I Am a Teacher

calendarToday is Tuesday, November 26, 2019. For the last two weeks, I have been ready for tomorrow, Wednesday, November 27, 2019. Tomorrow is the start of a 5-day break from school for the Thanksgiving holiday. Saying that I am ready for it is a gross understatement. Like saying I like carbs. Or, I like to sleep late. Or, I like to read. People who know me well know that all of these are gross understatements. I am SO ready for my Thanksgiving break.

bootWhy? First, I didn’t really have a summer break from teaching. I spent my summer in a non-weight bearing boot, sitting in a recliner, waiting for my broken ankle to heal from surgery. Yes, it healed, but as grateful as I am that I am fully-mobile again, I still feel cheated. Teachers live for summer break where we can go out to lunch with friends, go on trips, spend weekdays running errands, reading for fun and not for professional development.

Second, I’m so ready to get in my kitchen and cook to my heart’s content, since for twelve long boring weeks I wasn’t able to cook. My kitchen is upstairs, thirteen wickedly steep and treacherous steps. My husband and daughter cooked some and we ate a lot of take-out. Uber Eats was Uber Regular. So, in preparation for the biggest food day of the year, I’ve been running through menu possibilities like Casey Kasem’s America’s Top 40 greatest hits.

In spite of all of this, though, even though I am SO ready for my Thanksgiving break, today in literature class, I was stopped cold in my tracks. Instead of wishing for the remaining hours to hurry by so I would be on my Thanksgiving break, I was reminded why I love teaching. In a very short, one-paragraph example of creative writing, I was reminded what I have to be thankful for, and why. With the permission of a very special student, I share with you what I experienced today.

mozartkugel tinWe had finished my lesson plan for the class period and we had about ten minutes left. I pulled out my “think-it tin” which originally housed Austrian chocolate hazelnut candies called Original Salzburger Mozartkugel. thinketsNow it is filled with little objects I find all over my house: a charm from a bracelet, the little plastic clip that holds a pair of socks together, a fake gold ring from a box of Cracker Jacks, a badge from Girls Scouts that never got sewn on, the spring out of a ball point pen, etc. Students reach in and pull out something. They get to decide what the object is, and then they write a story where the object is the main character. The slight twist for today was that the story had to be about Thanksgiving.

My student today pulled out something that he decided was a belt. In reality it is a dog collar for a Chihuahua (dog). In the past, students have decided it was a leather bracelet, like the ones you see hipsters wearing these days. But, today, it was a belt. And this belt had a lot to say.

MLKWhen you read this, your first reaction may be that it’s light-hearted and humorous. That it is. But look deeper and I hope you will see the serious side of it as well. My student, using a literary device called repetition, famously used by MLK Jr. in his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech, wove through his short paragraph life lessons and poignant reminders of what is really important in life. mother teresaHis very creative short story is reminiscent of some of Saint Mother Teresa’s famous quotes about doing small things with love, starting with loving your own family. Please read it. Consider it my student’s Thanksgiving gift to you.

thanksgiving feastThis Thanksgiving, let’s all focus on what is really important, not which side dishes to have or how many pieces of pie is too many. Let’s focus on loving each other. Let’s focus on being grateful and thankful for what we have, not what we wish we had. Let’s focus on appreciating our family, family thanksgiving 2018especially those who hold us all together. Let’s focus on love Let’s focus on being a belt.

 

 

 

 

I Am a Belt

Check it out!

June Issue Washington Family Magazine

June issue, Washington Family Magazine

Check out this month’s Washington Family Magazine for my freelance work in their June “Father’s Day” issue:

Cross on Over to Nerdy Book Club!

After teaching The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, I wrote about the experience–and and the man behind it–for Nerdy Book Club. Please read it here and let me know your thoughts!

Finish Strong

The April 1issue of Washington Family Magazine is now available online. Please see my article “Finish Strong“, pages 14-15, with quotes from some of the best teachers I know!

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.

The Big One

It’s my birthday. Not just any birthday, either. It’s the big one. The big 6-0. As in, senior citizen discount at some places. As in AARP stuff in the mail EVERY SINGLE DAY.

birthday-streamers

My classroom

I had a great day. My classroom was decorated with streamers, lots of little goodies and treats found their way to my desk, students brought in cards and gift cards, room parents brought in a cake, a large pumpkin spice latte, a beautiful plant, and colleagues dropped by throughout the day with well-wishes and lovely gifts. One daughter gave me a gift bag full of birthday treasures and the other daughter sent the most beautiful arrangement of autumn flowers. My husband gave me a lovely glass and crystal cross, as well as a well-planned vacation for us in the near future.

 

flowers-from-maddie

Flowers from my daughter, Maddie

In spite of all of this, however, I’ve been thinking about this birthday with trepidation for about a year. I had trouble in my late fifties keeping the numbers straight. Am I 57 or 58? Sometimes I literally had to do the math. As in, “2014 minus 1956 equals 58. Yeah, that’s right, I’m 58.”

 

It’s not that I was in denial; I just didn’t care. The numbers didn’t seem to mean anything to me. I didn’t feel any differently at 56 than I did at 55 or 53 for that matter, so 57 and 58 really didn’t matter. BUT, and this is a big but, 59 hit me hard. On the morning of my 59th birthday, the first thing I thought was, “In one year I will be SIXTY.”

charles-dickens-action-figure

Charles Dickens action figure from my daughter, Margaret

There is no doubt about it. Sixty carries a certain degree of gravitas with it. My dad was 60 when his first grandchild, my older daughter, was born. Two years later, when my younger daughter was born, my mother was 60, and for her, that is when it all went to hell. She had a physical breakdown after enduring a very stressful incident where my baby brother was lost (and subsequently found, thank God) on the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico during a historic ice storm. She nearly died, and in the ensuing tests, was discovered to need bypass surgery on several arteries to her heart, renal bypass surgery as a result of untreated high blood pressure, and a cone biopsy for cervical cancer.

twitter-birthday-wishes

Birthday balloons from Twitter!

The bypass surgery and cone biopsy went well, but the renal bypass did not, and she came out of that operation on dialysis and on the kidney transplant list. For two years she endured dialysis and poor health until my aunt, her sister, gave her the gift of life with one of her very own kidneys. This selfless act of love gave my family twelve additional years with my mother, twelve years we would not have had were it not for Nanny Pat and her perfect match.

 

So, I was thinking last year on this day, how can I be one year from all of that? Luckily, just before my 59th birthday, a very brusque cardiologist stopped me dead in my tracks, and said one sentence filled with words that had taken me a lifetime to hear, a lifetime of yoyo dieting, faux exercising, and moaning over the fact that I could not lose weight, a lifetime to finally get, “Have you read your own medical history? If you continue on this path, you will be giving yourself insulin in a year, with more challenging health issues to follow.”

downton-birthday-humor

Downton silliness from a co-worker

After emptying my purse of any and all edible items while standing at the parking pay station that afternoon, I cradled my iPhone on my shoulder while telling my husband, “I’m done. That’s it. The foolishness is over. DO NOT purchase or bring home anything from the following list: pasta, bread, white potatoes, rice, dessert.” Instead, we eat primarily from a new list: lean protein, low-fat dairy, seeds and nuts, fruits and vegetables, and beans.

array-of-cards-and-notes

An array of cards and notes from students and teachers

A little over a year later, I am not just a sixty-year-old woman, I am a new person. After a lifetime of having little to no willpower, I now understand that my everyday routine does not have to include large amounts of carbohydrates, which turn into sugar, which is a bad thing for me. I managed to lose a significant amount of weight, and successfully make it through major holidays, two birthdays, three vacations, daily trips to the faculty room, otherwise known as carbohydrate central, and much, much more. My husband and I have changed so much about how we eat, how we order food in a restaurant, how we grocery shop, how we treat ourselves.

hubby-birthday-gift

Crystal and glass cross from my husband

Late this summer I joined a gym. When I walked into Planet Fitness for the first time, it was my first time in a gym. I was grossly intimidated by the shiny machines, by the endless spandex, by the stoic way in which everyone was just going about their own business getting it done. With the help of a friend and my husband, I made myself comfortable on a few of the machines and began the process of slowly getting into better shape. This was made easier by the several years of dog-walking, where I slowly increased my daily steps from dismal to not too embarrassing.

birthday-macarons

French macarons and gifts from co-workers

Shopping for clothing in the last few months as I have continued to tone up a bit even when not losing any new pounds has become less of a dreadful experience, where I now leave with things that I “love”, not things that just “fit”. Everything I already own fits better, and a few things actually fall into that previously unknown category of “too big”. This summer I bought a bathing suit that I actually was happy with, and wore it in Florida to actually go swimming—without a cover-up.

birthday-plant-and-cards

Birthday surprises everywhere!

It’s the little things, right, but my blood work is not a little thing. With a modest weight loss of just a little over 10% of my starting point, I reversed all my bad numbers and increased all my good numbers. I am no longer pre-diabetic and I do not at this time need a statin or cholesterol-lowering drug.

pumpkin-spice-latte-and-cards

Gift cards and a pumpkin spice latte, my favorite!

Do I still have work to do? Absolutely. My next weight-loss goal is to lose enough to weigh the “lie” on my driver’s license. My next fitness goal is to tone up my arms so I can wear sleeveless dresses and tops, especially when my husband and I go to Puerto Rico in November, which was my big 60th birthday present. I can’t wait. Flying is so much more comfortable since I’ve trimmed down a bit, and I have no fear that the seat belt won’t buckle or that I will feel like I’m spilling out of my seat onto my neighbor. Going to Puerto Rico has been a dream of mine since second grade, when my good friend Patty moved there because of her dad’s work. I can’t wait!

birthday-dinner-with-margaret

Daughter Margaret and me at birthday dinner #2

And so as my big day, my big 60th birthday day, comes to a close, I feel content and at peace with my new age. I don’t think I will have trouble remembering how old I am this year, and not because I feel panicky about being this old. I feel really good about where I am right now, both personally and professionally.

birthday-dinner-with-belgian-friends

My husband and me at birthday dinner #1

My husband, who is my best friend in the whole world, worked really hard to make this birthday really special. I’ve gone out for a birthday dinner every single day since Friday! Some dining choices this long weekend have been healthier than others, but have no fear, I’m back on the wagon tomorrow! I’ll also be making a visit to Planet Fitness this week to work off some of this birthday glory before things get out of hand.

birthday-cake-at-school

Birthday cake from my students

My daughters have been so thoughtful and kind, just a reminder of what wonderful young women they have become. I am so incredibly proud of both of them; and while we miss having them at home with us, we are happy they are happily out on their own, making their own path through life.

maddie-at-joans-on-third

Daughter Maddie sent birthday wishes from LA!

This is my tenth year of teaching, and six weeks in, it feels like it will be my best one yet. My eighth grade class this year is unbelievable, a wonderful group of smart, hard-working, sweet, young men and women who really want to do well. They have re-inspired me to be the best teacher I can be, both for myself as well as for them.

mark-twain-quoteIn closing, I leave you with a favorite quote of the great American author, Mark Twain, who never took himself too seriously. As I start my next (seventh, YIKES) decade, I will try to remember this. I’ll keep working on my health and fitness goals, continue to grow spiritually and professionally, cherish my family and friends, and try not to take myself, or my age, too seriously. Cheers, à votre santé!

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 Sun Came Out This Weekend – Again

CTP Annie posterThe Broadway smash hit musical Annie has a special place in my heart. In the summer of 1987, I met my husband while playing the role of Mrs. Greer in a summer stock production of Annie, working backstage also as assistant director/stage manager. We began dating during that production and after twenty-eight years, it’s safe to say we are “together forever”.

CTP Annie photo

One of the two Annies from the 1987 production

In 2007, exactly twenty years after that summer stock experience, we found out that our daughters’ high school was going to produce Annie as their summer stock musical. Auditions were open to students and adults as well, both professionals and amateurs, so my husband auditioned for (and received) the same role he had in our first production together. We decided to do the show together, along with our high school daughters, to celebrate our first meeting twenty years earlier. It was so much fun to do a play as a family and of course, it added for me yet another special meaning to Annie.

HR Annie ProgramThis past weekend was the culmination of nine weeks of rehearsals and several additional weeks of planning for my middle school’s annual spring musical. Rehearsals from 3:00-5:30 three days a week, wrangling thirty-five 7th and 8th graders into song and dance numbers, training them on the discipline required for a quality production, scrounging for costume pieces at thrift stores and making emergency sewing repairs, all while teaching language arts full time, adds up to one tired human being. However, it is worth every single minute of it, especially when met with the smashing success of the weekend’s three performances.

Sound of Music

Me (far right) as Frau Schmidt

In the spring of 1987 I was asked by the director to be assistant director/stage manager for a production of Annie. I initially said no. I knew the show would be very popular and little girls would come skipping out of the wood-works to audition to be Annie or at least an orphan in the production. The previous summer I had been heavily involved in a production of The Sound of Music, onstage as Frau Schmidt and offstage as producer, where all seven of the Von Trapp children had been double cast. This meant fourteen children backstage at all times, and in the theatre, fourteen sets of stage parents. It also meant fourteen sets of costumes, because God forbid any one pair of children cast in the same role could actually fit in the same costume.

billboard for SoM

Thank God my phone number wasn’t on the billboard!

The show was ridiculously popular, and somehow, my home phone number had been put on publicity posters and flyers as the contact number for tickets. My phone rang off the hook for weeks, and once all eight performances were sold out, things got really nasty. Grandparents, godparents, neighbors, aunts and uncles, and friends of those fourteen children wanted tickets but there were none left.

 

Daigle_Steven_crop-250x332I tried to explain this to my friend, Steven Daigle, now an accomplished director and professor at the renown Eastman School of Music. What I really wanted was to be Miss Hannigan. I had been secretly rehearsing a startling and shocking (for me, at least) rendition of “It’s Raining Men” for my audition piece. He begged and flattered me, saying he really needed me backstage with all those orphans, etc., and finally a deal was struck, one that sealed my fate, so to speak. I would audition for Miss Hannigan, but if I didn’t get the part, I would take a smaller part in the servants’ ensemble and be Chief Orphan Wrangler.

I didn’t get the part.

school flowers and tshirt

Flowers from the principal and an Annie Jr. t-shirt

Just before my audition, my accompanist could see that I was beyond nervous and he was worried that I would blow it so he talked me into taking a small nip from his flask just before going onstage. Did I mention that he was auditioning for the role of Rooster? (He was perfect for the part.) So, I went out there, slightly tipsy from a guzzle of straight Jack Daniels and sang my heart out.

I didn’t get the part.

scharmal schrockScharmal Schrock, a university music professor who was the music director for the production, gave me her blunt response to my audition: “Well, you’ve got guts, I’ll give you that.” Later she called me aside and told me the hard and cold truth, “You just don’t have a strong enough voice for this role. So, take a small role and help Steve with the orphans.” She then added, “Everyone knows Kay is going to be Miss Hannigan. It’s perfect for her.”

Okay, I see. Sure, I’ll be Mrs. Greer, “Blue’s her color, no green, I think.” That’s it, that was my one line.

I have two dream roles that I would give anything to play, one being Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, and the other, well, let’s just say I don’t think I’m ever gonna be on Easy Street.

800px-Frances_Perkins_cph.3a04983For the rest of the Annie auditions, I manned a clipboard and helped Steve and Scharmal bring up the droves of actors and actresses up for their moment on stage. This is where my lack of a proper education in American history let me down. I announced to the packed auditorium that all men auditioning for the role of Frances Perkins should come up to the stage. I heard someone say, “Uh, excuse me, you would want the women who are auditioning for that part, since Frances Perkins was the first female cabinet member.”

I was mortified and quickly called up women as I had been duly corrected. I had just been “schooled” by my future husband, a history buff of first order. Needless to say, we didn’t start dating right away. I had already tried to catch his attention the previous summer, unsuccessfully, even to the extent of joining the church choir he sang in to try to get to know him. This public history lesson did not endear him to me that particular night.

roses from Annie

Roses from a cast member after closing night

But as the weeks of rehearsals went on, I softened (truth be told, I still had a massive crush on him) and offered to type a grad school paper for him on my office computer. I learned a great deal about what Hungary was doing the day I was born. To pay me back he offered to take me to dinner, and the rest, as they say, is history.

HSM programWhen our high school daughters, who thankfully got their father’s strong singing voice and not mine, initially heard that their dad was going to be in Annie at their school on their home stage, they were not so sure how that would fly. When I told them that I planned on applying for a backstage tech position so we could be in it together, to mark our twenty years together, I could tell by their expressions that they were worried that we would be horning in on their conversations with their friends or trying to hang out with them. We assured them both that we both knew how to act around their friends and would not embarrass them in any way; we were doing this to relive our first summer together. They soon got on board and in the end both had tech positions as well. It was the Ardillo Family Summer of Musical Theatre. We had such a great time, we all auditioned for and were cast in the summer stock production the next summer, High School Musical, where I mightily tried my damnedest to get the role of Ms. Darbus, unsuccessfully, and had to settle for Ms. Stellar, the science teacher.

HR Annie JrAnd, so, this third time doing Annie, this time the MTI Broadway Junior version, was wonderful and new and different, made even more special by the very talented members of our cast and crew. It’s all over now, after a matinee performance for the whole school on Friday, opening night to a packed house on Friday night, and closing night to another full house on Saturday night. Today I loaded up my car with all my personal belongings that found their way on the set, and cleaned up my classroom which had been turned upside down at the end of strike with everything being dropped off hurriedly in the hallway and doorway so everyone could get to the cast party.

Annie poster HR parents

Souvenir from cast and crew

This is my eleventh year directing middle school plays, nine at my current school. I’ve learned a lot about both adolescents and theatre during that time. I’ve had time to reflect today on the experience of doing Annie a third time: once with adults, once with high school students, and this time with middle school students. Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

  • You can get 8th grade boys to help you with just about anything if you flatter them by calling them “big” and “strong” in front of the other students. My team of “big boys” moved set pieces, costume racks bulging with clothes, and more every single day of tech week, with no complaints.
  • Something magical happens when you put a costume on a teenager. Even the shyest person comes alive when they are sufficiently masked by a period piece costume or at a minimum, a bright red boa.
  • hyacinths from cast

    From the cast!

    Middle school girls put the “drama” in “drama club”. Enough said.

  • Middle school girls will scream with fear over just about anything:
    • a live wasp that stung someone else,
    • a dead wasp that can no longer sting anyone,
    • the soundtrack being played too loudly,
    • a backstage area, which was fine ten minutes ago, is suddenly “too dark and scary” to enter.
  • When an 8th grade boy is very happy and proud of his performance on stage and wants to say something to you about that, asking if he can have a “fist bump” is as good as a thirty-minute speech of thanks.
  • back page of HR program

    Inside back cover of the program, so sweet!

    Even when they are being normal middle school teenagers and driving you crazy, they somehow manage to poke a hole in your heart and squeeze themselves into it.

  • Just when you think you can’t possibly do this another single year, you find yourself looking at potential musicals for next year.
  • And, finally – and those who know me will know I don’t say this lightly – only nine weeks of rehearsals, a grueling tech week, three performances, and lots of late nights mending of costumes and hot-gluing of butterflies back on hats, can make you feel like teaching language arts full-time is easy work compared to doing it while also directing a school play!

And that, as they say, is a wrap. Curtain!

A Salute to Intangible Rewards

saluteOn Friday, I was driving my normal route home from school, and as I turned on to this one particular neighborhood street, I slowed down, as usual, on the lookout for the group of boys who sometimes are throwing a football from one yard to another, in some form of ultimate street football, as they throw the ball across this somewhat busy street. Once as I was coming down that same street, one of them unexpectedly darted out in front of me to retrieve the ball, and while I was not that close to hitting him, it still un-rattled me, and ever since, I take it nice and slow down that street. On Friday, however, there was no football. All four of them were standing on the edge of the street, in a perfectly straight line, and as I approached, slowly, all four of them saluted me. I laughed, saluted them back, and proceeded on my way home.

yearbooksThis brought back a flood of memories of two of my favorite former students, who, while being quite different from one another, were even more different from everyone else in my homeroom class that year. They were rocket smart, good writers, and very well-rounded in their base of knowledge. They were being raised in households where reading was important, and they had been avid readers since they were old enough to hold a book. One particular shared interest was military history, and they took it upon themselves to declare me, their homeroom teacher, their commanding officer. As a result, every morning, they would be waiting in the hall when I approached my classroom, and they both stood at full attention and saluted me. I would salute them and say, “Good morning, gentlemen.” The other students would just shake their heads.

One day I was out of school for a field trip with a different class and upon my return I found a note on my desk from my substitute teacher, “I caught these two boys cheating on their vocab test, so I took their tests away from them. I wasn’t sure how you wanted to handle it so I didn’t send them to the office.” I looked at the two tests, and I immediately knew what had happened. It was my two 8th grade soldiers. First of all, they would never cheat, too much honor in them to ever do that. Secondly, they sat across the room from each other, and there was no way they could have seen each other’s papers. Thirdly, and most importantly, as they were the two smartest boys in the entire 8th grade, who in the world would they cheat off of if not each other? When the boys came in that day, they both looked at me sheepishly, and rushed up to my desk to explain. Before they could say anything, I handed them their tests and said, “Go and finish your vocab test. I know you weren’t cheating, but next time be more careful when there is a substitute teacher.”

taking testsYou see, what they were in the habit of doing was to race while taking the vocab tests. Because the students used file folders to shield their work while taking tests, they could not possibly see each other’s work, but they would listen for the other to turn the page to the next part of the test. They would actually peer up over the top of their file folders to make eye contact with each other as if to say, “I finished page one, going to page two, I’m ahead of you,” and so on. They always finished first and second, and it was a mad dash up to my desk to turn them in, which I also had to tamper down because it made some of the other students anxious with them finishing so quickly. And, they never got a single question wrong, perfect 30/30 each and every vocab test the entire year.

star trekThese two boys were also Trekkies, and we would talk sometimes at lunch about various Star Trek episodes and discuss the different Star Trek series and the many iterations of that franchise. The other kids in the class had no clue what we were talking about, and while I sometimes worried that our Trekkie conversations and the whole saluting business served to further set them apart, I decided that they were not bothered by it, and in fact, so confident in their own personalities that they didn’t seem to care what the others thought anyway.

standardized test answer sheetAfter nine years of teaching middle school language arts, teaching roughly 80-100 students a year, I frequently see someone or meet someone who reminds me of one of my past or present students. On Saturday, I proctored the ACT at a local Catholic high school. There were 23 high school students in my room, and as I checked their photo ID’s and admission tickets, I was supposed to assign them seats, which I did. There were quite a few standing at my door when it was time to start admitting them and they seemed very anxious to get in and get started. One young man in particular seemed to be somewhat agitated that he was not first in line and nearly breathing down the neck of the girl standing in front of him. He ended up in the desk directly across from my desk so I had the opportunity to watch him throughout the nearly four-hour standardized test.

be-preparedThis guy was obviously an athlete, judging from his stature and build. He was clean-cut and casually, but neatly, dressed in a lacrosse sweatshirt and nice jeans. As soon as he sat down, he took out of a small string bag (Washington Nationals) not one but two calculators, placing one on his desk and one on the floor under his desk. He also had a water bottle which he placed next to the calculator on the floor, and then next to the water bottle, he placed one cough drop. On the top of his desk, he lined up six #2 pencils, all brand new and freshly sharpened, with unused erasers. Next to them in the little pencil well across the top of his desk, he lined up four AAA batteries. His final item in his arsenal: a wristwatch which he synchronized with the clock on the wall over the whiteboard. I had to bite the side of my mouth to keep from smiling at him as he readied himself for battle against the ACT.

raise handI’ve had several students just like this young man, in fact, I have one right now. He is always prepared, always ready. He works incredibly hard every single day. As soon as I ask a question in class, his hand shoots up. Often when I call on him, he is not really ready with an answer, which is somewhat frustrating for me, but he is so eager to participate in classroom discussions and so eager to always be first, that enthusiasm sometimes wins out over actual knowledge. I can just imagine him three years down the road, showing up to take the ACT somewhere, and unloading his own arsenal, which no doubt will have been checked and double checked to ensure he is completely and totally prepared to do his very best on that test.

Saturday night I went to see a musical at another of the local Catholic high schools. Two of my former students had lead roles, and there were several others in the backstage crew. The two onstage had been very involved in our drama club when they were at my school, and both had significant roles in the plays I directed their 7th and 8th grade years. It was wonderful watching them, because as good as they were in my plays, they have grown and matured so much over the course of their high school years. At one point, I teared up, which my husband noticed right away, and he asked me about it today.

NunsenseI’m not sure what made me cry; it wasn’t the song they were singing, as this was Nunsense the Musical, which is an irreverent and hilarious parody of nuns and the Catholic Church. I think it was the fact that I felt like I had a small part in how those girls ended up on that stage with lead roles. I realize that I had nothing to do with their vocal talent or acting skills; that is a result of God’s blessings and perhaps genetics. But, at least for one of the girls, I do feel that she developed a love for singing while being in her first play with me.

away in a mangerWe weren’t even doing a musical, but there was a somewhat awkward transition from one scene to the next, and I was looking for a way to smooth it out and blend the two scenes together. She was playing the role of a young mother, out Christmas shopping with her mother-in-law, pushing her baby in a stroller. While waiting for the mother-in-law to come back into the scene, I asked her if she could perhaps gently push the stroller back and forth, which she did, and I asked her if she could sing a little something softly to the baby. She said, “Sure, like what?” Since the play was set at Christmas time, I asked her if she knew any Christmas carols. She said, “Away in a Manger?”, so I told her to go ahead and try that. And, out of her mouth came the sweetest rendition of “Away in a Manger”, perfectly in tune, that I’ve ever heard. I think she was a little shocked at how surprised I was. I asked her if she had been in choir or had taken voice lessons, and she said, “No, but I like to sing in the shower.” Later that school year, she auditioned for our school’s musical, and it was pretty clear to everyone that she would be Belle in our Beauty and the Beast.

I’ve lost touch with my two soldier boys because one was an only child and the other’s younger sibling transferred to a different school. I’d love to know how they are doing right now, what they are majoring in. If everything is going to plan, they should be college juniors this year. I wish we could have a little reunion and talk about what they think about Chris Pine as Captain Kirk.

The budding actress with the great voice whom I “discovered” in a small middle school Christmas play, is currently a high school junior going on college tours and mapping out her future. Her mother shared with me that she is interested in physical therapy, with an eye toward minoring in music. I couldn’t be more proud. These are the intangible rewards of teaching, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world.