The Author

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I am a high school English teacher, and mother of two charming little ones of my own. I teach in a high poverty urban charter school, while I live in a typical American suburb that has frequently been rated one of the safest cities in the country. It is a paradox I struggle with constantly, but it is my life.

Monday, December 24, 2012

What 2012 has taught me...

2012 has taught me that...

  • Happiness is a choice. 
  • Gratitude is far more powerful than I ever imagined.
  • Not all friendships last forever. Even the ones you really think will. But that's okay. Live in the moment. 
  • Money cannot buy happiness, but it can buy sanity. 
  • It is possible for my children to be exactly like me and nothing like me all at once. 
  • Students remember everything I say, even stuff I don't remember I said. Sometimes, it is the stuff I felt was the most inconsequential that makes the biggest difference in their lives.
  • Graduate school is not just more credits. It is exponentially harder than my undergraduate education. 
  • Speaking up for what you think is right is all well and good, but sometimes, if you really want to make a difference, you just have to learn when to keep your mouth shut. 
  • Solo parenting is really, really, really hard. Single moms have my utmost respect. 
  • No one on this earth loves me more than my mother.
  • Nothing in my life is more important than my children. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

My Annual Introspection - Thoughts on Freedom

This post has taken me days and much thought.  I've been editing and adding for almost a week now. This must be somewhat monumental in my life, I suppose, or I would not be putting so much thought into just writing it down.

So here goes...

Each year, I do my own version of new years resolutions by setting goals for myself. I started this in 2009. Since 2010, I added a step. Before I set these goals for myself, I look back to prior goals to see how I am doing.  Interestingly enough, it has been amazing to see how I have changed and how I have stayed the same.

My life has changed a lot. In 2009, my goal was to get involved in church and make more friends. That is almost humorous to me now. My goal last year was like the exact the opposite. Less quantity. More quality. And even though we joined a new church in 2011, my goal for 2012 was to somehow manage to stay as uninvolved as possible to be a good mom, good wife, good student, and good teacher.  My friendships have changed significantly. Life is different.

In 2012, I set only TWO goals.
1.  Resist the urge to plan a vacation this year to save up for one next year.
2. Simplify.

The anti-vacation plan...
failed. We actually ended up going on a vacation this year, the cruise with Marc's family, but it worked out okay. I don't regret it. Financially, 2013 is still not going to be a year for a big vacation, and I am okay with that.  We live in a vacation destination. There is something to be said for staycationing.

The quest for the simple life...
 has really just begun. What a journey. My objective was all about, as Graham Hill put it in his TED talk, "Less Stuff, More Happiness." I began to buy into the anti-consumerism mindset towards the end of 2011, and I am finding it is not a quick change, it truly is a journey, which we have begun. I found a great blog called "Becoming minimalist," and they truly got it right with the title.  Becoming. We consciously avoided extra junk this past year and got rid of a lot. I am finding that we have miles to go, but we got off to a good start this year.

Our lives got simpler in other ways too. We cancelled cable and have used only Roku and Netflix. When the TV is on in our home, it means we have watched less television and thought much more intentionally about what to watch. We listen to internet radio from Hawaii on the tv more than we actually watch tv. This has been a good change. Marc came home the other day saying that the cable company could increase our internet speed and give us digital cable again for only $7 more than we are currently paying. While I am glad to hear that they have come to their senses and brought prices down, my response to Marc was, "Why would we want cable again?"  He had some good points, but ultimately, I think I own with one argument.

"When you really look back on the past year, do you honestly think to yourself, 'Gosh, I wish we'd watched more television?'"  

If you have ever thought about canceling cable, I highly encourage it. We are happier and more productive.

The Happiness Advantage

Speaking of happiness... 2012 was the year of the happiness advantage. In the beginning of 2012, a student introduced me to a video about the happiness advantage, and I subsequently bought the book and bought into the notion of positive psychology and its benefits for my life. The beauty is -- I am not a naturally optimistic person. I may not be inherently positive, but positive psychology is all about training our brains to look at the positive, even when it doesn't naturally. The results have been remarkable. I am more resilient. I am more productive. I find evidence of this in the little things.  I bounce back quicker from disappointments. I finished my grades earlier this semester than I have ever finished them, despite having more last minute grading than usual.

I was looking back on last December's blog posts particularly early December, and I saw that I made comments like, "Life is eating me alive," and "I cannot wait until December 16th."  I was counting down the alarm clocks until Christmas.  I was having immense trouble getting through the grading, as well as just getting up and out the door each day.  This year, I didn't feel like that at all, although my CSUN classes were harder, and the semester stretched out longer. We didn't get out until the 20th this year, but I was not counting down alarm clocks. I woke up early the last week of school and managed to get to school in time to get grading in before school. Mood impacts more than I ever realized... and it is easier to change than I realize too.  If this intrigues you, I highly recommend Shawn Achor's book (and no, I don't get paid to endorse it -- you have my word -- but I am including a link to help you find it, just to be helpful).

My goal for 2013 is really just taking "simplify" to the next step:
Collect Experiences, Not Stuff
I watched another great TED talk, by a guy named Adam Baker who, along with his wife and toddler, sold all of material possessions and spent a year backpacking around the world. He asked this great question, "What does freedom mean to you?"

That is really an interesting question. For him, freedom meant backpacking around the world. His point though is - What do you really want to do with your life?  What stops you from doing it?  In many cases, it is the pursuit of stuff.

So true.  Freedom is really what "The Buried Life" poem and tv show are all about. Tracking our true original course. My course, as much as my teenage self would not believe it, is not traveling the whole world. But I do want freedom. I desperately want freedom and plan to pursue it with reckless abandon this year. I want the freedom to have less to clean and organize. I want the freedom to dig through less stuff to find what I want in my house. I want the freedom to spend my time off of school pursuing happiness. I want to be able to spend a month in Costa Rica in language school. I want to take Vinny to see shows on Broadway.

The key to this is going to be...
- living incredibly frugally to pay off our debts
- selling at least half of what we own
- using the proceeds to pay off debt

Again, really, it is "Less stuff, more happiness." Convincing Marc to emotionally detach from his possessions has taken some doing, but really, we are happy as a family sharing a tiny cabin on a cruise ship, with only our suitcases full of stuff. We do not need stuff. He is starting to see this too.

What we do need is to be free from debt.  Less debt = more happiness.

So, we have begun the task of selling our stuff.  In order to discipline ourselves, Marc and I both agreed that there needed to be some jar or something that would not be easy for us to take money out of, so that each time we sell something, we put the money in the jar and then eventually take the full jar to the bank.  Worried that we would try to take the money out, I thought about gluing a spaghetti jar shut and cutting a whole in it or something, but I came up with a better solution.

A close friend bought me this bottle of wine on a trip.  She saw the wine was called "Project Happiness" and thought of me.  I was touched.  When we finished the wine, I just couldn't throw the bottle away. I knew it had some purpose.

Did you know that, if you roll up a dollar, it is really easy to get it in a wine bottle?  But not all possible to get it out?  Yup. Perfect solution.  When the bottle is full, we will break it and pay down a credit card.  For now, each dollar is a step closer to happiness.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Processing the CT events, as a teacher and a mom

      With a full teaching day on Friday, the events in Connecticut seemed an impossible nightmare until later in the day as I was able to watch the news and process all of it.  My initial reaction was to put myself in the role of the teachers. I found myself imagining those teachers, alerted to a threat, vigilantly aware of the limits of their own classrooms, eager to protect their children... because I have been in their shoes.
     Ironically, I spent an hour and a half last Friday afternoon on lockdown in my own school because of a threat that someone nearby had a weapon. This probably sounds scary to you, it was oddly just irritating to me, as real lockdowns (not drills) are fairly commonplace in the community where I teach. Our school is very safe, but the community is overrun with gang violence. We often end up on lockdown just because of police pursuing a suspect or a perceived threat nearby.

      Three years ago, when I moved into my new classroom, I was delighted with the beautiful windows that make up 75% of my wall space. The students' first question on the first day of school that year was, "What are we going to do in a lockdown?"  In a lockdown, it is common practice to get away from all the windows, ideally to a corner of the room that cannot be seen from the windows or door, and to turn off all the lights, essentially hiding from whatever threat may be outside. In my room, there is no light to turn off -- the room is flooded with sunlight -- and there is no corner that cannot be seen. The only real solution, in the situation of a genuine threat, is to hide in the bathroom and storage room. It would be tight, but we'd all fit. I've thought about it plenty of times. My bathroom and storage room automatically lock and can only be opened with a key (which is irritating when the kids forget to leave the door stopper in during the day, but somewhat comforting given the recent events). We'd be fairly safe.

     And sure enough, that is what the teachers did that awful Friday morning. Who knows how many precious lives were saved by teachers' quick thinking. As the stories emerge, it is clear that many of these teachers did exactly what I would have done -- shoved all their kids in the bathroom and prayed for the best. For one class, that wasn't good enough. In one of the classrooms, from what I have heard, a group of the victims was found huddled together in the bathroom. I'd imagine first grade bathrooms don't lock securely like mine. The poor teacher did the best she could. But she died there with her babies.

     For a teacher, your students are like your own kids, so given that I heard about the event at school, and that I am a teacher, and that it was at a school, it makes sense that my first thoughts were of the teachers.

     But as it sunk in, and details surfaced, that the vast majority of the victims were little first graders, like my own precious son, my thoughts went to those mothers. It is so horrific, I cannot even imagine. One of the students' last week asked me what my biggest fear is. I answered, "Losing my children." A friend of my cousin, an online friend of mine, lost her child a week ago. I felt sick to my stomach when I thought of the pain she must be in. It is truly my biggest fear. I truly could not imagine.

 Then, Saturday morning, I watched an interview with a priest who knew many of the families. He talked about when he spoke with the parents, and that one of the little girls was going to be an angel in their Christmas pageant. And that, while they were speaking, one mom's phone beeped to remind her to bring her son to cub scouts, and she realized that she would never bring him to cub scouts again. And then... it hit home. I could imagine.

    Do you know how many alerts I have set in my phone for Vinny?  I could imagine the absolute pain of that mom.

      And then, our church had our Christmas pageant this morning. In the prayers at the beginning, they read each of the victims names and ages, so many of them 6 years old, just like Vinny. I cried quietly and prayed for that mom, who's daughter would not take the stage this weekend. I could not get that mom out of my head. As my son took the stage with his friends (some of whom he has known since he was two-years-old), to tell the story of our savior, I had a really hard time keeping it together. I don't think I was the only one. When our precious babies sang the final words of Away in a Manger, "Bless all the dear children in thy tender care and fit us for heaven to live with thee there," I don't think there was a dry-eyed parent in that church.

      Although Christmas is so often a reminder of the beauty of this world and the greatness of humanity, this year, it is truly a reminder of humanity's brokenness too. As we think of Mary, giving birth to a baby boy who would redeem our souls, its a reminder of the sacrifice that Mary made too. This Christmas, I think we'll all see our children as the blessings they truly are.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

An Overview of My Fall

To my blog readers...
(whoever you are)
I know it has been a long time since I have blogged. Painfully long. I think so long that the thought of me catching up has almost kept me from blogging, if that makes any sense at all. (Writing that incidentally reminds me of how I used to apologize to my diary in high school when I would forget to write for a long time.  That's kind of funny. What's not funny is that I cannot find my old high school diaries.  :/  I know they are somewhere). 

As busy as I have been though, I feel like I have achieved some peace and balance in my life this fall. I have spent a lot of time with my children and my family, and even more time with my friends than I would have thought possible with this schedule.  This has all felt really good, and I am proud of myself. 

Mickey's Halloween Party
Even in the midst of tech week for the play in October, we managed to pull of some cool stuff. A friend of ours had something come up last minute and couldn't use her tickets to the Halloween party at Disneyland, so we accepted them last minute and went. What a special, special gift!  When Marc called me that day to see if I wanted go, I knew we didn't technically have plans that evening, and that I wasn't totally behind on homework, so even though a huge part of the responsible adult in me said, "What the heck are you doing? It is a weeknight. You are a mother of a small child and a school age child. You are a graduate student with homework to do. You are a teacher with papers to grade. You are a sleep deprived director in the middle of tech week," a little voice inside me reminded me of reading an entry in a journal I wrote my freshman year of college. The journal was about what I hoped to find in a husband someday. I wanted someone spontaneous and fun.  Because that is what I wanted in life.  Here I was, with my spontaneous and fun husband offering me a spontaneous and fun outing that we could never afford on our own. The little voice one.  So we went. It was super fun. Not at all crowded, and a really cute way to spend Halloween. The kids were delighted. Normally, Disneyland is this long stressful day when you go with two kids, but for some reason, dragging two little ones around until midnight was not at all stressful. I think it was the spontaneity of it, if that makes any sense. (It doesn't, I know).  

My daughter and my niece trick or treating
This Halloween turned out to be really cool too (I mean the 31st), in that it reminded me of when I was a kid. I grew up in a neighborhood where, until I was a teenager, trick or treating was a big deal. Everyone in the neighborhood got in on it. Plus, I was friends with a lot of kids in my neighborhood, so all our moms would get together and we'd all go around the neighborhood together. There was a wide age range, with my sister being the youngest (who is six years younger than me) and me being the oldest, and the other 7-10 kids or so who would join us each year usually ranged somewhere in between. We'd go running around the neighborhood with our parents yelling at us to stay out of the street and not to get too far ahead. My sister would get scared of someone jumping out of a bush or something and go sprinting down the street with my mom tailing after. It is a miracle we all survived and all ended up back at home together at the end of each Halloween night. That is pretty much how it went this year. We invited Vinny and some of his friends and their families and siblings and my sister and her daughter. We all had a mini potluck dinner at my house (which meant I hosted like 20 people for dinner... on Halloween... during tech week.... how do I do this stuff? I haven't a clue) and then set out trick or treating. Our neighborhood is one of the few in town where it is still like it was when I was a kid. With the first graders running from door to door and the toddlers running in and out of the wagon, its was again a miracle that we stayed mostly together. It was a fun night that I will always remember.  
In November, my musical, Quilt, ran for two weekends, and my kids made me so incredibly proud. I literally cried in every performance. What a beautiful tribute this show was to the lives and legacies of those lost to AIDS. They made such an impact. I know that my school community will never look at AIDS the same again, plus, it taught my kids so much. Compassion, perseverance, professionalism. In addition, I think this group has become a family in a way I haven't had a group grow together since Go Ask Alice, which was back in 2009.  What a special year. This group will truly hold a special place in my heart for many years to come. 

For Thanksgiving this year, we did something completely and totally different -- we went on a cruise. Marc's family has been trying to coordinate this one for years. The last time that it was looking like it was going to work out was in 2009, but we cancelled it at the last minute and all agreed that we would for sure go the next year.  Then I got pregnant and realized that there was going to be no cruising with a newborn. This was the first year Tiana was old enough to go, so I agreed and we planned it and went.  I have to say that cruising with a two year old is much different from cruising with a three year old. Vinny loved it and was rather amiable. Tiana was... a handful; however, we still had a really good time. I had a lot of time to lay around and read and watch Vinny swim and stuff like that. Plus, on the last night of the cruise, I got to perform on stage with the Carnival Legends show.  They dressed me up like Gloria Estefan and I performed "Rhythm is Gonna Get You." Time of my life. So much fun. Rejuvenating for sure, but also reminded me how much I miss the stage. The theatre bug is an interesting virus. Once you catch it, you've got it for life. It can sit dormant for periods, but when it occasionally flares up, the symptoms are intense. (Those of you who have been bitten by the theatre bug will know exactly what I am talking about, particularly if you have ever had to spend extended periods of time off the stage).  

Yes, this is my two year old sipping a tropical beverage at a resort on the beach.
That's just how we roll, I suppose.
Overall, spending my Thanksgiving week in semi-tropical weather and having my toes in the sand multiple times throughout the week was just what the doctor ordered. Beach sand (enjoyable only when combined with beach sun) is like food for my soul, and I often will spend long stretches of the fall and winter deprived of this joy, so a late November blast was perfect for me. Tiana is truly a girl after my own heart in this way. She was a handful on the boat, but on the beach, she is a delight. 

I've spent the past few weeks since trying to survive crunch time at grad school and at work. I've been doing crunch time study sessions for my students on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I've had a room full of kids reading, doing extra credit activities, and getting tutoring in their writing. It has been worth the time though. One student who just never really got narrative writing back when we did it in August came in two weeks ago to ask how she could improve her grade. Since she hadn't turned in that assignment, I talked to her about it and she just totally had a mental block on writing about herself.  I've been in her boat (not about narrative writing actually, but about fiction. When I had to write fiction during my senior year of college, I felt like I was going to die), so I tried to understand and get her started. It was a long process. After literally 8 hours of working, she finally finished a narrative essay today. It was only a C, but that C felt like a badge of honor for both of us. 

On Tuesdays, some of my drama students and I have been working with a professor at the local university. We received a community partnership grant for a fashion design class to make costumes for our upcoming production of Much Ado About Nothing. Many of my students have been going weekly to work with the students since September. I am proud of them and the results are really cool. When they did their presentations yesterday, I could tell that the university students learned a lot too. For most of them, this was the first time that they had ever made something that an actual person would wear. For a fashion design student, that is kind of a big deal. 
This is about half of the costumes. Gonna be a fun spring. 

Today, was also a very special day. My cousin Brenda, who is really more like an older sibling to me, got married. Sadly, I didn't get to share this special moment with her, but they decided to do it very personal -- very them. They got married on the beach in Hawaii on 12-12-12. Very romantic. We celebrated her joy with a small bachelorette party and bridal shower this past month. They were small special affairs in which we celebrated, well, the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. 
For me, this is an interesting feeling. It's like there are no single women left in my immediate family. We've all started our own families. We all belong to others now. I feel like I've waited for this for Brenda for forever. Since before I was even a teenager, I felt like I was imagining Brenda's wedding, even more than my own (that's weird, I know).  And now it has happened. The queen of far off exotic places has gotten hitched in a far off exotic place. I couldn't be happier for her.   :-)