

I later learned after that evening, Connor,the older man, embarked in the kind of foolish behavior that one is accustomed to seeing in spoiled children.

I received a myriad of name calling and mud-slinging. To the mutual friends we had, I became “crazy”. I was nuts for always sending him birthday cards. I was “insane”. I was a “stalker”. I was a “slut”. To him, I was everything that I wasn’t in reality. His reality was one in which women’s characters could be colored to his liking. He wanted mine the color of burned charcoal.

I wondered why our mutual friends wouldn’t look me in the eye and walked away when I came near them. What is truly sickening? I didn’t find any of this out on my own. I heard it through the metaphorical grapevine only later to have it confirmed. Everything I heard Connor had done, he did.

Ninety-nine percent of our mutual friends believed him. They had known me since I was ten years old, and they believed this man that degraded me.

I didn’t find out until years after the fact that only one, Randy, managed to stand up to Connor and tell him, “you’re full of shit.”

This is how easy it is to believe falsehoods about women. If one man says it…it must be true. My truth, women’s truth, be damned.

In late 2011, I saw the older man.

I was deliriously happy, cruising through a local grocery store buying provisions for a meal I was hosting at my home. I was also engaged, my beautiful solitaire standing like a sentry on my left hand.

As I turned and headed into the pasta aisle, I heard the unmistakable scream of a gecko. I looked up from my list, and there was the older man. Staring at me and smiling like we’d seen each other the day before and were old friends.

“Hey, Melissa, how are you?”

I didn’t hate this man but I damn sure didn’t like him. “I’m great, thanks Connor.” I could feel bile in my mouth and had to fight the urge to throw up on his shoes.

“Yeah, it looks like you’re gettin’ married?”

“I am. In four months.” I replied. No more. No less.

“Yeah, see you later.” He said.

“You have a better chance of becoming a millionaire overnight.” I thought. And for the second time, I turned my back to him and left him alone in the pasta aisle without another word.

He had the nerve to look “wounded.”

He deserved nothing from me. I didn’t give him the information that he so desperately wanted. Insight into my life—my happiness.

There are many things that I could have said to him. Many of those words could have been powerful words and some could have an “f” and the “u” standing prominently at the front.

By the time I finally saw him face to face, it wasn’t worth the trouble. I didn’t need to bring up the actions of an imbecilic piece of rock that wasn’t worth a millisecond of a prisoner’s time, much less mine.

When I saw him, I was given the opportunity to speak my truth without words. I didn’t have to tell him that he was a liar. He knew.

And although being silent is hardly what I would tell another woman in my shoes, my silence that day in the pasta aisle, spoke more to him than words would have. Because for the second time, I wouldn’t change who I was to fit his wants.

I didn’t give him what he thought he deserved.

And if to him, I am a frigid bitch, that’s fine.

I will live to be called worse by a whole lot better.

(Below: Me–before the first date.)Displaying IMG_8389.JPG