Tuesday, December 20, 2011

21st Century Talk: Communication Still Matters

Note: I'm in the process of "shopping" this piece to EdNews and will hopefully get it published somewhere (besides in this space with my faithful 13 followers :).  Regardless, I owe special thanks to Laura Peace, whose classroom provided me with the anecdote to show what public speaking can do for a group of seemingly disengaged 7th graders and to Tara Harris, who graciously allowed me to follow-up our parking lot conversation with an interview on this subject.

21st Century Talk: Communication Still Matters

            The 21st Century: an exciting time to be a learner.  And a frantic, high-speed time for educators who are facilitating learning in brick and mortar classrooms by day and via online tools around the clock – grading, evaluating and commenting on student work on Googledocs, posting assignments and updates on social media sites or class blogs and wikis, logging onto professional learning communities to swap ideas, and staying connected and accessible to students through smart phones.  The dismissal bells may signal the end of the school day, but in the 21st Century the virtual classroom door is always open. 
            Because learning can happen anytime and anywhere, teachers might feel in some ways like on-call doctors.  And yet, amidst all of the texting, tweeting, and typing within and beyond school walls, I was struck this week that it is still face-to-face communication between teachers and students that offers the most powerful examples of authentic learning.  The means of communicating may be limitless, but verbal communication skills matter more than ever before.
            In the days before Winter Break seventh graders in a large, diverse Aurora middle school scramble to present speeches they spent the last several weeks crafting.  After drafting and revising, conferring and rehearsing, it is their time, for four or more minutes, to stand before their classmates and deliver a message that is meaningful to them and meant to inspire their audience.  The teacher, apprehensive about the final presentations and disheartened by the number of late and missing assignments and the groans and sighs she heard at the beginning of the term, witnesses the fruits of weeks spent modeling, sharing mentor text and supporting writers through the writing process.  One after one, they present.  The audience respectfully listens.  And they’re good.  Polished, practiced and proud of their work, each presentation rivals or tops the one before.  Their voice matters, and allowing them to use their voice and supporting them with the tools, resources and structures to use it in a powerful way, the teacher sees the first evidence of meaningful learning and passionate engagement in her students, from the prolific to the struggling, nearly every seventh grader in the room has found success.  One of the final presenters reminds his classmates: “"When you look around you and think that you have nothing, tell yourself, 'No, I have a future.'"
            Teaching kids to use their voice in effective and powerful ways, matters.  And for the first time, the new Colorado P-12 Academic Standards honors this by re-naming the content area formerly known as English/Language Arts, “Reading, Writing and Communicating” and by focusing on “oral expression and listening” standards (in addition to reading, writing, research and reasoning) across grade levels.  While educators are apprehensive and skeptical about authentically assessing communication through current standardized testing practices, (and fear if it is not assessed it won’t be taught in-depth) speech and language arts teachers celebrated that the standards finally reflect, with equity, all four domains of literacy: reading, writing, speaking and listening. 
            In light of this it is a disheartening irony that budget cuts have impacted speech courses in Aurora’s comprehensive high schools.  At some sites speech classes are not even offered within the master schedule and the only opportunity for students to work on public speaking is through extracurricular activities like speech and debate teams.  Where speech classes are still offered, they are in danger of being cut.  Beginning as soon as the class of 2015 in APS, high school speech courses will earn elective credit (vs. English credit) a decision speech teachers fear places these courses in precarious territory.
            Tara Harris, Language Arts Assistant Department Chair and Speech and Debate Coach at Hinkley High School in Aurora, shares her worries about moving speech into elective vs. English department territory: “If speech courses become elective courses, my fear is that it will be cast to the side in times where TE is in question.  One of the greatest rewards that many students earn is the knowledge that they do have a talent and can overcome their fears.  They have also learned that public speaking makes their writing better, especially in the areas of organization, ideas, and voice.”  She went on to say that currently her speech students enroll in the course for many reasons: including credit retrieval in English, to improve public speaking skills, to better prepare for the demands of college or the workforce, to overcome fears, prepare for speech competitions, and to gain additional practice in what for many Aurora students, is not their first or native language. 
            Most of us have only begun to dabble in the communication methods available to us as 21st Century citizens.  But regardless of the tools available to teachers and students, communication matters.  Our students deserve to have their voice heard, and they deserve to have access to courses and extracurricular activities that teach them how to use their voice in powerful, persuasive and provocative ways.  

Monday, November 28, 2011

On Meeting Miguel - Twenty Minutes & True Thanksgiving

This morning I awoke, still sluggish from a gluttonous Thanskgiving break that included way too many calories and way too few treadmill runs.  I groaned when the alarm clock went off, and grumbled groggily to myself during the twenty minute commute from my house to the campus on the plains where my day's work awaited me.  To put it simply, I didn't wake up grateful.  I was bitter that a restful and carefree break was over, and that a full school week stretched out before me.  I thought about all the shopping I have to do between now and the next holiday, the decorating, and the actual day job duties that fund the presents I still need to purchase.  Thinking about all of this made me tired, and it was only 7:20 a.m.

I didn't wake up grateful.  But tonight, as I prepare to go to sleep, I am grateful.  In fact, I am more thankful than I was just a few days ago when I celebrated Thanksgiving with a nation full of other thankful turkey-eaters.  


Today, I met Miguel.  Cynical, shy, withdrawn.  Jaded.  Negative.  Defeated.  Everything about Miguel made my brow furrow and my heart break.  The scrawny 5th grader slouched in his seat and retreated behind his over-sized hooded sweatshirt.  Using his body language as a repellent, his eyes cried out for an invisibility cloak.  His posture screamed, "Don't bother.  Leave me alone.  Please."  

Miguel was already on my radar before I entered the classroom.  His concerned teacher asked me to watch him - a red flag in her gradebook, one of many struggling writers in the room.  Assessments show Miguel reading at a "first grade level."  He hadn't turned in a written assignment in a month.  He was prompted multiple times to join the other students on the carpet for the demonstration, where he tapped his foot impatiently, willing the second hand to tick faster, so that he could return to his desk, slump further in his seat, tighten his hood around his head, and busy himself with a toy car quietly while everyone else around him engaged in independent reading or writing.

Instead, today, I forced him to confer with me.  It took 5 minutes of soft coaxing, gentle questioning and hushed tones for him to pull his hood far enough back on his head so that I could hear his one word responses to my questions.  A 10-year-old body encasing a troubled, hardened soul that felt more like that of a 17 or even 47-year-old.  

So, first I talked.  I spoke about how exciting it sounded to write a fictional narrative.  To create a story where characters could do anything and problems could be resolved (or not) based on my decisions.  That, I explained, is what everyone was working on today as writers.  Revising fictional narratives.

"Miguel.  I wonder...when you're not here at school, what do you like to do?" 

"Play video games."  Three words.  The longest response to a question I had posed so far.  

"Ah...video games.  Hmm...I don't know much about them.  Tell me, which ones are your favorites and why?  When you play them are you a character?"

Slowly, the head lifted.  The gaze met my own.  The hood slipped off the head and onto the back of his shoulders.  Life breathed into the small body and the hands set the toy car down to gesture.  Skeptical at first, but quickly gaining momentum, Miguel told me stories.  Stories of his video game world and the stories of his real world.  Stories about a pet bird who smothered her baby bird to death (accidentally) because she was trapped in a cage that was too small.  Stories about a favorite dog that ran away.  Stories about a house he used to live in but has since "lost" - a casualty of foreclosure.  Stories about his uncle's haunted basement and the fights he and his four siblings engage in when chores are assigned.  And back to more stories of the gadgets, dreams and adventures he enjoys in the video game world. 

Twenty minutes of storytelling.  He talked.  I jotted notes.  And as the writing block drew to a close I simply said, "Wow.  You are one of the most interesting 5th graders I've ever met.  Look at all of the stories you told me."  

A small smile quickly covered by concern.  "I have thousands of stories in my head," he said.  "I just can't write them."  

"I can see that you do have stories to tell.  So tomorrow, we'll write one together?" I suggested.

"You'll be back tomorrow?"

I nodded.

"So I can think of more ideas tonight.  I can play my game and figure out what characters and story I want to tell..." he trailed off.

"Great idea."  

"Video games as writing homework!" he giggled.  A real chuckle that bubbled up and burst from his lips.

So, today I am grateful for twenty minutes with Miguel.  For the opportunity to watch a dark, shadowed figure begin to see himself as a writer with stories worth telling.  Stories that someone wants to hear.  Tomorrow we'll write together and maybe, just maybe, Miguel will begin to see 5th grade as a place worth being visible.  

There are so many Miguels, of various shapes and sizes, who would blossom with twenty minutes just for them on a regular basis.  I've also seen what Miguel might become -- glimpses of his future where he thrives as a writer or becomes a more jaded, more cynical 7th grader, or sophomore, or...?

But tomorrow, I will write with Miguel.  One word, one story at a time.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Everything I Need To Know I Learned From Harper Lee....

It's true, I'm an English teacher at heart and therefore biased when it comes to literature.  But I believe all good teachers teach readers, not texts, and there's few (if any) books that I believe should be mandated curriculum.  But if I were going to argue for a text, the text, that every adolescent or adult reader should have on their reading "bucket list" I could definitely make a case for To Kill A Mockingbird.


Harper Lee's one and only novel, set in the early-mid 1930's, is as relevant today as it was in 1960, the original date of publication.  The Southern gothic tale's hero, Atticus Finch, represents the ideal parent, a model of integrity and human decency during a time and circumstances that were anything but decent.  In 2003, the AFI (American Film Institute) proclaimed the character of Atticus Finch (portrayed memorably by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film) the #1 Greatest Hero of the 20th Century in it's "100 Years, 100 Heroes & Villains in Film" special.  

This afternoon, in an intimate matinee performance, on the same day the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was dedicated on the National Mall before a throng that waited too long for this day, I watched the Denver Center Theater Company bring Harper Lee's story to the stage.  The theatrical adaptation captured the essence of the book in two hours and fifteen minutes, and reminded me of all of the reasons why I fell in love with To Kill A Mockingbird more than twenty years ago.

I first read the book as a child.  Recommended to me by my mother as her favorite coming of age story, I reluctantly picked it up as a sixth grader, but quickly became lost in the world of Maycomb, Alabama and in the thoughts and life of Scout, whose narration sounded like the voice of a familiar friend or kindred spirit from a time and place far away.  The time period, dialect, and complex issues raised in the text were foreign to me as an eleven-year-old, but the pages turned quickly as I anticipated alongside the Finch children, Boo Radley's appearance or the next finding in the knothole of the old tree.  When I re-read the book as an adult, it was Atticus, not Scout that I found myself falling in love with, his goodness, his kindness, his courage.  The courtroom scenes seemed to jump off the page and onto my own mind's movie screen.  His words more memorable than scripture: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view....until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." 

Harper Lee's one and only book.  Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  Translated into more than 40 languages.  Sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.  Adapted for the silver screen and stage.  Voted by librarians across the country as the best novel of the 20th Century.  Required reading in many a high school English class.  Really, really good required reading.  If its been a while (or you skipped the novel and opted for Cliffnotes in high school), take a trip to the 1930's South and feel the heat of an Alabama summer the way only Harper Lee can write it.  You'll discover that it's a trip worth taking, a lesson worth re-learning, and many pages worth turning.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What I Learned While Waiting for A Latte...

My husband often refers to Starbucks as "five bucks," and indeed, it is ridiculous what the masses (including me) will pay for a latte -- especially when facing facilitating a professional development session at 7 a.m on a crisp, cool Tuesday morning.  Today, as I waited impatiently for a non-fat/no-whip pumpkin spice venti, the only thing that had kept me from hitting the snooze button on the alarm clock one last time, I took a deep breath and mentally walked through the morning's agenda.  Shaking my head, sighing deeply, I began to wonder if the three hours I had devoted to planning this PD over the weekend really mattered.

The promise of a new school year is beginning to dull.  The days are getting shorter, stress is running high as the first grading window draws to a close, Fall Break still feels like a fantasy on a calendar far, far away, and it's getting harder and harder not to question my effectiveness as a lone TOSA shared between two turn-around schools in need of far more resources than I could ever hope to offer.  And just then, in the middle of daydreaming about switching name badges with the barista, sending her into the middle school in my place so that I could hide behind a counter and smell coffee grounds all day, an amazing thing happened.  A sign?  Divine intervention?  Something like that...my whole outlook on the day and my choice of career path was clarified...all before I had my first sip of caffeine.

A tentative tap on the shoulder.  "Um...Mrs. Cuthbertson?"  Turning, a near 6' broad-shouldered, deep voiced, filled in high schooler stood, smiling sheepishly.  A foggy nod and small smile from me was all it took to be wrapped in a bear hug by this grown human being, whose face reminded me of a less-chiseled, softer version that sat used to sit in the second pod of my 6th grade literacy classroom at Columbia Middle School, in what felt like moments, but had in actuality been years, ago.  

"Look at you!  All grown up and at Rangeview....sophomore, right?"

The deep laugh.  "Nope.  Junior!"  Before I could ask a follow-up question he pressed on.  "You'll never believe it.  I've got a 4.3 GPA, marching band is awesome this year, planning a great show, and oh yeah, I love my English class by the way...but I want to be an engineer.  Thinking about School of Mines...or maybe BYU Hawaii..."

"Wow.  That's great," I marveled.

"Well, anyway...it was good to see you.  And by the way, thank you, "he added pointedly, before handing me a sleeve for my steaming drink.

As he rushed out the door tray of drinks in hand for what I could only assume were fellow marching band or first period friends, I took a sip, exhaled in satisfaction and thought, no...thank you...

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Home Owning, Home Improving and Just Plain Homely


1. (of a person) Unattractive in appearance.
2. (of a place or surroundings) Simple but cozy and comfortable, as in one's own home.

I'm wondering if the first definition might also apply to a "place or surroundings" in certain cases?  If so, these two seemingly distinct definitions seem to be working in tandem to form a perfectly complete and accurate description of our current situation.  Homely: the current state of life on Genoa Court.  

We are homeowners.  We became homeowners in the late spring of 2007, closing on our first ranch-style residence in Southeast Aurora while the ground around us was thawing, and final  preparations for our upcoming nuptials were coming together in what would be the perfect mid-June wedding -- and the beginning of the rest of our lives.

Since then, we've settled in and pieced together furniture over time to create a flow from room to room; we've gradually used all of our wedding gifts and appliances and watched our hardwood floors dull from the daily traffic of two humans and three four-legged canines traveling the path from study to master bedroom to kitchen and back again (lots of muddy paws and dusty feet).  We've had our sprinkler system winterized and brought back to life, and we've watched our front and backyard lawns brown and green and brown and green again with each turning season. 

Indeed, we've settled in.  We've lived in our home long enough to know it's quirks and creaks, the things we love about it and the things we want to change someday...someday far away when we're not hopelessly upside down on our mortgage and our property value and savings both resemble something recognizable and respectable.  Yes...we own a home in zip code 80013 - the highest foreclosed zip code area in the state of Colorado since the dismal turn of the economy.  Heavy sigh.  

But, for the most part, we love our home and we love being homeowners.  Some days we romanticize about life in a loft downtown or in a cabin in the mountains, but truth be told if we had to do it over again, we probably would pick something very much like our current house in size and shape and location.  And we have no intention of moving anytime soon...moving is perhaps the only thing worse than living in a home improvement messy pile of rubble and dust.

You see, we've lived in our house just long enough that we thought it time to tackle a home improvement project.  You know, something small and manageable, something we could "do ourselves" in a couple of weekends.  And from this optimistic and naive notion sprang our current homeliness: a garage full of brick pavers, bags of gravel and sand and retaining wall rock, and a backyard pit - a pile of dirt and broken up concrete where previously stood a small, dilapidated wooden deck.  Our vision: a sunken patio big enough for entertaining -- summer book club barbecues, fall wine tastings, and spring "we're not having a baby" showers.  And perhaps, by spring, we will indeed have a patio...and a party to christen it.  But right now...we have a mess.  And a lot of materials occupying our garage.  The days are getting shorter and crisper and we're left wondering -- what will come first -- our initial frost or our first completed home improvement project?

We've learned that simple projects are never simple -- they're complicated and costly.  And the satisfaction of "doing it yourself" doesn't quite counter the back pain, blood blisters and stress.  My husband is looking thinner these days -- nearly a week of manual labor, dehydration and skipped meals is proving to be a heck of a crash diet.    

Everything is dusty.  The outside, the inside, the "clean" laundry folded on the kitchen table.  The windowsills, the dishes in the sink.  Dusty, cluttered, messy, stressful, over-budget, back-breaking work.  Tomorrow, the day laborers come to (hopefully) help us finish the job by Sunday.  The grand total for the "simple" project is still being calculated.  Oh, it's a homely state all right.

And yet, as the evenings get cooler and the turning of the season begins to whisper in doorways, dawns and dusks, I can't help but think -- no matter how dusty, dirty, messy, pricey, inconvenient, and stressful our current situation is...it's still ours.  Our home.  A roof over our heads, bare essentials in the refrigerator, a place where we're greeted by stubby tails wagging vigorously, lolling tongues and chirpy barks every time the garage door signals our homecoming.  Our home.  

This morning I drove by another home two blocks from our own.  There were multiple notices duct taped to the door and a pile of belongings heaped in the doorway.  Another foreclosure.  A family's life unclaimed in an unkempt pile sitting in what used to be their driveway.  Their home.  Now...they are home-less.  What rented or borrowed space do they call their own?  

And just like that....the film of dust lining every surface of our interior, the patchy soil and roped off pit that sits in our backyard...is beautiful.  Is perfect.  Is ours.  Is homely as in definition #2 - "simple, but cozy and comfortable."         


Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Smart" Tools & Back-Up Plans

It is no secret that I have a love/hate relationship with technology.  Mostly, I love it when it's working for me, and hate it when it's not.  It seems that everything that's supposedly "smart" or loaded up with a gazillion gigabytes, anything that has multiple "apps," or is marketed as a convenient way to network, a time-saver, a multi-functional tool of epic proportions that will revolutionize, organize and prioritize the most complex of professional and personal worlds, in the end just ends up being...well a disappointment that will be replaced by a better, faster, beyond 4G version of itself in six months or less. Maybe I'm cynical, or somewhat old-fashioned, or completely jaded by the fact that I'm more of a PC than Apple person, and therefore programmed to believe that eventually no matter how slick the packaging and how cool the tool, my warranty is going to expire.  

And yet, despite the inevitable disappointments, glitches and short-circuiting I know will ensue, I'm first in line when my cell phone contract is up for a new phone purchase, I can't log more than a 5K without being plugged into my iPod (the only Apple product I own), and I'm hard-pressed to remember friendships (not to mention birthdays) pre-Facebook.  It is technology that allows me to have a small but invested audience for my written ramblings (thank you loyal blog readers).  It is technology that gives us cute new terms and ways to connect in succinct and simple ways -- just Tweet or text it.  It is technology that allows me to toggle between magazines, newspapers and ebooks with a tap of my finger and it is technology that allows me to carry an entire library of music, books, and film in my purse without putting even the slightest strain on my shoulder.  And perhaps my personal favorite -- it is technology that allows me to send a shower gift that shows I care without ever having to set foot in a "Babies R' Us" or "Bed, Bath and Beyond" again.  Ever.  Click to purchase, click to gift wrap, click to ship and send.  No traffic, no check-out lines, no questionable customer service.  Some of my best gifts have been purchased under deadline at 2 a.m. while wearing pajamas and fuzzy slippers.

But I'm learning that the seductive lure of technological gadgetry is a dangerous one.  Like the quest for the perfect pair of shoes (trust me, no matter how cute or expensive the pump, they're still going to leave blisters after walking a certain number of city blocks) our tech-driven culture promises us efficiency, function and flair  but our devices lack the commitment to meet our long term needs.  It's a lot like dating in your 20's.  Everything looks so good and feels so perfect until about date three when flaws begin to surface, conversations begin to short out and the battery life is on a slow, steady drain, until eventually...the charge is completely gone.  Time for a new battery, an upgrade, or a completely new model.

Moral of the story?  Buy the cute shoes, but wear them when you know you're going to be sitting for a leisurely dinner or a night out at the theater.  Date a few people for superficial reasons so you recognize your soulmate and life partner when he (or she) comes along.  And, use the tools of technology that are at your fingertips, but don't rely on them to be there for you.  Have a back up plan.  Preferably one that involves paper and ink and doesn't require batteries or an outlet.  

I continue to learn these lessons.  I'm guilty of wearing impractical shoes on occasion and of setting up friends with the best of intentions but that result in brief courtships that ultimately fizzle or perhaps never even come to fruition in the first place.  And no matter how many times I tell myself not to get too close to the latest gadget or tool, I still end up trusting it just a little too much, and being burned by it in the end.  Just this week my "smart" phone dropped three phone calls, my emails were delayed in cyber space, stuck between who-knows-where and my inbox, somehow I lost a document in the "cloud" where things are never supposed to be lost, my sweat or my ambitious pace shorted out my iPod leaving me song-less for the last mile of a five mile tempo run, and worst of all, my precious little Nook (ereader) is acting up.  I haven't gotten a newspaper delivered on time in two weeks without having to manually reboot and re-register the device.  

Sometimes I miss the thudding sound on our driveway in the pre-dawn hours that formerly signaled my newspaper was safely waiting for me to rescue it from the cold, concrete driveway.  Sometimes I miss the glossy feel of the advertisement inserts and the gray residue the newsprint left on my fingertips.  I didn't always read the paper daily, but each day's news was reliably there for me if I needed it.  No worrying or waiting for it to download.  No re-booting or forced shut-downs.  No dropped or finnicky wi-fi signal.  No sporadic sound bytes or tickers running across a screen, but full-length articles and the sound of crisp pages turning.  No clicking required.  

That's the thing about temperamental technology.  When it's on the fritz it reminds us that there was a time when we did without.  When we lost ourselves in books despite not being able to adjust the font size.  When we called friends and family on landlines instead of texting them abbreviated greetings.  When we hand-wrote birthday cards and invitations, licked and sealed envelopes, affixed stamps and snail mailed them to recipients, instead of relying on Evites to collect our RSVP's for us. 

I believe technology is neither good nor evil it just is -- it's a part of our world and it can lead to wonderful (and frustrating) things depending on the circumstances.  But I will never again give tools credit for being "smart."  Our devices and gadgets are not smart.  The human ingenuity that created them is...and so is having a back-up plan -- knowing when to unplug the device, call tech support, and pick up a book.  The kind with real paper pages and a hardcover or paperback jacket.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sunday Mourning: Bacon, Eggs & A Side Of Profound Loss

I love Sundays.  For me, they are about rituals, routines, relaxation and re-connecting to my spouse as we ready ourselves for another busy work week.  On Sundays we get to take a deep breath and just be...

Sometimes life gets in the way of our Sunday schedule, but a typical Sunday for us includes mass at St. Michael's (the 8:45 or the 10:30 service, depending on how many times we hit the snooze button), followed by breakfast at our neighborhood Village Inn, and a leisurely afternoon doing something fun or frivolous -- maybe a matinee movie, a game of racquetball, a run, some bookstore browsing, or simply a day vegging out in front of the television watching re-runs, while the rhythmic sound of laundry spinning and tumbling and the even breathing of three sleeping Schnauzers at our feet serve as our afternoon soundtrack.

There is a peace and balance that the predictable pattern of our Sundays brings to my sometimes chaotic and over-scheduled life.  Part of this peace is the friendships we have found by being "regulars" at our neighborhood Village Inn.  Our two favorite waitstaff members - Jimmy and Julz expect us each Sunday and treat us like family, or in most cases, better than family.  We can always count on them for a free slice of the pie-of-the-month, free beverages, free friendly banter, and only the best in customer service -- extra green chili on the huevos rancheros, eggs cooked to perfection (over-easy for me, over-hard for Kevin), Cholula ready on the table before we ask (even though Tabasco sauce is the standard for other customers' tables).  At the end of our meal, the manager, Joe, rings up our total and sends us off with good wishes and maybe a joke or two, and we know, that no matter what the following week has in store for us, we just had a really good breakfast and easy conversation with people who care about us (and not just because we're paying customers).  In essence, we're spoiled.  And it's nice to be spoiled at a run-of-the-mill breakfast chain on a Sunday morning.  So for the past few years, regardless of how long the wait is or what the rest of our morning entails, we are content to read the newspaper in the lobby and wait on the list just to sit in Jimmy or Julz's section, and exchange a joke with Joe.

So you can imagine our shock when this Sunday morning, our weekly ritual was smothered by a shroud of sadness.  

Bounding up to the hostess' podium, I chirped to Alisa, "The usual -- two for Jimmy or Julz's section!"  She took a deep breath, a funny look darkening her usually bright features, "Oh...Julz isn't here today, she's on vacation," she replied.  "No problem -- how about Jimmy then?"  Again, the weird face, the awkward pause, the hushed tone, and then, "He's...passed," escaped her lips.  A stupor of shock and disbelief made me take a step back and run through all of the possible things she could have meant by those two words.  Passed out sick or sleeping, unable to come to work?  Passed on the shift and he'll be back next week?  Passed on the opportunity to stay at this location and is transferring to another?  Because I couldn't possibly figure out exactly what she meant by "passed" I said the only thing I could think of for clarity:

"What...?" and I leaned in to make sure I heard every syllable she uttered.  

"Jimmy...died.  He was in a fatal car accident two weeks ago."  She proceeded to rattle off the names of every other waitstaff member working today, determined to give us our third choice and usher us to a table, wanting to believe that pancakes and bacon would cushion the weight of the news we had just forced her to divulge.  "Anyone else is fine," Kevin and I whispered in unison, exchanging furtive glances of disbelief.  

Settling into our booth, a lump the weight of a syrup bottle formed in my throat, working its way down to my stomach.  Impossible.  But true.  Looking around, I began to take in the somber air that filled the restaurant and permeated the lobby, tears welling in my eyes for the server turned friend, who would never get a final farewell or generous tip from us again.  I began to experience what Village Inn would feel like without Jimmy -- heavy and empty.  No white teeth flashing smiles and pleasantries.  No joyful greeting of, "Nice to see you again, Mr. Kevin and Miss Jessica," or for customers he didn't know on a first-name basis, "Of course, ma'am!" and "Let me bring you a piece of pie, sir!" or, "Be right there, Boss Man," when Joe needed him in a pinch.  

Before this morning, we didn't know Jimmy's last name.  We didn't know what he looked like out-of-uniform, or that he was only 23 years old, born in 1988, the same year as my baby sister.  Before this morning, we didn't know that Jimmy was a boxer with a 26-6 record who was never knocked out in the ring.  Before this morning we didn't know that Jimmy was a Hinkley high school graduate who made all-state in both football and basketball, and the academic honor roll 3 out of 4 years.  Before this morning, we didn't know that Jimmy's favorite colors were red and black, that he loved hip hop music and that he had so many girlfriends he sometimes got into trouble.  Before this morning we didn't know that Jimmy was raised by his grandmother who passed away when he was 14, and that despite having a father in prison, a mother in California who couldn't be bothered to raise her own son, and siblings sprinkled in various states across the country, he maintained a clean lifestyle and made an honest living, choosing not to follow in the footsteps of his would-be role models.  

So, what did we know about Jimmy?  We knew that he treated every one of his customers the way he treated us -- like royalty.  We knew that he could memorize the most complicated and convoluted order without ever writing it down, and that he wasn't satisfied unless he knew his customers were.  We knew he had a heart of gold and that he was a hero to the kids that were lucky enough to sit in his section.  We knew he never missed a shift or an opportunity to showcase politeness -- to regulars and strangers alike.  We knew that he brightened our Sundays and set the tone for our week.  We knew he was humble, handsome and hard-working, gentle and generous, with a soft competitive streak that compelled us to root for his team in the recent restaurant World Cup pool.  We knew he gave honest advice about what was good on the menu (and what to skip), and that no matter how busy he was, he was never too busy for us.  

Today, as we reminisced over pancakes and coffee, Joe shared that his service was standing room only, and that he missed the beginning of it because he was trying to bring in more chairs to accommodate all of the mourners.  Family, friends, his VI family and customers flooded Orchard Road Christian Center to say goodbye to a man taken from us too soon.  Jimmy wasn't wealthy or famous, he wasn't powerful or what most people would call prestigious.  Before today we didn't even know his last name.  But his smile and his impeccable manners touched every person he served.  He made a difference -- to us, and to so many other customers who breakfast at Village Inn just to sit in his section and feel better about themselves, and about the world.  

I'll never eat another piece of pie without thinking of Jimmy.  The Birthday Cake pie was his current self-proclaimed favorite.

Joe comped our breakfast this morning.  I guess he thought we shouldn't have to pay for bacon, eggs and a side of profound loss.  Maybe he was moved by our shock, our sadness, and the tears that pooled in our plates and dropped into our coffee cups.  Or maybe he did it because he felt it's what Jimmy would have wanted. Whatever the reason, we thank you, sir.  

And to Tyrell Cornelius Jimmylee Kinard -- we'll miss you.  Thanks for making our Sundays.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Reading Between The Lines

One of the blogs I follow is titled "Beauty in the Ordinary."  Since completing the Denver Writing Project I've been challenging myself to look at the world through this lens.  I've been trying to see the world through a "writer's eyes," to see something special, unique or distinct in the mundane.  Some days where I look for beauty I just see the ordinary -- people shuffling around disconnected, plugged in and tuned out.  But today I saw something truly beautiful.  Something I would call extraordinary.  Something that made me smile.  Something that as hundreds of students fill backpacks, pack lunches, and board buses this week in preparation for a new school year, gives me hope.

While ordering an iced coffee at the Barnes and Noble cafe, somewhere between swiping my bank card and pushing a straw through the top of my drink, my gaze fell upon an unlikely text-immersed trio: a father sat with his two sons, tucked away at a corner table, settled in and content, completely engaged with the written word.  The father was taking turns between scanning the content of his magazine and marveling at his two sons who looked to be between the ages of eight and twelve.  The younger of the two, brow furrowed, concentrated on his e-reader, oblivious to everything around him.  The older one sat, stooped shoulders and eyes lit up behind the cover of the latest Alex Rider installment, silently mouthing the words and moving his finger line by line down the page, radiating sheer pleasure at getting one sentence deeper into his paperback adventure world.  As the barista completed my order, the father made eye contact.  He must have read my face, a mixture between surprise, awe and delight, because he smiled widely, matching my grin, and looked from me, back to his sons, then to me again, his eyes silently affirming, "Yes, on this Sunday afternoon my sons choose to read."  

As I walked away from the scene and into the shelves of beckoning titles, I couldn't decide if the  human tableau should leave me feeling satisfied or sad.  Seeing  a father choose to read alongside his sons on a Sunday afternoon left me hopeful about the future of the printed word and the power that teachers and parents have to support and safeguard the next generation of readers.  But the fact that this scene caught me by surprise made me sad.  Why can't I remember the last time I saw engaged readers in action (especially outside the walls of a classroom)?  And why did this scene feel extraordinary when really, shouldn't parents and children reading side-by-side be among the most simple, routine and ordinary events we encounter? 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Polishing & Pleasantries

It's a warm waiting room filled with obscure magazines, filtered water and a fake fireplace.  It's reclined, cushy seating and soft rock playing in the background.  It's the powerful taste of gritty cinnamon encasing each tooth and tickling your tongue.  It's rinsing, re-rinsing and suctioning through a tube.  It's flossing and scraping.  It's welcoming first-name-basis greetings from the friendly receptionist.  It's being punctually escorted into a sterile examining room that smells like Lysol and spearmint gum.  It's leaving 45 minutes later with a goody bag, an appointment for six months later, and a gentle scolding to use the Waterpik you invested in after the last visit.  

It's going to the dentist...and for me, it's one of life's little perks.  

Am I mad?  Masochistic?  Just plain eccentric?  I don't believe I'm any of those things.  True, I'm lucky --  I've never had a cavity, a root canal, or a painful experience in my dentist's chair.  True, I find dental hygienists to be among the most genuinely perky and pleasant people I know (especially considering they spend eight hours a day inside human mouths).  True, my dentist has salt and pepper hair, twinkly blue eyes, a charming sense of humor, and Listerine clean breath that when mixed with his cologne makes you feel a little heady without actually having to go under with nitrous oxide.  True, the photographs that line the walls of the waiting room and capture wide-mouthed smiles from exotic places - Ethiopia, Senegal, Nicaragua - a living scrapbook of third world pro bono dentistry work make the twinkly blue eyes even more compelling.  True, I get some sense of satisfaction out of having him tell me that I have impeccable oral hygiene and that he can tell I've been flossing, when truthfully I only floss once every six months (the night before my appointment) and just 48 hours before sitting in his chair for an examination I enjoyed two glasses of staining red wine, and six hours prior to the cleaning consumed two cups of coffee.  True, I go faithfully every six months for the cleaning, the conversation, and the delicious homemade banana bread they send customers home with in addition to a new toothbrush.  

Today I experienced high-quality customer service.  Today I took my mouth to the spa and left feeling clean, tingly and validated. Today, my insurance picked up the tab for "preventative care" that felt better than an out-of-pocket pedicure.  Today, I blushed as my canines and incisors received compliments.  I reclined, relaxed and unwound in my dentist's chair.  

Some girls need grand gestures - rare gems or beds of roses.  Not me.  Polishing and pleasantries from polite would-be strangers that have become bi-annual friends.  That's it.  And an invitation to sit in the chair every six months to be showered with courtesies and cinnamon paste.  

And in the meantime, in between visits, on the days when the skies are cloudy, I can't find a pair of matching socks, I wake up on the wrong side of the bed, feel fat in my favorite pair of jeans, or spy another stray, stubborn gray hair sprouting from my scalp, I will brush, floss and be thankful that my teeth haven't betrayed me.  

Saturday, July 30, 2011

"Hurts So Good?"

As has been previously established, there are so many things I love about the 80's - things like big hair, bright colors, and John Mellencamp (with or sans the "Cougar" I think he's divine).  His songs are catchy and to this day get respectable radio play, can be heard at baseball games and firework shows, and represent all that's good and bad about American culture.  His song "Hurts So Good" has been stuck on repeat in my mental iPod all day.  And then it dawned on me...oh, this song is so much more than a catchy tune.  It's truth.

This morning I woke up with a headache and a tummy ache, both of which were foreshadowed last night when I overindulged in garlic-laden Italian food and wine at Pasquini's and other alcoholic beverages at Herman's Hideaway and Black Crown Piano Lounge.  I knew at the time that over-indulging in the present would mean future physically uncomfortable consequences, but I ate, drank and was a little too merry anyway.  Hurts so good.

I know I'm not alone.  When I woke up and browsed my news feed this morning I saw status update after status update of Facebook friends nursing hangovers, battling insomnia or grogginess from too little or too much sleep, and forming plans to do it all over again tonight, even though we know better.  Hurts so good.

Last night, one of my single friends that I'm itching to set up, remarked that she is, "So over dating dumb-dumbs."  She emphasized intelligence and politeness as two of her only non-negotiables.  As I reassured her that I'd IQ background check before giving out her digits, I couldn't help but ask, "So...you've dated a lot of 'dumb-dumbs'...why?  Were they hot?"  Her guilty smile, definitive nod and raised eyebrows were all the affirmation I needed.  I thought about my own dating track record in my 20's and how so many of the smart and beautiful women I knew knowingly date men they know won't satisfy any sort of long-term relationship standards for short-term fun.  Hurts so good.    

Why do we want and enjoy what's bad for us?     And worse, why does what's bad for us feel so darn good? 

I love to run.  I'm learning to love to sweat.  I love the feeling I get after a leisurely jog or an intense hour of kickboxing.  But make no mistake, I love ice cream more than exercising.  I love it even though I've figured out that dairy makes me ill.  I'll gladly concede the calories and the constipation for a double scoop of mint chocolate chip on a sugar cone.  If I had to choose between working out or eating ice cream, I'd pick ice cream every time.  Even though I know it will make me feel terrible later.  Even though I know it's not good for me.  Even though I know that the endorphins from the run are better for me (emotionally, physically and spiritually) than the 31 flavors of tubs stretched tauntingly before me at Baskin Robbins.  

Hurts so good.  

Monday, July 25, 2011

School "Daze"

True confession: I may have entered the field of education for two reasons -- 1) I love the "first day of school feeling" and I get satisfaction out of experiencing it again every year, and 2) I'm addicted to office supplies.  If this makes me a less-than-noble educator, or a full-blown nerd (or both)...so be it.  A+ for honesty.

First Day of School Feelings
You know what I'm talking about - tradition, ritual, routine.  A secular baptism.  A new backpack full of possibilities and hope. Jitters that keep you up the night before and cause nervous dreams where you show up to school without a schedule, without a pencil, or in the most severe cases, without a shirt (or skirt).  These dreams jolt you out of sleep and force you to check your alarm clock (again) because heaven forbid you are tardy on your first day.  

The first day of school is the rawest of first impressions for teacher and students alike.  It is crisp bulletin boards and clean desks.  It is genuine smiles, summer reunions, and sack lunches.  It is books and dreams and above all, it is the most beautiful of beginnings -- life's annual blank sheet of paper.

On Office Supplies
I believe it was a Tom Hank's line to Meg Ryan in "You've Got Mail" (of course, all credit for the snappy dialogue goes to writer/director Nora Ephron) that captures it best.  The line, written in an email exchange between the two, was about presenting Ryan with a "bouquet of newly sharpened pencils" to celebrate fall, the initial stirrings of their online flirtation, and the "back-to-school" season in New York City.  That pretty much sums it up...some girls want roses, lilies or wildflowers, but I, much like Ryan's bookworm character, would rather receive newly sharpened pencils any day.      

I realize it sounds foolish, but there's something really satisfying about the smell of paper and the feeling you get walking and breathing in the rows of Office Max or Staples.  Maybe it's in my blood.  My paternal grandparents owned  a small, local chain of office supply stores ("Fawcett Office Supply") and as a child they carved out a space for me in the back of the shop where I could sit at an executive sized desk and doodle on legal pads, or twirl around and around in a computer chair, growing dizzy as the rows of paper clips, thumb tacks and Elmer's blurred with each rotation.  If I close my eyes, I can still hear my grandfather's fingers drumming away on a typewriter or adding machine, a photocopier and Mr. Coffee whirring in the background.  A symphony of order and comfort.  Home.

Today was my first day back at work - the start of a new school year (minus the students) for me.  Last night I packed a lunch, a new notebook, and a stash of newly sharpened pencils in my messenger bag.  I set the alarm, checked it twice, and even had a couple jittery first day dreams.  I carpooled to work with a friend, hugged and re-united with co-workers, swapped summer break stories, and wrote dates in a fresh calendar.  Today I had butterflies of excitement and possibility swirling in my stomach, and even though it's only late July, I began to smell the crisp, cool potential of the fall.  

What if we treated every day, like a "back-to-school" day?  

Monday, July 18, 2011

You Are Who You Meet?

We all know those people.  The couples that after so many years together begin to merge mannerisms and facial features, until they look more like siblings than husband and wife.   Pet owners who, in both obvious and more subtle ways, have animals that mirror their owner's habits of mind and expressions.  The pert, prissy woman walking a poodle in heels (no, that was not a grammatical oversight -- in this scenario likely both the woman and the poodle are wearing shoes) or the burly guy who makes eye contact that just feels a little too much like the gaze of his bulldog, man and canine lumbering side-by-side down the street in definitive strides.   

Unsettling and a bit creepy, yes, but an undeniable fact just the same -- it is nearly impossible not to become to some degree like the people (or animals) that surround us.  I'm sure this is where adages like, "Choose your friends wisely," originated.  I'm also sure this is why perfectly normal, plain-speaking Mid-westerners start saying things like "Y'all," after visiting relatives in Texas, or "Brilliant," upon returning from a holiday in Britain.  In our unwavering independent American quest to be "unique individuals" we wake up one day only to realize, we sound just like our mothers, fathers, friends, lovers, and yes, perhaps even our Labrador retriever.  

I had one such moment today.  After returning from a leisurely lunch, lamenting the fact that my summer vacation is dwindling (less than one week left), I entered my tornado of a house and thought, "Who lives here?"  This residence cannot possibly be owned by me -- the calendar-driven, checklist loving, slightly "type A" me.  I'm organized.  I write things down and pay bills before they're due.  I was raised by a stay-at-home mother who was raised by her Slovenian Catholic mother who believed that dust was one of the seven deadly's, a neglected sin that surely deserved to be on the list just as much as lust or avarice.  

The chorus of barks emanating from the study jolts me back to reality.  Yep, I live here, but the place looks a little like, well...like my husband's apartment when he was he and I was me -- in those long-forgotten days before we were "we."  Slightly cluttered, slightly messy, things not put away in their place, empty pizza box on the counter, unfolded heaps of clean laundry on the dining room table, books stacked everywhere, dusty, lived in, and in dire need of a vigorous vacuuming.  

You see, among the many favorable and even enviable traits possessed by my mate -- things like generosity, kindness, a wicked sense of humor, a contagious laugh and a real knack for fixing anything, from a bad day to a leaky faucet, he has also perfected something else -- the art of procrastination.  It is this art that allows him to sleep in on weekend mornings, not worrying about what he's missing or what has to be done, while I putter about (loudly) making coffee and planning how I'll use my time off.  It is also this trait that makes grocery shopping an all-day affair, and why I'm fairly certain that prior to sharing a refrigerator fresh produce never resided in his.  Despite my ongoing struggle to understand his procrastinating ways, today I realized that this very trait seems to have seeped from the very pores of his skin and burrowed itself deep into mine. 

I have officially become a procrastinator.  I am writing this blog right now, merely as a diversion to housework.  I know I should be dusting, the cobwebs and dead skin particles on dark furniture surfaces are mocking and baiting me, and yet here I sit, blogging so as not to face mopping.  Everything else on my list today is done -- 2 mile jog, 9:30 Zumba class, lunch with Kodi, schedule windshield repair appointment, and catch-up on email from the weekend - check, check, check, check, and check.  But the housework?  I just can't face it -- I don't have the energy, the will, the desire.  I'd rather listen to Pandora, blog, and aimlessly read status updates and Tweets, until my fellow procrastinator-in-crime comes home.  I really should make dinner.  But take-out is so convenient.  I really should fold and put away that laundry.  But I am on summer vacation.  I really do want my life in order before starting back to work next Monday...but how badly?  Enough to squander a summer day on housework?  Enough to pay a housekeeping service?  Enough to resign myself to living in the dust or train myself not to look at it?  

I fear there is some truth to the "you are what you eat," maxim -- in fact, it is this fear alone that stops me from surviving on a diet of ice cream, tiramisu and cocktails.  But could it also be true that , "you are who you meet?"  If this is the case, than I am truly thankful that I have chosen wisely when it comes to friends, am blessed to be surrounded by a loving family, and indeed, am sharing a life with a person who makes me want to be a better woman, and who reminds me that really there is really very little of importance in this life that can't wait until tomorrow.  

And since imitation is the highest form of flattery, I think I will let the dust settle for a few more days.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Knee-Deep in Nostalgia-ville

Is life really about living in the present, carpe diem and all that jazz, or is it sometimes necessary and even rewarding to re-visit the past?

This summer has been one of nostalgia and remembering the past for me.  In most cases, doing so has helped me figure out the present, and maybe even the future, and in all cases it has made me realize that indeed, time goes by too quickly, and moments and memories are fleeting and precious.  Cliche, yes...but also true.

Examples of being "knee-deep in Nostalgia-ville"

Example A: As mentioned in previous posts, I spent a month writing alongside 19 other K-12 teachers in the Denver Writing Project.  I have a notebook filled with quick-writes and exercises, many of them snippets of childhood memories that manifested themselves in poetry, prose, or at least words on the page.  I worked through the life and death of my grandmother, and some hilarious and horrifying childhood moments among other things, and for the first time I felt like I had "real" and "raw" creative material to work with - stories to tell...most of these stories are from faulty but lasting memories.

Example B:  Favorite movie of the summer (and no, I haven't seen Part 2 of the 7th Harry Potter saga yet) - "Midnight in Paris."  Why?  Many reasons, but one is that Owen Wilson's character time travels to Paris in the 1920's (coincidentally moi's favorite time period) and meets legendary figures like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, etc.  I loved the movie because I, as the viewer, also vicariously traveled to a time when bobs, sequins, fine writing, and even finer music filled smoky salons - any writer's paradise.  Saw it on the big screen - twice.  Now, I'm waiting for the DVD -- because you never know when escaping into Paris in the 1920's will come in handy.

Example C: I found out this week that Cyndi Lauper is playing in concert in Denver at the Ogden Theater.  My very first cassette tape was her "She's So Unusual" release - the girl who paved the way for Madonna in many ways, and a real-life Betty Boopish kind of vocalist.  Naturally, I talked one of my best friends into going so I can look forward to re-living the 80's - all that hair and leg warmers - in the fall.  

Example D: And speaking of 80's, this year for our anniversary we escaped into the 80's via the Denver tour of "Rock of Ages," - lots and lots of big hair, make-up, Poison, and...wine coolers.

Example E: Last weekend, members of the Regis class of 2001 gathered together for our 10 year reunion.  While there was some conversation about the present - who we are and what we're doing now, along with the inevitable celebration (weddings, babies, careers, bla, bla, bla) as well as devastation (separation, divorce, illness, unemployment) - most of the talk focused on reminiscing about who we were and what we did...10 or more years ago.  The experience itself was in many ways like stepping back in time - most people looked the same (or even better in a few cases - fitter, tanner, filled in, and well-dressed), and time had a way of erasing any of the negativity, drama, break-ups and fall-outs, and replacing it with, well, fondness and nostalgia.  

At the Friday night gala there was a shocking lack of dancing as an ambitious band attempted to tackle seven decades worth of music (to hit every represented group's era).  We requested Dean Martin's "That's Amore," and you could hear the giggles and snickers from the class of '71 before the opening accordion notes sounded.  "Oh, how cute...look Fred, the young people requested Dean Martin."  P.S.  We may have been among the youngest ballroom dancers on the floor, but I'm fairly confident we had the best waltz, and I certainly had the best partner - my husband - who was not a part of my life at Regis and who I wouldn't even meet until January of 2006 in a post 9/11 world, but who willingly stepped back in time with me to glimpse who I once was to better understand who I would become.  Yep, that's amore all right..

So, is it better to remember the past but live in the present?  Can we do one without acknowledging the other?  

Off an isolated stretch of I-70 between Kansas City and St. Louis, there's a place called "Nostalgiaville."  It is, as the name implies, a nostalgia shop, where antiques and collectibles, relics from bygone eras, line the cramped shelves. Crossing the hardwood threshold a silver bell on the door jingles, signaling to the clerk that a patron has entered the shop, another weary traveler who needs to stretch his legs or pick up a last-minute souvenir.  For a brief moment, if your cell phone is silenced and it's the off-season, you can breathe in the history of the retro objects, and a little dust, and literally experience stepping back in time.  

I visited "Nostalgiaville" once, more than a decade ago, so I'm not sure if it still exists, and if it does, if the floors indeed are really hardwood, and the bell, silver and tarnished.  Memory has a way of romanticizing the past, but then again isn't that the point?  If we didn't, how would we ever move through the grieving process, survive a broken heart, forgive others, form new relationships, and ultimately, become the people we are supposed to be?  

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

DWP & Figment Fiction Contest - Story Starter, "I wish spoken words..."

Okay, so I learned many things in the Denver Writing Project, but perhaps the most important lesson I learned is just to write...to write more and write often.  So, I had hoped to make some sort of "real" writing (beyond emails, Tweets, and status updates) a part of my daily routine.  So far, today is the first day (since the project ended last week) that I've written - between oil changes, eye appointments, Zumba, lunches with friends and happy hours, I have already begun to slip off the "writing wagon."  This little contest - a 750 word challenge that requires contestants to use the opening lines:  I wish spoken words were things that could be erased, forgotten.  But now I knew, and we could never go back, is my self-imposed challenge for today.  I admit it.  I love YA (Young Adult) literature...it's short, snappy, and can often bring universal themes (both adolescent and adult) to the surface.  The prompt and contest specifications lent themselves to a a "YA" teen angst/acceptance type of story so here it is...it's not as deep, universal or original as I'd like it to be, but some days you just have to write...something and anything.

Confessional Scars

I wish spoken words were things that could be erased, forgotten.  But now I knew, and we could never go back.  So instead, I replayed the two-word phrase over and over in my head, and like a deep wound that refused to heal, each time it left a new ache in my heart.  I wanted those words to be a lie or a practical joke.  But deep down I knew they were the truth. 

There were other words that had scarred me over the years.  Words like “divorce,” and “last,” and “mistake.”  Words like “fat,” and “ugly,” and “worthless.”  But between those words I had found comfort in putting my head into my mother’s lap and dumping all of the words that had been dumped on me into her patient ears, seeking solace in between bites of Oreo cookies.  

“Things will get better,” she always said, “Tomorrow is a blank slate.”

And until now, I had believed her.    

Things had gotten better when my father finally left us to pursue other women and other interests.  Relieved of the burdens of a wedding ring, a mortgage, an overweight adolescent daughter and an aging Labrador retriever, he had freed us to move out and start over – just the two of us, well three of us: my mother, lumbering, loyal Duffy, and me.

Things had gotten better when we moved to the city and I switched to Roosevelt High, where droves of students, in all shapes, colors and sizes, helped me disappear behind hooded sweatshirts and baggy jeans into the back rows of overcrowded classrooms.  Invisibility is a security blanket after years of being a target.

Things had gotten better after meeting shy and studious Simon in AP Biology.  A lab partner who became a friend, and then a friend who became my first kiss outside the movie theater on 10th and Trenton, his lips tasting of Sour Patch Kids and comfort.  That kiss had turned into others, and into soft, unsure hands traveling under my shirt and up my back in hurried, gentle bursts that left me breathless.  Things were definitely better with Simon.

That’s the trouble with wanting to be wanted.  You set yourself up.  It was then, when spring’s buds were turning into summer’s warmth, that I began to get comfortable in my own skin, a skin that was fitting into jeans better, responding to lip gloss and suntan lotion, enjoying the daily dog-walk with Duffy, the feel of his coarse leash around my wrist and Simon’s hand inside my own, damp with sweat and anticipation.  It was then, when for the first time in my life my skin felt beautiful because he wanted to touch it, that I began to believe that I could in fact be like other girls.  Girls who were blonde, slender and freckled, who giggled in carefree waves that consumed cafeterias and shopped in packs, brushing up against boys with confidence that oozed from heavily mascaraed lids.  Girls I had stared at with wonder and awe in locker rooms, and secretly listened to in bathroom stalls, waiting for their tales of that week’s flirtations and fashion mishaps to dwindle and disappear, before daring to flush.

Simon had changed everything.  And then, he uttered two words, from the same lips that had first kissed me at 10th and Trenton that left me right where I had started.  A chubby nobody, a nothing, a fraud.

It was at the end of one of our daily walks, when our hands parted and I reached out to pat Duffy’s head and scratch behind his ear, that a hesitant sigh escaped Simon’s lips.  “I need to tell you something, but I don’t want to hurt you.”

Puzzled and suspicious, I met his gaze, words escaping my lips in a forced, robotic fashion, “You can tell me anything.  It won’t change the way I feel about you, what you mean to me.”  For added emphasis and support, I leaned in for a peck, his sheepish withdrawal my first indication that indeed the next words he uttered I did not want to hear.

“I’m gay.”

And just like that, all of the hesitant kisses and touching, the progress I had made in meeting my own gaze in the mirror, the internal beauty I was beginning to trust, shattered by those two words.    Words that sent me straight to cookies and my mother’s arms.