The Final Assignment

Today was the last day of classes at Lovett's middle school. Today was also my last real day of teaching for at least a year. Come August, I won't be decorating my classroom, painstakingly planning the first day of school, or memorizing the names of 70 new students. Instead, I'll be in a new town, with new people and new challenges

So today, when my 8th graders took their seats for a final time, I handed out the assignment below and asked them to read over it carefully. 

 

The Final Assignment

Today is your last day of my class. Next week, you and I will both set off on new adventures. You won’t be middle schoolers anymore, and I won’t be a middle school teacher. We will all be newbies, navigating new halls, learning new rules, and writing new chapters.

So, as we say goodbye for now (but not forever), I am giving you a final assignment. There will be no due date, and it is entirely optional. It won’t be graded. I hope you do your best on it anyway. Don’t forget to ask for help if you need it.

Directions:

  1. Look for beauty in every day and in everyone. It may not always be easy to find, but it is always there. Once you’ve found it, sketch it, photograph it, write about it, cherish it. Whatever you do, don’t let it go unnoticed. The more you recognize the beauty around you, the more beautiful you will become.

  2. Listen, especially when you’re one-on-one with someone. It’s so easy to get caught up in the game of who talks most. Instead, think about what the other person has said. Ask questions. Be interested. You can change someone simply by letting her know that you care.

  3. Give. Of yourself, your time, your heart. And don’t keep tabs. Do for those around you because that, in and of itself, is a reward. Never make others feel guilty or expect them to “pay you back.”

  4. Love -- even when people don’t seem to deserve it. Live with an open heart. If your heart’s not open, it can’t be filled.

  5. Be honest. Be genuine. Be real. This requires figuring out who you are (and who you want to be). Once you know, be fully you each moment. Then you’ll never have to wonder whether or not people love the real you, and you’ll never have to worry who’s watching.

  6. Practice kindness. More often than possible. Follow Atticus’ advice: step away from yourself and into others’ shoes. Empathy will come back to you, just usually not in the way you expect.

  7. Take time to reflect. Go on a walk, write in your journal, say a prayer. And when you notice something that you need to make right, do it as soon as possible. Never be afraid to say, “I was wrong,” or “I am sorry,” and be aware that adding the word “but” after either of those statements takes away all of their power and meaning.

  8. Remember that it’s normal to be sad sometimes. It’s also normal to feel lonely. Life is full of beauty, but sometimes that beauty comes with pain. There will be awful days. Cry on those; feel what you are feeling. And then go find something beautiful. Because you always, always can.

  9. Surround yourself with people who make you happy and make you better. Remove yourself--in a nice way--from people who don’t. You must be kind to everyone, but you get to pick and choose who you give your heart and time to.

  10. Cultivate your creativity. Paint messy paintings. Write bad poetry. We are, by nature, creative beings. Never lose sight of that part of yourself, no matter how busy you are.

  11. Finally, listen to your heart, and follow your dreams. There are some things you have to do: be kind to others, apologize for your mistakes, follow-through on your commitments, listen, learn, grow. There are also a lot of things that you don’t have to do: fit in, be “cool,” live up to other people’s expectations, be the best at (fill in the blank). Never let those things that you don’t have to do get in the way of your dreams. Write your own story every day, or someone else will. In the words of Thoreau, “Live the life you’ve imagined.” And live it exuberantly.

Note: This assignment will take you a lifetime to complete. That’s okay. If you have questions about the directions, or if you need some feedback, don’t hesitate to reach out. Though I won’t be here, I will always be here, ready to help you, advise you, and encourage you in any way I can.

With all the love in my heart,

Ms. Ray

 

Just--Still Crying

Yesterday, I ran into a dear old friend at Shaky Knees

"I see your posts on Facebook," he said. "The ones about your mom. And I always want to say something. And--" he paused, giving me another hug. "Tomorrow's Mother's Day..."

A beat passed, and we just looked at each other, feeling that hurt you only know if you're in the club no one wants to join, the club of losing a parent too young. There we were, surrounded by thousands of people vibrating to indie rock music, talking about the fact that our moms are dead. The energy and noise of it all swallowed our words as soon as they left our mouths. For a moment, we could be real.

"It happens, and then for the first six months, everyone is so cool, so there," he said. "But then, the next six months, and the next--rest of your life, it's like it never even happened. And you're just supposed to move on. And everyone else is just living life, and I'm just -- still crying."

Yes, I thought. I'm just still crying.

It's been five years. And it is different in some ways than it was during those first six months. But in many ways it's harder. Because you're not supposed to be not-okay anymore. You're supposed to be all glued-up, more-beautiful-because-of-your-scars and stronger-from-the-pain. But no one talks about all the ways you aren't actually stronger, the ways you forever view life and love and humans differently from most of the people around you. 

I'm just still crying.

And I'm just still anxious. And I just still think that if I ever make someone as important to me as my mom is and was, I'll lose that person too. 

These are the things you don't say unless festival music is pumping your words into oblivion.  

But these are the things that those of us who struggle through this day need you to hear.

I'm just still crying. And that's okay. I'm still broken. And I still will be. In five years. In fifty. It's not going away. It will never be like it never happened. 

Don't try to fix me.

Don't try to make everything okay. And, please, don't tell me that the person I loved with my entire being is in a better place. That just makes me feel shitty about missing her so much. 

Instead, know that I still need you. That I will always need you. That's not going to change, and it's not just a grief thing. It's a human thing. 

Make me laugh, and let me cry.

And on days that you know are hard for me, invite me to do something I love. Play music, cook a meal, sit in the sunshine, go on a hike -- whatever it is, come encourage me to do it because then I'll remember how good life can be. I'll remember to savor each moment and to soak up the beauty my loved-one no longer can. I'll smile and laugh and play for that person, realizing that when I live fully, I make her proud.

And maybe everything will be okay for a little while. But don't mention that. Just give me a squeeze, hold my hand, and hold on.

The ride's not ending anytime soon. 

Thanks be. 

  Dancing with Mama. April 2006. 

Dancing with Mama. April 2006. 





We Shall Overcome

On Sunday, I bounced out of my apartment towards my car only to discover that my someone had hit it. Hard. There was no note to be found . . . only a busted-in bumper and the car itself, which had been moved several feet. 

On Monday, folk-singer legend and community activist Pete Seeger passed away at age 94.

On Tuesday, snow poured out of the Southern sky, stranding thousands of people in cars, schools, grocery store aisles, and, in many cases, the homes of strangers. 

Unconnected stories, maybe. But not for me. 

On Sunday, disgusted that one of my own neighbors had done such a thing to me, I chose to remain in a fog of anger and distrust. How could someone hit my car and not even leave a note? I kept bemoaning, blinded by my minor misfortune. What is wrong with people these days?

By Tuesday morning, I was still simmering. As I drove to work, though, in my actually-very-drivable, really-not-that-badly-damaged car, NPR ran a story about the life of Pete Seeger. I found myself singing along with the snippets of songs they played and thinking that perhaps people weren't so bad after all. Pete Seeger was succeeding: my hate had been surrounded and was considering surrender

"What an amazing person," I proclaimed to colleague later than morning. "Community. Community is the answer." She nodded, and I daydreamed, envisioning a Seeger-esque utopia full of people in harmony. Near surrender. 

"If only that jerk in my apartment complex had thought that way too!" I groaned, stomping obliviously on Seeger's goal. "I still just can't believe it. In my own apartment complex! People are so screwed up these days. What is wrong with the world?"

Myopia has always been a condition with which I've struggled. A few hours later, though, something actually worth being labeled a disaster hit.

That morning, Atlanta schools and businesses had largely dismissed the winter storm warnings, sure that they would amount to what they normally do here in the Deep South: exaggerated hype. Around noon, however, snow had begun to fall and accumulate, and commute times across the Metro area were quickly doubling, tripling, quadrupling. 

I was lucky. Thanks to an early dismissal and a short drive home, I was snuggled up with my puppy before the true nightmare began. As I sit here today, Wednesday, nearly 27 hours after the first flakes fell, many are still stranded. The roads remain treacherous, and there is little chance of improvement for at least another 24 hours. 

Amidst these nightmarish conditions, though, signs that Pete Seeger's dreams are more reality than I realized are all around. Local heroes have hiked miles in order to hand out food and water to strangers. Hundreds of people have thrown open the doors of their homes, welcoming in unfamiliar faces and offering warm food, hot showers, and a sense of community. The Facebook Group SnowedOutAtlanta has soared to over 46,000 members, more than half of whom are there simply to offer help however they can. And, well, I've finally realized that my slightly damaged car is not worth one ounce of anger or fretting. 

  One of many similar posts on the SnowedOutAtlanta Facebook group

One of many similar posts on the SnowedOutAtlanta Facebook group

I am always amazed when disasters like these strike. Without fail, we humans come through for one another. Sure, we can be selfish and power-hungry, and we often fail to see beyond ourselves, but we also have immense power to soothe, to save, and to serve. All one has to do is take a peek at the outpouring of kindness on SnowedOutAtlanta; five minutes of scrolling through the posts will confirm that, when it comes down to it, we are all there for one another. At least here, at least today, it seems that we are walking hand-in-hand, that we shall indeed overcome

As the snow and ice melt in the coming days, revealing the old roads we know, I hope we resist the temptation to return to old hardened pathways in our hearts. We've proven that here in Atlanta there is true community. May we keep our doors and hearts open. May we continue to prove that humanity is, after all, overflowing with generosity, kindness, and love. May we make this the "some day" that Seeger, and many others with him, dreamed would come.