Responsibility Used to Be Fun

My daughter in 2nd grade in an agony of desperate excitement. "Pick me!" One of my favorite photos of all time.

My daughter in 2nd grade in an agony of desperate excitement. “Pick me!” One of my favorite photos of all time.

Small hands wave in the air. “Pick me, pick me!” they seem to say. They are attached to little humans whose faces bear expressions of anguish combined with hope combined with glee.

They want to volunteer for the job. Whatever the job is—they want it. Little children in school long to lead the line of students to the music room or clear off the lunch table or clean the paint brushes. In homes across the world, tiny people beg to perform the tasks of life, from feeding the cat to collecting the mail.

I remember my children hovering in the kitchen as I cooked, cleaned or did something else that, for me, was a chore. “Do you want to put the silverware away?” I’d ask my 3 year old son as I unloaded the dishwasher. Picking which stack to place a fork, knife or spoon in was probably fun for him and likely a good exercise for his developing sorting skills. Luckily he was tall for his age and could peer into the drawer without a boost.

My kids would sit with me on the giant family bed amidst drifts of clean laundry. They sorted socks, folded daddy’s boxers into tiny squares and sorted clothes into teetering piles according to family member.

They loved picking up the Brio trains or wooden blocks and putting them in their baskets, especially if we sang a clean-up song.

Fast forward. Age12. Even the most conscientious child who does her own homework the minute she gets home is likely to balk at any “chore” seen as unconnected to her own immediate self-interest, no matter how-up many clean-up songs are sung.

At the school where I taught for many years, I saw the same phenomenon over and over again.

Why does taking responsibility stop being fun? Or maybe it’s not responsibility per se, but the “jobs of life” that engage and enchant us at first, and then lose their luster.

Eventually, we get past adolescence and take on jobs galore, once again willing to shoulder worldly tasks. However, we no longer leap around gleefully begging to be given more duties at work or home; we simply accept that it is our lot in life to do so.

There are exceptions to this general trend. When a young person is starting out in her own job for the first time, or when someone branches out on his own to launch a business. The new employee makes everyone else look bad, volunteering for more and more responsibilities and joyfully staying at the office until 9 at night. Everyone else may be staying till 9 too, but with a seriously different attitude. They may feel like martyrs, or just abused, or maybe get a hit of self-esteem from the superiority of it all. But that new employee, like an entrepreneur starting up on her own, is steeped in glee to be doing it. All of it.

Of course there are twenty-somethings who play Halo in their parents’ basements and don’t want to do much of anything yet. There are people who have been in their jobs for 30 years and take on every day as if they were kindergarteners hoping to be allowed to clap the erasers (or whatever the electronic equivalent of that is these days).

But I’m talking about that thing that seems to be so inherent in little kids, and in all of us when we are starting out, or starting something new. That desire to do it all, and “be grown-ups” – prove ourselves? Take on what has been forbidden until this moment?

Is it an addiction to newness? Is it simply the lack of burn-out?

The little girl waving her hand in the air, longing to be called upon to read the weather to the class feels alive as she stands up to do her job. The new teacher feels alive as he works late into the night planning a lesson on westward expansion. The entrepreneur with a great idea feels alive as she goes days without sleeping to formulate her business plan, create her website and design her logo.

I have no idea where to go with this ramble. I know there is a way to approach every day as if it were new, full of promise and possibility, a chance to make a mark, change a life, forge an identity. I don’t want children to lose that feeling so that when they are 12 years old they look at the kindergarteners begging to serve the lunch as if they are freaks. Or so that when the 40 year veteran sees the new employee bursting at the seams, he does not default to resentment at worst, exhausted bemusement at best.

Who knows? Maybe at some point we stop believing that what we do has meaning, or that we are making a difference. But every 5 year old understands that the smallest task, from being line leader to setting the table for dinner, is meaningful and important. The child who brings in the mail or feeds the cat is making a difference. Every moment and every task, every responsibility and every silly item on the day’s list will certainly be appreciated by someone, and carried out with gratitude and joy if we can look at it through the eyes of a child.

Dog Blog

Cats have always been my animal. Well, and horses. In some ways I’m a girly stereotype, at least as identified by my animal preferences.

It’s not that I have not liked dogs. I’ve always enjoyed them, and even retained a strong attraction to German Shepherds despite the fact that I was attacked rather viciously by one when I was just three. My only distinct memory of that event was the sight of my dad’s shirt turning from white and brown check to red as he ran with me over his shoulder from Central Park to the nearest doctor’s office. Still, my brother-in-law’s shepherd, Miles, was one of my favorite people.

I feel an affinity for other animals at other times in my life, and pay close attention when one species in particular makes repeated appearances over the course of a few days or weeks. I love the book, Animal Speak, by Ted Andrews. He writes about animal medicine and advises his reader to stay alert to the lessons that can be learned, and what clues are to be found to help us step along our path toward inner knowing. The medicine comes to us through the spirits that greet us in the form of the hawk, the skunk, the bear, the heron, the deer or the coyote. And many more.

But for me, 2013 so far has very much been about dogs. Through a series of circumstances, I have spent a lot of time with them. Different dogs. I have been moving around a lot and have ended up, several times, living with, getting to know, taking care of—dogs.

I’ve fallen in love with them. My heart has been melted by dogs. Even dogs who are complete strangers, whom I met while visiting a dog park with my sister and her pup, Dexter, have winnowed their way into my consciousness and heart.

So what is the animal magic dogs have brought to me? I’ve been thinking about this.

Live in the moment

A dog forgets the full bladder of dawn, the hungry tummy when the human dinner is cooking and no one has gotten around to feeding him yet, the hours of neglect in favor of the laptop, the washing machine or the lawnmower. For a dog, history is gone forever and the now is everything. The smell of my flip flop. The flicker of laughter outside on the sidewalk. The sight of a favorite human. The feel of fingers scratching under a tilted chin. A dog’s sensations of the moment trump everything else. The past is meaningless. The future does not exist yet so why bother?

Forgiveness

A dog’s forgiving nature relates to living in the moment, as I see it. The two dogs I am living with and caring for now, Nico (a poodle) and Chini (a lab mix), are dear, affectionate souls who love nothing more than to romp through the woods with me, flop in the sun at my feet as I read a book, lounge across me as I watch TV and scratch them languorously. They have accepted me into their lives as a surrogate mom they like a lot. Sometimes I have to leave them. Life happens. I am to try not to leave them for more than 5 hours at a time, if possible, and if I must, to enlist the help of a neighbor. One day, I got stuck. Frantic, I watched three hours tick by, over my deadline. When I finally pulled into the driveway, I heard their barking. Clearly I was not the only one feeling frantic. I ran at top speed into the house, patted Nico who was jumping literally 4 feet off the ground, released Chini from the crate (Nico doesn’t get crated), apologizing effusively the whole time. The dogs would not leave the house to relieve their bladders until they licked me, nuzzled me, received my loving in return. There was no canine acrimony. No pouting (I mean, admit it—a cat will pout). No attitude. Just love, and flat out forgiveness as the past was forgotten and the moment of love and liberation cherished.

Patience

My friend Terri has some dogs. Five, to be exact. Two labs. A bull dog. An Australian Silky. A mix of Chihuahua, Greyhound and something else. Somehow, it all works. Scout, one of the labs, is one of the most long-suffering, calm, unflappable beasts in the universe. He will lie on the floor while Lily, the mixed breed dog, inexplicably humps his head with abandon. He will romp all over the sprawling property with Daisy, the terrier, who is 10 times smaller than he is. They run; he waits; Daisy eventually catches up; they run some more. Invariably, they come home together. Rosie, the bulldog, has a temper. Scout refuses to be riled. Admittedly, he is not that patient when it’s close to meal time, but he is a dog, after all.

Unconditional love

Bodhi, an extra-tall Standard Poodle with floppy hair and melting eyes,  sits every day like a king, feet neatly aligned, waiting for his mom, my old friend Annie, to come home. He waits all day. Sometimes he sleeps on the couch. (He takes up half of it, but when he wants to fit up there with two or more humans, can curl into a remarkably small package.) This hippie dog’s heart is as huge as Ghandi’s or Mother Theresa’s. While I was there for a two week visit, Bodhi tuned in to me remarkably fast. He sensed my sadness, and in a compromise borne of his own empathy, left his mother’s bed halfway through the night to come sleep on mine. He did not do this at first, but after he’d gotten to know and care about me, it became part of his action plan of love. Did he ask for anything in return? Not really. But he got my undying love. Bodhi loves without condition. Dogs know how to do that. They do not question, criticize, doubt or demand. They may ask for pets, and surely find it suitable to be fed upon occasion, but in the scheme of things, they give so much more than they get.

Dignity

It’s true that dogs can be pretty goofy. They don’t have the meticulous standards of a cat. Dogs will roll in rotten raccoon guts. They’ll make a scene, barking hysterically at a leaf floating by. But I now see these behaviors as endearing in their unbridled enthusiasm for life. Bella, a Swiss Mountain dog, belonged to my friend Teri for ten years. I met her the day she came home with Teri and her two daughters, and knew her all her life till her recent death. Bella could be pretty maddening. Eating chocolate, reading glasses, undergarments and a variety of other unorthodox, unhealthy and indigestible items. But somehow, no matter what mischief she got herself into, Bella had inherent dignity. She embodied the qualities of forgiveness, unconditional love, living in the moment, and endless patience for the other dogs in her family too. But it was her dignity in the face of adversity that struck me at the end, as she gradually let go of life. Though she was not in awful pain, she grew weaker, more wobbly as tumors spread over her body. Breathing was not always easy, and it hurt to walk. But she roused herself each morning to walk the gardens with her mom, waited for her girls to come to say goodbye, and left life on her own terms.

Embracing the doggy lessons into my life is the task I’m grappling with this year of 2013. I can’t ignore the future and though my mind occasionally erases it, the past still has a strong hold on me. I can forgive easily, except the one it is most important to forgive—myself, though I am getting better at it. Patience. That’s a good one. My record is spotty there. As a teacher, I could have oodles of patience. Patience goes with forgiveness in some ways, doesn’t it? And maybe unconditional love, too. Something easy to feel for one’s children—so hard to feel for oneself. And finally, I seek my own dignity in the face of egregious failures and errors. “Be patient with, forgive and love yourself,” I hear the dogs say to me, “and live for today. Isn’t today wonderful? And aren’t you lucky to have it?”

Chini and Nico on a woods ramble with me.

Chini and Nico on a woods ramble with me.

Saying goodbye to Bodhi down in Virginia.
Saying goodbye to Bodhi down in Virginia.

Scout is patient with my daughter's hugs because he loves her!

Scout is patient with my daughter’s hugs because he loves her!

Chini and Nico -- the look of love.

Chini and Nico — the look of love.

Dearest Bella in her last days, the epitome of all the doggy lessons, patient, loving, forgiving, dignified, and living in the last moments available.

Dearest Bella in her last days, the epitome of all the doggy lessons, patient, loving, forgiving, dignified, and living in the last moments available.

The Flash

Flash of insight. Flashback. Hot flash.

I sometimes wake up in the wee hours – well, that specific wee hour when no matter how cool the room in which I sleep, my body becomes suffused with warmth. I can feel the heat flowing down my arms and legs the way honey flows down the spout of a honey jar. Slowly, deliberately, inevitably.

This is my own gentle version of the hot flash. I get, at most, one a day, in the dark hours between midnight and dawn. I don’t really mind them. I toss a leg out from under the covers, or throw back the sheets, let the cool air hit my skin and I drift back to sleep, only to waken some time later, shivering. Nine times out of ten, the flash of heat is accompanied by a flash of insight. Or at least a thought worth thinking.

Just as my body volunteers to turn pink and toasty, my mind volunteers little jewels for me to ponder in my attenuated state of alpha brain activity, as I rapidly slide back into sleep. If I don’t have the energy or wherewithal to jot down a clue to my morning self, I lose it for good.

Sometimes, that middle night waking brings another kind of flash. A flash from the past. An image, idea or whole memory blossoms in my occipital lobe, or cerebrum, and then exists there for me to examine, peacefully, as I doze off and on and finally succumb to sleepier brain waves, like theta, or delta. (Why do the stages of sleep sound like rushing a fraternity? But that’s not important right now.)

So I got to thinking about how we humans have attached the same word, flash, to these different phenomena. A flash is a burst. A burst of light, or a burst of “an emotional mood or intellectual activity” (Encarta via Word). It is, by definition, sudden and brief.

I guess a true genius has flashes of insight even when the mind is alert. Though I am willing to bet that, no matter how wide awake Mozart, Hildegard of Bingen, or Goethe were when their inspiration came, they were smart enough to write it down before they forgot.

Why, I wonder, does the mind work that way? In flashes? Hot flashes aside, it is the flashing mind that fascinates me. The brain, in all its wave formations, wakeful or sleepy, sober or intoxicated, has its moments when insight, memory, understanding, creation flash upon it. When everyone is a genius. When we access the widely-advertised unaccessed part of our brains.

Sometimes the flash cascades and we can keep the momentum going. (Or rather, the momentum keeps going and we have little to do with it except to ride the wave.) That happens when I write, sometimes (not today, though). I feel the sparkling, flashing brain thing happen and it continues, like a very long mental orgasm that goes and goes until something stops it. I get hungry or my leg falls asleep or the phone rings. Life.

When a mental flash occurs, for me at least, it is indeed as sudden and unexpected as my body’s epiphanies of warmth in the middle of the night. I don’t seem able to initiate, control or stop it. My mind reels at what my mind can do. I have concluded that I am my own best teacher. I just have to show up, do my homework, and pay attention when the flashes come.

flash

Letting Go with Fire

Goodbye can be so painful. Parting with something or someone we love is rarely easy. Some goodbyes, however, are necessary. They are what is right and fitting. Sometimes goodbye is what saves us. Still, it is hard.

Saying goodbye to my son as he headed home to Vermont yesterday was sad, but I also knew it was necessary. He has to go to work, to class. Live his life and play his music. I also know that I will see him in a month – a help.

Goodbye to the masses of stuff I purged recently, and gave away or sold—that was easy. But for decades I had been unable to part with any of those things. It’s funny when goodbye goes from impossible to easy, seemingly overnight.

But of course there are many processes involved in parting. Some parting is slow, as when my mother died, and a few years later, my father. Some parting is sudden. My brother-in-law died in a nano-second this January from a brain aneurysm. No goodbye allowed.

But there are ways to say goodbye through ritual. To part not only with people, but with beliefs that hold us back, sorrows that clog our hearts, fears that keep us from living fully.

For loved ones who die, funerals and memorials are crucial rituals, shared with others. Other than a ceremony like a funeral, what other releasing rituals are we taught? How do we have a funeral for our fear that we will never find love? Or our belief that we are unworthy? Or the sorrow of a lost love? These feelings must be parted with for us to live fully. How to do it?

About nine years ago, I did my first work with a shaman. Her name is Skye Taylor and she lives in California now. I studied with her, and learned many lessons about myself, and the world. How to engage with the seen and unseen, the ego and the super-ego, the past, present and future. She also taught me how to release and say goodbye using fire.

The fire as ritual. For things you want to let go of permanently. Not for your child heading off to a year abroad—for her, a hug and a debit card will do. Not for the unwanted picture frames and end tables. For them, avoid fire and consider a tag sale or Goodwill. But for all that stuff you may not know how to get rid of, consider the cleansing prayer of fire and smoke.

I did not grow up in a religious family, but as a writer and English teacher I am very comfortable with symbolism. It is not difficult for me to envision a thought, belief or emotion being embodied in an inanimate object.

Skye taught me to blow into a stick (a match stick will do for city dwellers or if the sticks are all under the snow). Blow whatever is to be released, shipped off, dispatched. A toxic relationship, despair, fear, a limiting belief that I have acknowledged and am ready to let go of. The trick is to be specific, too, when thinking about what it is to be released, as I blow hard into that stick held between my hands. Despair over what? Fear of what? What belief, specifically? This is also a good way to release someone—someone you have lost through death, or a break up, and yet are having a painful time letting them go. There is no limit on how many sticks you can use, how many things you can release with one fire.

The fire needs to be burning already. If you don’t have a fireplace or firepit there is a way to create an indoor fire with baking soda and rubbing alcohol – it’s not as scary as it sounds and not at all dangerous. It burns slowly and is only as big as the pile of baking soda you use. (Put a mound of it in a cast iron skillet or a stainless steel baking dish – it won’t hurt them. Pour rubbing alcohol on the soda till it’s saturated and light it with a match. Magical.)

The sticks that now embody what is being released go into the fire. They are burned; they are thus transformed (chemical change is so comforting in its totality); they go up to the heavens as smoke.

If you would like to replace a fear or limiting belief with something positive and affirming, round two is like round one. After releasing, you symbolically bring into your life what you want. For example, you blow into a stick the knowledge that you will find a healthy relationship, a job, a house you love, that you will love yourself, take care of yourself, embrace intimacy, be adventurous—whatever it is that is lacking. Those sticks burn too, and the smoke rises like a prayer.

It works because I believe in the power of this ritual. I believe I can release what is toxic and manifest what is healthy inside myself. I love to see the little sticks curl up, redden, become ash. Doing this with friends or family is tremendously moving for me, as we take turns around the fire pit, or just all go at once, quietly blowing, releasing, blowing, bringing in. I have done it alone, too, which has its own murmuring, resonating intensity.

Clearing energy in my home by burning sage has a similar effect on me. It is about using fire to transform, cleanse, and make room for what is beautiful and beneficial. I walk around the house, smudge stick smoldering, and let the smoke float to the corners. I bend to let it find the spots under tables and even inside closets, where I imagine negative energy may be lurking. If everything is energy and energy never disappears, every fight or sob fest leaves its energy behind. If I have recently struggled especially, or been greatly unhappy, frightened or lost, that feeling has its energy that, in my mind, lingers in the spaces around me. I have faith in the potency of the savory smoke of burning sage to evict that energy.  As far as I am concerned, it is banished, and that’s what matters.

These rituals do not erase emotion or memory, or miraculously change me overnight. But they usher in change. They confirm my intentions and begin the process of defusing the power the emotion or memory has over me. Releasing a toxic belief or emotion can be like letting go of something dangerous in the water. You still see it, but it is drifting away to where it can’t hurt you anymore.

Ritual is a funny thing. It has the power we let it have. And yet many believe that the ritual itself is powerful whether or not we believe. How many people go to church every Sunday, skeptical, jaded, but hoping that is true? That the ritual will work even if they can’t “go there.” Whatever the case, I believe in the power of goodbye rituals, releasing rituals, banishing rituals, and most important, manifesting rituals, to embody my intentions in the matter. My intention to let go. My intention to bring about change. In the end, my intentions are what matter, and if I set my intentions on goodbye, goodbye it is.

Fire

Lessons for a Klutz

Bang. The side of my hand ricochets off a door jamb while I’m carrying a heavy box. Thud. I slam my hip into a table corner. Crash. I walk smack into the edge of a glass table top, shattering it and ripping up my shin.

Even more dramatic than the huge sheet of glass smashing into giant shards was the day I flew head first into a wall. Yeah, I know. What the hell? I was walking rather enthusiastically to open the door for the plumber, who had just solved a huge septic problem despite frozen ground and an inch of snow. I tripped. The momentum projected me about five feet. In fact, I may have gone even further given the chance, but an inconveniently located wall stopped my flight and I crashed loudly. I may have gone all woozy for a second. The pain in various body parts was not insignificant. But honestly my first thought was, “Really? I had to do that in front of witnesses?” The plumber and his assistant were outside pounding on the glass door shouting, “Are you okay?”

That graceful episode resulted in a giant egg on my forehead, a gash down my forearm and a seriously messed up finger. The middle finger on my left hand – with which I must have tried to block my impact—hit the wall tip first. Nail shattered and middle joint traumatized. To this day, months later, the joint is still huge and painful. The whole hand is compromised. Who knew one silly finger could affect strength and agility in a hand? (I bet an orthopedist would have known, had I visited one. With a $2000 deductible in my insurance policy, it did not seem important enough at the time.)

In the last 5 months, I have endured more minor accidents than in the 5 years prior. Blood, torn flesh, scuffed skin, bruises, you name it.

I keep thinking there is a lesson here. Maybe more than one. Here are the teachings of this period of clumsiness. At least the ones I have come up with so far:

  1. Slow down, you crazy woman! Look, listen, wait. Take stock. Just pause. Doing so may well protect my well-being (no more blood and gore), and it might also create a bubble around my vision, head and heart that will let me absorb more of what is in front of my face.
  2. I don’t have to be perfect. Glass tables break. They can be replaced. Bruises heal. And my vanity about having pretty hands – well it’s probably time to let that one go. I can be a klutzy idiot and still hold my head up, have self-respect and maintain my friendships. Well, except for that one friend who only loved me because of my balletic grace and ability to walk flawlessly through life. So screw her.
  3.  It’s okay to ask for help. So if I’m limping due to a pratfall, or stunned into stupidity by a bonk on the head or unable to use my left hand for a month, it’s okay to get help. This has always been hard for me. But now I find that when I ask, I receive. Odd.
  4.  It’ s okay to be the one who gets taken care of now and then. Sometimes it really is nice to have someone stand there in the bathroom with me while I drip scarlet onto the floor and delicately wrap my hand in a clean cloth.

I’m very hopeful that if I have learned these lessons well enough, the universe will now stop teaching me. I’m ready to move on to a less painful curriculum.

Teacher Love

I was a teacher for 25 years. When I started teaching at a cozy little independent school in the Hudson Valley of New York State, I was a young woman in my mid-twenties, newly married, just out of graduate school. I was so young that the stress of my first year in the classroom gave me pimples. Now stress just gives me insomnia and makes my hair fall out. Not sure which is worse. In any case, whatever the stresses of the job—and there were many—none of it ever mattered. My job fed my soul and there is one reason for that—my students. I taught many youngsters in all those years, but mainly 6th, 7th and 8th graders.

Those are great years, during which kids become the people they will be. Yes, human beings are “themselves” even as babies, toddlers, floppy haired second graders, but in middle school their faces, brains and bodies begin the incredible metamorphosis that gets them to “adult.”

I know because I keep track of my students as best I can. I see the “after” (at many stages) and can remember with vivid clarity the “before.”

At the end of my first year in the classroom, there was none of the history yet. I was a true newbie. And I was surprised—shocked, in fact— at the sense of loss I felt. After graduation, I spent the weekend crying, on and off. I was just starting to understand a thing I call “teacher love.” Like “mother love,” it sneaks up on your heart and takes hold.

Maybe you didn’t realize that we teachers love our students. I don’t mean in the abstract, benevolent way a deity loves the nameless humans who worship her or him. I mean, we are people who love each individual child. We know them very well. We see them. We feel their joy and pain and all those angsty struggles that are played out in a classroom. Through the chaos and busyness and hard work of every day, we absorb, as if through osmosis, a piece of each child’s soul. A teacher can understand a student with greater depth and accuracy than could be predicted by mere facts.

And in a very real way, they absorb us too. That’s why I always knew how important my job was. Not only was I teaching kids how to think critically, write well, and read deeply, I was in relationship with them. And I could really mess a kid up if I wasn’t careful. A teacher may be a human who loves (and praises, disciplines, encourages, and scolds), but we have a hell of a lot of power over those mini-people, and our words, actions, mere looks can stick with them for a lifetime. I know. They’ve told me.

I once had a student equate an approving look from me with a “glance from God.”  That sure gave me pause.

So last week I took the commuter train down to the city and met up with a number of my former students at an alumni event on the Upper East Side. Such opportunities to come face to face with these adults, 5, 10, 15, 20 years later, are beyond delicious. And drinking a beer with someone I once had to give permission to go to the bathroom has a charming irony.

My face starts to hurt after the first hour. I can’t keep the happy grin off my silly face. I hear them say, “You have not changed at all!” and want to laugh at the absurdity. What they mean is: “There you are! I’d recognize you anywhere.” I could say the same to them. Kids no more, but surely and positively themselves.

When they were 12, 13, 14, their faces were plain to see. However much time passes, that face is still there. The sloping eyes, the toothy grin. A boy’s soft jaw carved into a strong line. A girl’s awkwardness smoothed out into a woman’s beauty. Bouncy childishness transformed into confident warmth.

I am tall – almost 5’10” – but I spend a lot of time at these parties craning my neck up at men whose heads once rested on my shoulder when the boys they once were gave their teacher a hug. Last week, Brendan, effusive, funny, towered over me. He and his classmate Eliza reminisced with me about the tortures I inflicted on them in my second year of teaching. We laughed. Though I was hard on them, sometimes expecting more than they could deliver, for some reason they remember the experience, and me, fondly. I guess we had fun, too. In 8th grade, we made a movie. Brendan wrote the script and directed. We filmed on location and had a ball, with lots of laughter between takes. Brendan is now an independent movie producer and gives some credit to that experience, 23 years ago, which pleases and humbles me.

A number of my former students teach. That is one of the most lovely testimonials a teacher can receive. Eliza became a teacher and has also become a good friend. Her children now attend the school, and we get together sometimes for dinner, or a cold beer on a summer afternoon. We never run out of things to talk about and I rarely focus on the strange reality that the child I taught to proofread her essays for comma splices is now a mother, a woman, a teacher like me, with outlooks, beliefs, passions, and convictions in common.

I met up with Alex, a talented, soft-spoken young woman whose musical talent blew our minds when she plugged in her guitar 15 years ago, and pulled big sounds out of it with her small hands. Now she supports herself with her music. I chatted with Byron, who sells high-end Manhattan real estate. He was a little kid, it seems, not long ago, but that same grinning boy is now a man, navigating the big city/big kid world with calm confidence.

It’s not even about pride, although I feel plenty of that. It’s simply a sense of fullness, affection, and love. Some of these beloved students have found themselves. Some are still a little lost. Some are happy. Some are in pain. Some share. Some avoid. All are in my heart.

Permele and Emilie come 80 blocks after work to get to the midtown party. They make a bee-line for me in the gallery space and one of them says, leaning in for a hug: “We came to see you.”

I am flooded with feeling as I look at their beautiful, youthful faces and wide smiles and listen to their excited flow of words. I was hoping they’d be there. “No,” I think. “I came to see you.”

The people I once taught interest me, and inspire me, and make me think and laugh because they are fascinating, smart people and I am lucky enough to know them. When I first became a teacher I did not realize that I was making a lifetime commitment to every student I ever taught. I think I’d go to the ends of the earth to share a laugh, a beer, and a good story with any one of them.

Emilie and Me

Byron and Me -- cropped