Wednesday, May 29, 2013

How It Feels

I didn't go into politics - or even business, for that matter - for a reason; one that, if you know me, you probably already know: I do not have a poker face.  I am not at all good at, as they say on Saturday Night Live, strategery.  I don't like office gossip or sneakiness or favorite-playing.  The way I prefer things to be in my work place is when, as my dad used to say, it is what it is - because what else would it be??

Unfortunately for me and for a whole lot of other people who live and/or work in the same school district I do, though, we have been involuntarily drawn into a situation over the past couple of years that has come to involve a lot of the undesirable aforementioned things.

As a result of the citizens of the city voting to give up their school district and the resulting imposed adoption of that system by the county school system, people in my area are talking about budgets and politics and outsourcing and other things that have regrettably become a very large part of the equation in public education.  One thing I haven't heard much talk about in meetings or in the media, though, is how it feels to have been swept into this maelstrom.

This has been the most difficult, most stressful year of my nineteen-year long career with the county school district.  I am proud of the efforts of many of my coworkers as we've entered into what can only accurately be described as a battle.  At times, I've felt sure that I want to do everything in my power to stay with the district, to continue the work I've started, and to try to control what I can in hopes of protecting my coworkers and friends - and ultimately, the students.  But, at other times, increasingly as the actual date of the change approaches, I feel as if I am in danger of going down with the ship.  Like a lot of my coworkers, my health and my personal life - and my overall happiness - have suffered a lot during this past school year because of the impending "merger" - a term, by the way, that really gets to a lot of us on the receiving end of the punches.  To merge means to join forces, to unite, or to team up, and to me that implies that an action is taking place between two roughly equal bodies, a situation which, in my opinion, this is not.  Always a fan of running metaphors, I liken what's going on here to a runner that has dropped out of a race who later asks an accomplished runner if he can train with the better runner.  One of them needs improvement; one doesn't.  One needs help; the other was fine on his own - and, in fact, is likely to be slowed down if the less skilled runner joins him on training runs, even though the faster runner may still be willing to take on the job of coaching the slower one.  It isn't a merger; it's more of an adoption.

In the district of people who did not get a vote in this decision, our leaders and our administrators are scared for their own jobs, for their livelihood actually, and it feels like there's an "every-man-for-himself" mentality that I have never before felt in this job.  Watching the process unfold in slow motion over the course of this school year has felt a bit like Chinese water torture, and in many ways I am glad to see the year come to a close, although I feel a distinct sadness at the same time that my job and this school system - both things that I have loved and have put my heart into since I was 25 years old - will certainly never be the same after end of this school year.  

Everybody knows that educators in this country generally don't make a lot of money.  They don't win Oscars or Pulitzer Prizes or get big raises or promotions or even get much recognition by their bosses or their "customers," unless, of course, a scandal of some sort is featured in the media.  The rewards we get come quietly and often only if we are looking hard for them, but most of us are lucky (and diligent) enough to see them, and we are glad to have this as our chosen career.  We realize that there is no other profession that would allow us to have such a part in shaping the minds of children in this way and to impact their future on such a personal level.  Teaching is about so much more than teaching - and I don't mean politics and jerrymandering and elbow-rubbing; it's about the power of relationships.  It's about the connection that can be made between one person and another person or between a person and a lesson, a link that can only be developed when the learner knows that the teacher cares about him or her.  When a mutual respect has formed between the teacher and the student, that's when the best kind of learning occurs.

But in an environment when educators are scared for their jobs, when school staff members know that they and/or their coworkers and friends may end up on the chopping block at any moment, when program cuts aren't a "maybe" but a "when," it's hard to be positive every day.  It's hard to focus on the lessons that need to be taught - and on the children who are the most important part of the equation.  From either side of the argument about what's fair or who deserves what from the limited funding available in the district now, one thing is for sure: teaching and learning have been hindered, and that doesn't feel good to any of us.

This is mostly a blog about grief and perspective, but I guess it's also about enduring and overcoming life's challenges, and I guess that's what has to be done in this situation as well.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Grief and Ice Chewing

I recently met a woman - someone I'll call Tina* - though a mutual friend.  In the course of conversation, it came to light that Tina's mother had been my boss for many years before her retirement.  I was particularly happy to meet Tina because her mom, about whom I will always think very highly, passed away tragically very soon after she retired, and I had never before had the opportunity to tell anyone in her family how much I appreciated the impact she had had on my life.

I told her how her mom had guided me professionally over the years, and then I told her what I admired about her mom the most, which was her mom's effort and ability to keep track of the details of things going on in the personal lives of her many employees and coworkers.  In a word, it was her kindness that touched me the most over the many years that I knew her - and it was that quality that I remembered and admired about her the most.

Tina told me about the day five years ago when her mom died, the specifics of which I hadn't heard before.  She talked about how hard it was to lose her mom and how she, as an only child, and her dad had grieved the loss differently.  She asked about my parents, and after I told her about my dad's death, we talked more about grief and loss.  As someone who is twice as far ahead as I am on the road of grief, she told me a few things she had come to know, like how the sadness and the pain never go away - but that things do get more tolerable in some ways over time.  

It was comforting to hear what she had to say about the grief process from her perspective and based on her time frame; it reminded me of once many years ago when I went to have my teeth cleaned at the dentist's office and saw a dentist in the practice whom I hadn't met before.  They had gotten a gadget to use during exams that was essentially a tiny camera that allowed them to film what was going on in a patient's mouth and then project the image onto a TV screen for the patient to view.  (Stick with me; I'm getting to the part where this ties in to the conversation detailed above.) The dentist used the camera to show me that I have some tiny cracks in some of my teeth; likely, she told me, the result of crunching ice.  Although she presented that information to me more in the form of a scolding than anything else, for some reason I felt the need to explain to her why I had started the obviously bad habit of ice crunching: to combat the severe heartburn I experienced during my second pregnancy.  "How old is that child now?" she asked me.  I thought she was just making conversation, and I told her my daughter was five.  "Well, that excuse got used up a long time ago," she snarkily informed me.

Needless to say, I did not bond with that particular dentist, and I chose not to be seen by her again.  I felt there were several important pieces of information involved in patient care that she was missing, ranging from general courtesy and compassion to motivation and perspective.  She didn't ask me if I still had issues with heartburn or if I thought the ice-chewing had just become a habit over the years; actually she didn't ask me anything except for the age of my child, which she obviously asked only as a lead-in to the judgment she was all too eager to issue out.  

And that leads me to what I think is my point, and, you'll be glad to know, to how this story ties in to the first one: grief, like ice chewing and lots of other things in life, has its own time frame in every situation, and that's ok.  Each person has his or her own story; each of us has traveled a different road to get to where we are today.  Without having traveled that same exact road, or, at the very least, without having worked to try to understand that person's perspective, another person cannot possibly have the insight or the knowledge - and possibly the right - to stand in judgment of another person.

That's one thing that I've certainly learned over the past couple of years; that, and the lasting impact of kindness.

*Her real name isn't Tina - and her identity probably really isn't a secret if you know me and my work history, but I prefer to use that instead of her actual name to protect her privacy - and since knowing her identity isn't the point of this story.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

What I Have Come To Believe - Part 3: Fighting Cliches'

Fighting Cliches'

The words we use to talk about cancer can influence how we think about the disease - and how we think about the people who have been touched by it.  Those who survive are often called "winners" and are said to be "victorious." Those who have not survived their cancer are called "angels" and are said to be "in a better place."  Whenever I hear those descriptive terms used in that context, though, it makes me wonder if it's being implied that the opposite is true when the story has had a different ending, never a good thing in my book for a process like being diagnosed and treated for cancer, the outcome of which is frequently tied to many different variables that are often very much out of one's control.  

People talk about fighting cancer ... but the term "fighting" implies that there are winners and losers, just as surrendering sounds like giving up.   Certainly it isn't being implied that those unlucky enough to die after being diagnosed with a more aggressive type of cancer or an unfortunate side-effect like infection are losers who have given up.  

My dad was tough; he challenged himself on a daily basis in the physical realm though countless miles of running and biking on the road and grueling workouts, and he worked his whole life to better himself in any way that he could.  At no point in his life was he a loser or a quitter, and he sure as hell never surrendered, even though he was not able to survive the cancer that took his life.  From Day One of his diagnosis, he said he was ready to go back to work, and he continued to say that up until a few days before he died.  That is the opposite of surrendering, if you ask me.  

Advice that I hear being given out a lot in reference to a person who is dealing with serious illness or another extreme trial in life is "Stay strong."  I'm not even sure what that means; don't cry ... don't refuse treatment ... don't die???  And the phrase that is used a lot with intent to encourage a person with cancer - "Never, Ever Give Up", or "NEGU," as it is sometimes abbreviated - makes me wonder if those using that slogan have considered that doing so implies giving up has occurred when one cannot survive despite everyone's best efforts.  When treatment has failed and the disease is taking over, the pressure from hearing cliches like "NEGU" must be almost as unbearable as the disease can be.

Instead of "Never, Ever Give Up," what cancer and grief have taught me is to "Never say never."  More than anything else in my life, the experiences I have had since my dad got sick have shown me that there is simply no way to understand some things without having gone through them.  Lots of things that I thought I knew have fallen by the wayside over the past 2.5 years; now I either have knowledge of a different set of facts - or a different perspective - or just the understanding that there are many things I don't know at this point.

Maybe it's ok to use the term fighting when we're talking about cancer, as long as there is an awareness of the fact that sometimes FIGHTING can be doing something other than getting an aggressive treatment. Treatment and all the things that go along with it are an individual decision, one that can be made exponentially harder because of the time factor, plus the shock, entering into end-stage decisions. I think a lot of people with aggressive cancers opt to try an aggressive treatment as they attempt to figure out what their goals are (their Revised Bucket Lists) - it's like that is the Default when we are faced with the initial decision, and then, if that proves unsuccessful or unsatisfactory, they go to a more traditional treatment or to less harsh remedies or even no treatment at all.  Fighting can be seen as doing any number of things - or sometimes by doing nothing at all, depending on the situation and on one's perspective.

With an aggressive cancer like GBM, the survival statistics are horrible to look at, but people tend to hang onto the knowledge that nothing is for sure; believing that a loved one will beat the odds is not unreasonable, and in many cases Hope is one of the few things that can be controlled. Those dealing with aggressive cancer may consider treatments that have less severe side effects than chemo; they may have an "if-then" list or just an idea of "if" this happens, "then" another option will be considered or pursued.  I know all too well that when the treatment options and their pros and cons have all been laid out, what to do can be a tough, tough, thing to hammer out, but here's the bottom line: sometimes saving a life is not the same thing as extending it

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