Monday, December 2, 2013

Thanks to my favorite veteran...

Recently, at the school where I teach, a first grade class discussed Veteran's Day. Their teacher, Mrs. Moize, asked students to write a letter of appreciation to a United States veteran, expressing thanks for their service to the country. I gave her my grandfather's address and promised we would respond to a letter if he were able to receive one. A little over a week later, we received an envelope containing a letter from Abygail, and a photo of Mrs. Moize's students holding American flag pictures they made.

Abygail wrote:

Dear Veteran,
Thank you for your service to our country.
Thank you for keeping my family safe and free!
Your friend, Abygail

Tonight, I sat down with Grandaddy to help him write a response. For those who don't know, my grandfather suffers from Alzheimer's and struggles with speaking. What I thought may be a half-hour process continued on for three hours. We started out slow, and he kept finding himself unable to come up with words. I went in search of some photos from his time in the military, and after looking through several, we began talking about the memories of his service experience. From there, the words just flowed. Here's what we came up with:

December 1, 2013

To the students of Mrs. Moize's 1st grade class:

Thank you for your letter! I am responding to tell you a little about my time in service, and after.

I was eighteen when I entered the United States Army. I completed my basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. From there, I traveled to Atlanta, Georgia to attend mechanics school training for about six months. After that, I was sent to California to board a ship called the General Nelson M. Walker, which would carry me to Okinawa, Japan.

I was stationed in Okinawa, Japan for two years, and served as a Tool Room Clerk.. It was my job to take care of tools that Army mechanics used to work on military vehicles. In addition to that, I was on an artillery unit with about fifty men. We worked together hauling weaponry and practicing firing drills.

It's been over sixty years since I was in the United States Army, and I don't remember a whole lot from the time I served in Japan. I do remember that it rained QUITE A LOT while I was there. Once, I was stationed on weekend duty in the stockade, which was like a civilian jail, and we were working with the prisoners. We had just gotten lunch when it began to rain again. It rained so much, it washed the food right off our plates!

When I first got to Okinawa, they told us we would be there for about thirteen months. Then the war in Korea began to intensify, and it became pretty obvious that we would be in Japan much longer than that. It felt like we might be there forever! It ended up being two years before I was able to return home.

When I got back to the United States, I served a few more months before trying out a few different civilian jobs. I worked for two newspapers, taught 8th graders, and went to college. I attended Campbell College, Atlantic Christian College, and eventually, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I earned a master's degree in Social Work. Because I served in the military, the United States government paid for my college tuition! I became a psychiatric social worker and treated patients for over 30 years, until I retired. I met my wife, Frances, and we had three children, and four grandchildren. One of them is Miss Moore, one of the teachers at your school!

Now you know a little about me and I will leave you with this advice that I've learned throughout my 82 years: Try your best at everything you do, learn as much as you can, and be kind to those around you.

It made me very happy to receive your letter, and I appreciate you taking the time to write to me. Have a wonderful school year!

Corporal Bartel Frauendorfer
United States Army, Retired

Before we came up with the advice to offer the students, he said he didn't know how to end the letter. I asked him to just tell the students the same thing he'd tell me, anything he might've learned in his lifetime. He was still drawing a blank, and so I told him what I'd tell my students. "Try your best, continue learning, and be kind to the people you surround yourself with," I offered him. He said, "Yeah, that works." I laughed and wrote it in the letter. Although he may not have formed those words or that advice on his own, it's certainly the advice he has given me over the years through his every action and word. He taught me to work hard at everything I do, that even if I'm not the best at something, I can do my best at it, and no one could ask any more from me. He taught me that I should never stop learning, whether it be through school, the workforce, or from life. At eighty-two years old, he is learning new ways to communicate, get around, and function through his challenges. He taught me that it is better to be kind than unkind, because at the end of the day, we can only answer for ourselves and our own actions.

As I read to Grandaddy the final product of our letter, tears welled in my eyes. I am so proud to say I call this man my grandfather. The accomplishments he has made - his service to our country through his time in the military, his time helping patients through his social psychiatry work, and his time raising and loving his family - are the epitome of our advice to these first grade students. Do your best. Keep learning. Be kind.

I wanted to share this because I was so inspired by this project and the work these first graders did, and because I am inspired every day by my sweet Grandaddy. Thank you to all who have served our country, through military service or otherwise! Happy Veteran's Day, every day.

We included a few photos, shown below, with our letter to the students.

Bartel Frauendorfer, United States Army
circa 1947-1948 (?)

Damaged Japanese anti-aircraft artillery left behind after WW2

My grandfather's room in the Gorha Hotel
(where military members [and their families] stayed before they were assigned barracks)

Bartel Frauendorfer (left) and friend John Tonkin (right)
Touring Naha, Japan on a pass

My sweet Grandaddy and me!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dear Daddy.

It’s been six years and you’ve missed so much. And I know... they say you aren’t really missing anything, that you’re right here with us. But it’s not the same, you know? So much has happened.

Alex turned 18 this week. Your first grandchild is officially an adult, which would’ve made you officially old. He graduates next month and will head off for East Carolina University in the fall (although he had his choice of colleges since four of them so far have sent acceptance letters!). You’d want to jerk a knot in him for all the tattoos he has, but you’d be so proud of the man he has grown up to be.

Amber graduates from ECU next month. She leaves, and Alex goes... small world! And she already has a full time job working for some rich surgeon. She’s living all on her own in Raleigh, finishing school on time with close-to-perfect grades, working full time, and she just ran a 5k with Hannah last weekend. Not much has changed about Miss Do-It-All-and-Do-It-All-Right. She’s definitely our Amber. If you were here, you’d be bragging about her list of accomplishments to everybody.

Brycson was just in the newspaper yesterday. Front page, top photo. She was named Captain of the Burlington Police Explorers program a few weeks ago, and they were volunteering for the Clean Sweep river clean up. Also, she just passed her driver’s ed written test, and after four rounds of instructional driving, she’ll get her permit. Your first granddaughter is about to start driving. I’ll say it again... Dad, you’d be old.

Sissy is busy raising the babies, who aren’t really babies anymore, and becoming a master chef. And Heather is busy with school, and on and off, she’s helping raise a zoo of teenagers who aren’t even hers. I know I’m the little sister so it might be weird for me to say it, but they make me so proud. And I know you’d be spoiling all those kids of theirs rotten.

There is so much you’re missing out on, and sometimes, it breaks my heart.

I wish you could’ve been here to meet J and Alicson. J plays T-ball now. I wish you were here to help him practice his swing and his pitch. He talks about you sometimes, like he knows you. Maybe he does. And Alicson is the little princess of our family. You wouldn’t be able to get enough of those fat little cheeks she has. She is starting to talk now, and we’re working on getting a “GO DUKE!” out of her.

And there’s me. I finally graduated. I wouldn’t have, except I remembered how important it was to you. You didn’t get the chance, so you expected it from us. You got your wish, Daddy. Four college-educated daughters. 

There are a few things you’d want to kill me for. Like Alex and Heather, I have a few tattoos of my own. One is for you. One is for Jami Hinson, who died the year after you did. And the others are just ones I wanted... I figured after the first two, a couple more wouldn’t matter.

And I have a boyfriend. I think you would approve... secretly. I know you’d never actually admit it. You always said no one would be good enough for your girls, but I think I got pretty close with this one. Even though he’s a stinkin’ UNC fan, if you were here, yall could be friends during the off-season and talk about cooking and sports. Maybe you’d even go play terrible games of golf together.

My lifelong dream finally came true this week. I got a puppy! His name is Simon, and you would DEFINITELY approve of him. He is beyond adorable, a tiny little rescue Dachshund mix. I know we both like bigger dogs, but I just couldn’t say no to this little guy. I wish you were here to meet him, even though I know you’d sneak him people-food when I wasn’t looking.

We miss you, Daddy. We’re all doing alright, but there’s a big, gaping hole in our family puzzle, and the missing piece is you. I know I shouldn’t cry, but sometimes I wish so hard for you to be here that it actually hurts.

I wish you could be here to see all of this, to be a part of it. I wish you were here to see Alex and Amber walk across those stages. To teach Brycson the “look inside the curve” driving trick. To see J’s first real home run and to introduce Alicson to “Mr. Hand”. To petsit Simon, and to give Matt the “hurt my daughter and I’ll kill you” lecture. I wish you were going to be here to walk me down the aisle and dance at my wedding someday, to hold my future babies and see if their eyes are as blue as yours were. I wish you were here lecturing us and encouraging us and doing all the things daddies do for their girls.

I wish you could be here to let us all know that we really are doing alright, that we’re making you proud. I know we are, but like I said, it’s not the same. We really miss you, Dad. We really love you. We really wish you were here.

I wish you could have been there for the sun & the rain & the long, hard hills. For the sound of a thousand conversations scattered along the road. For the people laughing & crying & remembering at the end. But, mainly, I wish you could have been there.-Brian Andreas, StoryPeople

Friday, March 1, 2013

Extremely long and incredibly close.

You are selfless to the point that it’s self-deprecating.
You seem frazzled.
You take too much of the job home with you.
You are emotionally high maintenance.

These are statements that people have directed my way in the past week. People close to me. People I love. Words they said to me, verbatim. My ex, as he was ending things. My boss, as she observed my teaching. My friend, who was trying to help. My momma, who loves me more than anyone.

These are not easy things to hear, but I do. I hear yall. I really do. Let me break it down.

I have this never-ending urge to help. Help friends and help family and help strangers and help puppies and help, help, help. Even when helping means that, in the long run, I lose important things. Lose friendships. Lose relationships. Lose myself.

And, boy, do I worry. Like the world depends on me. (As an aside, there is nothing more humbling than trying to do ALL THE THINGS and thinking the world can’t carry on without you, then crashing from the pressure and watching as the world keeps spinning like it never needed you at all.) So, worrying? I do that well. I worry about my family. I worry about my students. I worry about my students’ families. I worry about car wrecks I pass on the street, and homeless people who beg for money, and people who hate others. I worry constantly, so frazzled is probably a very accurate description of who I am. Albeit, not a description anyone wants to hear about themselves. But true about me? Absolutely.

Do I take too much of my job home with me? HAH. Please see above! I teach in a low-income school, where many (not all) of my students are poor, are neglected, are academically below-average, have behavior issues, and are hard to teach. And I take every single one of them home in my heart. It’s draining and contributes much stress to my life, I know this. Not being able to “leave my worries at the door”, so to speak, has cost me so much. Sleep. Health. Relationships.

I’m not someone that most would call high maintenance when looking at me from the outside. But those with an inside view experience the pressure of my intensity. I love hard and I anger deeply and I laugh loud and I cry desperately. My emotions run high and low, quickly. Empathy is one of my strongest traits, and sometimes, I love that about myself. It gives me the ability to experience true joy with others, and true grief with others. It also makes me look batshit crazy sometimes. Here is this girl, laughing or crying over some person she didn’t know, some occurrence in a faraway place, some event that happened long before her time. Sometimes, she gets worked up over things that aren’t even real, like a character in a book! What the hell is wrong with her?

So, yes. Self-deprecating and frazzled and stressed and emotional. Yall are so right. I am all of those things, to a fault. To several faults.

But here’s the thing. You don’t need to fill me in. I already know I am these things. You aren’t telling me anything new, letting me in on some secret I never realized. I am kind even though it often tends to hurt me. And my emotions can get really out of control. And I get frazzled, and I carry the world on my shoulders like an ant trying to carry a Mack truck on his.

These things are truth. But I don’t need you to preach them to me. Because usually, comments like these are followed with advice.

Stop helping so much.
Take time for yourself.
Leave your work at work.
Calm down.
Just. Breathe.

Sometimes, I just want to shout at all of you wonderful, loving advice-givers. When you point these qualities out to me and explain how they hinder my life, I sigh, but inside, I am screaming.

Do you really think that I can help it?

These things are a part of me. They make me who I am. When you give me advice, you are telling me these are things that need to be fixed, and therefore, you imply that I need fixing. That I am broken.

Instead of yelling, I give you this: When all you can see is the negative (even if you point it out with good intentions), when all you notice is how these things are bringing me down (and you feel the need to help me up), please try to look past the ugly. Please try see the good that comes along with the bad, the good inside of me.

I help others for several reasons, even if it backfires. Sometimes, I am scared that if I don’t do something, it won’t get done (and often, it won’t). Sometimes, I like to feel needed (don’t we all?). Sometimes, I care about someone so much that I hate seeing them suffer (helllllooooo, love). Sometimes, I can’t let go of control for fear of being seen as a failure (helllllooooo, pride). And sometimes, I just feel like I owe the world. The world is so good to me. I receive grace all day, every day, in so many ways. I feel the need to pay it forward. If I can help, I should. Jesus helped us, and it killed him. And if you don’t believe in Jesus, if you need another example, pick up any old history book. This isn’t something new. I didn’t invent this theory. From the beginning of time, people have acted out of kindness, often selflessly, even at the point of self-harm, because it’s just the right thing to do. And sometimes, doing the right thing hurts. But we do it anyway, because it’s (say it with me!) the right thing to do.

Yes, I am frazzled and I worry. Sometimes, those worries do nothing but stress me out. Other times? They Get Shit Done. I worry that I am not good enough, and this pushes me to better myself. I worry that I am too quick to lose patience, too quick to judge, too quick to anger. So I reinvent myself on daily basis, sometimes several times a day. I start over and make small changes to help bring a little peace to myself and the world around me. Also, I think people who believe they are content are actually complacent. They think all is well, and never want for anything more. I believe this world needs worriers! I bet Rosa Parks felt frazzled when she wouldn’t get up from her bus seat, and I bet she was exhausted when that fight was over. I bet Noah felt frazzled as he loaded those people and animals onto the ark in the pouring rain, and I bet he felt anger being crammed in there for forty days. I bet Anne Frank felt frazzled as she wrote from her tiny little space in the secret annex, and I bet she felt so lonely sometimes. I am willing to bet that all people in history, all people in the entire world who do good things also feel frazzled at some point. I am willing to bet that all the people who work to make this world a better place also worry from time to time. I am willing to bet that these people feel more concerned with the way things are than content with the way things are. Worrying is exhausting and stressful. But it pushes us. The worriers are the world changers.

There are those who cannot understand why I choose to do the job I do. Sometimes, I don’t even understand why I chose this path. Mostly, I feel like it chose me. It’s stressful and it’s sad and it weighs heavily on me every single night. There are days I just want to give up and call it quits. I work for an educational system that puts test scores above real academics, budgets above true student needs, and politics over common sense. I work with families who are barely scraping by, and sometimes, my kids get neglected in the chaos. I work with some parents who just don’t care, who choose any and every thing they can, be it sleep or drugs or other people, over being present in their childrens’ lives. (Please keep in mind that there are exceptions, and I also work with parents who are absolutely wonderful and do so much for their children and for our class.) My entire class is on free and reduced lunch. Most of them wear hand-me-down clothing, clothes that are too small, and clothes that are not season-appropriate. Most of our families receive some kind of government aid. Two of my students have been homeless this year. One is being put in the middle of his parents’ nasty custody dispute. One was sexually abused and is now in foster care. One is severely neglected, and once, she told me she likes to pretend she is dead when she feels sad. Many of my students are just lost in the depressing drudgery that come along with poverty. And please don’t get me wrong, several of them have loving, caring parents, some who can provide for them and some who can’t but truly wish they could. But for the most part, my class is one sad, motley crew of four and five year olds, plus crazy, flawed me. Here’s the thing. I am a first year teacher, so I haven’t quite learned yet how to see past all of this. I don’t know how to look into their faces, knowing their circumstances, and send them home at the end of the day without ever thinking of them again until they return the next morning. I don’t know how to turn off my heart to them. Even the worst ones, the ones who are mean and make their classmates cry, the ones who make me cry, I love them. All of them. What gives me the right to quit when, for some of them, I am all they have? I read a quote that says “We expect teachers to reach unattainable goals with inadequate resources. The miracle is, they often do.” And my mom, also a teacher, tells me on a regular basis that, in the end, my greatest teaching accomplishment will have nothing to do with academics. THIS is why I put myself in that situation. It is stressful, and I do complain. But I do it because, in the end, I can make a difference. I can show my children what love is. I choose this job every day (and showing up when things are shitty is a choice I have to remind myself to make, over and over again). I choose it, not because I have a passion for academics, but because I have a passion for helping children learn to value themselves and others. I can show them that they are not invisible, that I see them, that they matter. I can be a part of a miracle. And what is our purpose, why are we here, if not to make miracles happen?

And last, maybe to sum all of this up (as if I haven’t said enough already!), I am absolutely, positively, one hundred percent emotionally high maintenance. There are times when I warn new people of this upfront. “Don’t get involved with me. My life is crazy. I am crazy. This is your out, so run while you can!” And I'm only half kidding. One of my favorite writers, Glennon Doyle Melton, runs a little blog (and by “little blog”, I mean a huge, amazing, life-changing community) called Momastery. About herself, she writes,

“My best guess is that I was born a little broken, with an extra dose of sensitivity. Growing up, I felt like I was missing the armor I needed to expose myself to life’s risks – rejection, friendship, tender love. I felt awkward and unworthy and exposed. I felt naked... And that nakedness, brokenness, and sensitivity I was born with? They’ve turned out to be my greatest gifts. My nakedness allows me to tell the truth without shame or fear and my brokenness is what allows others to trust and love me. My sensitivity is what drives me to feel the pain of others and love them so fiercely.”

Glennon, sister, you are not alone in those feelings. I have never, once, in my entire life, felt like I fit in completely somewhere. Anywhere. With anyone. I have an amazing family that (despite how crazy we ALL are) makes sure I know I am always loved. I have friends who support me through the toughest times, and laugh with me through the best times. I am surrounded by love. And yet. I am always just a little uncomfortable. A little too sensitive. I laugh too hard. I cry too hard. I care too hard. I want to love everyone and be loved by everyone. But sometimes, I also want to be left alone because I am scared that if I show up, if I am honest about my thoughts and feelings, people will think I am full of shit. How can I talk so much about LOVE, LOVE, LOVE and feel so lonely sometimes? How can I feel all alone when, everywhere I turn, there are people who love me? I can’t answer these questions. But I can tell you that I do see how intense my emotions are, how crazy I am. And I am learning to just... go with it. I experience pain - my own, as well as the pain others feel. And I embrace it. Because it means that the joy I experience - my own and others', I get to embrace that, too. When I get down to the nitty gritty and open myself up to those feelings, even when the intensity overpowers and exhausts me, that’s when I experience true love. When I empathize with others, I walk in their shoes and see who they are. I also fall in love with them. And they love me right back. It’s crazy, I know this. But the crazy is who I am.

Phew. So, I guess it comes down to this. When we point out certain innate qualities in others and suggest that they are things to be fixed, essentially, we are telling someone they need to be fixed. That they are not enough. That they need to be better than who they are. And that is so wrong. I truly believe that, for the most part, we are all doing the best we can. I want to live in a world where we look for the good in others, and point those good things out, validating each other’s existence. That’s really all any of us want out of this life. We each need to feel important, because we are. We need to be told we are good enough, because we are. We need to be shown that we are beautiful, because we are. We need to be seen and loved for who we are. We are here, so we are worthy of these things. Being here, being human, it's enough. We. Are. Worthy. Because. We. Are.

If you can love me in spite of my flaws, it's basic and it's nice and that’s good enough. Love is what we need to survive. But if you can see the beauty in my flaws and love me, not in spite of them, but because of them, I will know you see me. That’s the kind of love that allows to not only survive, but to thrive. It's the freeing kind of love that helps us to be who we really are.