What we sometimes need to hear

For reasons I cannot account for (given that this is supposed to be my good, healthy, happy, even-numbered year) the last few months have been a struggle. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m failing as an adult and a person. . . I wouldn’t say it. But I feel so far away from the person I was as a middle school teacher on the other side of the world. It’s like all the adulthood I earned in Prague through blood, sweat and tears didn’t convert over into my American life.

Anyway, I was home sick for my kids and started re-reading some old blogs. I found this one and I think I needed it more than they ever did. Maybe you will too.

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Dear students,

On Tuesday we had to say ‘Goodbye.’ For some of you, this was easy – you were excited about the next step of your lives, your summer plans, or even just getting home for lunch. For some of you, the last day of school was tougher. You were torn between a past that you loved and a future you’re unsure about (no matter how excited you may be for it to come). And then, not all of us got to say ‘goodbye,’ did we? That happens too.

For me, the hardest part of the day was walking down the first floor hallway for the last time. You know the one – it runs along the ninth grade classrooms from the lunch hall to the big staircase at the end of the school. All those big windows let light come washing onto the smooth floors and across your lovely picture boards. I’ve been dreading that walk for a year and a half. I go that way every day after lunch to get to my office. Really, the day I realized how hard it would be to walk through this hallway on the last day of June was the day I realized how much I was falling in love with you and your school.

But the day did have to come and, even though you’ve already moved along with your summer plans, I want to say just a few things. Think of it as one last little piece of love from your teacher to help you through the next few years.

Be ready to smile.

I know Mondays are hard and it’s easy to be glum when you get bad marks or lose your phone (or someone hides your phone and doesn’t say where! . . . Honzo. . . ). But smiling is a way to fight back. Happiness is not something we find, it’s something wemake. Smiling – even when you don’t really feel like it – is the first step. And I think you’ll discover that if you smile at people, they’ll smile back. That’s called human connection and we don’t do it enough. But more importantly, your smile will have an effect on those around you. Your smiles have gotten me through some really difficult days. The person I am today is made up of tiny pieces of the people you have been for the last two years. You have shaped me by our shared experiences and you’ll continue to shape those around you for as long as you live! We humans share this planet and we will influence each other, for better or for worse. Remember that and decide: how do you want to shape people? If all you ever give the world is a smile every day, it will be a brighter place.

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Be kind.

This one is tough. Being kind isn’t easy and it isn’t glamorous. It certainly isn’t cool. But you know what? It is one of the greatest things you will ever learn. Learn to be nice to people you don’t like. Learn to keep quiet when you want to say something funny at the expense of someone else’s feelings. Learn not to laugh when a friend is down, no matter how funny it might seem to you – help them back up instead. I know this might sound boring to you. It’s not. Kindness is both a gift and an adventure, and only the bravest will ever know its fullest depths. It is the most underappreciated form of goodness and heroism that exists. There is no glory in being kind – only the reward of helping another person. And that is enough, trust me.

Don’t complain about lunch.

We can all agree that not every lunch in school is a good lunch. I particularly struggle with the fish dishes. Gag. But someone made that food. Someone paid money so that you could eat it. And someone much hungrier than you is going without lunch at all today. This isn’t meant to make you feel guilty, only to remind you to appreciate what you’ve been given. Appreciation is something you’ll struggle with your whole life. Start now. Start by thanking God for food to eat, friends to eat it with, and a school to eat it in. The best part about this is that the more you appreciate what you have, the fuller life will seem to you. Richness and joy will leak out of every mundane activity and colorless possession and you’ll discover an entire world that most people will never notice because they never learnedappreciation.

Work hard.

Duh. Turn in your homework. Study for tests. Get good marks. But hard work won’t do you any good if you’re not doing it for a purpose. And I don’t mean, “Mom is happy when I have good marks,” or “I need to get into a good high school.” Work hard because you can. What a gift it is to learn! What a privilege it is to fill our minds! God has given us the most amazing capacity to grow and expand! It can be a struggle and you won’t always win, but I want you to try. I want you to aim to grow yourself into the brightest, smartest, hardest-working person you can be – but don’t do it for me! Do it for yourself. Do it because you owe your humanity the very minimum respect of cultivating your mind, body and soul to the best of your ability.

Don’t give up on yourself.

I’ve seen some of you quit. I’ve seen you come to a wall that you didn’t think you could climb. Can I tell you something? Watching you give up on yourselves is the hardest part of my job – worse than grading papers (or losing students on the metro. . . Petře. . .). Thomas Edison (inventor of the light bulb) once said, “I didn’t fail – I found a thousand ways not to make a light bulb!” And after thousands of tries, he finally succeeded. And all those failures added to his character – they made him a stronger person. The key is to keep trying, because, ultimately, our greatest successes are not what we accomplish but who we become. Become someone who doesn’t quit.

Don’t give up on others.

There have been a few times in the last few years when I’ve thought, “I’m not meant to be a teacher – I can’t do this.” (One of these times may definitely have followed the ping-pong incident). Do you know why I didn’t quit? Because you wouldn’t let me. Every time I got worn down, you picked me right back up. We need people to believe in us. We need to believe in others – and not just with things like school and work! Growing up is hard and we all make mistakes. Be patient with your friends. Forgive. Forget. Work together. Don’t give up on those around you who are struggling to find themselves – and I mean everyone, not just our friends. Everyone. Our faith in humanity is much too fragile. Learn to sympathize, learn to respect the struggles of others, learn to lift people up.

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Follow your road.

Leaving school has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It breaks my heart to go. A lot of people have been asking me, “When will you come back?” And the truth is, I don’t know if I will come back. Who can know the future but God? On Tuesday, when someone asked me when I’d be coming back to Prague, a dear teacher took my face in her soft hands, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Your life is ahead of you.” I needed to hear that. I needed someone to tell me that it’s okay to say ‘goodbye.’ Love and friendship are not bound by space and time. So follow your road. Go where you need to go. The people who love you most will be waiting for your return or simply praying for your safe journey, wherever it takes you.

Keep your heart open.

I want to thank you for letting me into your school. You can’t know how I scared I was when I first came to Prague. I didn’t understand anything anyone said. I wasn’t used to the rules and customs here. And I kept getting lost on the stairwell! Most of all, I was scared of letting everyone down, of being a bad teacher. Nebyla jsem špatná učitelka, žejo? I could not have made it through the last two years without your help. You have been so kind to me. You have been so much fun to work with. And you believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself anymore. If anything, you were my teachers and I was your most adoring student – and I always will be. I want you to know that you have been my greatest adventure. I also want you to know that it’s okay to love your new teacher the way you have loved me. People come and go – that’s life. But there is no end to the amount of love we can give. Don’t let the pain of an ending keep you away from the beauty of a beginning. All things do end, eventually. Keep your heart open for whoever needs a home there. And be ready to love everyone – no matter where they come from or where they’re going.

It took me less than 90 seconds to walk from one end of that hallway to the other. The school was quiet – the way it is in the afternoon when you’re all tucked away in your last classes of the day and everyone is sleepy from a full lunch. For that 90 seconds, I thought about all my favorite moments in this school. The first snowfall, Halloween, learning our Christmas songs, the Garden Party. I thought of all your little triumphs and all your dreams, your fears and hopes and crazy ideas – pieces of yourselves that you’ve given me. What an honor to have been your teacher!

But before I knew it, the hallway ended. The view around the corner spread out before my eyes and, looking backwards, the hall lay still and silent.

Life happens quickly. It’s over before we know it. Don’t waste a moment, don’t miss a beat. Remember that you won’t always have the chance to say ‘goodbye,’ so live each moment expressing your love for those around you – let there never be a doubt in their minds how much they mean to you. I hope, I hope, I have been able to express just how much you have meant to me.

But above all, don’t be afraid. The world needs brave people who will be kind, fair and loving.

Are you ready?

Best of luck,

Your Teacher, Mary

An Interview with Superheroes

LUZ

“You’re writing an article about being nerds?” says Luz, tentatively taking a seat in the second office swivel chair. I occupy the first. “I like your hair.”

Under the teaming white lights of my fall harvest decorations, I have been conducting a series of interviews with my fellow student journalists in the photo office of our newsroom.

“So who’s you’re favorite comic book hero?” I ask as she straightens up in her chair, bright-eyed, curly hair bouncing with usual zest.

“Ironman,” she says.

“Any particular reason why?”

“I guess I love how RDJ portrays him in the movie,” she says. “He’s very sarcastic and he’s mean so I guess my evil side relates to him.” She clears her throat with a giggle and clarifies that she doesn’t have that much of an evil side. “It’s very well-tamed.”

I ask why she likes the movies and she giggles again before giving me a business-like answer.

“I like to see how separate heroes interact with each other,” she says. “Because they’re all these very authoritative figures and then they get into conflict with each other and you see different sides to them.”

She pauses a moment before likening the Avengers to our newsroom staff, each of us with our own special powers.

“So then,” I ask, “I would definitely be Captain America of the newsroom, right?”

“I didn’t say that.”

Luz doesn’t give up a lot of ground. She may be small and doe-eyed, but she is fierce.

There was actually quite a bit of debate among the staff as to what animal Luz would be if she were not in fact a human. Although 'Doe' won out with a wide majority, 'Lemur' was close behind. And the multimedia editor thought it was important to note that deer are a little more ditzy than our Luz. "They're like, oh my gosh, there's like totally a car in the road... What should we like do?"
There was actually quite a bit of debate among the staff as to what animal Luz would be if she were not in fact a human. Although ‘Doe’ won out with a wide majority, ‘Lemur’ was close behind. And the multimedia editor thought it was important to note that deer are a little more ditzy than our Luz. “They’re like, oh my gosh, there’s like totally a car in the road… What should we like do?”

“I’d probably be like a mix between Black Widow and the girl with the mind-control,” she says, thoughtfully, admitting that, unfortunately, those are the only two females currently on the Avengers’ super-team. “I get into your brain and that’s how I know where to harass you.”

This is true. Luz knows how to harass.

“But I would love to fly,” she says a little wistfully.

We sit and watch each other for a moment before I ask her the final question of our make-shift interview.

If you could leave a legacy…

“Being able to inspire people,” she says, a thousand years of hopes and dreams burning behind her eyes, some of which I have been privileged enough to witness form on her tongue as she incarnates her plans with spoken word. “I think that’s the best form of leadership.”

MARTY

Marty takes a seat a little reluctantly.

“Is this going to take a lot of time?” he asks. “Because I have a homework project I have to finish up.”

“None at all,” I assure him. “I just need to know who your favorite comic book character is.”

“Oh,” he says, looking visibly relieved. “It’s a tie between Swamp Thing and the Hulk…because they’re both green.”

I know who the Hulk is because I don’t live under a rock, but Swamp Thing is new to me. I clear my throat.

“So, tell me about Swamp Thing,” I say in my best attempt to not sound ignorant.

I didn’t understand half of what followed, but basically, you get chosen to be Swamp Thing. There are like four different colors involved and an ecologist and apparently the comic has really cool artwork (it does – I looked this up afterwards).

“What got you started in comics?” I ask.

“I read comics that family friends would let me read,” Marty says, dipping back into his childhood and giving his bearded chin an absentminded rub. “Not really like cape hero stuff. More like really independant stuff.”

He admits that maybe he was a little too young to read a lot of these comics because they’re “ultra violent.”

“I stopped for a while,” he says folding his hands over his green shirt. “But I got into it again a couple years ago reading Thanos.”

“Oh, I know this!” I say, perhaps a little too excitedly. “He’s from the Thor universe, right? He’s the red guy!”

“No, he’s the purple guy,” says Marty, shaking his head.

“Well, okay then. If you could have a power or an infinity stone, which would you rather?”

He doesn’t even pause.

“An infinity gemstone comes with a lot of power,” he explains to me. “I’d rather have one gem than being born with one power that I didn’t have any control over.”

I thank him for his time, though he seems to have forgotten about homework. But before he leaves he says, “If I did have a superpower I’d want it to be turning into animals or shape-shifting so I could experience things humans can’t.”

Then he leaves.

MARIAH

“Harley Quinn,” says Mariah before she even makes it to the chair. Mariah isn’t feeling well today, but you’d never guess it. This girl is all energy and ‘go.’

“I just like how she’s crazy,” says Mariah. She pulls one leg up under her as she sits like a perky little puppy. “Like, during the day she’s the Joker’s girlfriend. He would never say it, but she is.”

Mariah knows a lot more about comics than I do and spends the next several minutes explaining to me who Quinn is. She was a therapist for the Joker before they both kinda went cray-cray, or that’s how I understood it.

She makes a point of saying that Quinn doesn’t technically have superpowers but that she’s pretty baller anyway. She even beat Batman at one point which made the Joker super jealous.

“How do you think you relate to her?” I ask as Mariah settles her head against a raised knee and smiles. We’re all trying to forgive her for continuing to wear her Raiders beanie to the newsroom.

“The crazy in love part,” she says. Granted, she admits, she wouldn’t kill anyone for love. “I have a conscience.”

She’s starting to look tired. The excitement of our interview project has worn off and her need for some R&R is showing. I wrap up.

What’s your superpower?

“I would have a super boyfriend,” she says with that same sweet, crazy grin. “A super, crazy boyfriend.”

DAN

“Do I have to sit while I’m being interviewed?” asks Dan, rolling around on his shoe-skates.

I don’t bother fighting him on this point because who am I to judge the creative process.

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“Okay,” he begins as he rolls back and forth in my office like it’s some kind of skating rink, which it isn’t. I have a whiteboard and everything. “In 2014 on Tumblr…”

That’s where I got lost. Oh, I have Tumblr. I just have no idea how it works. But Dan is “pretty active” on it and apparently the Tumblreans were celebrating the 75 anniversary of Dick Grayson (original Robin), who is described by writers as the heart and soul of the DCU (“DC Universe. Keep up with me, Mary.” Dan explains that Grayson was a major personal role model and that for the anniversary, he and other Tumblreans made a book about him.

“It’s a collection of scholarly essays by fans,” he says, “analyzing Grayson’s place in history, his transition to Nightwing, and his effect on other characters.”

He stops rolling.

“Why are you laughing, Mary? You’re the one wearing glasses. You’re more of a nerd than me.”

I regain composure and he continues skating.

“Mine was more on the pathos side of it all,” he says. His skating has slowed to a glide. “It focused on the positive effect of having a character like that. A character that isn’t made just for the white-male dominated culture we live in where power and dominance and sexualized characters are used to bolster the confidence of one specific people group.”

He stops skating now and leans against the door, arms crossed, eyes sincere.

“One of the beautiful things about being a geek or nerd is that you’re able to find a sense of community with a ragtag group of people who might otherwise feel like outcasts,” he says.

Stepping out of his rakish reputation for a moment, Dan says that Grayson was a character who greatly influenced his life and decisions at an age and time when he needed someone to influence his life and decisions.

“He does good for the sake of doing good,” he said. “He’s well assimilated and very emotionally open and honest. And that’s the thing about superheroes. They inspire people to do good and to make people better.”

We pull up pictures of Grayson, both as Robin and then as the superhero he became, Nightwing.

“He fulfilled the role of the sidekick beautifully,” says Dan as we scroll through countless hours of labor and love that has been spilled onto paper through pencils, telling a story, making a hero, changing a life. “But then grew up and realized, maybe that’s not who I am.”

I think I can relate to that.

“When you’re dealing with the bat family, most of the people are orphans,” Dan reminds me (as if I even knew there were more than just Batman and Robin). “Lots of emotional issues. But he doesn’t let that consume him. At the end of the day you only have so many shots to say what’s on your mind or tell someone you care or to do good.”

Dan leans back in the swivel chair, his be-wheeled feet dangling over the edge. I’m reeling with the new information about extra Robins and Batgirls and somebody super cool called “Oracle.” Shots at life and chances to change. Doing good.

He looks at me contentedly.

“I just have a lot of feelings about superheroes,” he says.

True things I’d forgotten about college life

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I earnestly considered titling this post, “Who seriously does this on purpose a second time?” (Also in the line-up was “Always a freshman, never a post-grad” and “Netflix, I love you”). But the basic premise of the following list is simply that coming back to community college as a technical freshman (but like, way older) has reminded me why we all try so hard to eventually leave college in the first place. Not that it isn’t a barrel of hoots and all, but at some point every baby eaglette will look around its nest and say to itself, “I know it’s a long way down from here, but I’d much rather end up decomposing on the forest floor in a pile of feathers than spend the rest of my life eating $2.00 pizza-pockets from the cafeteria.”

Or, you know, something along those lines.

Now that we’re officially finished with the first full month back at school, I’d like to share my list of all the true things about community college life that I’d forgotten in my three-year absence.

  • The freshman fifteen is not a joke. It is serious. It is very, very serious.
  • Putting money on your print-card for the library may mean surviving on a smaller gas budget, but there’s no way you’re giving up your daily coffee ritual. Priorities, bro.
  • There is no right way to make friends in class. Everyone is just going to feel very awkward until after midterms. Get used to it.
  • *Sweatpants.
  • Three sequential weeks at the same desk confirms place ownership. If someone takes your spot at anytime after the three week mark, it is within your legal right to Regina-George-glare them into humiliation.
  • Procrastination has a whole new meaning. Well, the meaning is the same, you just demonstrate it a little more prolifically.
  • Netflix.
  • Bus schedules, student parking and scantrons become a much bigger part of your life than  you ever wanted or hoped for.
  • People who ask clarifying questions about homework that you’re too lazy or scared to ask are appreciated. People who ask if there will be homework are not.
  • There will always be someone who cares less than you do. Unfortunately, this does not help the Curve.
  • Grunge is almost in fashion. Don’t even bother with the mascara.
  • Crying the first day of class will brand you for the rest of the semester by everyone who has figured out how to juggle classes and jobs and transportation like real adults already. Don’t be the person who cries on the first day. Be the person who cries on the second day.
  • People who try having existential discussions before your early morning class have not yet realized that college is just glorified high school and no one cares about their opinion before eight o’clock in the moooorning. You are not obligated to talk to them pre-coffee.
  • There is such a thing as “pre-coffee.”
  • The quiet ones are either brilliant, cool or clueless. Anyone who talks is way too excited to be here.
  • Group projects are where teachers send smart kids to die.
  • If you eat at the cafeteria, the cafeteria will eat you. Your soul is precious. Protect it.
  • Everything you learned in high school has no useful purpose in college. Everything you didn’t learn in high school but should have is sitting just beyond the reach of your panic-stricken mind, laughing at you in deep, drawn-out chuckles.

*Back in my day sweatpants (or yoga pants) were still a thing. Apparently, since I’ve been gone, leggings are the new do? Oh children.