A New Year, A New Me

 

plannerA new school year has begun, and week two is in the books, or grade books as it were. However, my school year began a day late, due to a back injury that sidelined me for the first day of school. Calling in sick has never been easy for me; I was even more devastated to miss the excitement of the first day back, and particularly this year. In early June, I accepted a teaching position at a new school and spent all summer working on new curriculum and moving into a new classroom. I was ready for the first day at least a month ago, but God sure does have a sense of humor. You think you are ready, LOL, I’ll show you.

First Day

My “1st” day of school this year, back pain and all!

This is my eleventh year as a teacher. Starting at a new school this year, however, really meant coming home for me, as I am teaching in my home parish school, where both my daughters were educated and where my husband and I have been parishioners for over twenty years. While I was excited and thrilled with the opportunity to make this change, leaving my former school after ten years meant leaving colleagues who have become dear friends and saying goodbye to a truly wonderful school community filled with supportive and generous families.

classroom

Control Central (LOL)

Starting over, being the new person, adapting to new policies, and making new friends can be difficult, and sometimes, we hold ourselves back from new opportunities because of being too comfortable, and perhaps because we are afraid of change. But, change can be good. Change is an opportunity to push that reset button, to abandon bad habits, to refresh and renew one’s enthusiasm for work.

class photo

My daughter’s 5th grade class photo from Belgium, Johanna far right middle row

Over the summer, as I worked my way through three new literature textbooks and a bag full of new YA novels, I learned of the untimely passing of one of the greatest educators I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Johanna Bambridge was my younger daughter’s fifth grade teacher. Within minutes of meeting her in the late summer of 2002, I knew I had encountered someone very special. Her warm smile and obvious enthusiasm for teaching was so reassuring as we began a school year in a foreign country. She knew that, even though we were moving to Belgium from Maryland, my husband and I were both Louisiana natives. She had already chosen a mentor family for us, also from Louisiana, with a daughter the same age as our 5th grader.

Early in that school year, my daughter came home and told me she had volunteered me for something at school, and that I needed to call Mrs. Bambridge, which I did. Mrs. Bambridge told me that she had asked if anyone’s mother could come in to do a cooking demonstration on the foods of ancient cuisines, and that my daughter had assured her I was the perfect person for this.

Now, let me tell you that I knew almost nothing about foods of ancient civilizations, but I do love to cook, so I sat down at my computer and began to research the foods of ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt. And, so began my adventure in the classroom. My first cooking demonstration was karkadé (iced hibiscus tea) and kosheri (lentils and rice) with sausages. For dessert, I served the 5th graders seed cake sweetened with honey and dates. It was a smashing success. As I was cleaning up, Mrs. Bambridge said to me with her usual 1,000-watt smile, “You should be a teacher!” At first, I was startled at this (what, me?), but I admit I was also intrigued, and for the rest of our time in Belgium, I volunteered extensively at the school, including substitute teaching in the middle school and working in the high school library. Five years later, after completing grad courses and the Praxis, armed with state certification in English for grades 7-12 and with Johanna Bambridge’s endorsement ringing in my ears, I began my second career as a middle school language arts teacher.

CCD Dinner

Religious Ed Dinner (2002 or 2003), Johanna Bambridge far left, me far right

I not only knew Johanna Bambridge as my daughter’s teacher, but also as a fellow parishioner and parish council member at our Catholic church parish in Belgium, Our Lady of Mercy. Meetings were on Sunday nights, which all teachers know is the time when we wind down from the weekend and prep for the school week: lesson planning, grading papers, posting grades, emailing parents. But, Johanna was there for each and every meeting, prepared and ready to discuss parish business, plan events, and prepare for liturgical feasts. She was also there to represent the religious education program for the English-speaking families of the parish. Even though she was a wife and mother of two with a very full day-job, she was the Director of Religious Education and taught one of the classes herself every Sunday. It was hard to say no to her when she asked me to teach a class myself. After all, I was technically a stay-at-home mom for our two years in Belgium. Like the platoon leader who vows not to ask his soldiers to do anything he wouldn’t do himself, Johanna not only talked the talk, she walked the walk.

When I casually mentioned to her that I wished we would have shipped our piano to Belgium when we moved, she offered me her piano, free, “just pay to have it moved,” she said. It was an old upright with many years behind it, but after having it moved to our house and getting it tuned, it added much to making our assigned housing a real home during our time in Waterloo.

SJIS

St. John’s International School, Waterloo, Belgium (Source: Wikipedia)

Shortly after her death on July 6th, a colleague from St. John’s International School created a tribute page on Facebook for Johanna. Each day I logged on to Facebook to read the condolences and remembrances left there by friends and former students from all over the world: Japan, Belgium (when we knew her), France (where she moved after Belgium). All, without exception, carried the same themes: selfless, caring, faith-filled, devoted to education, energetic. Many, many people said that their most vivid memory of Johanna was of her with her arms wrapped around children. She embraced everyone in her path.  She enveloped them with her warm smile and blazing, bright eyes. How many lives did she touch? How many children did she inspire? How many teachers, including myself, did she mentor and motivate? How many hearts did she open to her love of the Catholic church?

book-nook-e1505611853705.jpg

Book Nook, my classroom

And, so, now at the beginning of this, my eleventh year in education, I re-dedicate myself to the values that Johanna so effortlessly lived and shared. I will greet each child with a warm smile. I will make learning fun. I will be compassionate and caring, even when I need to be firm. I will bring my faith and love of the Catholic church to every school day, to every lesson, to every encounter. I will do more, I will pray more, I will be more.

 

Johanna Bambridge will be greatly missed by all whose lives she affected, but she will not be forgotten. I know in my heart that she was welcomed with open arms to her final reward, where she heard, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Rest in peace, Johanna. This year is for you.

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To sleep, perchance to dream . . .

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2002 Pulitzer Prize, Spot News Photography, Steve Ludlum, New York Times

On the morning of September 11, 2001, before all Hell broke loose, I was at my desk working on a lease agreement for a tenant moving into one of the shopping centers managed by the company where I worked. As I worked, writing and editing legal language to insert into the document, I could hear people talking about an accident. We had an open office environment, and while I was enclosed in a cubicle, it had no ceiling or door. I was used to tuning out, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, the conversations of my co-workers. I could hear talk of a plane crashing into a building in NYC. Voices around me became more and more agitated, however, so I got up to investigate what was going on. Within minutes, no one was working; everyone was congregating in the hallways or hovering over someone’s shoulder as they frantically searched the internet for the latest news. Someone shouted that the big screen projector in the board room was showing live feed from CNN so I rushed there. As I entered the board room, the second plane was hitting the second building. Then I heard that a truck bomb had crashed into the State Department, one of the many horrific examples of misinformation from that day among the many horrific examples of actual true information. Two planes crashing in NYC is one thing, but a truck bomb at the State Department meant that it had struck closer to home, so I ran back to my cubicle, grabbed my purse, and ran to my car. I had three goals as I tore out of the parking lot: pick up my daughters from school, make contact with my husband,  and call my parents.

There was no traffic yet but it took me many, many tries to get through to my husband on my cell phone, who only said, “I’m okay, gotta go,” and many, many more tries to get to my parents. My mother informed me that they were about to get on the Mississippi River Bridge in New Orleans, heading to a doctor’s appointment. I told them to pull over and not get on the bridge, and to turn around and go home. Was whatever was happening going on in other major cities? NYC and DC, perhaps New Orleans, too?

I was among the first of parents arriving at my daughters’ school, as I was only three miles away. I went immediately to the office where the school secretary told me, “Just wait here, the principal is speaking to the middle school students. We’ll get your girls in a minute.” No questions asked, she knew I was there to pick them up and get them home where I hoped we would all be safe from whatever was going on.

In the car I explained to them the basics, which was all I really knew at that point: two planes had crashed into two buildings in NYC, and there were all sorts of stories of bad things happening elsewhere, including in DC. Once home, I told them no TV but they could watch a Disney movie or go to the den to play. They were 11 and 9 at the time, and they did as I asked. I had planned to make lasagna for dinner that night so I decided I would go ahead and do that while I waited for further news from my husband. At this point it was virtually impossible to get through to anyone on the phone, landline or mobile. Being in the kitchen, making lasagna, gave me something to do.

As I finished up the lasagna and popped it in the oven, my husband got home. He told me what he knew, and we watched the news for a bit. At that point, the Pentagon had already been attacked, and the plane heading back to DC had crashed in Pennsylvania. A wave of fatigue swept over me, and I literally felt as though I might just collapse. So, I went to bed. I set the timer for the lasagna, told my husband to take it out when it was done, and I fell into a deep, deep sleep.

roy blanchard napping

My dad and one of his famous naps in 1990, Mozart keeping watch

For me, going to sleep in the face of such tragedy and chaos was not new. On November 22, 1963, I was in the second grade. Sometime just after lunch, there was a knock on my classroom door. My teacher went to the door and spoke to someone in the hall. When she came back into our classroom, she looked upset. She told us to put our heads down on our desks and sit silently until she told us we could sit back up. So, we did just that. Eventually, one by one, we were called out into the hallway, to be collected by our mothers, who had rushed to the school as soon as the news had been broadcast that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

kennedy assassination

Photograph by Justin Newman

In the car, she explained to me that the president had died. When we got home, just a very short car ride from my school to my house, she had me write a note to Caroline Kennedy, the president’s daughter, telling her I was so sorry that her daddy had died. Then, my mother told me to go and take a nap. As a second grader, I was really past taking afternoon naps, but the strange events at school and being picked up early, along with the sad news about the president and writing the sympathy note, had made me very tired. So I went to sleep, and slept until dinner time.

Hurricane Katrina

Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC

Growing up in southeast Louisiana, hurricane season was a familiar evil. From June 1st to November 30th of each year, my father carefully watched the news and tracked any storms developing in the Atlantic Ocean. He was an expert at predicting whether they were a real threat or not, and subsequently whether we would need to evacuate or not. In August of 2005, he was very, very concerned about Hurricane Katrina. As the storm developed and grew stronger, we talked many times on the telephone about it. He knew it was going to be a bad one and began making plans where to take my mother, who was not well. Not New Orleans, not Baton Rouge, as they would normally go to my aunt’s house in the state’s capital, but this time to Houston, Texas.

With the enormity of this storm, all news stations covered it extensively.  And, as my father had predicted, along with nearly everyone else in southeast Louisiana, it was bad. The levee had broken north of my hometown, allowing the mighty Mississippi River free “reign” over Port Sulphur and the surrounding towns. My brother broke the bad news to my parents, the sheriff’s office had been down the road and there was nothing left in my hometown, except the Catholic church, which had been gutted by the storm waters, but the structure was still standing. My parents were devastated, and my poor mother, unwell and depressed, could not even tell me where she was staying in Houston. I finally got out of her that it was a motel with a foreign name starting with l-a-q. Eventually I figured out it was a La Quinta Inn in the Woodlands, a development in a Houston suburb.

PS after Katrina

Port Sulphur after Katrina. Photo by Commander Mark Moran, NOAA Aviation Weather Center, et al

Slowly the news began to sink in, that my hometown was gone, my parents’ home and all their belongings, except for whatever they had managed to pack in their car before evacuating, were all gone, every school I had ever attended was gone, and the homes of all my childhood friends, the sites of many birthday parties and sleepovers, all gone. The final straw was several days later my mother saying that she had gone into the bathroom and sat on the toilet to cry, after discovering that she had brought pantsuits with tops and bottoms that did not match, and one each of several pairs of shoes. She was a homeless person without even a matching pair of shoes. I felt so helpless and exhausted that I just went to bed.

Not all of these stress-induced naps have been over death or destruction. In 1990, my husband and I had our first child, a beautiful angel of a daughter named Margaret after my mother and Bellavia after my mother-in-law. It had been a difficult climax to an otherwise easy pregnancy. I had gone in for my weekly appointment during my ninth month and my blood pressure was extremely high. It was a Monday afternoon and my parents were flying in that night to be with us for the birth of their first grandchild. My OBGYN wanted to admit me right away but I explained the situation to her and she allowed me to go home provided I went right to bed and lay on my left side until morning, when I would be admitted and induced. We got to the hospital at 7:00 AM as instructed, and by 10:00 I was in a room with a dripping IV full of Pitocin. Absolutely nothing happened all day. Finally, in the late afternoon they changed the bag, and I started experiencing labor pains. By 9:00 PM, fourteen hours after being admitted, I was dilated ten centimeters and began to push. No baby, no progress. After three hours, my OBGYN decided it was time for a C-section, so off I went for an epidural, the one thing I was terrified of and had rejected when the labor pains had worsened earlier in the day. Just after midnight, our sweetly sleeping baby girl was brought into this world without so much as a whimper.

bringing baby home

Proud parents bringing baby home, 1990

Two days later we headed home in the blinding summer morning sunlight to our downtown Bethesda high-rise apartment, to be greeted by my mother handing me a cup of tea and buttered toast. No cup of tea has ever tasted so good, and after having my little snack, I lay down on my bed with my little baby sleeping in her crib nearby, and I fell fast asleep.

palm terrace

Port Sulphur Roundup, 1959, yearbook ad

As a young tot, when my parents could not get me to sleep, my father would bundle me up and take me for a ride down Highway 23 South to see the only neon light in my hometown, a giant palm tree advertising the Palm Terrace Motel owned by Mr. Roy Treadway. Once I saw that palm tree, I would settle down and fall fast asleep on the front seat of my dad’s car. Even today, if I am riding in the car for any length of time, I can put my head back and fall fast asleep. I guess I have my dad to thank for this, because one of the great joys of his life was every afternoon announcing to all, “You know what time it is? It’s naptime!”

evening prayer

Pinterest, Franciscan University of Steubenville

One of my favorite prayers comes from the Compline, the evening prayers of the Catholic Church. At night, after reading for a while, I say my evening prayers as my mother taught me so long ago: Hail Mary, Our Father, Guardian Angel, and Glory Be, and now I end with this simple request for protection while I sleep and rest. Thankfully, sleep has always been a restorative wonder for me, and I thank God for the ability to shut out the stresses of the day. Never having battled insomnia as some of my friends have, I have often thought that the moment I lay my head down on crisp, cool sheets, after a long day, whether it be one of normal work or play, or one of tragedy and chaos, is truly the best time of the day. “To sleep, perchance to dream…”, of a better and brighter day tomorrow.

 

Reflection and Renovation

Exciting news for me! One of my essays, Reflection and Renovation, made the front page of a local regional newspaper that publishes news about our area’s Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington.

As this is a newspaper for parents, faculty, and students of Catholic schools, this essay has a spiritual theme based on the current liturgical season of the Catholic Church, Lent. If you enjoy HGTV’s hit show Fixer Upper, you might enjoy my lead in for this essay.

Check it out! Would love your feedback!

What’s in a Name?

hurricane flossyMichelle Ann Monica Blanchard Ardillo. That’s my full name. In a previous essay I noted my dad’s first suggestion for the name of his first born baby girl was Flossy, after the hurricane in late September of the year I was born. While only a Category 1 hurricane, Flossy caused major beach erosion and flooding in southeast Louisiana, including the overtopping of the eastern seawall of New Orleans, submerging a 2.5 square mile area. His second choice was Candy Denise, which thankfully my mother also vetoed. (It suits my red mica Mazda 5 much better.) She then offered her own suggestion, which my father acceded to easily: Michelle, a French name to go with Blanchard, and Ann, after her sister who was to be my godmother. She also declared that since Michelle Blanchard was long enough, it would be Ann without the “e”.

saint monicaThe name “Monica” is my Confirmation name. In the Catholic faith, adolescents receive the Sacrament of Confirmation where they accept responsibility for their faith, much as in the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah ceremony for Jewish adolescents. Part of the faith formation for Confirmation is to study the lives of the saints and to select a saint to emulate, and you are given that name at Confirmation. Since I teach 8th grade, and that is the year the students at my Catholic school receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, I hear a lot of discussions about which saint each student is choosing and why. I am always fascinated by this, perhaps because we have so little say in something that is a significant part of our identity.

800px-Saint_Augustine_and_Saint_MonicaMy own Confirmation name is that of a significant saint in the Catholic Church, not just for her own worthiness, but also that of her son. Monica was born in 331 in North Africa in what is now Algeria. Upon reaching marriage age, her parents married her off to a pagan who had a violent temper. She endured his outbursts with patience. They had three children who survived infancy, the eldest being Augustine, who followed his father in his pagan ways. Monica prayed day and night for her son’s conversion, weeping many tears over him, and he not only became a Christian, he became a Doctor of the Church, the great St. Augustine of Hippo. The beautiful beachfront city, Santa Monica, is said to be named after her, with the nearby springs resembling the tears she wept for her wayward son Augustine. She is the patron saint of married women, motherhood, and widows.

saint veronicaClearly, when studying my faith and preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation, I read about Saint Monica in my copy of Lives of the Saints edited by Rev. Hugo Hoever. WRONG. My first choice for a saint’s name was Veronica. When I presented my choice to my mother she said quite firmly, “No.” She went on to explain to me that she knew exactly why I wanted to choose Saint Veronica as my Confirmation name, because of the Archie comic books strewn about my room. She then told me to choose again and to make my choice carefully because it was the saint I wished to emulate. I was absolutely shocked that she made this connection (mostly because it was true) and went off to my room to pout.

confirmation photoSo what is a nine-year old to do when presented with a “no” to Plan A? Naturally, Plan B was to find a saint whose name most closely resembled my first choice, and thus, after studying the table of contents of my Lives of the Saints, I came up with Saint Monica. My mother raised an eyebrow when I presented her with my second choice but allowed it.

Maddieinhospital (2)It wasn’t for years and years that I realized what a fine choice I had made in selecting Monica for my Confirmation name. I wished my whole life to become a mother, and while I made a somewhat late entry into this hallowed club, having my first child just three months before my 34th birthday, and my second child just three months from my 36th birthday, those two days are the highlights of my life. Nothing will ever compare to those first precious moments after their births, with my husband standing at my side, holding those precious little bundles.

wordleChoosing names for my daughters felt like an awesome responsibility. My husband and I had very little discussion about my older daughter’s first name, Margaret, as I had always said I would name my first daughter after my mother. When I was a little girl, my mom said I would line up my dolls on the sofa and tell her to come and meet my “babies”. I would then introduce them to her, “This is my baby Margaret. This is my baby Margaret. This is my baby Margaret.” Still, when I called to tell her the results of the sonogram at twenty weeks with my first pregnancy, and announced to her it was a girl, and that I would name her Margaret, she was surprised.

blank nametagThe discussions for her middle name went on for quite a bit. I was steadfast in my desire to give her something from each of our mothers, and since Margaret was my mother’s name, her middle name had to come from his mother. I had decided that her middle name should be Bellavia, my mother-in-law’s maiden name. I loved the name, it sounded beautiful to me, figuratively and literally, as it means beautiful way in Italian. My husband was not a fan of the maiden name as a middle name plan, but his father told him that since I was giving birth, I should have the final say. It was a done deal, and I know my mother-in-law was very happy.

Our second pregnancy was so very different in every way from the first I was convinced it was a boy, so convinced that we chose a boy’s name early on, Andrew Roy. Andrew was a nod to my mother’s Scottish heritage, and Roy was a “twofer”. My father’s name was Roy and my husband’s grandfather’s name (and brother’s name as well) was Roy. The fact that baby #2 kicked and moved about day and night, we were sure we had made a sound choice. The twenty-week sonogram was a shock, and at first, neither of us believed the technician that it was indeed a baby girl. When she was born, I still couldn’t believe the doctor’s announcement, “It’s a girl!” Just before the birth, I had been going through some old papers and found a genealogy report from my father’s family tree. blanchard geneologyMy ancestors who emigrated from France were Jean and Madeleine Livoir Blanchard. We both liked Madeline and proceeded to come up with a middle name. When I suggested my grandmother’s maiden name, Breaux, my husband put his foot down. Not another maiden name as middle name he said; it would also mean that both daughters and I would share the same initials, MBA, which he thought was a bit too much. I acquiesced this time and we continued going through names. I finally suggested Grace, which was what I had engraved inside his wedding ring, meant at the time as just a silly little private joke about being clumsy sometimes. Again, afterthought elevates that engraving to the special grace we have been given as a married couple, celebrating our 26th wedding anniversary last summer.

romeo and julietSo, what’s in a name? Shakespeare built an entire tragedy around names, the very mention of Capulet to a Montegut or vice versa was that of a battle cry. A theme in Rick Riordan’s Lightning Thief is that names have power. first autographI’ve always loved my name, and I’ve always been thankful that my mother’s good taste and logical thought process prevailed in name selection discussions with my father. I have a special affinity for St. Michael the Archangel, given Michelle is the feminine version of that name, and St. Michael’s feast day is September 29th, not too far from my mid-October birthday. with godparents and fish 2 yearsMy godfather, my beloved Uncle Guy, always called me Michelangelo, and I adored hearing him say it. Even hearing “Michelle Ann” shouted when I was in trouble for something brought me a certain joy at hearing my whole name. While I was unsuccessful in being part of Archie’s gang with my Confirmation name, I am blessed with a strong role model and saint to emulate in that of Saint Monica.

three m'sI can’t imagine my daughters with any other names, and their joint childhood nickname of the “M&M Girls” was always met with smiles by all who knew and loved them as they were growing up. Just today we were having a discussion at lunch about our signatures, and our younger daughter bemoaned how difficult signing her name is because of the middle initial G, a tricky letter to connect to others in cursive. My older daughter and I, sharing the same MBA initials, have had minor tussles over usernames in various apps and programs. In that regard, my husband was right to hold firm on a different middle initial, albeit a tricky one, for daughter #2.