Teaching and Learning

Dell pulls onto the highway, past the one-lane wait where the long stretch of road is being re-paved, and she steps on the gas. The car moves forward, smooth and free, and she turns on NPR. What’s interesting this morning? she wonders.

“…they were locked in the hold?” asks the commentator.

The guest, identified as some kind of government inspector, demurs. They are not sure yet, he says; and they are still looking for survivors.

“The five they found,” the commentator presses, “are all crew members?”

“Yes…” says the guest reluctantly.

And Dell realizes only slowly that the others, the ones locked in the boat, were trapped in a fire.

A picture flares into her mind…of people stuck and terrified, of flames and screams and pounding pleadings at a locked door.

She turns off the radio and rides in silence.

She feels gut-punched.


Her first class is on the main campus in a little industrial city. Today is a grammar refresher, and the students sigh and roll their eyes.

“I know,” she always says, “that this is basic and that you know this stuff. But going through it gives us a common language. Then I won’t confuse you when I write comments on your papers.”

She reviews parts of a sentence. What a noun is. Verbs and tenses. Subjects and objects. When to use “I” and when to use “me.”

They groan and shift and they write down every word she puts on the white board.

Because they don’t all know this stuff: they have gaps and empty knowledge spaces, some of them. They guard their borders fiercely, but every once in a while, a student will sit back with that look on her face—the look that says, “Now I get it. Now I know how THAT works.”

She puts them in small groups—it’s an English class after all,–and they come up with nouns and verbs and create sentences. They add ridiculous strings of adjectives and adverbs, words and phrases; they craft sentences a whole page long. They forget their coolth, and they get silly.

They work so hard, and they finish so much, that she lets them loose ten minutes early.

On the way out, one of the young women, one of the most languid and bored of all the students, stops and shows Dell pictures on her smart phone. Her dog has just had its first litter. She’s thinking, this student is, how hard it’s going to be to give the puppies up. She’s talking to her mom about maybe keeping one, the little one with the white spot on its nose.

Dell comments on the sweetness of the puppies, and the student smiles. Then the veneer slides back into place, and she nonchalantly says goodbye and saunters away.


Dell’s next class is on a satellite campus, thirty miles away. She’ll drive on the four lane partway, veer off onto country roads, wind up on a four-lane again just as she gets to the satellite.

It’s a beautiful sunny day. The tires thrum. She decides to see if there’s anything uplifting on the radio.

She turns it on to hear about another mass shooting. Semi-automatic rifle; seven people dead, including the shooter, who had lost his job that afternoon.


The students at the satellite campus are unabashedly NOT city kids. They are enthusiastic and cheerful. Dell starts going through the grammar review. “I know you know this, but…” she begins.

She writes the definition of a sentence on the board. They talk about subjects and predicates, nouns and verbs.

“Wait, wait!” says one student in back, busily taking notes, so Dell pauses. In the quiet, one of the students slaps her hand on the table in front of her. She is a senior in high school, taking college courses through a special program the state offers.

She says, “I am SO GLAD we’re doing this! I forgot all this stuff!”

“Exactly,” says the young man next to her.

The students eagerly break into groups. They work up until the very minute class is over, and they stop on the way out to tell her what they’re doing on the weekend. One, an older student, waits until the others are gone.

“I think,” she says to Dell, hesitant and nervous, “I might want to be a writer.”

Dell can see how hard that was for the student to say, and they talk for a bit about some of the joys and the challenges of a writing life.


The next morning, Dell heads—a true Road Scholar—to another satellite campus, this one in a suburb of the large city. The radio is filled with news of a devastating hurricane, of the dead and the missing, of whole cities flattened, of people stranded with no food or fresh water.

Dell grips the wheel, white-knuckled, feeling sick. So much pain. So much tragedy. Chaos reigns, and she is helpless. People suffer, and she is powerless and sickened.


Many of the students in this class were born in other countries. They wear, some of them, ethnic dress, and they talk with various lilts and inflections, and they are, many of them, very, very anxious about succeeding in this class.

This is a lab session and they work at computers, answering questions about Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” essay. The students have many questions, both about the content of the assignment and about the computer, and Dell works her way as quickly as she can through the raised hands, directing and reassuring. She smiles at Nadja, a tiny young woman with a gauzy head wrap and a soft, soft voice.

Before she answers Nadja’s question, Dell rolls her head and stretches, and she realizes that Edwina, the tall, elegant Ghanaian with the warm British accent, is working with the students in the front row. As Dell cracks her neck, Edwina shows Deanna how to access the submission portal on the class website. Deanna sees it; her eyes light and she sits back and grins.

Dell bends down to listen to Nadja’s question. She explains how to complete the assignment, and she helps the student open a Word document.

“But I don’t know,” Nadja says, “when I am done, how to get it to you.”

Dell tells her not to worry. Just concentrate on getting the work done. Then they’ll submit it together.

Nadja nods, troubled, but she peers at the screen, pauses, and begins, slowly, to type.

All heads are bent over keyboards, all fingers flying. Dell gives Edwina a thumbs up thank you, then retreats back to the instructor’s space. She keeps an eye out for raised hands as she grades discussion board posts.

Just before class ends, Nadja raises her hand. “I am done,” she whispers, and she asks Dell to check her work. Her answers are thorough and thoughtful, and she has nailed the MLA format.

Dell tells her that, and Nadja smiles.

Then, together, they save the file and close it, open the college website and click onto the class page. Dell shows her how to open the assignment submission link, and suddenly Nadja brightens. Her fingers fly; she attaches the documents; she hits submit.

The class packs up to go, and she waves them off, reminding them of Monday’s work, and wishing them a restful weekend. They say goodbye and hurry out the door.

Dell turns to gather her things, and then she realizes that Nadja has turned back. She is standing, uncertain, in the classroom doorway, and Dell hurries over.

“What is it, Nadja?” she asks. “Can I help?”

But the girl is not troubled. She turns her face to Dell, and it’s illuminated, glowing, kindled with hope.

“The computer,” whispers Nadja. “I understand now. Teacher! Thank you.”

And she bows just a little, a head-nod really, and hurries off.

Dells watches as Nadja wrestles the big door open, a tiny woman in beautiful flowing clothes, a strong, determined woman who is going to succeed. And then Dell turns and hurries to the instructor’s desk, her back to the door as she packs up her things.

She climbs into the car for the forty mile trip home. It is a sunny day, and she cracks the windows open just a little, letting a breeze dance as she drives. She leaves the radio off.

She is not in denial. Dell’s eyes are open; she knows what’s out there. But just for today, she’ll ride home on the power of hope.

The Bad Thing and the Thing With Feathers

Definition of hope (Entry 2 of 6)

2a : desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment


She came stomping into the house; she didn’t pause to look at us. I have the sense-memory that I was playing on the floor, maybe building something with blocks, and I jumped up to follow my mother, who hadn’t even said hello to us, upstairs.

“Leave your mother BE,” my father said gruffly, and he grabbed me by the arm. “Her best friend just died.”

Upstairs the bedroom door slammed, and the house hushed.

Now, with hindsight sharpening vision, I realize it wasn’t the first time the Bad Thing happened for my mother.

So it was hard for her to teach us how to hope.


In the photo, my mother is three years old, held tightly in the arms of her impossibly handsome brother, Jim. They are with their sister Annie, whose cloche hat shadows her eyes. Annie holds a sheaf of flowers. My mother, dark-haired and taut and leggy, scowls into the camera.

It is 1925. They are standing at the graveside of their mother.

The Bad Thing has happened. Life for these children, and for their four siblings, will never, ever be the same.


Another picture; another graveside. My mother stands, face washed of color, in a dark coat, a trowel dangling loosely from her hand. It is, maybe, 1944; her beloved baby, her firstborn, Sharon, lies beneath the flowers she’s just planted.

My mother is twenty-two, and she knows this: if you are not careful, if you abandon caution for joy, the Bad Thing is going to happen. And there is nothing then, she thinks, with a sickening, dread-filled knowledge, that I can do to stop it.


It was only slowly that she learned to trust again, to hope, to reach out and make a forever friend.

Who loved her back.

And died.

As if the Bad Thing waited to pop out, taunting, every twenty years.


I was a dreamer. I would do something wonderful, something amazing, I thought; I would live a thoroughly unconventional life. I would…. paint pictures. Write books. I would read words, and find words, that changed everything. I would go away to school and I would learn to travel by myself, and I would see the Eiffel Tower and the sun setting on African fields, and poems would well up in me. I would stand in the setting sun with my watercolors and I would capture that exact glow of amber sky, capture it on paper, capture it in words; take it home to keep forever.

I would experience a million daring things and chronicle them. Teachers fed my dreams. My hopes were like living things. I could feel them fluttering, in my chest, in my mind…anxious, growing, forming, getting ready to emerge and take flight.

My mother snorted. She sat on a different side of the fence, teetering in a rickety chair on a slope that gave her a crystal view of dashed and dying hopes. She could hear the groans.

“You can’t afford to go away to school,” she’d say. “Be happy you can walk to the branch. And get a trade. Have something to fall back on. You’ll need it.”

I’d need it, she meant, when, as she knew it would, the Bad Thing happened. Steady work, she said often, with benefits. Wouldn’t, she said, taking tolls on the Thruway be a grand job? When no one was there, you could read. Just sit in your booth and read.

She was so sure, so implacably sure, of what I needed to do.

I grew frightened. I went to the branch. I learned to work at jobs I hated, and I became proud of my ability to adapt.

Hope stopped fluttering so much, and finally settled, mostly still.

I think my mother must have relaxed a little then, glad that I wasn’t standing, hope-filled and unknowing, on some precipice where the Bad Thing lurked in wait.


I’ve been thinking a lot about hope lately. I’ve been trying to pin it down, to define it, to figure out just exactly what hope is, and to decide whether it’s a foolish thing that ought to, as my mother taught me, be replaced with practicality.

Right now, I want badly to open the door wide to hope, but I am afraid of what will come in with it.


Hope, the Merriam Webster Dictionary tells me, is “desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment.”

   Hope, Emily Dickinson says, is “the thing with feathers -That perches in the soul…”

Another poet, Langston Hughes, talks about hope in terms of dreams, and echoes Dickinson. Without dreams, he says,–without HOPE—“..life is a broken-winged bird/
That cannot fly.”

Hope, then, is not just a fantasy or a day dream; it’s an expectation. It is not just envisioning what I want to happen but believing that it will happen.

Hope has feathers: given the right conditions, it can lift off, can soar and arc and careen. People on the ground below will shade their eyes, pointing and marveling. Hope is alive and waiting, filled with potential; hope is ready to launch and fly.

Or, it can crash, wings broken, aching and grounded.

Hope is alive. It’s a choice.

It’s incredibly, fearfully dangerous.

And yet I think hoping is what I am called to do.


“I wonder,” my brother Dennis said to me, a few years after my parents died, “what Jim and Jean would think.” We were talking about Mark being in law school, about our little family giving up great jobs and a steady school system to pursue a long-pulsing dream.

I was perched on the kitchen counter of our mobile home in Ada, Ohio, a cramped but homey abode where we’d live for Mark’s law school years, talking to Dennis on a curly-corded phone. We had rented out our hometown house and moved three hundred miles away; we had signed on the dotted line for law school loans.

I had found a job with benefits; Jim had valiantly made the switch to a new school.

Law school had always been Mark’s hope…not just a dream, but an expectation, a living thing that never stopped touching him with its feathery fluttering. The time had finally come, when Matt was safely settled, when Jim was old enough, when I had my master’s degree, when we could grab hands and take that Indiana Jones kind of leap of faith.

“Oh, I think they’d have loved it,” I said to Dennis, “don’t you?”

I said that glibly then, but now I wonder. My mother, I think, would have been horrified.

What about health insurance? she’d have asked. What about your house?

What if something happens? What about Jim?

But that hope was such a force for Mark, and the expectation of fulfillment lived deep and strong in all of us. Once freed, it was almost as if there was no choice. We had to follow where hope soared.

And it’s true that there were no givens. Mark could have had to leave school without a degree for some reason—health or finances or something unseen; Jim could have had a terrible time at his new school; I could have failed to find a job that gave us the insurance and the money we needed to muddle through.

We were taking chances, but, as we always said to Mark when he had his doubtful moments, “You can be fifty with a law degree. Or you can just be fifty.”

He turned fifty the week he got the notice that he passed the Bar.

We all were stunned, for a while, by the power of hope fulfilled. And then that just weaves into life, and we begin to wonder, What else…? What next…?


We use the word ‘hope’ for lots of things.

Hope you have a great day.

Hope you have a good trip.

Hope you feel better.

Hope the weather holds off.

We’re not really meaning hope, then, though.

We’re meaning, It will be nice if…

Hope is a bigger, more muscular thing than that kind of simple, daily stuff.

Hope is a beast.

And hope is a choice.


And what if, what if, WHAT IF, I hope—what if I put my energy and my being into that expectation, what if I let that living thing free, invest in it, feed it, fly with it—what if I do all that, and The Bad Thing happens anyway?

How in the name of God, then, will I be able to pick up the pieces and survive?

It’s a terrifying thought; it chills me and freezes me, for a moment, in my tracks.

But the choices are stark, and the choice against hope is to settle for The Bad Thing before it comes to call.

I believe that hope is a living thing. I believe it has feathers and wings and muscles and soaring power, and that I must unleash it in the expectation that the thing I dearly, dearly want is going to happen. It may not match, exactly, the set picture I carry in my mind; hope may trundle in on tired feet, with dirty hands, and have to sit on the edge of the cot a minute before it catches its breath. It may be days or weeks or even years after hope shambles in that I think, startled, My God. My hope came true!

But if I refuse to hope, if I don’t release that power into that crystal air, then I can be sure the expectation will never be fulfilled.

It’s a terrifying thought; it chills me and freezes me, for a moment, in my tracks. And yet I don’t really see a choice. It’s hope, or it’s despair.


I have another picture of my mother, in her fifties, wrapped in a fuzzy blue bathrobe, the ever-present cigarette hanging from her lips. She sits at the kitchen table, with a steaming coffee mug and a stack of prayer cards and a handwritten list.

After the flurry of the day’s borning settled, she sat at the table, drank cup after cup of coffee, and she prayed. It was a daily ritual, one she’d kept since my earliest remembering.

She prayed that people she loved who had died were safely in heaven.

She prayed that those who were sick would find healing.

She prayed that money woes would dissipate, and she prayed that her foolish, reckless children would be safe.

She prayed for her grandchildren and she prayed for her friends, and she prayed for her brothers and sister, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews; she prayed for people she’d once shared a hospital room with, for companions at part-time jobs, and for people who’d coached her kids. She prayed for people who annoyed her and people who had hurt her. She prayed for beloved pets.

She prayed, and in that praying, she channeled her hopes.

She may have thought she had closed the door; she may have tried to teach us to be safe instead of daring. But in her morning ritual, she revealed a belief that maybe she did not even know she held.  There’s hope, her prayers said; I know the Bad Thing happens, but there’s hope that the Good Thing will follow.


Today I am reaching for that feathered companion. Today I am going to set it a-soar.

Four Visits

I hear her high heels tapping down the polished hallway.  She had an intermediary call me to ask if I knew of any people in need; I mentioned a longtime colleague, retired and alone now, with some serious health problems.  There was, the intermediary said, someone who wanted to help a person just like that this Christmas.  That someone would stop by with an envelope, and she would be grateful if I would just address and mail it.

It was an easy task to agree to do.

I am thinking this must be a seasoned benefactor…someone comfortably settled, perhaps with children established and in no need of mama’s money.  But the heels belong to a young person who is far from rich. She is, though, smart, clever, and thoroughly professional; she and her husband came unexpectedly into a tidy sum, and they decided to split it. Half goes to someone he found who is in need, the other half to someone she identifies: that’s their Christmas gift to each other.

She hands me a thick envelope with a name etched on it; her joy at perpetrating this unacknowledged act of giving is boundless.  She swears me to secrecy, wishes me a merry Christmas, and taps away.

I address and stamp the envelope and slide it into the mailbox across the street.


Ducking her head, eyes hidden beneath a long bang, she hands out hand-folded boxes to each of the board members.  Open them! she urges. We do, and are amazed at the painted ornaments–with snow-covered pine trees, fat red cardinals perched on snow-dusted branches, beaming Santas and frolicking snowmen, rigid nutcrackers and graceful ballerinas, gracing their tender, curved glass sides.

We gasp; they are exquisite.  She laughs delightedly.  She grasps her hands and bobs a bow.  She is so proud.

She is a recovering addict become an artist, someone who wanted to say thank you to the board that okays the funds that support the program she first went through and now works for.  She teaches others, now, to paint; she donates paintings to be auctioned off to raise funds for the program.  She has worked through a long, bad tunnel, and she has emerged into the light.

Beet-red, triumphant, she slides out of the conference room, waving a merry Christmas to all.


We gather around the table–eight old friends missing two more who are at a different gathering that day,–two who are mourning a loved one lost too soon.  The candles glow, Keith invokes a warm and personal grace, and we tuck into herbed rolled pork, potato pancakes and applesauce, crusty homemade bread, a savory slaw, and Larry-made pies.  It is a meal as delicious and unique as the home in which we gather.

The long table sits on polished concrete floors; whitewashed beams gleam high above us.  This was once a gas station; it now is Kay and Brian’s home, with a sleeping space defined by walls cleverly constructed of three-deep packing pallets strung with twinkle lights. The kitchen is a tiny marvel of high-tech efficiency, the bathroom small and snug and wonderful.

Kay has her studio; her paintings enliven the walls of the whole space–new paintings, larger, growing evermore strong and bold, like her amazing and constantly maturing talent. Brian has his work-space.  Together, they have stories to tell of mishaps and triumphs, but it has been worth the trek: their vision of this extraordinary home-space is realized.

Kay and Brain live at a midpoint; after that wonderful meal and a chance to really visit, we reluctantly move outside.  No parking problems in a former service station: we linger by the cars. We listen to the gentle burble of the fountain Brian constructed, and which is, in this oddly warm winter, unhindered by ice.  Finally, with hugs and plans to meet again in 2016, with shouts of “Merry Christmas!” we climb in our cars and pull out, headed north, south, and west, into the darkness, strengthened by the rekindling of that friendly warmth.


Jeff is the counselor who organized and oversaw a wonderful program Jim took part in several years ago.  Jeff keeps everyone connected with email updates and invitations to reunions and notices about who’s graduated, who’s gotten a job, and who might need a little support.  This week he emails that a young man from the program is alone this Christmas.  He wonders if anyone would like to spend an hour or two helping the boy celebrate.

I mention it to Mark and Jim, and both of them, without hesitation, say, “Of course.”  Tight-throated and misty, I email Jeff to confirm.

We pack up cookies, write out a card, grab a game, and bundle into Mark’s car for the ride to the city at 11:30 or so on Christmas day.  We arrive at the boy’s house just a shade early; he is standing out front, tall, bearded, and gangly limbed–sort of Abe-Lincoln-y–yelling into a cell phone.  We park and approach and he looks at us, a little frightened, and yells into the phone that he has to go, there are PEOPLE here!

Jeff pulls up at that moment and we usher into a small, tidy apartment, with sparse furniture, white walls, and hardwood floors.  There is a little fabric tree; there is one present underneath it.  Jeff, Mark, and Jim lug in folding chairs.  Our host pulls chicken nuggets and french fries from the freezer; we locate one baking sheet and make chicken and potatoes share.  Jeff produces a veggie lasagna; he figures out the intricacies of the oven.

People start to pile in, three more families with kids from the program.  The table groans with drinks and cookies and fudge and a frosted cake–turns out, it’s not just Christmas: our young host has a birthday today, too. A pile of presents grows beneath the tree. The kids talk about Star Wars and superheroes and debate DC versus Marvel; a young artist passes around her cell phone to share her truly incredible artwork.  A young guitarist shows us his band’s professional calling card.  The food is hot; people grab plates,and our host sits in the place of honor, munching and beaming.

This was a group of strangers for mere moments.  Now we pass presents to the birthday guy; we take pictures; we cheer and exclaim.  Excited, he runs upstairs to change into a brand new shirt and, when he emerges, he gets a round of applause.  We eat cake and those frozen ice cream cones with the tops dipped in chocolate and nuts.  Jeff tries to get some singing going, but the attempt crashes and burns amid laughter and groans.

In the kitchen, gathering up, Mark and I talk with a young man (call him Matt) who’s a staff member, someone who works shifts in this little apartment so the birthday guy can successfully live on his own.  Matt tells us he’s actually off-shift, but he couldn’t stand the thought that our guy would be alone on the holiday–on his BIRTHDAY.  Jeff, Matt says, is amazing; this was probably one of the best Christmas-birthdays his young charge has ever had.

Jim shakes a lot of hands; the young people trade info; they promise to write and email and keep in touch.  We all take information about a zoo-lights expedition coming up the day after New Year’s. We part with hugs and laughter and hopes to see each other soon.  The ride home takes less than an hour; in 90 minutes, the oven is heated and the rib roast is scenting the house. The roads were great, the trip was no big deal–but the gathering was pretty major for a young guy who expected only to be alone.

Such gifts this holiday season: of generosity, of artistry, of creation, of gathering and goodness.  Dark falls shortly after we arrive home, but it’s no threat. There is light.  In this season of darkness, I know there is light, there is warmth, and there is great, great hope.

The Lord Be Thankit


The last work day of the week before Christmas, and I bolt out of bed at 6:22 AM, not really awake, but up and moving, anyway. My autopilot lights before my thinking brain engages.  A dream slithers away, down the mental drainpipe, irretrievable, but for some reason, a refrain of Robert Burns’s grace-poem frolics through my head:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it…

I stumble into the bathroom, avoiding the sight of the oversized pallid troll doll in the mirror and begin the transformation to respectable professional lady of a certain age.  The process takes longer with each passing year; the results grow noticeably less perky. But I can smell the coffee brewing downstairs–Mark, God bless him, has the machine gurgling along for me already.  The dog sighs audibly in the next room, snuggled in the warm spot I left behind.  When I finally emerge, girded for the day, she will heave herself out of the bed, which I am then allowed to make.  She’ll hoof it down the carpeted stairs to meet the Dad, who will let her outside and then stand watch on the stoop as she greets the morn by piddling.

It seems like an aftermath day: we had our division holiday gathering yesterday.  We gathered in the classroom in the new building that has the comfortable chairs–padded, comfy chairs, on wheels.  Jim, our boss, had rolled them into little pods, sprinkled the swinging desktops with foil packets of Ghiradelli peppermint bark.  Linda and Jaime and Terry quietly loaded up a rolling cart at 11:30; they toted the tablecloths and the bread, the tableware and the crockpots, up on the elevator.  They laid out a feast.

Appointments over, phone calls made, work-errands done, I joined the little throng walking into a modern day Fezziwig’s–drifting in on floating scents: oxtail and vegetarian potato and Italian wedding soups, a bubbling pot of spicy chili.  Plates and bowls of crusty bread and mounds of butter; crisp and savory salads; cheesecakes and ice cream desserts; cookies and cake and candy.

Music played; people milled–a mellow, respectful crowd, the gentle people from IT, we female middle managers.  We waited for Nancy; when she rushed in, Jim dropped the flag: the feast was on.  Voices rose and fell and bodies sorted themselves into clusters to eat and talk and then get up to fill another bowl.

I was lucky enough to sit with Ron and Cindi. Ron talked about an oceanography class he’s taking, and his eyes lit up and his fascination shimmered.  He is three courses away from his bachelors degree; you can see him on fire with the learning.  It reminded Cindi, I could see, of the rigorous high school program her daughter has just entered. She told us about a project the kids are doing, one that requires them to think rather than memorize, to hypothesize and analyze rather than merely extol.  There was the over-banquet and the under-banquet–the food Ron and Cindi enjoyed almost absent-mindedly while they talked about that feast of thought and ideas and discovery, a feast where all is new and exciting.

We hae meat and we can eat…

Jaime, peaked under her skillful make-up, wandered thoughtfully, making sure everyone had a drink, a filled dish, a piece of chocolate to cleanse a palate.  Jaime had been out sick the day before with a virulent stomach flu; her four year old twins brought it home from preschool.  The twins are new to the preschool world, and every vagrant virus finds a welcome home in them.

“My healthy babies!” Jaime laments, and by the time she’s done caring for them, staying up late, getting up early, mopping up and laundering, she is run ragged and an easy target herself.

“I feel better,” she assured us, but she wasn’t really chowing down.

Some hae meat that canna eat…


We had cast about for an after-lunch activity, something not silly or sweet enough to make our teeth hurt, and we thought about the facility next door, a mysterious place that shelters adults with all manners of disabilities.  Close neighbors, we have just begun to talk: how can this little community college and this haven for grown people with autism, with Down’s syndrome, with traumatic brain injury and other challenges–how can we work together?

We came up with a surprising number of ways.  Now we would begin the process of learning about each other, probing the mysteries.  We walked over, a varied (if not motley) group, and we were warmly met by Sheila, our first contact.  She introduced us to Erik, who’d help give us the tour.  Erik is a handsome guy with dark curly hair and a baseball hat pushed back on his head. He was happy to see us, happy to be in the role of host.  He told us about the job he holds in a retail store; he barely needs any coaching anymore, and soon will just be working, all on his own. Just like anyone, he said.

We traveled through a maze of offices, where people waved as they talked on phones, and looked up from paperwork or gift-wrapping; the halls were bright with artwork and noisy with chat and laughter.  We saw a group of people working to finish one final order from a corporate sponsor.

“No more piecework,” said Sheila firmly.  She explained that they are moving toward a person-centered philosophy.  Strong in the knowledge that folks with handicaps have gifts and talents, they are daring to ask their clients, “What would you like to do?”

Sheila said it’s hard for the older folks to even think about it; piecework is all they’ve ever known.  They’re puzzled by choices, puzzled at being asked to dream.  They spent a long time learning the close-walled limits of their conditions, and now to have those walls shifted away feels threatening.

Some hae meat but canna eat…

We saw artists at work; I admired a truly vibrant picture of a rustic pig on a green background.  It’s a painting I’d hang proudly in my kitchen.  I will watch for it at the First Friday Art Walk, when these folks sell their wares.

We saw people, mostly young men, absorbed in computer work.  One, securely locked in a world bounded by headphones, belted out whatever song played into his ears.  He was unfazed by grinning staff and strangers. He waved us on with one hand, his singing uninterrupted.

We saw people, mostly middle-aged women, knitting and crocheting.

Toward the end of the tour, we filed through a room called the Beauty Cube.  A beautician sat with a tableful of women; they had curled and plaited and ribboned their hair; now they were working on nails.  A tiny sprite of a woman sat patiently as the beautician painted her nails and then adorned each with a glittery star.  Sheila told us that was Natalie, who is vice-president of People First.  A younger woman wandered over, hearing that; she was Naomi, and she is the president.

“Tell us about People First,” I prompted.  “What do you do?”

Naomi and Natalie looked at each and shrugged.

“Run meetings,” said Naomi.

“Help people,” said Natalie.

We were just about to leave when a young woman swiveled around, extended plump arms and said, “Hug?”

I reached down and hugged her and she hugged back, patting my back, sharing true comfort.  I straightened  and she grinned at me, and as we filed out, she began chanting. “I got a HUG now; I got a HUG now…”

We hae meat and we can eat,
and sae the Lord be thankit.

It was an anticlimax, after that trip, to head back to offices, to email and details and tiny, trivial crises. And now this day feels like an unnecessary add-on; what can we do that makes sense after that?

But the day rolls on to be surprisingly rich. Our work group gathers and we tackle assessment challenges.  Pathways that were murky clear; we all catch fire and work swiftly, efficiently. Later, a  new adjunct comes in and a textured and interesting conversation unfolds as we enter his application vita into our new online system.

At lunch, I make sure my son James has his clothes all organized, has hair combed and shoes presentable.  He has a job interview at 4:00; his job coach will collect him at 3:30.  Oh, he wants to work, and oh, he is excited about this opportunity.

I am not positive it’s the right opportunity; I am not sure they’ll see his potential.  My mom-gut twists with apprehension, but I am proud of his spirit, and I tell him so. He hugs me and grins.

Back at work, the afternoon melts away; a student from years ago surfaces, pulling a new husband behind her.  He is gentle, she is vibrant.  She talks about journalism; they dream of moving to Boston.

I send emails thanking adjuncts who completed a training, got their grades in on time;  almost immediately pinging responses flood in.  Mike calls to say he’ll take the last course that needs to be staffed and I happy-dance around my office. He’s a great teacher. It’s a meaty course.  We can start the weekend unhindered.

I finish up a database, get a text from James saying the interview went well; he’ll hear on Monday whether they’d like to see him for a second round.  I say goodbye to Jim-the-boss, and Jaime, and, in the car, before I head out to the office supply store to pick up a gift I’d bought online, I check my phone.

There is a message from Sandee, a forever friend on her way to see a new grandson. And, warmed by her joy, I remember the gathering tomorrow, and I text Kathie to see if she knows whether Keith and Cynthia can join us.

She responds quickly.  She thinks they’ll be there, Kathie says, but she and Dan won’t make it.  Their nephew died and the memorial is tomorrow in Cincinnati.  Hodgkins lymphoma.  He was 33.  He was a boy, really.  Kathie texts a picture of him with his cat, thoughtful; then another of him with his wife, ignited by love.

I think of Sandee on her way to see that baby.  I think of Dan and Kathie, on their way to grieve and comfort.

And then, of course, it begins to snow, the first real snow of the season, blowing and swirling, beautiful and treacherous, festive in the extreme, and I am overwhelmed by it all–by the loss and by the treasure, by the joy and by the closed doors, by reunions and partings, by potential unleashed and potential locked up. What is it about this season that reveals it all, every single possibility, sends them, hurls them, into our midst?


I run my errands and I hide my presents, and the boyos and I cook up a wonderful Friday night stirfry, and then I begin, finally to bake my Christmas cookies–late this year; late, as always.  I putter and I pray for Dan and Kathie and that bright extinguished light; I pray for that beautiful young wife and her empty arms.  I pray for Sandee, arrived by now, and surely with her arms full of a giggling baby. I pray for James and jobs and colleagues and neighbors and people on roads coated and slick with snow.  I pray for disabled adults, that it’s not to late to teach them hoping skills.

This year, we are safe; this year we are whole; we are yearning and we are uncompleted and we are awaiting wondrous next steps.  But we are blessed to be together, and charged with giving care. This year, we can share in the banquet wholeheartedly. I flip cookies onto platters, and I feel the randomness of my good fortune.

Some hae meat and canna eat,
Some wad eat but want it
We hae meat sae we can eat
And sae the Lord be thankit.