Reading Lessons and A Note About Gratitude

The last couple of months have been a whirlwind of activity–beginning with a serious career adjustment. I “hit the streets” in Midtown as a sales rep for a food distribution company, and the learning curve has been massive.  Serious highs, and serious lows.  I joined our local pool board just in time for the chaos of summer and started a boxing class at the gym around the corner.  I signed up to teach “Julie’s Can and Jam” classes at a local co-op, where I’ll teach 21 and up classes on making homemade jam and the canning process.  At the same co-op, I’m re-launching some new branding for my detergent line and attempting to improve my image and marketing.  Last, but certainly not the least, I began teaching reading classes for the elderly, two nights a week.

I get overwhelmed sometimes, and then anxious about daily to-do lists left undone and the tasks of the week that I’m not sure I’m completing with the attention they deserve.  I dream about sending an order of groceries to the wrong food truck, and I’ll wake up in the middle of the night thinking about whether or not I sent the correct allergen-free pan spray to a particular account.  I stress about not knowing enough, not working hard enough or long enough, and not knowing how to ask the questions that make sense in my head.  And then I met a few people with amazing attitudes and a seriously challenging situation in life.

My “students” for evening reading classes are incredible, resilient people, who at the ages of 70-85 are looking to better themselves, and learn to read.  Their reading levels vary from Kindergarten to 2nd grade, and are quick to set goals about their future.  “Ella” told me that she throws away all her mail because she can’t read it anyway, so what’s the point? Tomorrow we’ll begin reading her mail together and making sense of it. “Wallace” told me that he’s never been read to before, and can only drive within a mile radius because he’s memorized all the street signs…beyond that mile, he wouldn’t be able to read the signs and get back home.  “Nellie” cried tonight when I read her a Bible story, because the only time she’s been read to is over the pulpit at church, and when I told her that she’d be able to write a thank you note by the end of summer, she wept openly and told me she never imagined she’d be able to master such a task.  Talk about a reality check–and a serious dose of gratitude.  I’m a month in, and they do their homework, get excited about evening class, and thank me profusely at the end, in spite of the fact that they have harder lives than I’ve ever even read about.

I know that I’m a blend of blessed and fortunate, and as stretched as I feel these days, I’m super thankful for my new batch of students who have already taught me much more about life than I’ll ever teach them about reading.  I also love that my role of teacher will never really be over.

Grandma Rocke, A Self Help Book

In a portion of my recent interview with my dad’s mom, I was shocked and humbled by some of her responses. I asked her for a fond memory of her parents…and she launched into the details of her dad’s premature death, and the fact that she then became her mother’s right hand. While these were details that I did want to know, it didn’t answer my question, so I redirected her to “fun” family nights, vacations, weekend getaways, etc.

Silence. Vacation? “No, honey. The first time I took a trip was with your grandfather for our honeymoon.”

My mind flashed to the camping trips my parents took me and my four siblings on every summer of my youth. We camped in every state except for Hawaii and Alaska, and while we were always on a budget, we did incredibly fun outdoors activities, like white water rafting in Oregon, camping next to the California Red Woods, and hiking down into Crater Lake. One year we even splurged big time and went to Orlando for Christmas.

My grandmother, however, had not been privy to these childhood luxuries. She helped raise her siblings, cooked, canned, and gardened at a young age; she dropped out of high school her sophomore year when she joined the church. After committing her life to the Lord, the expectation was that she was grown enough to quit school and get a job; her situation was taking up a job as a nanny with a local family, making $2 a week in turn for caring for two children.

She didn’t attend school dances, participate in local activities, sports, or otherwise usual childhood experiences. She helped her mother, raised her siblings, and served the Lord.

Nicholas and I recently booked a cruise to the Eastern Caribbean, and it’s literally the only thing we talk about at night…we read cruise reviews until we fall asleep, and check our “cruise countdown” app every morning.

I recognize the stark difference in my current life and that of my grandmother, and I listened in awe of her as she spoke so matter-of-factly about her life. Her voice didn’t resound with an invitation of pity or empathy for the childhood she experienced, the challenges of being married to a beekeeper who often didn’t make enough money to get through the Midwestern winter, or her current situation as a patient/guest at the nursing home; she speaks of her past with the same tone of voice she does about the Chinese food she had on Monday for her 98th birthday celebration. She sees the world through a lense of thankfulness. She’d never dream of being ungrateful of her experiences or wishing for more.

Every time I call her, and ask her about her care, she raves about the nursing home: the food? “Amazing. I couldn’t dream of more. Do you know they have unlimited ice cream? And for my birthday, they were willing to go to any local restaurant and get me anything I wanted. Of course, I asked for Chinese food.”

She’s incredibly resilient, and has so much to teach me.

I keep ordering and reading books about leadership, inspiration, and otherwise “self help” type books for my new career. The reality is, all I really need to do is keep interviewing my grandmother, and replay the audio when I need to refocus. Her life stories, experience, and wisdom is more powerful than any book I could order from Amazon—and I get the bonus of hearing her sweet, raspy voice with each replay on my audio. What a gift she is to me.

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A Little Blue Devil Tribute

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Last Saturday night I chaperoned what I imagine will be my last high school prom; (unless we have kids, and then heaven help us, I’ll be chaperoning with a bejeweled cane and Botox.)  The Norcross Blue Devils took over the Fox Theater for a night of all things fabulous, and my former colleague and I ditched our husbands and went for a few hours.

I loved watching my seniors enjoy their last high school dance, as graduation is pending and their bright lives are really just beginning.

That’s the beauty of working in education, when you do get a chance to step back and admire from a distance; these kids become our tomorrow, our new inventions, our brilliant minds as we get older and need new solutions.  It was only a semester, but I’m proud of the moments I got to have with them, and am proud of the people that they are and continue to become.  Most of all, I’m thankful for a bit of closure on a career that came to an abrupt halt.

And, let’s not forget the pack of boys who gave me hell for a semester, but ultimately showed themselves to be amazing young men with huge hearts, an incredible sense of humor, and resilience that I may never see again.

So here’s wishing my Norcross seniors an amazing Spring semester–complete with 4s and 5s on the IB test in May. 🙂 I’ll be honored to watch you walk the stage and transition to whatever life you choose next.

The following picture is apparently the youthful symbol for “innate brilliance.” Clearly, I was among geniuses. 🙂

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