This marks the 581st Sunday morning this column has run in this newspaper. I’m approaching 500,000 words. Most weeks, the topics just appear to me. I can’t explain the process completely, but I can say that I don’t have to work hard for them. In a way, I’m constantly looking for my theme of the week. I suppose I work harder than most to be consistently open to people, their stories and their ideas.
Of course, I’m not always successful. Occasionally, the deadline looms, and I have to seek external inspiration.
This week was one of those weeks.
As I sat down to write my column, I decided to ask my 11-year-old daughter, “If you could write a newspaper column about anything, what would you write about?”
Without missing a beat, she said, “L-O-V-E.”
Then she paused and said, “No, that’s not right, Mom. When it comes right down to it, you should write about one word and one word only.”
“What’s that word?” I asked.
She turned around and looked right in my eyes and said, “Hope — that what it’s all about.”
And with that she walked out of the room. Once she went through the door, she turned back around and said, “On this one, Mom, I am wise beyond my years.”
All I could do was say, “Indeed, you are, my dear.”
Before I go any further, I’ll say that not all interactions in my home are like that.
The truth is with both daughters in the throes of adolescence, we have what seems like more than our share of bickering on a daily basis. But then, when those rare moments of an 11-year-old girl looking me in the eyes and telling me that there’s really only one thing in this world to write about — and that thing is hope. Well then, there’s really no choice in that matter. A mama’s got to write about hope.
After thinking for a while about hope, I decided that it’s one of those things that rests just beneath the surface of almost everything I do.
Maybe hope grows in the soil of forgiveness?
Without forgiveness, you can’t hope for better friends and love than you’ve had before. You can’t hope for a better you until you’ve absolved the old you. And, you can’t hope yourself past tragedy until you forgive God for what has happened.
Maybe hope grows in the soil of curiosity?
For me, there’s a direct link between curiosity and hope. Curiosity leads to opportunity. Seeking opportunity leads to being proactive or taking risks. And, maybe it’s because I’m a glass-half-full kind of gal, but taking risks to me is all about hope.
I decided to ask a few others how they define hope.
Stacey Scarce, took a pragmatic approach. She said, “Hope is knowing that so many things are outside of your control yet still wanting the best of possible outcomes or some acceptable variation.”
Sharon Falgout said, “Hope is in the fact that, if we are blessed, we are given another day to give it another try.”
Mike Bourque said, “Hope is the small light at the end of the tunnel.”
Gretchen Donham said, “Hope is the firm belief that there is a reason to go on.”
Ted Power said, “Hope is the sun setting. Dawn breaking. Opening day of baseball. The last day of school. The National Anthem. Happy birthday to you.”
Another friend sent me a quote from Vaclav Havel, one of my all-time favorite world leaders. Havel said, “Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out…. Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.”
In the grand scheme of things, my daughter is right. Out of a half a million words, maybe hope is the most important one.
In honor of Mother’s Day, I asked readers to tell me something specific that their mothers did right. Responses came in droves, most offering some loving motherly nugget.
However, I also heard from people who didn’t win the mother lottery. For them, this day is not full of warm fuzzies. There aren’t many Mother’s Day cards along the lines of, “I guess you did the best you could. I’m still working to forgive you.”
In the spirit of honoring the spectrum of motherhood, I’ve included a little of everything below:
- When I applied to college, I applied to one school, the closest one to our home. When I went to orientation with my mother, a counselor advised my mom that I would not do well if I was spending two hours a day commuting. The counselor offered me a spot with on-campus housing. My mother jumped at this opportunity for me. She knew my father would be extremely angry, which he was. He eventually forgave her. After I graduated from college and then Stanford Medical School, my father acknowledged that my mother had made the best decision for me.
- My mom always lets me pick the music and we always listen to it turned all the way up and dance every time we ride anywhere (without Dad).
- My parents died within weeks of each other, much too soon. Mom had gastric cancer. She never complained, even though it was brutal. Shortly before she died, she was sitting with me waiting on CT scan results and crying quietly. I hugged her and asked if she was hurting. She shook her head and said, “No, I miss Quincy.” In that moment, I realized just how deeply she loved Dad — something I’ll always treasure.
- My parents divorced when I was 9. My sisters were 8 and 3. My mom had married very young and never gone to college. She went back to school with three kids and became a nurse. I remember getting up for a drink of water at night and mom was outside with a study group, under a security light so they didn’t wake us up. She taught me that education is that important and once you are a mom, your kids come first.
On the flip side of motherhood:
- The thing my mother did for me was to leave my siblings and me with grandparents when we were very young. I had to fend for myself and learn right from wrong all on my own. Her leaving me turned me into a strong, responsible, hard working, strong-willed, loving, and caring mother to my three children and husband.
- My mother is narcissistic. She who probably loves us — her children — but instead often shows us meanness and selfishness. I don’t mean to be a downer about it, but as everyone gushes on this day, some of us don’t.
I found solace in a sermon delivered by a minister who spoke of these kinds of mothers in relation to the commandment to honor your mother and father. He asked if that commandment held if they weren’t good, kind parents? He suggested that we’re not commanded to love them, agree with them, aspire to be like them — but simply to honor them as a parent, who for better or worse got us here. This thought was extremely helpful to me and brought me peace in that regard.
When I was 18 or 19 and in college at LSU, my mom came to pick me up. By the time we reached Butte la Rose, she was furious with me because I wasn’t a sorority girl like she had been. She pulled off the interstate and kicked me out of the car and left me alone in the swamp (before cell phones). She drove off. I was terrified. I walked to the other side of the interstate where there was a small building, but it was empty. (This was before there was the big rest area facility there.)
I just sat on the stoop and waited, not knowing what to do. Eventually, she came back for me and later acted as though everything was just dandy. We have never spoken of it, but I relive it every time I drive past Butte la Rose, which is fairly often.
I doubt this is the kind of story you want for Mothers Day, but I know I’m not the only one who didn’t have the wonderful kind of mother. I tried to be a better mother and have two loving daughters to spend my day with — as well as a loving mother-in-law who loves me in a way my mother couldn’t.
Happy Mothers’ Day to you. May you find joy and peace in the day.
Lately I’ve spent time with friends I love who have young children. That time has made me consider things I’ve learned in the process of parenting — things I wish I had known back when my children were younger. I decided to write myself a letter — the kind of letter that Marty McFly and Doc Brown or Doctor Who could deliver:
Dear Jan in 1997,
Chill out. Just enjoy it all as much as possible. I believe in you and know you’ll do your best. But here are a few extra tidbits to remember along the way:
Help your children. Model the behaviors you want them to have. Always be aware that your actions have repercussions. Do the right thing — and remember that sometimes the right thing to do is nothing (which also happens to be the hardest thing to do as a parent).
All that said, know now that as hard as you try, things will never be perfect for your little ones. You can do all the “right things,” but somewhere along the way, this tiny, perfect beautiful baby is going to run into situations that you can’t fix. No amount of preparing on your part could prepare that little doll you hold in your arms to flourish in every situation that’s going to come her way.
Even so, she’ll be OK.
In some ways you’ll parent as a reaction to your parents — that’s how these things go. Just know that you don’t need to change it all. Your parents did many things well. With today’s tendencies to encourage children to be engaged and play with all the right toys, watch all the right shows, be in the best schools, think back to when you were young and how some days your parents told you not to come inside until dark. Granted, that’s probably not a good move with a toddler, but try hard not to over-parent.
Know that your children need time and opportunity to be unsupervised. They need to be in places where they can take risks. A skinned knee is not the end of the world. A bump on the head is sometimes necessary. Trying to protect this child into perfection will not happen. Basically, I’m telling you to get over yourself. Your kid may end up doing great things — and you will play a role in your child’s development, but so will other people.
This one is going to shock you. Secondly, brace yourself, but know that there will come a time when your child isn’t telling you the truth. Throw out the whole sack of pohooey about always believing your child and never questioning them with last week’s meatloaf. No matter that you’ve always told them the truth. Still, there will come a time — and hopefully there won’t be too many times — but that sweet thing will inadvertently or deliberately deceive you. You are not a bad parent when you ask a few extra questions.
Next, and this is an important one that a lot of people seem to have let go in recent years, but you need to find effective ways to punish your child when she behaves in a way that is not appropriate. This will sound really harsh, but I have come to believe that — and this observation isn’t totally based on personal parenting experience, it comes in large part from teaching in a middle school, but here goes — children need a certain level of awareness and even a mild fear of consequences. They need to know that there will be consequences if they do the thing they are not supposed to do. Disastrous things happen when children don’t have a basic respect for authority, but I’m not suggesting beating their beautiful little spirits down.
Also, don’t feel like you’ve got to pack up the car and head out to every event that your child might enjoy. There’s serious beauty in just staying home and doing very little — together.
Lastly, make sure your children have chores that they alone own. Make these chores vital to the running of the household.
Oh, and when the time comes, buy Apple, Google and Amazon.
During Mardi Gras break, my 15-year-old took a 30-hour driver’s education class. Over the course of the class, she took several tests, and thankfully, passed them all — there was no refund for the class had she not. Last week, she did the driving portion of the class. After much studying and nervousness, she passed the driving test. On Wednesday, I took her to the DMV where she took another exam. She passed it too, and we walked out with a Louisiana driver’s permit in hand.
It was a happy day.
I never had a driver’s permit. Yet, I couldn’t help but compare her long and rather bureaucratic driver’s education and examination process to the one I went through to get a driver’s license.
I turned 15 on a Saturday, but right after school was out the following Monday, my mother took me to the Courthouse. We went to a small room on the corner of second floor, right under the jail. Through the window, I could see the movie theater easily. If I craned my neck, I could see City Hall. Our county highway patrolmen, who I had known all my life, was there alone. His daughter was in my class. She and I had grown up together. My mother had also known him all of her life. He and her brother had been great friends throughout their childhoods in a tiny community just outside of town.
The highway patrolman handed me a test. I sat down with it and a pencil in a wooden desk. I wrote my name on the line at the top of the page. He and my mom proceeded to talk. I had just answered the first question when he walked over to where I was sitting and pulled the test out from under my pencil, leaving a long mark down the page.
I looked up, startled.
He stood there grinning.
“Jan, I’ve been watching you drive for at least four years,” he said. “Get out of here. I know your mama’s got plenty to keep her busy, and I’m ready to go home. Here’s your license.”
We never even got to the driving portion of the test.
I had studied and practiced parallel parking.
Even so, I was more than happy to take the little piece of paper he was offering and skedaddle — I had my driver’s license, and I was off.
I drove everywhere from that day forward. Once I got to college and began supporting myself and began to make most of my own decisions, I started planning and taking giant trips that crisscrossed the country. These trips were not luxurious, but they were wondrous. If there was a road, I was ready to take it.
Getting my driver’s license may not have been the birth of my freewheeling spirit, but it was certainly its liberation.
On that day in late March long ago, there was something powerful in the State’s recognition that I was old enough to drive. I had more assurance in myself and my abilities to decide where to go and how to get there. Basically, I was in more control of my life. Granted, my newfound additional confidence may have been misguided, and surely my parents fretted with worry and concern when I started going places in the car rather than my bicycle. Maybe it helped that I lived in a town with only 5,000 people — most of whom we knew? Or maybe it didn’t.
Either way, I am grateful our daughter has six months required to drive with one of us in the car. Yes, I know she is sprouting wings and about to fly with a new and different liberation of her own, but I don’t mind having her in the nest a little while longer.
Social media gets a bad rap, but I’ve found it often affords a message or connection to friends of long ago. This week I learned it may even offer links to people who are long since gone.
Proof in a three part story.
Shortly after we moved to Lafayette, a friend called from a thousand miles away to tell me that another friend had tragically and unexpectedly passed away. The situation, full of heartbreak, focused largely on the three young daughters our mutual friend left behind — the youngest daughter barely three months old.
Even though distance separated us, my friend was the kind of friend I had expected to grow old with.
We adopted Piper from China shortly before my friend died. Life was full of complications, and I didn’t think I could manage the trip for her funeral. Though I have few regrets in life, ten years later, I still regret that decision.
I should have gone.
I’m not sure what I was thinking. Except that I was so full of grief, I could barely function.
The most difficult part of that grief was feeling so alone in it. Other than my husband, no one around me knew her or could tell and re-tell her stories that made me laugh and cry.
Somewhere in my brain, I remembered that before we left El Paso, Texas, for Lafayette, her mother told me of Louisiana friends she wanted us to meet.
You know how well-intended people always tell you those things.
I’ve told a thousand people those things.
You also know how few of those connections are ever made.
About four months ago, I needed a two-seater bicycle for a photograph.
I looked and looked and asked all the usual suspects to no avail.
Finally, I posted on Facebook: “Anyone have a bicycle built for two that I could borrow?”
As happens on social media, someone posted that she did.
The odd part of her post was that, even though she was my Facebook friend, I didn’t know her. Early in the Facebook game, I friended people who shared common friends. (Eventually, I came up with the novel approach of only friending people who were actually my friends.) At any rate, this person who I didn’t know instantly rose to the status of “good people,” based on her offering of the two-seater bike. She sent me her phone number and address.
My husband and I drove to her house, had a lovely visit with her and her husband, loaded the bike up and delivered it again a week later. In fact, I wrote about her in my Mardi Gras column. She was the one decorating shoes for the New Orleans Muses parade. During the course of our bike exchange, neither of us could figure out exactly when or how we became Facebook friends. Regardless, I was happy our paths had crossed.
Tuesday night my bicycle-built-for-two friend sent me a Facebook message.
“I think you might have known my Godmother when you lived in El Paso.”
I froze. Things suddenly came together.
This new friend and my old friend shared the same given name.
For good reason.
They were both named after the same person. My friend’s mother was the bicycle-built-for-two-friend’s godmother. Their mothers had been best friends growing up.
But a thousand miles had prevented the daughters from knowing each other well — even though they shared the same name. I immediately called my new friend. She explained their familial connections. I told her about how, all these years later, I still grieve my friend and regret not going to her funeral.
She said, “Well, you know her family. You know they aren’t the kind of people who would want anyone living with regret. They’re all about moving on.”
A part of me wanted to say, “But this was a friend so special that you never really move on completely.”
Instead, I was comforted that someone finally gave me permission to move on.
With permission comes responsibility. I’ve held on to a collection of audio and video tapes of times she and I shared (on a crazy radio and television cooking show I hosted in El Paso). I’ve waited for the right point to pass those tapes on to her daughters.
Maybe it’s time.
Messages are sometimes delivered in mysterious ways.
I have three friends who regularly say, “We don’t have enough poetry in the world today.” That sentiment is one of the reasons I know they’re good friends to have. They’re right, of course. We don’t have enough poetry in many aspects of our lives. Though I’m not a fan of rote memorization on many levels, when it comes to poetry, I believe memorization has a place — especially for children. Those poems we memorize as children stick with us.
I can still quote much of Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe because I had to stand in front of my 5th grade class and recite it, thanks to Mrs. Thompson. I checked with many other of her former students, and they remember too. We may not remember much else we learned that year, but many of us can still quote most of the poem — and everyone remembers certain lines and the experience of learning it.
I also believe in reading new poetry, and know that reading it aloud is best.
In honor and celebration of April as National Poetry Month, I asked Darrell Bourque, who was Louisiana’s poet laureate a few years ago, if he’d like to share a poem. He has given permission to use one of his most recent poems, which will be included in Megan’s Guitar, a new collection of his poetry, due to come out in a few weeks. Bourque and his gentle ways are genuine gifts to this community. If you get the chance to hear him read, please do yourself a favor and take that chance. With his permission, here is Bourque’s poem:
CHURCH POINT BREAKDOWN
In Memory of Iry Lejeune, 1928-1955
Before you could walk
someone or another
crossed a leg
and put you on a foot,
gave you your first ride
singing t-galop, t-galop.
It was your first lesson
in mobility, it was
your first dance.
In the playground
or under the oak
you sang Saute Crapaud
with your cousins.
You were learning
along with resilience
an early lesson
Mostly in the morning
you sang Frère Jacques,
to be awake, a call
in rounds to mindfulness,
to get on with your life,
not to sleep your life away.
And then came the other songs:
Bonsoir Moreau and J’ai Passé,
La Porte en Arrière,
Viens Me Chercher
and Les Flammes d’Enfer.
Everything comes to us
through the body,
the great metered muscle,
maître et maîtresse,
showing us how to sing:
sex and love, loneliness
and desire, how to fall
apart and how to hold
when to let go.
— Darrell Bourque
Bourque’s beautiful Acadiana inspired poetry motivated me to try my hand at a poem of my own about the Vermilion River and the Pinhook Bridge, topics I’ve given a lot of thought to lately.
Try your own hand at a poem. Send it my way, if you’d like. Let the celebration of poetry continue.
THE POINT BETWEEN A RIVER AND BAYOU
a tribute to Bayou Vermilion District
From where I sit,
the Vermilion proceeds —
Swollen with pride.
A discounted estuary
from Gulf to Pinhook.
Where the river stops
and the bayou begins.
An invisible line divides
Petit Manchac to its source.
What was river is bayou.
What was bayou is river.
Depending on surge and perspective.
The waters — they transform.
The pirates knew.
With help of native people,
pioneers figured it out.
Spaniards built a mission trail
to cross red water.
Civil War battles.
Not one, but two.
Pinhook was the point
where everything happened,
including a restaurant scalawag
who made a habit of reeling in chickens
and offered the name,
retained by an arterial roadway.
Thousands cross each day.
The unseen line is near meaningless now.
A bridge between
sushi and blooming onions
where fish and fur once changed hands.
Centuries of knowledge lost.
When you’ve got wifi,
what does it matter
which way the river flows?
Her name was Surely.
I do not jest.
Almost in tribute to her Biblical roots, Surely followed my dear uncle all the days of his life.
He had been formulating his plan for his dogs’ names for years. While he liked dogs and treated them well, his real goal was to be able to tell the tale of his dogs’ names. His brainchild was to get two more motley-bred dogs. He would have named them Goodness and Mercy.
Uncle David was a legendary storyteller — both within and outside our family. He was the kind of funny that would leave you weeping. Even within our family, Uncle David was the best, and I come from a family of storytellers. Whether he was re-enacting makeshift cheerleaders from a women’s softball game, who in no uncertain terms, told Mable Lee McMurphy to straighten out the foul balls she repeatedly kept hitting. Or maybe it was his re-telling of the exploits from decades earlier in Mrs. Carr’s science class. Or how he won a college scholarship to play the bass drum in the college band. Yet he had never had one day of music lessons or band experience in his life.
Whatever story he chose to tell, we all stopped what we were doing and sat mesmerized as he wove the magic great storytellers weave when they tell their tales. I remember, as a little girl sitting with my cousins, and all of us begging him for more. I think about all the tidbits and anecdotes my cousins and I absorbed through Uncle David’s stories. They passed down family lore and life lessons that we just wouldn’t have gotten any other way. Through them, we not only learned to listen, but we learned how to tell tales of our own.
My cousins and I remain actively grateful for the time spent around the table or in the living room listening to the generations ahead of us tell us about how things used to be.
About 12 years ago, my phone rang late one night.
It was one of those calls that you never forget. You answer it thinking it’s just another inconsequential call, and it ends up changing everything. My uncle David died suddenly and unexpectedly from a pulmonary embolism.
He passed away, with Surely by his side — but no Goodness and Mercy. His death was such a shock and left such a void in our family. More than a dozen years later, my dad still mourns his younger brother.
We all do, in fact.
In honor of my uncle, my parents got a new dog. My dad named him Mercy.
A few years later, he got another one. He named her Goodness.
Both dogs look a lot like my uncle’s old dog, Surely, who died a few years after Uncle David.
Goodness and Mercy keep my parents company and, since they’re both rather ferocious looking, they do a fine job of protecting the place, as well. But even more than that, they’re also a constant and subtle reminder of my dear uncle.
If you ever make it to my dad’s small farm, you’ll see him walking around the grounds.
Goodness and Mercy follow close behind.
My uncle’s story continues.
“Have a suitcase heart; be ready to travel.”
That’s American writer Gabrielle Zevin’s advice — and the guidance I’ve offered my first-born child this week as she’s packed up and, for the first time, gone off to see the world without me. She’s going to England and Scotland with a school group, and I wish them all bon voyage.
I packed a little notebook with the suitcase heart quote on it in her carry-on back. I’m encouraging her to write it all down. From my experience, that’s the travel memento I’ve enjoyed most — words that capture a perspective on a time and place that, even though you return to that place, you can never fully have again. Words on a page help retain that.
Through the years, you can open that notebook like a cherished bottle of perfume — close your eyes and, for a moment, relive that time, place and perspective.
I’ve thought a lot about a suitcase heart lately and have come to the conclusion that there are two kinds.
One kind can be less desirable, destructive even. That’s the kind that packs up its bits and bags and hits the road once it’s seen the sights and taken what it wants from a place — or a person, for that matter.
This suitcase heart is possible without ever going far. Certainly, it’s not the style of heart gear I wish for my daughter or those she encounters — or anyone else, for that matter.
The other kind of suitcase heart, and the kind I wish for my daughter and the other people both you and I love, is in the travel and place sense. Go see the world. Take in the places and all that you are able. Go there. Eat their food. Dance their dances. Sing their songs. Walk their bridges. Ride their trains. Smell their flowers.
By being open to what they share with you, you’ll gain insights into their culture and beliefs that will make you a better and more tolerant person.
In every place you go, and the whole time you’re there, be open to them.
They will teach you things at every turn. They can teach you things you don’t even know you need to learn. They can teach you things you don’t realize until years pass and it all begins to make sense.
Just as importantly as you being open to them and learning from them, be ready to give back to them at every opportunity.
Smile. Say thank you in their language. Share your gum. Teach them your dances. Teach them your songs. Show them your pictures. Know that it’s not all about you. It’s about them, and that, my dear, is when life will open up and become so much more than you’ve ever thought it could be.
Take each of those people and places you come to love and put them in your suitcase heart. You’ll be amazed how expandable that luggage is. Without ever taking a single heart out, you can keep putting in more and always have plenty to share.
A week ago, I canoed to work.
It seemed like the logical thing to do.
My husband’s car was getting new brakes. I needed to get to the office. We live on the river. As the crow flies, my office is about 200 yards away from the other side of the river directly across from my house.
I looked out the window, knew I needed to get to work and thought, “Why not?”
A friend and I got the canoe in the river, with my briefcase between my feet, and like a Venetian gondolier, she canoed me right across the Vermilion. I walked the rest of the way and got to work more quickly than it takes to drive.
Such was the start of what has always been one of my favorite weeks of the year.
Today is my birthday, and I believe in celebrating as much as possible. Throughout my life, I’ve loved that first week of spring. I feel like everything’s coming to life in sync with my birthday.
To continue my week of celebrating, last weekend another friend and I took what I called an Atchafalaya Pilgrimage. We walked along the levee for a long afternoon, from Butte La Rose almost back to Henderson. We saw sights and heard sounds that we miss when we’re going faster than walking allows.
Next year at this time, I’ll have what most consider to be a significant birthday. I’ll turn 50. There’s a connection between the walking I’m doing now and next year’s birthday. To mark and celebrate 50 trips around the sun, a friend (who was born a few days after me) and I are planning to go to Spain and walk the last 287 miles of the Camino de Santiago. In English, it’s called the Way of St. James.
The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage that dates back to the Middle Ages and has many routes from points across Europe. All of its various paths lead to a cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, in the northwestern corner of Spain. The route has been walked continuously since the remains of St. James were discovered and the shrine was created.
To earn a compostela (a certificate of accomplishment), pilgrims need to walk at least 100 kilometers (about 62 miles). Based on my short Atchafalaya Pilgrimage, I may suggest that we readjust our plans! Maybe walking 100 miles would be a happy medium?
In Spain, pilgrims who reach the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela prove they’ve walked the path by keeping what’s called a pilgrim’s passport and collecting necessary stamps along the way. Bright blue tiles with yellow scallops making an arrow mark the Camino de Santiago all over Europe. Like me, you may have seen them before and wondered what they signified.
Now I know. They mark the way of Saint James.
Though I’ve known all along that walking would be an arduous and incredible journey, I’ve thought, “It’s just walking. How bad can it be? I long for a day when all I have to do is walk.”
My Atchafalaya Pilgrimage gave me a reality wake-up call. I’ve known I need to prepare for the journey. However, as is so often the case when reality sets in, I now know that I need to prepare more than I thought. My friend and I have been planning this trip for three years. It’s getting closer to the time for the rubber to meet the road.
I have work to do.
Even the longest journey begins with a single step.
When veteran teacher Abby Breaux read her “I’ve had enough” letter to the school board nearly two weeks ago, her actions paved the way for local teachers to believe that things could change for the better.
Having taught in the local school system myself, I’ve followed their story with interest and enjoyed spending time with them learning more about their plans and progress.
Rather than retiring, the path that so many talented teachers are taking in the face of the mountain of issues on the education front, Breaux, Jennifer Guillory and Linda Rhoads, three veteran and accomplished teachers decided to use the momentum the letter sparked to try and find solutions to some of the problems. Andrea Thibodeaux, one of their colleagues who retired in January, joined their cause.
They like to quote Dr. Seuss. “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.”
Based on my conversations with them, I believe they’re unafraid of telling the truth and want the best for students and the system at large. They realize that so many teachers don’t feel safe to bring attention to the myriad of problems. One of the main reasons they’ve been able to speak out is that their administration at Edgar Martin Middle School is way ahead of the norm when it comes to supporting their teachers.
“We are looking for solutions,” said Guillory. “It’s so not an us against them game. We just need to help the education system.”
Even so, the teachers admit they were a little uneasy going back to school once the stories starting running in the media.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do this without knowing that the administration was who they are,” Guillory told me. “Our administration at Edgar Martin is doing the best they can. Their hands are tied. They can’t change the discipline matrix or decrease the 33 standardized tests we’re required to give our students each year.”Rhoads said some of her students asked her what the newspaper story she was in was about.
“I told them to read the article if they wanted to find out,” Rhoads said. “Then I looked over at one little girl in my class — you know, one of those perfect little girls you get every now and then. She said, ‘I saw that article and I read it. It said you lost the joy of teaching. Is it because of us?’ It broke my heart.”
For Rhoads and so many other teachers in the district, state and beyond, the problem usually lies with one or two students — the repeat offenders.
In a classroom, one bad apple really can spoil the whole bunch.
As things stand now with Lafayette Parish’s discipline matrix, the consequences are the same across the board for various offenses. Think about that for a moment. That means a five-year-old and an 18-year-old get the same consequence for the same offense. For example, under the new discipline matrix, if a student uses profanity, a teacher has to file a report and the consequence is that the child gets out of class and goes to meet with the counselor. Then the counselor creates a behavior plan for the student.
“Middle schoolers want to be out of class. They’re old enough to know better and young enough to do it,” said Guillory. “Plus, the behavior plan is just more forms to fill out for the teacher.”
And how effective are the plans?
Recently, two of Rhoads’ students who were on behavior plans went to the counselor’s office. They came back to class with lollipops — eating them in front of the other students. What kind of message does that send to the students who are behaving and not using profanity?
One teacher has 10 students on behavior plans. She says two of them are working. Twenty percent is failing by any standards.
Everyone involved in the education system knows there’s no easy fix for the mountain of problems, but there are steps to take in the right direction:
• Fix the discipline system. The existing matrix isn’t working — and it’s doubtful that a single matrix will work for the whole system.
• Get repeat offenders out of the regular classroom.
• Get rid of most of the standardized testing. Allow teachers to teach during that time.
• Smaller classes work better.
• Have enough textbooks for each student.
If scores on the state standardized test affect teachers’ salaries, make all the tests pass/fail for the students too, rather than isolated years. As things stand now, the tests don’t matter for some grades and students have been known to score low deliberately to punish some teachers.
Good teachers are still out there, but our public educational system is broken. More tests, constraints and demands of teachers will not fix it. Stand up for a teacher near you and demand better.