Politician or Leader?

Congressman Hechler

That’s me in the middle in the white dress I made for the occasion.

Al Gore was the keynote speaker at a conference I attended in 2006, and he spoke eloquently to a group of teachers and filmmakers about the importance of educating our young people to take better care of the planet.  Having launched Current TV a few months before the conference, Gore touted the importance of connecting our students to technology and film.

Hearing a preview for Gore’s interview with Matt Lauer on The Today Showyesterday morning, I rolled my eyes, picked up my bag of books and my car key, and left my husband to watch Gore hawk his new book.  This evening I learned that Lauer spent more time skewering Gore for his decision to sell Current to Al Jazeera than talking about the book that I won’t be buying.

I grinned, pleased that the interview didn’t go as well as Gore had planned.  He called himself a “recovering politician,” but I’m not entirely convinced he isn’t setting the stage for a presidential run in 2016.  If he does, I won’t be voting for him.

I met Gore at that 2006 conference.  I had practically danced when I got an invitation to a reception after the keynote.  He said in his address that he was eager to talk with educators and filmmakers about how they were teaching young people about issues facing our country.  I watched as he spoke for about a minute with each person—longer with those who had clout at the conference.  I listened politely as he talked with people aspiring to get his attention for their projects.

When it was finally my turn, I shook his hand and introduced myself, and I didn’t get a complete sentence out of my mouth about my students.  As I talked, he looked over my shoulder at a well-known media personality on the other side of the room.  Before I finished the sentence, he said, “Well, good for you,” his feet already in motion to move past me, his hand in the air in a wave to the person over my shoulder.

I had stuck with Al Gore when most of the country thought he was an alarmist about climate change. I stuck with him after the ridicule that followed a campaign comment he made about taking the initiative in “creating the Internet.”  I stuck with him after the debacle of the 2000 election.  By 2006 he had reinvented himself, and I stuck with him as he made fun of himself on late-night shows and found other ways to advocate for the issues that mattered to him.

My mom used to say, when I tried to encourage her to vote, “What’s the use in voting one dirty bunch out and another dirty bunch in?”  I lectured her for her cynicism and badgered her until she started voting again.

But in that moment when Al Gore debunked the myth he’d created about his belief in the importance of great teachers, I understood how my mother felt.  And while I was no fan of President George W. Bush, I was glad that if someone had to lose to him, that someone was the man who had brushed aside a teacher he had claimed to value as the key to the future.  In that moment, for me, Gore ceased to be a leader and became a politician.

I still disagree with my mother about the uselessness of voting, and I think there are leaders in both parties who try every day to live up to their ideals.  But I wish that all of us could have one minute with the candidates—one unfiltered minute.  For me, it took less than a minute for Gore to destroy everything I’d ever heard about him from the media, a few seconds that didn’t even register in his brain.

And I’m glad that as a teenager, I had the opportunity to meet leaders in West Virginia who taught me that some are leaders first and politicians second.  Congressman Ken Hechler sponsored a group of students from my high school for a weekend in Washington.  Though none of us could vote, he took the time to walk around the Capitol with us and to ask each of us questions about our lives and our dreams.  He ushered us into the office of Senator Robert Byrd, who, though he was legendary, invited us to sit down in his office and talked to us about the history that surrounded us.  And after the trip, Congressman Hechler sent us all a personally signed photograph of the group from his district.

I want to believe that we still have leaders like Congressman Hechler and Senator Byrd who believe it’s important to give attention to the least among us.  Do you have stories of such leaders?  I’d love to have you share your stories in a comment.

Blue Monday?

Duracho

Monday.  Even though I like my current job and loved teaching when I was in the classroom, I’ve never felt thrilled when the alarm sounds on a Monday morning, heralding the beginning of the work week.  Today was particularly difficult for me.  The air damp and gray, I began the day with sleet that delayed the work day for many in the D.C. area.  I reset the alarm and slept for an extra hour, so I tried to be grateful, thanking God in my morning quiet time for the extended sleep and the much-needed rain.

But it was still Monday when I backed my car out of the garage—a garage for which I was grateful on such a cold and dreary morning.  It was still Monday when I got to the school where I was helping out a group of teachers.  I thanked God for getting me through the 40-minute commute safely.  But then I felt sorry for myself when I walked through the exuberant teenagers in the halls, who made me miss teaching as they do every time I visit a school.  But then I remembered that having a job where I don’t have to grade essays every weekend has given me time to write a book and create this web site and blog.

If you haven’t noticed by now, I spent the morning bouncing back and forth between feeling blue and giving myself a pep talk about how great my life is.  I suspect a lot of us do this.  We know that we live in the wealthiest country in the world, a country that has less than 5% of the world’s population but almost 40% of the world’s wealth.

But it’s still Monday even after we give ourselves a pep talk.  And yesterday at my church, the bulletin proclaimed it as the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time.  Simply put, ordinary time is that time in the church calendar that has nothing to do with the Big Two—Christmas and Easter.

So here we are, on just another ordinary Monday.  The babe has been born, the tree has gone out in the recycling, and the stories of my faith have turned to Christ’s ministry in the world.  Today’s readings were anything but ordinary.  The psalms spoke of finding refuge in the shadow of God’s wings, a God who is “gracious and merciful…slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  And the Gospel reading from Mark, Chapter 5 told stories of Jesus’ kindness to two very different people—a woman who is convinced she’ll be healed if she can just touch Jesus’ clothing and a little girl whose father, a synagogue leader, shows no such certainty but whose prayer for his daughter’s life is answered just the same.

And so I made it through an ordinary Monday, reminded that no day is ordinary for any of us—whether we’re Christian or Jew, Buddhist or Muslim, believer or atheist—when we can reach outside ourselves, touch what we believe in, and find resurrection in our faith.  For it is in staying in touch with what’s within and reaching out to connect with the world that we can know that nothing in this spectacular world is ever truly ordinary.

So tell me your stories of Ordinary Time.

Worth Saving?

Summer Stream

15o.  Wind chill made it feel like 6o.  This was the day my supervisors chose, before they knew the forecast, for a retreat.  The team-building activity?  The same one our students from around the county do some time during their sixth grade year:  Go down to a stream on county park property and conduct tests on the health of the local ecosystem.

Some of my colleagues balked.  One refused to step outdoors and sat inside in front of a beautiful fire while the rest of us were outside for an hour, measuring the levels of acidity, the temperature of the water, the life of the stream.  So what does it say about me that I preferred this activity to sitting at my computer in my windowless office in the DC suburbs?

I wore my flannel-lined windbreaker pants, a knit cap, my down coat with a fur-lined hood, leather gloves with flannel lining, and a warm scarf that my mother lovingly crocheted for me after she saw me without one at my father’s February funeral almost 15 years ago.

I traipsed down to the stream with three of my more cheerful colleagues—one from Belgium who was used to the cold, one who told us with a smile, “I’m from a country near the equator, but I’ll do this if you will,” and one who has lived here most of her life who cheerfully took pictures of all the teams.  We looked for signs of erosion, considered the plant life around the stream, and reached into the freezing water to turn over rocks in search of what the park staff called critters.

Everyone but me got a kick out of saying critters.  And me?  I grew up in southern West Virginia with a father who called all animal life critters, so for me, the word evoked memories of an early childhood of wading in creeks in search of crawdads, of running down banks eroded only by the feet of children.

Born in a suburban hospital in 1986, my daughter never experienced the joy of fishing critters out of a creek.  Her only experience with crawdads was in this same park, where she spent three days and two nights with her sixth grade team.  It made me a little sad this week that I didn’t take her back to a creek in West Virginia while my father was still healthy enough to wade in a stream with her and put a crawdad into her tiny hands.

At our retreat one staff member—from a group of about 25—found a crawdad.  My own team found nothing except a little green wormy creature, whose name I can’t remember now but who was one of the creatures that could live in highly polluted streams.  The one crawdad actually showed that the stream was somewhat healthy.  I told the director of the park staff—one of those rare residents who has lived here all of his life—that finding crawdads was much easier when I was a child in West Virginia.  He smiled sadly and said that I should see how polluted the streams are as they get closer to the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay. And I shared with him that many of the streams in West Virginia are no longer so healthy either—filled with the gray sludge that comes from coal processing plants.  I told him to check out the documentary On Coal River, which chronicles the lives of people who grew up in the shadow of a coal tipple.

So what do we do?  It’s getting harder and harder for those who don’t want to believe in global warming to deny the damage that human beings are doing to this wonderful planet entrusted to us by the Creator of a world too spectacular for human imagination.

Now tell me your stories of a world worth saving—of a world worth leaving to our children’s children’s children—of a world where our descendants can find critters under rocks in a cool, clear stream.  A world where we are only a legend they hear about in stories—stories of their ancestors who saved the planet just in the nick of time.

For Whom Are You Grateful Today?

Omar Teachers

I am thinking of Percy Dillard today.  My second grade teacher, Mr. Dillard terrified me at the beginning of the school year that fall of 1963.  He wore a black glove on one hand, which I think he had injured in World War II.  As if that weren’t scary enough, he announced on the first day of school that we would have a spelling test every Friday—and that for every word we missed, we would get a lick with his long wooden paddle, which still looms large in my mind after 50 years.

For first grade, I’d had Mrs. Fenny, a chubby, friendly woman who mothered all of us.  Mr. Dillard had none of her qualities.  He was a black man, the only black teacher in my elementary school, and I only know now how unusual that was, even today—for a second grader to have a teacher who is male and black.

When I came home in tears on the first day of school, my dad thought I was afraid of him because of the color of his skin.  My father had quit school in fifth grade, and his response to my tears was this:  “That man is just the same as you and me.  But he got hisself an education.  You listen to him.”

When I protested to dad that he was scary, that he wore a black glove and planned to paddle us for every missed spelling word, my dad laughed. “Well, then, I guess you won’t be missing any spelling words this year, will you.”

And I didn’t.  Mr. Dillard became less scary each Friday, and I still remember that he told us that we were all equal in his room and that what would set us apart was how hard we worked.

That November, Mr. Dillard stood at the chalkboard, the classroom door open, when Mrs. Fenny came running to the door, tears streaming down her face, and said shrilly, “The president has been shot!”  Mr. Dillard turned slowly to face her and put the chalk down in the tray.  He stepped outside the door and closed it, and we children watched in silence as they talked.

Mr. Dillard returned, sitting heavily at his desk.  He looked at us sadly and said, “Children, our president is gone.  And we’re sending you home to be with your families.”  He watched stoically as we gathered our things and went home to watch the television coverage of the stunning loss of a leader with such promise for the future.

In the past four years, I’ve heard President Obama’s critics say that Jack Kennedy was the last great democratic leader.  But President Kennedy’s critics said much the same thing about him in the years he was in office before a tragic and early death catapulted him to the ranks of the greatest presidents.  And, thinking of that day, it’s hard for me to breathe when President Obama is surrounded by hordes of people, as he is today for the Inaugural Parade.

I wish Percy Dillard had lived to see President Obama inaugurated, but Mr. Dillard died in 2001.  I would never have called him my favorite teacher—I loved the motherly ones who told me how gifted I was.  But I feel fortunate to have spent a year in Mr. Dillard’s class.  He was the only elementary teacher I had to work hard to please.  And he taught me that effort was the great equalizer.

A few years later my dad lost his job, and my family moved to an all-white town in the next county where another coal mine was hiring.  I would not have another African-American teacher or have classes with people of other races until I got to college.  But because of Percy Dillard, I grew up knowing that diversity is a positive thing and that overcoming discrimination in all its insidious forms is essential.

Mr. Dillard, while spell-check now makes it less important never to misspell a word, I know that you taught me far more important lessons.  And I hope you’re up there somewhere today, watching, and knowing that, like President Kennedy and President Obama, you have a legacy.

Nothing to Fear?

First-year Teacher

“I don’t think there’s going to be a world in ten years,” my student said mournfully, tears welling up in her eyes.

“Yeah, me neither,” said the boy sitting in the next row, slumping a little lower than his usual slump.

My English classes had just finished reading Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, a novel published in 1957, twelve years after the United States bombed Japan to hasten the end of World War II.  Two years later, Gregory Peck starred in the movie version of the novel as the handsome American captain who had brought his nuclear submarine to the coast of Australia as the radiation fallout slowly drifted south.  In the narrative, no life remains north of the earth’s equator, and the inhabitants of Australia know that their days are numbered.

In the real world—the one my students and I inhabited in the early 1980s—humanity lived in terror, and the arms race dominated the evening news and the front pages of newspapers.  After that first class discussion, I grew to recognize the fear in some students’ eyes and the resignation in others’.  I asked my students whether they shared Shute’s view of our ultimate demise.  Few of them believed that they would grow up and fall in love—or even live long enough to go to college and pursue their dreams. I assured them our leaders would find a way to harness our power to destroy, though I was 25 years old and shared their anxiety.

Many of those students wrote arguments about banning all nuclear weapons and felt angry when their arguments, along with a growing movement in our country, fell on deaf ears.  Those students would now be almost 50, and I wonder if they ever think about those days, that novel, our discussions.  You wouldn’t find Shute’s book in most high school book rooms now.  The science is inaccurate and the story somewhat maudlin.

A nuclear weapon in the hands of our own military seemed far less dangerous in the wake of September 11, two weeks after we offered a temporary home to a 25-year-old teacher who had moved to Maryland from a small town in Illinois.  Our daughter was a sophomore in high school, the same age as the students I taught when I was 25.  By 9/11, I had been teaching almost 25 years, and I had never seen anything like the chaos of that day, when students, many of whose parents worked in D.C., found out that the Pentagon had been attacked.  There weren’t enough phones in the building for all the hysterical students and staff to make phone calls to their loved ones—so many that we couldn’t even get calls out on the jammed lines.

Just as we were learning to breathe again the following fall, October 2002, we suffered terror of another kind when, for three weeks, a sniper randomly attacked innocent people going about their lives.  Most of the attacks happened within five miles of our home.  My mother had been visiting from Richmond, and the last attack occurred the day my husband drove my mother to Fredericksburg to meet my brother from Richmond—at the very exit the sniper chose.  They sat for hours in the snarled traffic on Interstate 95 while, at home, we waited for news.

That young teacher, who had her own apartment by then, often stayed at our home during the crises of her first years in Maryland, and she wondered whether she had been wise to abandon the safety of a small town in the Midwest for the dangers of our nation’s capital.  My fears—my students’ fears—of nuclear fall-out seemed almost laughable when I looked into that young teacher’s eyes, into my daughter’s eyes, and tried to breathe deeply enough to assuage their alarm that the world had gone mad.

Today, the arms race we started is rarely fodder for the 24-hour news cycle.  Occasionally we read an article about the danger of a rogue nation, like Iran, being close to having a nuclear weapon, but, for the most part, our demons are different.  Somehow, our leaders have managed to get a grip on the fear that plagued us when I was a young adult.  We still have a nuclear arsenal, and while we worry about rogue nations, we haven’t let that fear loom so large that we are paralyzed by it.

And though September 11 has shaped our character as a nation, we have even found ways to address our vulnerability to make it less likely, though never impossible, for such an attack to happen again.

Yet, still, we fear.  We fear the next mentally ill man who will storm into a school and kill our children.  We fear radical extremists who are willing to strap bombs to their own bodies and become human explosives, decimating everyone in the crowded areas they choose for what they consider a glorious death.  We fear even our own people, citizens who feel they need assault rifles to protect themselves.

We.  I.  I am afraid, and I can scarcely breathe when I think of all the unspeakable danger that could take my children from me in butterfly’s breath.  The world is a scary place.  But the only way we can move beyond our paralyzing fear is to tackle our challenges together.  And maybe, just maybe, thirty years from now one of today’s 25-year-old teachers will be able to say, Oh, yes, I remember when my students were afraid of that.

Tell me your stories of fears that have never materialized and the joy that comes from moving beyond them.

Feeling Safe?

A second-year teacher, I sat alone in my room on the second floor of Park Junior High in Beckley, West Virginia, grading essays stacked 125 high on my desk. The dismissal bell for the day had sounded a few minutes before, but the building was already quiet, empty of the energetic horde of students and nearly as empty of exhausted teachers.

Hearing the wooden floor creak, I glanced up to see a young man I didn’t know standing quietly inside the door, watching me.  What happened next would have been beyond my comprehension up until that moment in time. I was sexually assaulted—not raped—but groped and violated in a way that made me contemplate ending my teaching career almost before it started.

It would not be the last time that I felt unsafe in a school.  Following my instincts, I once stepped between two boys who were fighting, receiving a bruising blow to the shoulder that one boy intended for another.  In another school, we had a year when mobs of kids surrounded fighting students, cheering them on, making it nearly impossible for a dozen teachers to break up the fight.  Another year, we were on lock-down because angry parents, accompanied by relatives, burst into the school looking for a student they felt had wronged their child.

And I taught in a school a couple of miles from the first shooting of the D.C. snipers, terrified, like everyone, by the randomness of a madman.  My daughter was a student at another high school a few miles away, and every time we were locked down that fall, I could hardly breathe for worrying about whether or not she was safe.

Would I have felt safer had an armed guard been in our schools?  We actually did have policemen in the schools part-time during some of those incidents.  And our schools do have a full-time staff of several security guards, many of them former policemen and policewomen.  But their presence doesn’t seem to deter monsters and madmen.

And so, today, when the NRA called our president an “elitist hypocrite” for accepting Secret Service protection for his children while most children have no such protection, I was happy to hear even famous people who usually advocate gun rights condemn such an ad.  I think about the times I’ve felt unsafe in a school and the times I’ve worried about my daughter’s safety, and I wonder how presidents and their spouses can function for worrying about whether a lunatic will harm or kill their children.  And yet these presidents—both Democrats and Republicans—do function.  They give their lives in service to our country in spite of the threats that face them and their families every day.

I don’t think I could do it.  But I’m grateful for all the presidents who have been able to put their fears in perspective to serve the people—even those people who wish them harm.  If it were up to me, I’d even approve Secret Service protection for First Dog Beau.  And so, Mr. President, may God keep you and Sasha and Malia and Michelle and Beau safe in the shadow of eagles’ wings.

What Can We Promise?

Ash & Mrs. Hacker

For 2 ½ months now, I’ve been writing in this blog about my belief that the answers to most of our questions and issues aren’t at either extreme but, rather, somewhere in the middle.  I know there are other voices out there who feel the same, but because harmony and compromise don’t sell air time or newspapers or magazines, these are not the voices that are replayed in the media.

Today, on the one-month anniversary of their loss, a group called Sandy Hook Promise—some of them parents who sent their children to school on December 14, not knowing that their lives would never be the same—called today for a sensible conversation on gun control.  They took no position. Instead, they called for meaningful dialogue—called for us to promise to do everything we can “to encourage and support common sense solutions that make my community and our country safer from similar acts of violence.”

I’m humbled.  Four parents spoke at this event, and parents of eleven of the children were present.  One spoke of how she sent two children to school that morning but only one came home.  Another spoke of waiting for her son to come crawl in her bed and cuddle.  As I watched them, I wondered at their strength and thought that, if I were in their position, I’d probably still be in my bed with the covers pulled over my head, hoping that I’d wake up and find it was all a bad dream.

Though this story ran on the evening news, when I looked for more details, I found it nowhere on the front page of the Washington Post online.  Stories about the debt ceiling, check.  Stories of Lance Armstrong (and is anyone really surprised?), check.  Stories of the Golden Globe Awards, check.  And even a story about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas saying something during oral arguments for the first time in seven years—something that no one heard, followed by endless speculation about what he might have said.

But despite the minimal media coverage of the Sandy Hook Promise, these parents steeled themselves to speak in spite of their pain.  They felt it was important to say that some were not gun owners but that others were—and that those who were gun owners were not afraid to talk about making changes in gun laws.

I keep thinking about what my daughter was like in kindergarten and first grade—about how I missed taking her for her first day of school because I was a teacher.  I have only pictures to remind me of that day.  So I took the day off when it was her turn for her Superstar day, the day her kindergarten teacher honored her, as she did each child in the class, with a bulletin board and a week in which she was the special child in the room. And I do have her—a vibrant 26-year-old who makes me proud every day to be called her mom.

I continue to ache for these parents, whose children are forever frozen for them at that moment in their lives a month ago today.  I pray that these eleven parents—and the others who were not at today’s event—get what they are asking because they deserve that and more for their courage today.

And I hope for all of us.  There are small movements—people who are speaking up in favor of conversation and compromise.  And if these parents can speak from hearts full of pain, we owe it to them to forward their cause.

What can I do?  What can you do?  What can we do together?  Let’s imagine.

Change the Team Name?

Like many of my fellow West Virginians, I’m a mongrel. Had I been asked by my teachers to do a project on my cultural heritage, as is required in some courses in my school system, I would have had a difficult time producing anything that clearly defined my lineage.  Unlike my husband, who knows with certainty that his father was Polish and his mother was Scotch-Irish, I only have vague notions of my parents’ ethnicity.

My dad often said that we had “some Indian blood,” and in the days of my childhood when the cowboys were far more popular on television and in stories, he seemed just as fond of the Indians. He particularly liked the Cherokees, who are native to Southern Appalachia and whose blood flows in many descendants of settlers in the Appalachian and the Great Smoky Mountains. In the few trips Dad took out of West Virginia before he followed my siblings to Richmond, he visited Cherokee, North Carolina to play in high stakes Bingo games and won $20,000 the last time he played. But he was almost as proud of the picture he had taken with an Indian in full headdress as he was of the money he had won there.

I’ve always felt conflicted, then, when the subject of the name of Washington’s football team resurfaces, as it does each year.  This week, the mayor of Washington expressed a wish to see the team move back to the city and change its name because the mascot has become a lightning rod as the worst of the offensive team names.  Subsequently, Washington Postcolumnist Mike Wise suggested that if quarterback RGIII had more character, he’d take up the cause of getting the team to change its name.  I commented on the article, thinking about what I was like as a 22-year-old and wondering if Wise had thought about himself as a 22-year-old when he wrote the article.  That’s a pretty heavy burden to place on someone so young.

At the same time, I’d just finished reading Sherman Alexie’s award winning novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, largely autobiographical, in which he talks about leaving a reservation in Washington state to attend a school that would more likely pave the way for him to go to college.  In numerous interviews, Alexie talks about the lack of education and the epidemic alcoholism among Native Americans on reservations and speaks proudly of the fact that his children have never seen an Indian consume alcohol.  I admire Alexie tremendously, and while his life is very different from my own, like me, he worked very hard to have a better life than his parents had.

This week, before the mayor’s comments and the Post column, I read a comment from Alexie in an interview on the subject of mascot names.  He pointed out that full Indian headdress was part of Native American religious rituals and wondered whether we would tolerate having a priest mascot who ran around the court or the football field in full ceremonial robes.  That may be the best argument I’ve heard yet for changing team names.

I love Washington football.  But as a teacher of language, I’m always bothered when language offends.  So I looked up the derivation of the word “redskin” on Dictionary.com and discovered that, while the first definition lists it as slang that is often offensive, one of the definitions calls it an old-fashioned term that derived from a tribe of Indians that painted their faces with red ochre—not because of the color of their skin.

And since I usually try to bring my blog posts back to where I began, I decided to check the derivation of the word “mongrel.”  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of the definitions, though not the first, listed it as a taboo term for a person of mixed race.

Isn’t that interesting?

So I’ll continue to cheer on the team I love.  But it will always bother me that someone is offended by the mascot of what I consider to be the real America’s Team—not that other one that we defeated handily in the last regular season game—the one that so proudly calls itself by the name of the white people in hats and chaps and spurs who played a part in nearly making Native Americans extinct.

So, as usual, this issue is more complex than the two opposite sides.  I wonder what my dad would have thought?

Have I Told You?

Wedding

Crammed into the middle of the back seat, I sat at the drive-in theater with my older sister and her friends on the newspaper staff.  She and her best friend Donna, who were seniors, sat in the front seat, and I sat over the hump in the middle of the back floorboard between Mark and Danny, who were freshmen, a year older than I was.  They chattered and passed me the popcorn but didn’t invite me to join the conversation.  It was enough for me, though, that my sister had grudgingly taken me along to see the 1968 version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which had premiered the year before but had just made it to the rural areas of southern West Virginia.  I fell in love with Shakespeare and became infatuated with Mark that evening.  One of them would never take an interest in me.  The other wooed me with a love that transcended space and time.  You can probably guess how that turned out.

The following year the film Love Story became a box office blockbuster, nominated for seven Oscars in 1971, though it received only one for the music sound track.  It still holds the #9 position on AFI’s 100 Years..100 Passions, while Romeo and Juliet didn’t even make the list.  Today most people under 40 probably haven’t heard of it, though most will have heard its most famous line, placed at #13 on the American Film Institute’s top 100 movie quotes:  “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

These two films, along with a plethora of trashy romance novels and even a few literary classics like Jane Eyre, shaped the way I thought marriage was supposed to work.  Marriage wasn’t the messy, complicated relationship my parents modeled for me—it was a romanticized view of the world—even inLove Story, despite the fact that the plot is complex enough that the rich boy’s father disowns him for marrying the poor girl. 

My sister said I was the girl who wanted a neat little house with a white picket fence.  She was right, but I suspect I wasn’t the only girl of my generation who saw love through the characters in the books and films that dominated the bestsellers in those days.  And though I got the little house, it had no white picket fence to keep the love inside, and my first marriage fell apart after a few years.

I fared better the second time around, with more than a little help from a good therapist and a wise minister and his wife, whose marriage I admired from a distance and who let me in a little bit by sharing their experiences with me when my heart was broken.  When I told them that I’d never fall in love again, they said to me, “Estelene, when you love, you risk getting hurt.  But what’s the alternative?  Never to love at all?” 

So when I could love again, I chose someone who brings out the best in me and, I hope, I in him.  But I can’t pretend it was all about choice, either.  My minister once commented that love was 95% love and 5% luck.  I chose my husband, but I’m not sure I could have done otherwise, given the raw voltage that arced between us in those early days of our relationship.  But the therapist helped me learn that the patterns we set in the beginning of a relationship are either the patterns that plague us or the patterns that sustain us when life gets in the way of the overwhelming passion and emotion of early love.

So what have I learned from two very different relationships?  That love definitely means having to say you’re sorry.  And not that kind of qualified sorry—“I’m sorry, but you made me crazy when you [fill in the blank here].”  Yes, the person you love may have exacerbated whatever conflict you’re having.  But an unqualified apology opens the door for that person to say, “I’m sorry, too,” instead of just leading to the same fight over again.

I’m thankful that there haven’t been too many times that call for unqualified apologies.  My husband is far more generous and giving and easy-going than I am, and I lucked into finding someone who reminds me to laugh every single day.  But I also remember what my therapist said about patterns, so from the very beginning I’ve tried to remind myself and tell my husband every day what it is that I love about him.  We take care of each other’s hearts most of the time, and that has sustained our marriage for nearly 22 years now.

I wonder sometimes how our children’s views of love are being shaped by today’s movies and bestsellers.  And while it’s taken me a while to learn that romance is only a part of a good relationship, I feel a little sorry for young people whose views are being shaped by the narrative emphasis on solely physical fantasies.  But though I’m an English teacher, I also have to admit that while great contemporary literature is more apt to show the complexities of love, few great literary works end happily.  And in real life, while there are no fairy tale endings, many couples do find love and joy together.

In the end, all of us have to learn by experience.  So I’ll keep trying to remember how important it is to tell my husband often—and all the people I love—why I love them.  So as I write this, I listen to Van Morrison, an old favorite I rediscovered last week when I heard another song I like, as he asks, “Have I told you lately that I love you?”

I do.

Your Way? My Way? A Third Way?

Reunion

We attended school together for seven years, members of the same graduating class.  We both moved out of West Virginia as adults and settled in metropolitan areas.  We both chose service professions—law enforcement for him, teaching for me.  We reconnected at a class reunion two years ago and keep in touch through social media.  We share a love of Washington football and RGIII, consider our dogs members of our families, and treasure our vacations on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
 
But politically, we come from different universes instead of the same hometown.  And even though we respect each other and value our friendship, we sometimes try to change each other’s opinions.  When one of us posts political messages on social media, the other one often comments—though our children tell us this is an exercise in futility.  We have never changed the other’s mind, but we respect each other and value our friendship, and we both believe it’s important to talk about politics.
 
I am a storyteller.  And it’s stories rather than facts or unsupported opinions that make me think.  I challenged my friend to post stories instead of opinions, and he reminded me that, like me, he has an ethical responsibility not to tell the stories of the people he encounters every day on the job.  That leaves us both with only the choice of telling personal stories—more difficult for him than for me because, in addition to my work with students who are often poor, my views are shaped by having grown up poor and having received government help on more than one occasion.  His views have been shaped by dealing with criminals every day who abuse the government help they receive and who have learned to manipulate the legal system and avoid paying the price for their abuses—criminals whose stories he must keep to himself.
 
Yet we have still managed to make each other think.  He sometimes laughs at me and calls me Spunky Girl, but he has recently been posting links to the stories of others that he reads in the news.  He posted one story about a woman who shot an intruder who broke into her home and threatened her and her children.  And while I couldn’t understand how that might justify the right to assault weapons, I can understand the lengths a mother would go to in order to protect her children.  Then my friend posted a story about how people who receive assistance are using their government issued cards at ATM machines in bars, liquor stores, strip clubs, and porn shops.
 
While I don’t particularly care for the news source where he gets these stories, I do know that, just as there are good people who need government assistance, there are also people who do not use the help they receive wisely.  Two of my brothers took advantage of my mother’s all-consuming love for them and drained her life’s savings to support their addictions, and one died of an overdose in her guest bedroom.  Her love and support could not save him.  And my daughter, knowing from watching her uncles that it was never a good idea to give money to the homeless, went into a fast-food restaurant and bought a meal for a homeless man who asked her for money.  When she offered the meal to him, he took the meal but cursed her for giving him food when he’d asked for money.
 
These are stories my friend and I can tell.  And when my friend posted the two stories, he reminded me that love and compassion alone cannot save the broken.  My father turned his life around when he decided to give up drinking, and though we were still poor, we were not destitute as we were when he drank and gambled every payday weekend.
 
So what is the answer?  I don’t know.  I do know that the solutions my friend proposes haven’t worked.  Nor have mine.  Somehow we have to find a balance between extending compassion and demanding responsibility.  Somehow we have to stop operating from the two extremes when the politicians in office shift from one party to another.  Somehow our leaders must learn to find a third way that is better than the ways they champion.  And, perhaps most of all, we must somehow find a way to support our leaders when they give up a little of what they believe for a third way that just might work better.
 
And perhaps sharing our stories is a beginning.