Saturday, June 26, 2010

A New Kind of Gift Basket

This week I finished my MAPQSL Summer Program. What's that, you ask? It is the acronym for "Mississippi Alternate Path to Quality School Leadership". That's right. Be afraid. Be very afraid... I will soon have a one-year alternate license for administration. And, after I complete my internship this school year, I will have a full-blown entry level license in administration. So, now I can administrate something. Bring it on.

People who know me have heard this and exclaim in wonder, "You want to be a principal?" Well, I if you had asked me before these three weeks, I would have replied, "Absolutely not. I would like to go into special education administration..." And, the saner part of me thinks that still might be my response, but another, more daring and adventurous part of me thinks I really could be a great building principal if I choose to accept that challenge.

Three weeks doesn't seem like a very long time to learn something, but considering I was in class EVERY day from 8:00 to 3:00 with only a 30 minute lunch, (Thanks for the strictest adherence to that tight, tight schedule, Jim and Mr. Mack :-), the learning time is pretty much equivalent to graduate level course requirements in regards to time. All that was missing was summarizing tortuously dry journal articles or creating Power Point presentations with a "collaborative group" in which two of us did all the work, and the rest of the members slacked off and stood around. I didn't miss it, frankly. And, those of you who have enrolled in college courses know what I'm talking about...

So, while my interest and passion is still primarily in the area of special education, I have perked up to the possibility of being a principal some day. I have discovered being a principal isn't necessarily everything I always thought it was... (Unclogging the toilet, and listening to teachers complain) And, I knew all the unappealing "stuff" of being a principal before I ever hit the door of my QSL class. The amazing challenge of being a principal is somehow being able to gather the collective conscious of a building, with all its personalities, strengths and challenges, and channel that energy toward a common goal. It's kind of... Well, impossible. Or is it?

I have come to understand most of administration is about implementing the mandates of law and policy... The only problem... Well, the major problem is I don't always agree with the laws and the policy. And, in administration, it's not my job to agree... It's not even my job to change it... It's only my job to implement it, and see that everyone else implements it. And, therein lies the very intriguing challenge. Can I manage to pack an old leaky carburetor, banana peels, dirty baby diapers, and an apple core in a pretty, skillfully crafted basket, wrap it delicately in cellophane, tie it off with a lovely ribbon and sell it to a highly educated group of people? That, my friends, is the true challenge in educational leadership. And, that is the thing that piques a part of me that always strives to do the impossible.

And, at some level, I think I could do it... I think I could do it because with every law, or mandate, or flat out stupid thing we are called to do in educating students, I can generally find a positive intent behind why it has come to be. One of the teachers for the class, Mr. Mack, proposes we brought No Child Left Behind on ourselves. Refusing to champion the child that doesn't learn in the standard, sit-in-your-desk-and-listen kind of way and "educating students into mental retardation" revealed a need to establish systems of accountability for student achievement. That system of accountability is completely unrealistic, and in my mind severely inappropriate for some students, but it wouldn't have been necessary if we had done the "right" thing in the first place. Make no mistake, I firmly believe in the premise of inclusion and educating our students with their peers, the people with whom they will interact for the rest of their lives.

As much as I hate it... As horrible as I think it is for children... As much as it entirely ignores the premise that each child must be recognized as a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual being and educated accordingly, the intent was to make our system fair and available to all children. So, that part of it, I can sell. As much as I hate our RTI (Response to Intervention) process, it was implemented in the spirit of seeing each child as an individual and tailoring education to that child before simply sticking them in special education so they can remain "special" for their whole lives. Special education was the Hotel California of academia... You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

So, now that I have been teaching in the public school system for over 10 years, I get it. I have been full cycle. I began when our first state testing was being piloted. I saw inclusion on the horizon and developed best practices in our school. I have gradually watched the population of learner served in special education change, and I have watched the struggling students remaining in general education increase... That was the point. Thus, by most accounts, No Child Left Behind has been successful.

And now, a new challenge is being born... There is a push toward moving all states toward a national curriculum. The same set of objectives and standards for all students across America. And, given that our children are going to have to be competitive in a different world than the one in which I was reared, I believe this makes sense. Technology has allowed people to connect in ways we never could have imagined even twenty years ago. But, America is funny... We strive, strive, strive to propel ourselves onward and upward, only to look back saying, "Don't make me go! We are moving too fast!" States have resisted moving toward a national curriculum, and so the government's response has been to tie it to money.

There is a program called "Race to the Top"... And, states are indeed racing. At least they are racing to get a piece of the 4.63 billion dollar pie available to school systems willing to write a grant for the money and sign onto a curriculum sight unseen. But, the curriculum is aligned to the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress). So, in applying for the funds, a state is in essence agreeing to move toward a national curriculum. People around me are concerned, but secretly, I'm kind of pleased.

Living in Mississippi is different. We are a Confederate state. Whether I like it or not... And, even though the Civil War has been over for a long, long time, there is still a little bit of that rebel spirit running through the state. Folks from here have some sort of genetic imprint pumping through every fiber of their being that says, "We don't have to do what you say... We seceded from your Union." And this attitude, while I like it when it comes to things like car inspections, hinders us in so many ways keeping our population steeped in ignorance and misunderstanding. We are last in all the things that count, (i.e. education, business, health care), and first in all the things that don't (i.e. obesity, teen pregnancy).

The frustrating thing for me, personally, is the unfairness of the rest of the United State's perception of us. I hate that people think of Mississippians as backwards rednecks with no shoes or teeth who bathe only once a week. And, I hate it because that isn't my experience. Well, it isn't entirely my experience... My family is from Ovett, after all... Some of the smartest, most forward thinking, innovative individuals come from Mississippi, and guess what? They were educated here. But, moving toward a national curriculum might just be one of the ingredients lessening the percentage of infant mortality, improving the number of high school graduates, decreasing the number of teen pregnancies. I don't know for sure... But, I think I could sell the idea.

Don't misunderstand me... I know it will get muddled. I know it will be mandated to death, and more accountability standards will be shoved down our throats. But, ultimately, when almost everyone I know in education signed on because they have a passion for children and because they want to see our students able to compete in a new, close-knit, global economy, I think I can embrace that vision and move a group of teachers toward that. So, maybe... Just maybe one day I will decide to take on a principal's job. I like that the word, "administration" includes the root "minister", meaning "to give".

Thus, I think I really could "give" something if I can only manage to believe in it as something good for children. And, who knows? Maybe that all just boils down to acceptance and perception. A very wise gentleman once said, "Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God's world by mistake." I have found that to be true in everything from education to double lung transplant processes. God can use it all for good, and I can just show up and offer to give and minister. Maybe that is the best way to think of it, rather than selling a basket of crap I don't really believe in... Showing up to "administer" knowledge, kindness, and goodness to any group of people can always be a good thing.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Life in a Tank Top

It's been a while since I have updated my Blog. I have updated Dan's CaringBridge. I have updated my Facebook. I have updated via e-mail. I have updated via text message, actual phone calls, and even face to face... But, my Blog. Well, it has been neglected and somewhat abandoned. My Blog is more like a time for reflection. And, I haven't wanted to reflect. I have only wanted to keep my head down and keep moving forward one step at a time. This morning, though, seemed like a time ripe with bloggable thoughts and opportunity to write. So, here I am.

Currently, Dan and I are sitting in USA Women and Children's in Mobile. Sarah was just discharged yesterday. The girls' lung functions had both dipped down, and Dr. Sindel deemed it necessary to get them both in, treat them with antibiotics, and make them well once and for all. Well, "once and for all" for now, anyway. There really is no such thing as "once and for all" with CF.

Lately, I have been in really a pretty good place... "Place" meaning that emotional, mental and spiritual place that isn't really a location at all, but is probably far more important to how well a person functions than any physical location could ever be. I took about three months after Dr. Hoover told us Dan would need a bi-lateral lung transplant to completely fall apart. I was basically just going through the motions of everything, and felt like I was walking around in a fog. We were still going back and forth to Birmingham regularly for Dan's hospitalizations, and she was SO sick. Much of the time, even though I never voiced the fear, I thought I was watching my child die before my eyes. And, I kept praying, and crying and pleading with God... Please. I'm not ready. I didn't count on this. It wasn't supposed to happen when she was only 17.

Further, I had helped care for my dad over the summer after his diagnosis of colon cancer. Dad died after Thanksgiving. My relationship with my dad was atypical, but sadness and loss hung over every aspect of life. I felt as if someone had turned me inside-out leaving my tissue and organs exposed to the elements. I hurt. And, I hurt all the time. And, I wasn't sure how to keep going.

I was also angry and driven by ten thousand forms of powerlessness. Our lives had been precariously balanced with treatments and therapies. For the girls' whole lives I had ensured treatments and medications were taken faithfully. We balanced that with extra curricular activities, school functions, family vacations, church and anything else people cram into a life together loving each other. And, everything was punctuated with hospitalizations and at-home I.V. meds. I did all the stuff. I was a good CF mom and I believed that my reward should be simple. My kids should live. And, they should live without a constant thought of dying. However, that was no longer the reality.

But then, time kept passing, and Dan kept living, and even though she was sick, I realized I was wasting time. I was wasting time being sad and sorry and begging God, so I had to shake myself or slap myself or something and get back to the business of living happily in this new reality of life. Dan was perfectly accepting of her medical situation, and approached everything with a completely positive outlook. I, however, had not fared so well. I burst into tears regularly, and friends weren't quite sure how to deal with me. In fact, many of my relationships changed signficantly too. My best friends couldn't make it better, so they stood by looking down at the ground and turning their toes in the sand. They were there whenever I couldn't get up off the closet floor, or when the oxygen bottles clanked together in the back of the car causing me to fall into hysterics. They were there when I was driving down the highway crying hysterically while listening to Bulgarian politics on public radio. But, no one knew how to comfort me, and my pain hurt them too.

So, the B team of friends took over. People I wasn't particularly close to, starting doing for me things I could not do for myself. And all of a sudden, the B Team was the A team, and I was left wondering, "What happened? Life is totally different." And, for a while, I was mourning. I was mourning all the change. My friends and family merged into one big team, and I am forever grateful for the support everyone has offered. Many of my support systems are different. My Weight Watchers meeting closed, my church closed, and my principal and friend got promoted. But, I've made peace with all of that. I'm adapting.

Now, it's June. It has been eight months. And, I feel better. I'm not the same. Not at all. But, I'm better. No longer do I hear The Script on the radio and burst into tears... "I'm still alive, but I'm barely breathing. Pray to a God that I don't believe in. Now I've got time while she's got freedom. When the heart breaks, no it don't break even.... I'm falling to pieces." The song is about a romantic break up, but when Danny O' Donoghue (lead singer) belted, "I'm falling to pieces," I was right there with him.

Everywhere we go, people stare. Sarah gets aggravated, but I don't mind. Dan doesn't seem to mind either. It is odd to see a beautiful, otherwise healthy young girl pulling an oxygen tank. We are thinking of having cards printed saying, "Give to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation" to give to the people who really stare openly. But, no longer am I mourning the loss of my child before she is gone. I think the realization about what I was doing to myself came when I watched Jared Lawrence, Dan's prom date, back down the driveway with her perched on the front seat of his truck sporting her oxygen canula in a formal gown. Tears were streaming down my face as I thanked God that she made it. She made it to prom. And, as wonderful as that was, I thought of other families without kids with CF, who were perfectly healthy who had lost children in a tragic accident. Those parents did not get to watch their beautiful daughters going to Senior Prom. Those parents didn't have the opportunity before-hand to dread the death of their son or daughter. It was simply over. And, given that death has showed up simply hovering over our lives, it could be an opportunity. And opportunity to love more, to do everything, to live without regret... An opportunity that others don't always get. And, I wasn't going to waste another moment.

In that spirit, we are sneaking out of the hospital. Dan is waiting and Old Navy is having a sale on tank tops for $2.00 each. Life awaits. And, we will be living it wearing layered tanks with a smile on our faces, dragging an oxygen generator behind.