The Battle of Evil against Good

my favorite color is octoberIt’s mid-October and lots of my bookish friends are reading scary stories or mysteries that have elements of the supernatural lurking about. In my 8th grade classroom, we read a short story recently that is classified as science fiction but in many ways represents the materialistic and selfish ways of many in today’s society, making it seem like realistic fiction.

Richard_MathesonRichard Matheson wrote many short stories and screenplays for two well-known television shows from the 1960s: Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. Edgar Allan Poe, Matheson’s favorite author, wrote many strange and creepy stories that gave Matheson the perfect basis for writing his own pieces of thought-provoking literature. In the science fiction short story “Button, Button,” the reader is invited into Norma and Arthur Lewis’s apartment to witness a marital argument over a button—just a button—which sits under a glass dome and does not appear to have a function or job.

Button, Button unitMatheson’s short story “Button, Button” did have a job, however. Using the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden as his starting point, Matheson creates an allegory that clearly shows the reader exactly what greed and temptation can do to a weak person. Norma dreams of many things: a cottage on the island, a car, a better apartment, nicer clothes, a trip to Europe, a baby. Arthur keeps telling her these things will come in time; they will achieve their dreams together, but Norma can’t let it go. She is intrigued by the button and its immoral promises. She rationalizes and tricks herself into believing that pushing the button will bring them BOTH happiness, not just her. “It’s for us,” she says as she pushes the button.

st michaelIn the Catholic faith, St. Michael the Archangel was sent to defend Christians in battle with the devil. It’s a shame Norma did not know the prayer to St. Michael. Perhaps the warrior archangel could have stopped her from making the biggest mistake of her life.

St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

St. Michael the Archangel, pray for us.

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Who’s Your Favorite?

top tenThese “top 10 of this” and “favorite 5 of that” lists are very popular these days. Someone is always posting a list of these types of things on Facebook: list your favorite book (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier), favorite song (“Your Song” by Elton John), favorite color (pink), favorite day of the week (Sunday), favorite Beatle (Paul), favorite food (cheese), etc. Answering these things on Facebook is supposed to help your “friends” get to know you better. To be honest, I enjoy reading these lists on my friends’ posts every now and then.

jesus and god with holy spiritRecently, one of my husband’s coworkers, a devout Catholic, lost his mother and my husband and I went to the wake. He and his wife are active in their church parish, which is something his wife mentioned about my husband and me when she introduced us to a friend of hers. priest cartoonShe then shared a story with her friend and me. She said she had recently been on a flight seated next to a man dressed in clerical clothing. She asked if he was a priest and he responded that yes, he was a Catholic priest. They chatted amicably for a few minutes, and then she asked him a question. She said that she hoped he wouldn’t think it was irreverent or sacrilegious, but she wanted to know, “Is it okay to have a favorite member of the Holy Trinity?”

whoa“Whoa!” slipped out of my mouth before I could catch it. She laughed and said that the priest had a similar response. As Catholics, we are taught about the Holy Trinity early on in our faith formation: “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, God in three persons, the Holy Trinity.” If they are three in one being, then how could you have a favorite? They can’t be separated that way, or can they?

mary with rosaryIn the weeks that have transpired since that conversation, I have thought about it quite a bit, and then, yesterday morning, after daily Mass, the priest gave a brief reflection after the Mass. He recounted a story to us about praying the rosary in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary, while his father was very ill in the hospital. In the middle of the rosary, he had a feeling of overwhelming spirituality come over him, and he stopped his rosary to pray directly to God the Father. He said it was almost as though Mary had stepped back and away from him in order for him to have this intimate conversation with God the Father. After this brief interlude, he resumed his rosary and felt at piece with the many issues weighing on him involving his father’s illness.

So, this young priest had clearly separated God the Father from the rest of the Holy Trinity. This made me think that perhaps my conversation with this woman at the wake was not that unusual after all.

The story from our priest reminded me about a similar episode in my own prayer life. Sometimes in the early ‘90s, I had just found out some bad news about my mother’s health. I left work and drove home, crying and sobbing over the dismal news. rosaryWhen I got home I went straight to my bedroom and got my rosary from my bedside table. I knelt there at the side of my bed and said the rosary, but somewhere in the middle of a decade of the rosary, I stopped saying a Hail Mary and turned my prayer directly to God the Father. I asked Him to please not take my mother then, to allow her to watch my girls grow up, to give her more time with us. God heavenI talked to Him about how she had struggled in her life and how she had had so many crosses to bear, losing both her parents at a young age, marrying my father and being part of a completely different culture, her many ongoing health issues, and later, losing every single thing she owned in Hurricane Katrina. I told Him everything, and I asked Him for peace in this crisis in my life. A calm came over me and I returned to saying my rosary. Clearly, I had had a spiritual and intimate conversation with God the Father, but until Saturday morning’s reflection, I had not really thought of it in that way.

god the sonAs a regular churchgoer, I think of the Mass in terms of God the Son. He is there, up on the crucifix, up on the altar, present in the Eucharist. We hear His stories in the Old Testament, we are His invited guests at the Last Supper during the Eucharistic Prayer. So, when I am in church, particularly in Mass, I feel that I am having that same spiritual and intimate conversation with God the Son.

holy spiritThat just leaves God the Holy Spirit. Catholic middle school students are told at dances to “leave room for the Holy Spirit” when dancing to slow songs. We’ve all heard the phrase, “It was the Holy Spirit” that did this or that. Last May, I received a call from a friend who told me of a job opening at my parish school, where my daughters were educated, where my husband and I spend so much of our time. I had always wanted to teach there but there was never an opening when the timing was right. This was the third time an opening in my content area and grade level had come up, and this time, I decided I would go in and interview for the position. Changing schools was a challenge, as I had only ever taught at one school for my whole career. Many times, I had taught four or more children from a single family, had watched the whole family grow up, graduate, and go to college. I had (and still have) many dear friends on faculty there. But, I felt the Holy Spirit was calling me to make this change.

hands on the earthYes, it was a change, fraught with challenge. I have six preps (lesson plans) a day now which is twice as many as I had before. I am teaching 6th grade literature for the first time. At my school, the 5th grade is part of the middle school, and before this year, I was not around 5th grade very much. The student body is very diverse, with students from El Salvador, Peru, Ethiopia, South Sudan, the Philippines, India, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and many more. Learning to pronounce and spell some of the first and last names has been a bit of work, to say the least.

keep calmBut, there have been many blessings as well. All of those cultures blend together to make a very interesting and rich classroom environment. They are lovely children, polite and courteous, full of energy and enthusiasm, the same as children from my old school. I have grown greatly as a teacher, improving in many areas of my classroom skills. With increased preps, I have become much more efficient in my lesson planning and grading; I use my planning periods much more resourcefully. The atmosphere in the hallways and among the faculty is positive and upbeat. There is laughter everywhere. My commute is now only 1.7 miles each way, and I can be at school in about 5 minutes. I am more fully a part of my church parish community. And, I have my friend to thank for it, or do I? We both have commented that it was the Holy Spirit that made this happen, and so I offer prayers of thanksgiving to God the Holy Spirit each day for this opportunity.

gold triangleThe Holy Trinity has been a part of my faith life since I was born and baptized into the Catholic Church, but until that recent conversation at the wake, I’ve never really thought of them as having distinct and separate effects on my life. Saturday’s reflection after Mass has given me new insight into my prayer life and how I view God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, God in three persons, the Holy Trinity.

#LeaningintoLent

lent 40 daysIt’s Lent, and I’m a Catholic school teacher. That means I bring my faith and religion to work with me every day, and I bring my work to my faith and religion every day. At my school, we talk about our Catholic faith a lot, in all classes-not just in religion class.

what to give upMy middle school students were happy to discuss with me in literature class what they were giving up for Lent or what they were adding to their prayer life to make their Lent more meaningful. We were all ready to begin this liturgical season, all of us #LeaningintoLent together.

lent word cloudOur middle school religion teacher is also our assistant principal, and along with her administrative duties to support the principal, she is also our in-house spiritual guide. In our Sunday evening email entitled “This Week”, she outlines the coming week’s calendar and school events, ending it with a prayer, a reflection on a passage of scripture, or a quote from a saint.

ash wednesdayLast Sunday’s email reminded us that even though Wednesday was February 14th and therefore Valentine’s Day, it was also Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and as Catholics, we were to fast and abstain from eating meat. Abstaining from meat is the easy part…it’s the fasting that takes some discipline.

butternut squashI decided to make a big pot of soup to bring to school on Ash Wednesday to share with my colleagues, to help us all out with having a small snack-sized meal at lunch, something to give us the energy to make it through the rest of the school day. My husband had brought home two butternut squash from the grocery store and one of them was crying out to be made into a thick and creamy vegetarian soup!

leanintolentThere are quite a few butternut squash soup recipes simmering away on the internet, and after researching all of them, as usual, I took the things I liked from one, and added them to the things I liked from another, to come up with my own version. My original twists were the addition of herbes de Provence to season the aromatics at the beginning, and dans le style Belge, just before serving, the addition of equal parts of brown sugar and vinegar to brighten the flavors at the end of cooking.

It must have been a hit, because almost five quarts of my butternut squash disappeared that day!

If you need a belly-warming vegetarian meal for your Lenten Fridays, or if you just want to enjoy the last days of soup weather in a healthy way, try my version of butternut soup. Let me know how it turns out!

Curried Coconut Butternut Squash Soup with Apples

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium leek, well-cleaned and rinsed, dark green parts discarded and light green/white parts finely chopped
  • 1 bunch green onions, dark green parts discarded and light green/white parts finely sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, cored and seeded, diced
  • 3 stalks of celery, finely diced
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
  • ¼ tsp herbes de Provence
  • 1 tsp curry powder
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 medium-size butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1” inch cubes
  • 2 medium-sized Granny Smith apples, peeled and cored, diced
  • 1 14-ounce (414 ml) can light coconut milk
  • 2 32-ounce cartons of vegetable broth
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar (light or dark, either is fine)
  • 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

Instructions

  1. Heat oil in a large, heavy pot (5 quart or larger) over medium heat.
  2. Once hot, add leeks, green onions, bell pepper, and celery. Season with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, herbes de Provence, curry powder, and cumin. Sauté until vegetables are soft, about 2 minutes, stirring frequently.
  3. Add butternut squash and apples. Stir to coat. Then cover and cook for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  4. Add coconut milk and vegetable broth. Stir well.
  5. Bring to a low boil over medium heat and then reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes or until butternut squash is fork tender.
  6. Use an immersion blender, or transfer soup to a blender, and purée on high until creamy and smooth. If using a blender, return soup back to pot.
  7. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more curry powder, salt, or chili paste (or sriracha for heat). Continue cooking for 10 minutes over medium heat.
  8. Just before serving, add apple cider vinegar and brown sugar. Stir well. Serve as is or with garnishes of choice (toasted pumpkin seeds, grated fresh coconut, chili paste, etc.). Store leftovers covered in the refrigerator for 3-4 days or in the freezer up to 1 month.

Invite Him to the Storm

imageOne of the things I love most about being Catholic is the ability to practice my faith anywhere, anytime. I’ve attended Mass in nearly every state and country that I’ve visited. Sometimes it has been in a foreign language, and while listening to the homily can be a challenge, I know the parts of the Mass so well I can easily follow along, responding quietly in English. I also always carry my Magnificat with me so I can read the readings and prayers, no matter where I am.

imageWhile visiting a friend in beautiful Fort Myers, Florida, I attended Sunday Mass at the Church of the Resurrection of our Lord. The celebrant was Fr. Oliver Toner, an old (his adjective, not mine) Irish priest, whose lilting accent and demeanor reminded me of one of my favorite priests of all times, Msgr. Oliver McGready, another Irish priest I was blessed to have as pastor of my parish church for over ten years.

imageThe Irish are always ready with a good story to make a point, teach a lesson, or simply just to entertain. Fr. Toner was no exception. The readings for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time were from Genesis and Colossians, with the gospel coming from Luke. The church bulletin advised that the day’s readings were to “address the importance of persistent prayer.” It’s no surprise that this message was especially poignant, given the unrest and discord in the upcoming presidential election as well as the recent spate of violence and brutal killings in my home state of Louisiana, in Florida, in Texas, in Germany, and just recently, in France, where an elderly priest was beheaded while celebrating morning Mass.

imageFr. Toner’s homily focused in on a specific type of prayer, not one of asking but of thanking. His advice was to thank God for the negatives in our lives, not just the positives. In his typically-Irish way of using homey, intimate stories, he illustrated this with several examples. One was that of being called out to give last rites to a woman who had suffered a massive heart attack. The doctor, a golfing buddy of his, advised him that the prognosis was dire as the heart attack had damaged three-quarters of the woman’s heart. On his way out of the emergency room, he was approached by the woman’s husband who was seeking comfort and solace. Fr. Toner told him to pray, and in his prayer, try thanking God for his wife’s heart attack. The man thought it was crazy to do so but felt he had nothing to lose so he did. Months later, Fr. Toner was visited by the man and his wife, who had indeed recovered from the heart attack.

Fr. Toner told several other stories with similar threads, one including a blocked sewer pipe, which brought a laugh from the congregation. He didn’t just tell stories, however, he backed them up with a powerful passage from scripture, 1 Thessalonians 5:18. “In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” In other words, thank God for everything, positive and negative.

imageOn the surface, this seems counter to what we have been taught in our prayer life. As a teacher, when I pray with my students, whether it be before a field trip, before a big exam, or before a rehearsal for the school play, I always tell them to thank God for the blessings He has bestowed on them and only then should they ask for what they need or want. Fr. Toner offered a different template for prayer, one which I will bring back to school with me this fall: ACTS. This simple acronym focuses our prayer efforts in four easy steps. “A” is for acknowledge God as our Father and worship Him in adoration. “C” is for confession of our sins which we bring to Him for healing and mercy. “T” is for thanksgiving, but Fr. Toner shared that perhaps we should think of trust instead, putting our trust in Him to help us through our ordeals. It is at this stage of prayer that Fr. Toner suggested we thank God for the negatives in our lives. Finally, “S” is for supplication, where we turn to God with our requests.

imageWhy should we thank Him for the problems in our lives, for the large and small crosses we feel we have been given to bear? Fr. Toner was ready with the answer to this. He wrapped up his homily by telling the congregation that God is waiting for us to give Him control, for choosing obedience over free will, for allowing Him to embrace the evil and transform it. Fr. Toner said simply, “Bring God into the storms of your life. God can surprise you.”

The White Hills of Rockville

Author’s Note: Some of my more liberal-minded readers might not agree with my positions in this essay, and that’s okay. Read or don’t read, the choice is yours, these views are mine. In the words of General Douglas MacArthur: “Last, but by no means least, courage-moral courage, the courage of one’s convictions, the courage to see things through. The world is in a constant conspiracy against the brave. It’s the age-old struggle-the roar of the crowd on one side and the voice of your conscience on the other.”

backyardIt’s a bright and sunny Sunday morning, and temperatures have reached their projected high for today of 30º. My family just “attended” Mass via the television, where we streamed a taped broadcast of this Sunday’s Mass from the television ministry of the Passionists order of priests. We are snowed in, thanks to winter storm Jonas, a/k/a #blizzard2016, so no trip out to attend Mass at our parish, the Shrine of St. Jude here in Rockville. As I look out my windows I see white everywhere; something in excess of twenty inches of snow has fallen in the last 36 hours. My yard and the surrounding landscape is a series of white, sloping mounds of snow, sparkling in the sunlight.

sideyardWe’ve already received word, via multiple social media sources, that school has been canceled for tomorrow and Tuesday. It’s hard to imagine that we will have school on Wednesday at this point, and some of my teacher friends are saying the clean-up from this blizzard is so monumental we might be out all week. We were kept home on Friday, when I was slated to start The Old Man and the Sea with my 7th graders. I start my Hemingway unit with a short story that is found in their 7th grade literature textbook, “A Day’s Wait”, a short, innocent yet poignant coming of age tale of a young boy who thinks he is dying because his temperature is 102º and he has confused Fahrenheit with Celsius.

EH 7018P

EH 7018P Ernest Hemingway on safari, Africa. January, 1934. 

When we begin covering Hemingway I give them a brief bio to read and explain to them the significance of his winning the Pulitzer and the Nobel. We discuss his beginnings as a writer, working as a journalist overseas, serving during WWI as an ambulance driver, coming home from the war wounded in action, recuperating and healing through his writing and eventual success as a novelist. We discuss his life story: his four marriages, his adventurous and athletic nature, and his eventual suicide at the young age of 62. We talk about the political incorrectness of two of his passions: bullfighting and big game hunting. Mostly, however, we focus on his writing style in preparation for 8th grade when I use a unit on John Steinbeck to compare the writing styles of the two great American authors.

hemingwayWhile I do teach at a Catholic school, I don’t talk about one of Hemingway’s early short stories, “Hills Like White Elephants”, published just a year after Hemingway’s 1926 break-through novel The Sun Also Rises, which established him as a major literary force.

“Hills Like White Elephants” came to mind today, as I reflected on the events of the last few days. Winter storm Jonas made his appearance to the Washington, DC, metropolitan area on the same day as the annual March for Life, where hundreds of thousands of Christians descend upon the US capital to protest the Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs. Wade, which legalized abortion. Our 8th graders attend the March for Life Youth Rally and Mass each year, as a religion field trip, in support of the Catholic Church’s teachings on the sanctity of life, from conception until natural death. This year’s field trip to the event was canceled, as was school for the day.

rod serling march for life imageA good friend of mine, a devout Catholic, posted on her Facebook page a link to a news story entitled: “CBS News Ignores March for Life, Attacks Pro-Life Presidential Candidate Instead”. It was accompanied by a meme of Rod Serling, creator of the sci-fi television series The Twilight Zone, who started each episode with a monologue, “Imagine if you will …”

snow altarIn spite of Jonas bearing down on the nation’s capital, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims did make the journey, some becoming stranded on the interstates on their return trip home. One high school group from Iowa created a snow altar and with the help of a priest from another stranded bus of Catholic school students, attended Mass on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This was captured by photographer Chris Coleman and publicized widely on social media.

“Hills Like White Elephants” is the story of a couple traveling by train. In true Hemingway style, the background details are as sparse as the word count itself. The male character is unnamed and only referred to as “the American”, while the female character is called “Jig”. Even a cursory reading of this story gives the reader the niggling sensation that this is not an entry from a travelogue. It is much, much more. In casual, yet purposefully encrypted, conversation, the couple discusses “an awfully simple operation”. It becomes quite clear that the man is in favor of this operation and Jig is struggling with it. He goes as far as to say that it is all perfectly natural, “just to let the air in”, and then everything will be alright, back to normal, back to the way things were before.

Much like the media’s avoidance of the coverage of the March for Life, now in its 43rd year, the couple in “Hills Like White Elephants” goes to great lengths to avoid directly confronting the decision to have an abortion. The baby is never mentioned, the medical procedure, which at the time and place of the setting of this story, Spain in 1927, was illegal and highly dangerous, is discounted to being absolutely nothing to worry about. The man goes on to say that he has “known lots of people that have done it” … “it’s perfectly simple”.

It is interesting to consider the writer’s voice in analyzing this piece of fiction. Hemingway is careful not to tip his hand, offering not so much as an adjective or adverb describing how the bullet-like sentences are delivered or their underlying subtexts. We can, however, look to his own life for his views on marriage, family, and religion.

At the time of the writing and publication of “Hills Like White Elephants”, Hemingway was in the process of exiting his first marriage to wife Hadley Richardson, with whom he had his first child, Jack, and after their divorce, he converted to Catholicism, in order to marry his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, who was a devout Catholic with whom he had two more sons. In spite of a divorce from Pfeiffer and two more marriages, history documents that Hemingway remained Catholic, donating thousands of dollars to churches and making frequent pilgrimages to religious sites. He spent much time in countries of predominantly Catholic status: Cuba, Italy, France, and Spain. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novella The Old Man and the Sea can be studied from the viewpoint of an allegory of the Passion of Christ. Was “Hills Like White Elephants” some sort of statement on abortion or was it just a writing exercise on the dynamics of this one relationship?

In the nearly 100 years that have elapsed since the writing of “Hills Like White Elephants”, a lot has changed in America. Abortion is legal and “safe”, if the taking of a life can be considered safe. Political campaigns and elections are polarized by the issue of pro-life vs. pro-choice. Hashtags, the bumper stickers of today, are created and disseminated, both for and against abortion. Millions of dollars are spent each year on the research and development of contraception and fertility. Millions of dollars are spent each year on abortions and the repercussions of those which were less successful. Millions of dollars are spent each year on the legal battle of overturning vs. preserving Roe vs. Wade. Millions of prayers are offered each day for the end of abortion. its a child not a choiceFeminists want the message to be that women should have total control over what happens to their bodies. Their message is that women should have the choice of when to be pregnant, when to have a baby, when not to have a baby. When it is all said and done, they are right: it is a choice. It always has been, even in 1926 Spain. Except in the cases of domestic violence, rape, and incest, it is a choice before, during, and after. It is a choice. Choose carefully.

Read ‘Em or Weep: A Cautionary Tale

summer readingAll over the country grade school, middle school, and high school students are scrambling to finish their summer reading assignments and projects. Some have put off reading a 300-page book to the very last minute and now finishing it in time to complete the assignment seems a daunting task. In the coming week, which is the week before school starts here in Montgomery County, Maryland, I anticipate many emails asking for clarification of the writing assignments and art-based projects for the books I require my rising 7th and 8th graders to read. Of course, the emails will be fraught with typos, grammar errors, and the ever present “texting” language.  After taking a deep breath, I will respond cheerfully to the questions and point them to the detailed instructions for the projects and the rubrics for grading them, which I posted on the school’s website at the start of the summer.
procrastinateWhen these emails begin flooding into my mailbox, I inevitably want to say, “Why did you wait until the last minute to start this?” but I won’t. They most likely have heard it from their parents, or it may already be obvious to them, and if not, this lesson may or may not be learned by them in the future. Some never learn this lesson at all. Well begun is half done, right? aristotleThis famous quote is attributed to Aristotle’s Politics, a work of political philosophy. If ancient Greek philosophy is not your style, how about the 1964 classic Mary Poppins? She also quoted this to her young charges when enticing them to clean up the nursery. For many, however, procrastination rules the day. I must admit, I am guilty of this myself…although never for anything having to do with reading.

At the end of each school year when I go over the summer reading assignments with the soon to be 7th and 8th graders, I always advise them to start their summer reading the very next day. Finals are over, the sun and sand of summer awaits; get those books and start reading, a few pages a day. Summer reading is just that: reading over the summer, the whole summer. alarm clockIt is not meant to be binge reading, condensed into a few days’ time, with the loss of freedom and the promise of scheduled wake-ups and bedtimes looming in the near future.

During the first few days of school each year we always discuss what we each did over the summer. As I teach in an affluent neighborhood, the responses from my students include family vacations abroad or somewhere tropical, weeks at their beach houses, elite sports camps, and swim team practices and meets at their country club pools. My summers growing up were quite different. During my pre-teen and teenage years, my father was self-employed as a soft drink distributor for the 7-Up Bottling Company. Taking a week off was not an option as he would have had to pay someone to take his routes for him for that week. That, combined with the expense of a family vacation for the five of us, simply wasn’t in the cards. So, my early summers were spent at the public library, where I devoured large numbers of books, many of which were read sitting on the cool, 800px-Terrazzo-normalterrazzo floors between the stacks in the fiction or biography sections. Reading about far-away places was my vacation. During high school, my mornings were spent at the local public pool teaching swimming lessons and working as a lifeguard in the afternoons. My first “vacation” was at the end of 8th grade, when my aunt and uncle took me on my first airplane trip to see my cousin graduate from college. We only crossed the state of Louisiana on that short 45-minute airplane ride but I was in heaven. I remember every detail from that trip, including the Plum Nuts Cake I had at the home of my cousin’s roommate. A foodie in the making, I asked Mrs. Ory for the recipe so I could make the cake for my mom when I got home. I still have the 3×5 index card with the recipe on it, and I still make that cake today-it is always a smash hit.

Why is summer reading and other independent reading important? I’m not really asked that by the parents of my students. They know it is important, but somehow, reinforcing that at home is difficult in today’s fast-paced society. sportsSports is part of it. Summer sports camp is required to maintain and improve their skills so they will make the teams in the fall and spring. If they make certain teams, they will be noticed by high school coaches. High school coaches from the private and Catholic schools sometimes have the ability to influence admission decisions. Playing and winning in high school means being noticed by college coaches. And, college coaches can influence not only admission decisions, but offer scholarships as well.

But, what if a student gets injured and can’t play that sport any longer? What if they aren’t really good enough for college sports? During a difficult parent meeting about a 7th grade student who was struggling with reading comprehension and writing in my class during my early years as a teacher, the father of this young boy told me his son would be playing basketball in high school and college, and given his height and prowess at the sport, he didn’t need tutoring or additional support in language arts. In fact, the student himself had told me that he was going to play in the NBA and then be a sports attorney after he retired from professional basketball. I’m not sure how he thought he was going to make it through college and law school if he couldn’t read and understand a short story in a 7th grade textbook. I’ve quietly tracked that student over the years, and I am sad to report that it didn’t actually work out the way the father (or the student) planned it.

summer readingA quick Google search will bring up many studies about the pros of summer reading to combat the “summer slump” and loss of skills as well as the importance of independent reading in the middle school years. In a short two page report, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction stated the following bullet points:

  • Numerous studies have shown that reading over the summer prevents “summer reading loss.”
  • Summer reading loss is cumulative. Children don’t “catch up” in fall because the other children are moving ahead with their skills. By the end of 6th grade children who lose reading skills over the summer are two years behind their classmates.
  • Reading 4 or 5 books over the summer can have a significant impact for middle school readers.

weepingSo, in response to the question “Why is there assigned summer reading?” I say, “Read ’em or weep.” In other words, read now or pay later. The statistics are clear.

When selecting the books I assign for summer reading for my students, my goal is one classic and one more contemporary work. My rising 7th graders read Hemingway’s masterpiece The Old Man and the Sea and Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, a work of realistic fiction, albeit historical to these young pre-teens, set in the 1960’s on Long Island, New York. The protagonist in Schmidt’s book is a 7th grade boy who is left behind on Wednesday afternoons when half of his class is dismissed an hour early to attend religious education at the Catholic church and the other half of his class heads to the temple for Hebrew lessons. Holling Hoodhood is the only Presbyterian in the class and the principal looks down his chart of teachers and their planning periods and assigns Holling to Mrs. Baker, the middle school English teacher, for that hour. As any teacher can imagine, Mrs. Baker is not happy about losing her planning period to be saddled with one student in her room. At first she attempts to make his life miserable by having him clean her classroom. As any normal 7th grade boy will tell you, cleaning the blackboard and erasers is infinitely better than having two periods of English class in the same day! Once Mrs. Baker figures out that Holling is not miserable enough with the cleaning tasks, she assigns him Shakespeare plays to read. shakespeareThat should do it, she thinks, he will be miserable! However, Holling, who is a good-natured young man even though he can’t attribute this to the saints or the Torah, begins to see the deeper meaning of the Shakespeare plays and how he can apply them to his own life, which is complicated by his parents’ lack of involvement in his activities and accomplishments. The Wednesday Wars is a great coming of age novel, with lots of sports, middle school pranks, and early adolescent stirrings mixed in with a very clever introduction to Shakespeare’s most popular plays.

My rising 8th graders read Steinbeck’s classic The Pearl and Agatha Christie’s well known mystery Murder on the Orient Express. As the protagonist in Orient Express is the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the novel is filled with French phrases and utterances. The summer before, these same students will have read The Old Man and the Sea, which takes place in a fishing village near Havana on the coast of Cuba. This novella is filled with Spanish phrases and utterances. This is not by accident. Our school is fortunate to offer two foreign languages: French and Spanish. Students are introduced to both languages in first grade and then in second grade they choose the language program they wish to pursue through middle school where they will have foreign language three days a week. We are also fortunate that the faculty members for both languages are native speakers, which is an enormous benefit to the students in learning proper pronunciation. As a result, many of our students test out of either freshman Spanish or French.

A secondary goal in my choice of literature for their summer reading, as well as during the school year, is to broaden the world view of my students and to help them associate important literature and authors with world events and time periods. Studying the Medieval era in social studies while reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman in literature brings the students to a richer, deeper meaning of this important time period and how it shaped England and the rest of the world. medieval era pyramidBecause we are a Catholic school, it is easy to bring religion into the literature classroom with this award-winning novel which features heavily the importance of the Church and the lives of the saints in the daily life of all classes of people in Medieval England.

My 7th graders have one project each for the two summer reading books: an artsy project for The Old Man and the Sea, a travel brochure for Havana, Cuba; and an essay for The Wednesday Wars. In the first person narrative they are to write about what would be their own Wednesday war, which subject would they hate to have twice a day like the protagonist in the novel. As you might expect, a lot of students choose math as the one subject they would hate to have twice a day each Wednesday. A few say science, although not many given how much they love our science teacher at my school. A few say foreign language, but this is more about the lack of self-confidence they feel in having to deal with either Répétez, s’il vous plait or Puedes repetir eso, por favor in their respective classes.

Only a brave few, however, dare to say literature. That essay is their first introduction to me, as I will be teaching them for the first time. They obviously don’t want to start off on a bad foot with me, so they hide the fact that they secretly hate reading for several weeks into the school year, when I begin to notice a distinct reluctance to read aloud or shoddy work on reading comprehension questions. If only I could “flip the switch” on these students, change their minds about reading, turn them into lifelong readers who enjoy reading for leisure. perfumeIf only I could liquefy and bottle the feelings I had as a middle school student, sprawled on the cool, terrazzo floors of the Port Sulphur Public Library, as I read my way through book after book, constantly learning new words, experiencing new places, meeting new people, tasting new cultures. I would spritz them all with this eau de lisant if only I could.

Source:

Evers, Tony, PhD, State Superintendent. “Why Public Library Summer Reading Programs Are Important.” Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. 21 Apr. 2014. Web. 19 Aug. 2015.

À bientôt

On Thursday, May 14, 2015, I said my final goodbye to my dad or at least my final goodbye in this life. Being a faithful Catholic, however, I truly believe that I will see him again in eternal life, so perhaps Thursday’s goodbye was merely à bientôt.

Religious items from my father's funeral

Religious items from my father’s funeral

His funeral was beautiful. My brothers and I tried our best to include all the different branches of our extended families. An Irish priest, a longtime friend of the family, in his still thick Irish accent, celebrated the Mass, with another priest concelebrating. My older daughter was the cantor for the parts of the Mass and hymns, and my husband sang the responsorial psalm. My younger daughter, originally scheduled to read the first reading, served as lector reading both readings as my dad’s niece’s laryngitis kept her from doing the second reading. My nephews brought up the gifts, along with my mom’s niece and my parents’ godchild, my dad’s nephew. Pall bearers included my nephews and four men who were all very dear friends of my dad’s. Nearly a hundred people came to the church for the two-hour visitation prior to the funeral, and while there were many tears, there were also many light moments, reminiscing about my father’s legendary storytelling and practical jokes.

At the visitation, a family friend said to me, “Losing a parent is tough, but losing the last parent is something else, something greater.” He was so right. At my mother’s funeral, also beautiful with many family members and close family friends participating, I remember holding on to my dad’s arm. He cried throughout most of the Mass, and after that, he cried every time he went to Mass. He had been devoted to my mother throughout their nearly 53 years of marriage, but particularly so during the last fourteen years of her life, when he cared for her around the clock during many surgeries and medical treatments for heart and kidney disease. We all worried so about him and how he would cope with my mother’s death. The belief that they are together again is of some comfort, but losing him is the final ache in a series of pain that began with Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, on August 29, 2005.

As readers of my essays will remember, I lost my hometown to Hurricane Katrina, and along with my hometown, my parents lost their home and almost all of their possessions. My mother wasn’t feeling well preceding the mandatory evacuation order and did not pack to the same degree as she had for previous hurricanes. She later told me that she was lying on the sofa directing my father, tense and nervous about the storm, as to what to pack. Later, when unpacking her suitcase in a La Quinta motel room in Houston, she discovered she had mismatched pairs of shoes, pants with no matching tops, and an odd assortment of other items.

Blanchard home, post-Katrina, located in pieces on back levee, Port Sulphur, Louisiana

Blanchard home, post-Katrina, located in pieces on back levee, Port Sulphur, Louisiana

When news eventually arrived that the house was gone, and by gone, I mean totally gone-its remains were located weeks later on the back levee, broken in pieces-my mother was devastated and really never recovered from that. I recently learned from my mother’s sister, my beloved Nanny Pat, whose gift to my mother of a kidney in 1995 gifted all of us with twelve additional years with her, that my mother had said she really did not want to live through another anniversary of the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. She died on August 23, 2007, just days before Katrina’s second anniversary. We all pretty much agree that she just gave up fighting as she had done for so long.

Everything changed after my mother passed away. In October of 2007, just a month and a half later, I realized I would never get another birthday card in the mail from her. My mother (as well as my Nanny Pat, who continues to this day in this family specialty) was a master of correspondence. She wrote to me almost daily during my four years of college, and sent many, many care packages. The contents were usually somewhat odd and I learned to open the care packages in the safety of my dorm room rather than in the student union where I picked up my mail. Once, the small box, heavily armored in scotch tape, contained about a hundred sticks of doublemint gumDoublemint gum (still individually wrapped, but loose, not in packages) and some personal sanitary products.

My mom sent out scores of greeting cards all year round. Hallmark was her favorite store, and no matter how poorly she was feeling, my dad’s offer of a trip to the Hallmark Gold Crown store was sure to perk up her spirits. Naturally, all birthdays, anniversaries, and major holidays warranted a card, but so did the minor ones as well: Fourth of July, Halloween; if Hallmark had a card for it, a card was purchased. When family members married, their new spouses were added to the address book, along with their birthdays and special dates. My husband often remarked that he found it so touching, how my mom and my Nanny Pat never ever let his birthday or Father’s Day pass without Hallmark making an appearance in our mailbox.

My dad wasn’t much on correspondence although he would sign his name to any card my mom put in front of him. He was, however, very attached to his cell phone. While he never graduated to a smart phone, he and his flip phone were best friends. He was famous for calling people closest to him several times a day. While my mom’s cousin Anna was still alive in Glasgow, Scotland, he called her frequently. Once he pronounced his initial greeting, he immediately passed the phone to someone else. I will dearly miss talking to him and hearing his familiar “Whatcha doing?” which was always followed by a litany of what he had eaten that day, and sometimes, what he ate the day before. He loved to tell me exactly how he had cooked something. How many times did he tell me how he made his famous smothered chicken? “First, I rinse off the chicken pieces and dry them. Then, I lay them out on aluminum foil and season them with salt and pepper. Next, I brown them on all sides in a big pan with some olive oil. I set them aside and brown thinly sliced onions and bell peppers. When they are nice and soft, I put the chicken back in, add a little water, cover them with foil, and put the pan in the oven for about an hour. It’s so good it will make you slap your momma.”  This was always served with hot white rice and good French bread.

Food has always been an important part of the fabric of our family life. None of us were ever breakfast people, and lunch was usually leftovers or a sandwich (in my father’s case, a “half a sandwich”) but extensive discussions ensued each day about what would be cooked for supper. Most of the meals served at the supper tables of homes in southeast Louisiana need to be started early in the day and simmered for a long period of time. Red beans and rice with smoked sausage or ham needs to cook for hours. My dad’s smothered chicken also involves considerable prep and long, slow cooking. Gumbo is not a dish to throw together after work on a weekday night.

My parents also loved to eat out. My dad would first order his glass of red wine and settle in to study the menu, cover to cover, all the while asking what everyone at the table was going to order. He was always a gracious diner. I don’t think I ever saw him send anything back to the kitchen or complain about a dish served to him. He was not exactly a picky eater, but he was not very adventurous until he quit smoking in 1995. He claimed that his tastes changed after he quit smoking, that food tasted “more alive” and then he really branched out trying all sorts of things that shocked us, like Chinese take-out and delivery pizza. He loved to outsmart anyone at the table who was intent on paying the bill, often handing the waiter his credit card when he placed his order to ensure he would get the bill. The best you could do was to offer to pay the tip, and that was not always something you would win at either.

I feel so fortunate to have spent nine days with my dad in April, helping to get him out of the rehab facility he had been in and get him back home with my brother. My brothers and I worked together to make important health decisions for him. During that time, in spite of the stress and difficult decisions, my dad and I had such a good visit, shared some good meals, and had some nice chats. I was able to tell him thanks for being such a great father, for teaching me so much, for giving me a strong work ethic. None of that made it any easier when the news did come on Friday, May 8th, that he was gone. It is and will be for a long time incredibly hard. À bientôt, mon père, à bientôt.