Author Archives: Trina Bartlett
When I was in high school, my fellow students begged our teachers to grade on a curve. Their theory, of course, was that if everyone did poorly, no one would fail. That wasn’t necessarily true, but we were self-absorbed teenagers with little concern for broader implications.
If you’re not familiar with the grading curve, it’s a tool used by some educators to distribute grades on a bell curve. When an assignment or test is scored, the average score becomes the average grade. The scores above and below the average are distributed accordingly. That means, if you get a really high score, you might skew the curve for everyone else. It also means some students are guaranteed to land at the wrong end of the curve.
Back in the 1980’s, my teachers rarely actually graded on a curve. But when they did, I knew two things would happen:
1: I would get grief from all the other students in class warning me not to do so well that I would mess up the curve, and,
2: I had an opportunity to prove that I didn’t need a curve to do well. And that opportunity far exceeded my concern about anyone else’s grade.
At the time, my self-worth was completely wrapped up in academic success. I truly thought that the only thing at which I could excel, and which made my existence matter, was getting good grades. (Yes, I completely related to Brian in the Breakfast Club).
I also believed that getting good grades was simply a matter of working hard, and that anyone could work hard. I had little tolerance for my peers who got mad when I did well. To me, they just needed to try harder.
And so, I shamefully admit, I always tried to burn the curve.
Needless to say, I’m embarrassed that I used to think that way. I now realize that I had so many advantages: educated parents, good nutrition, a safe place to sleep, a home free of violence, a family that embraced education, a mother who believed women didn’t need to depend on men, and a father who expected as much of his daughter as he did of his son. My list of advantages could go on and on and on.
But now, all these years later, I recognize how some children start off at disadvantage simply because of the family they are born into or because of a disability. Some struggle to read. Others struggle to overcome loss of at least one parent in the house. Others were never encouraged or never had an adult who even recognized their potential. And when you are struggling just to get by, studying for test isn’t a priority.
That’s why, more than 30 years later, I may be ashamed at who I once was, but I am also ashamed of some of the former classmates who still embrace the bell curve. Some of the same people who encouraged me not to exceed are now blaming their neighbors for falling at the negative end of the curve. I know this because I see their posts on social media.
They complain about people “on welfare”and how they don’t want their hard-earned money going to support people who are lazy and just don’t try. The want to drug test individuals who receive SNAP (food stamps) because they aren’t deserving. And they have the misguided belief that if people just try, they can find a job that pays more and provides benefits.
When I read such opinions, I can’t help but wonder if my former classmates remember back to the days when I, the person at the top of the bell curve, had similar thoughts about them.
But, over time, I learned that each of us has fought both visible and invisible battles to get where we are, and success looks different for everyone. No one’s achievement shouldn’t be denied or belittled. But neither should we think everyone has the ability to achieve what we have.
Such thinking only accomplishes what the bell curve does: ensures an elite few stay on top while someone will always be struggling to just get by.
When I was a little girl, I fell out of bed on a regular basis.
Sometimes, I’d pick myself up off the floor and climb back under the covers. Sometimes, my father, who must have heard the thud, would come into my bedroom, scoop me up, and tuck me back into my bed.
I don’t remember being particularly concerned or afraid of falling out of bed, nor do I remember my parents worrying about it.
It was just something I did until, one day, I didn’t do it anymore.
Like so many childhood memories, my habit of falling out of bed was locked away in a part of my brain that only opens with the right key. Sometimes that key is a piece of music, sometimes it’s a smell, and sometimes it’s a conversation. But there are times when I have no idea what key unleashed a memory. It just pops into my mind, and I can’t shake it. Those are the moments when I realize my memories have come out of hiding and dusted themselves off because they are trying to teach me something.
And so it was last week with my memories of falling out of bed.
As I thought back to those nights decades ago, I realized they represent all of life’s struggles. Those times I fell out of bed were only a fraction of all the tumbles I’ve taken. And yet, I only remember a very small percentage of them – the ones that left behind scars and a good story.
But almost every time I stumbled or even completely fell, I had the choice to wallow in the pain and humiliation or to pick myself back up. Those few times when my struggles were so great that I couldn’t just pick myself back up, I was fortunate to have someone nearby who heard the thud and immediately responded with a helping hand.
There are so many individuals with no such people nearby. On almost a daily basis, I watch the stream of people coming through my office doors for financial assistance or other social services. I realize that most of them had very few, if any, people nearby listening for their thuds. And I wonder if it’s harder to pick yourself back up when you know that no one else is paying attention to your struggles.
I also wonder if knowing that you are safe and that someone has your back makes it easier to teach yourself not to fall. When you trust that people care and realize that falls are part of the learning process, it’s easier to have the fortitude and the ability to prevent self-inflicted bruises.
My memories were reminding me that I, like everyone else, needs to pay more attention and react to the thuds when someone nearby, no matter who they are, falls.
Earlier this week, a colleague stomped into my office expressing indignation about an injustice.
That unto itself wasn’t the least bit unusual. Someone is always stomping into my office to complain about something.
I work for a social service agency with a mission to alleviate poverty. My co-workers and I comprise a group of passionate people who won’t accept that the odds are simply stacked against some people. We try to change those odds.
Often, we feel as though we are tilting at windmills, and we even get discouraged.
But we don’t give up. After all, our heroes didn’t give up.
And the treatment of one of those heroes is the reason my co-worker was upset as she stormed into my office.
“I can’t believe that the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday has become just another day for sales for some people,” she said. “The day is supposed to be about honoring of one of the greatest men in history. He changed the world.”
Indeed he did.
I was a just over a year old when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, so I never knew a world that hadn’t been impacted by his actions, his words and his ability to change the system. But for years, what I knew about him was limited:
- He was a Civil Rights leader.
- He made a speech about having a dream that all people would someday be treated as equal.
- He believed in using peaceful tactics instead of violence.
- He was shot and killed at a hotel in Tennessee by a guy named James Earl Ray.
Those facts paint a picture of a great man who made a difference in the world. But those facts never really inspired me because I couldn’t relate to the charismatic leader. His ability to make such a huge difference in the lives of others had absolutely nothing to do with my potential.
At least, it wasn’t until I learned that he, like the rest of us, struggled with imperfections.
He apparently tried to commit suicide when he was 12 years old. His grandmother passed away after a heart attack while King was off disobeying his parents by going to watch a parade after they had prohibited it. When he got home and learned that his grandmother had died in his absence, he jumped out a second story window.
Martin Luther King, Jr., the man who delivered one of the most iconic speeches ever, received a C in a public speaking class during his first year in seminary.
King is rumored to have had numerous extra-marital affairs, which even resulted in his becoming a target of the FBI.
On the day he was killed, King was out on that now famous hotel balcony because he was smoking. He tried to keep the fact that he was a smoker hidden, so he didn’t want cameras around when he had a cigarette in his hand. According to Rev. Kyles, after King was shot but before he was taken away by the ambulance, Kyles removed the package of cigarettes from King’s pocket and got rid of the cigarette butt. This was an attempt to hide the fact that King was smoking at the time he was shot.
None of these facts minimize the accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, in my eyes, they make them even more impressive. Like all of us, Dr. King struggled with being imperfect. But despite that, he changed the world.
He is my hero not just because he acted on the same beliefs that I hold dear. He is my hero because he didn’t let his imperfections get in the way of taking action and changing the world.
This Monday, when the United States celebrates the federal holiday that honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that’s what I’ll be thinking about.
I’ll be remembering that every person who makes a difference in the lives of others has a personal story lying just beneath the surface. These are the stories that involve failing from time to time but persevering anyway. They involve making mistakes or saying the wrong thing while we still attempt to do the right thing. And even though many of us feel like we are trying to lead when no one is following, we have to keep trying to blaze trails anyway.
These stories sometimes aren’t visible to those around us because we try to hide them just beneath the surface. But these are the stories that make us strong enough to take on the world and try to make it a better place.
Just like our heroes did.
I hadn’t been out on my bicycle in a week, so I was determined to get in at least one ride over the weekend. Before heading out, I checked the hourly weather report for the third time. The skies were clear, and I calculated that I had time to get in a 15-mile ride before the wind picked up and the temperatures began to drop.
I forgot that weather reports aren’t always accurate.
The first ten miles of my ride were perfect, but just as I reached the top of the steepest and most dreaded hill, the sky went suddenly dark. Within moments, the rain pelted down while the wind almost knocked me off my bike. Since there was no option but to keep pedaling, that’s what I did.
But it was a struggle.
Fighting the elements, I climbed another hill. While it wasn’t as steep as the last, it was more difficult than usual because of the weather conditions. Then, just as I reached the top, the sky lightened, the rain stopped and a one of the brightest rainbows I’ve ever seen spread across the sky.
I stopped to look at it in wonder. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such clear and brilliant colors in a rainbow, and I regretted that I couldn’t capture the beauty of the moment in a photograph.
But I could capture it in my heart and soul, which is where it needed to be.
That rainbow was the exact reminder I needed after a week full of more downs than ups.
The rainbow’s message was simple: life is rough. Sometimes, just when we think we are facing our toughest battle, the fight gets even harder. Despite that, our only option is to just keep going. If we stop trying, we won’t be any less miserable while we don’t get anywhere. And so, we must persevere. And when we do, life eventually gets better, and the moments of beauty it provides are even more precious.
I know the rainbow and the message may seem a bit cliché. But sometimes? A cliché is the exact reminder I need to remind me that life isn’t perfect but that some moments are. We have to treasure those moments.
I try to be a nice person. I really do.
But sometimes, the person I strive to be and the one in my head couldn’t be more different.
O.K. – not some of the time. Most of the time.
In fact, I’ve often wondered if the first verse of “Cell Block Tango” in the musical Chicago was written with me in mind. In it, a young woman explains how the habits of other people can “get you down.” She complains about Bernie, who popped his gum when she was having a bad day. Her bad day turned into his bad day when she shot and killed him.
I can’t say I’ve ever come close to killing another person, but my mind is often plotting revenge. I just don’t act on these thoughts.
But when I’m in a funk, like I was last week, people or situations that are normally just irritating suddenly proliferate as though purposefully torturing me.
The moms who have known each other for years and don’t make an effort to include me in their conversations, even when I try to insert myself, morph into that pack of mean girls from high school.
The people who talk about updating the living room paint to “this year’s color” make me feel completely incompetent and out of touch. (Up until this year, I never even knew that some shades of beige are “in” and some are “out.” I generally feel accomplished when the old, faded living room carpet at my house gets vacuumed a couple of times each month.)
The grocery store clerks who make comments about the food I’m buying completely annoy me. Even though I tend to be a chatty person with almost everyone, I don’t need complete strangers talking to me about my eating habits.
Parents who make sure that they drop a list of their children’s accomplishments into every conversation seem to taunt me for my less accomplished (in their eyes) kids.
And those are just the people who irritate me. I haven’t even mentioned the ones who make me really angry:
- Individuals who don’t take pride in their job. I just don’t get that. If you are being paid to do something, you should never, ever expect other people to compensate and clean up your messes.
- People who compensate and clean up the messes for individuals who don’t take pride in their job. When that happens, the lazy people never learn.
- People who post derogatory comments in social media about low-income people who receive government benefits. No one in this world goes without the help of others. Some people are just fortunate to have family, friends, intellectual gifts and opportunities that helped them overcome difficult situations.
- Individuals who don’t take time to listen to others who may be less educated, less beautiful, less wealthy, less accomplished or less socially connected. We are all on this planet together, and I’m fairly confident that God doesn’t care more about some than others.
- Those same people who flaunt all they have by dropping snide comments or making off-hand remarks that are actually intended to put down others.
- Anyone who makes decisions that hurt my children and cause them to question their abilities or their dreams.
Generally, my antidote for this anger is to make up and play out entire scenes in my head. In them, I say just the right words or take just the right actions to cut down the offenders and put them in their place.
And then I pray to be a kind person and pretend to be the nice person I wish I were.
Usually, that’s enough, and the anger and irritation subside.
But when the irritation and anger continue to linger and the notes from “Cell Block Tango” become an ear worm, I have to do something a littler more dramatic and employ a stronger antidote.
That’s when I write about the people I annoy me. And sometimes, I even make those written words public.
In the summer of 1977, my family made the hour-long car trip to the town of Bend, Oregon see the movie Star Wars.
I was ten years old, and I had been waiting for what seemed an eternity to see the movie. In retrospect, I didn’t care so much about Star Wars as I did about fitting in.
By the time I actually got to see it, I was still stinging from the shame I’d experienced when Alice Cannon insisted we play Star Wars in the basement of my house. I knew Alice’s older brother Calvin was a big fan of science fiction, but I hadn’t expected the same from her. In the past, we had spent our time together in a totally different way – such as secretly playing her parents Carpenters albums on the record player so we could lip sync to songs like “Yesterday Once More.”
But that summer, the Carpenters were out and Star Wars was in. And, even though I had no frame of reference, when Alice wanted to play Star Wars, I agreed.
I shouldn’t have.
Despite her best efforts to engage me in playing the role of various characters, she finally gave up in disgust when I couldn’t even figure out what she meant when she said “just act like R2-D2.”
So when my parents announced we were finally going to see Star Wars, I couldn’t have been happier. Despite the long car ride, the longer ticket line and our seats in the very back of the theater, I thought my needs had finally been met.
That only lasted until the movie started.
I didn’t get the plot. I didn’t understand how I was apparently the only person in the entire world that didn’t like the movie. And, most critical of all, I still didn’t understand how I could have acted like R2-D2, who didn’t say anything but instead spoke in mechanical beeps.
What I did understand was that the Carpenters had probably been correct when they had sung “We’ve only just begun.” I knew that this Star Wars thing was going to last much longer than I wanted.
My dad confirmed my fears as the credits rolled when he said, “Well, it’s obvious they are going to make a sequel.”
Which is why, during the long, dark car ride home, I curled into a ball in the back seat and tried to reassure myself that at least I liked the theme music. (For the record, I got the sheet music and played it over and over again on the piano that fall.)
All of this is why I found myself sighing loudly this past October when my husband asked me at least three times if I wanted a ticket to the Star Wars: The Force Awakens on opening night.
He seemed so hurt and confused when I told him that I had no idea what I would be doing on December 18 and that buying tickets that far in advance was ridiculous.
Neither he, my children or millions of others thought it ridiculous at all. To them, it was an event for which to plan accordingly. And they did.
To me, the new Star Wars is something else entirely.
It is a reminder that. sometimes, the things we think we want the most aren’t what will make us happy. What does make us happy is discovering and pursuing our own interests and passions.
As the Carpenters would say, that’s what puts me at “The Top of the World.”
For the last few months, something has been missing from my life. Its disappearance is particularly unnerving because I am given a sufficient supply of the missing element every day. But when I go to bed each night, I am left wondering what happened.
Time is that common yet mysterious element that belongs to everyone, plays favorites to no one, speeds up and slows down at the most inopportune moments and steals the occasions we treasure most while gifting us with memories.
When I was young, 24 hours per days seemed more than sufficient. Now, it’s anything but.
Which is why, on Christmas Eve, I felt as though I’d won the lottery. I had 11
days, or approximately 264 hours, without any significant appointments or commitments. And even though I had a long list of projects I wanted to tackle, part of me that just wanted to escape life as I know it.
Which is exactly what I did on Christmas Day.
After the presents were opened and the Christmas dinner was prepared, I escaped to find evidence that life is more than a series of events or accomplishments that are documented with time stamps and dates to remember.
I took my bicycle out on an unseasonably warm day, and, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t pedal to
cover a specific number of miles in a specified number of minutes.
In fact, I often didn’t pedal at all. Instead, I stopped to investigate. I stopped to listen. I stopped to breathe. Most of all, I stopped to take photos on my phone and to simply appreciate life without the constraints of deadlines or appointments or expectations.
And what I discovered was that, unlike people, most of the world pays no attention to clocks or calendars. While everything is affected by time, only people give it power.
The rest of the world just exists in the moment, adapts to the elements, accepts changes and stays committed to survival.
In other words, the rest of the world can teach us humans a thing or two.
And I’m ready to learn.
The senior high school student walked into the concession stand with tears in her eyes.
“This is my second to last football game ever,” she said. “It is all ending too fast.”
I empathized with her.
I too can sense time slipping away too quickly. It has the the strange ability to swiftly turn every moment into a mere memory regardless of our desire for meaningful moments to linger a little longer than normal.
Just last year, I openly cried as I watched my son’s friends and their parents march onto the football field for senior night. As they announcer said their names and their future plans, my chest tightened, my eyes watered and I felt a sense of dread. I knew that in exactly one year, I would be doing the same.
And I was.
This past Friday night, my husband and I stood on the edge of the high school football field, were handed flowers and given instructions to escort our son for recognition during the last home football game of his high school career.
Despite all of my concerns that my overly emotional tendencies would sabotage the moment, I didn’t get a bit nostalgic. I was too busy laughing.
I should have known my son wouldn‘t take the moment too seriously, and my suspicions grew stronger when other parents were handed a sheet of paper with all of the information that the announcer was going to read about their child. My son snatched his paper out of my hands with a smirk on his face then stuffed it down his pants (his band uniform doesn’t have pockets). I had no opportunity to see his written words prior to their being proclaimed over the loudspeaker for hundreds of people.
My son’s best friend, who was directly behind us in line, started laughing.
“I can’t wait until they read yours,” he told my son.
Since we were lined up in alphabetical order and my husband and I decided not to complicate our children’s lives with hyphenated last names, we were near the end with the last name of Snyder.
That meant we had plenty of time to listen to the impressive future plans and meaningful expressions of support from my son’s classmates.
It also meant that, instead of feeling nostalgic or the least bit weepy, I was overwhelmed with a sense of curiosity about what my son had said.
Finally, his time in the limelight arrived.
At first, my son’s moment of recognition was similar to that of his classmates. He mentioned his future plans – or what he thinks they will be – and his appreciation of the friends, teachers and family for their support.
That’s when normal ended for him.
He also extended his appreciation to Goku from Dragon Ball Z (I have no idea) and the people who invented hot wing flavored-Doritos (I don’t understand).
While my initial reaction was to do a face palm, I soon realized that other people appreciated that at least one senior hadn’t said what was expected. The people in the stands were applauding and cheering as my son stepped away from my husband and me to take a bow.
The cheers and applause got louder.
At that moment, I realized that my son is in an incredibly different place than I was at his age.
While I was seeking the place where I belonged, my son simply creates his.
Not everyone appreciates his off-the-wall humor or his need to make light of every situation, but that doesn’t bother him.
He creates moments instead of waiting for them to happen or lamenting their loss.
He innately knows that for every milestone that passes, another one is on the horizon. He also knows that waiting for milestones isn’t enough. Every minute can be a moment if you decide to seize it rather than stand back and watch.
He is only three months into his senior year of high school. Between now and May, I have no doubt that there will be times when I get weepy and nostalgic as the final chapter of his childhood comes to an end.
But I also have no doubt that the laughter and smiles will outnumber the tears.
Because that’s what happens when you are in the place where you belong.
When I was a child, I gave little thought to 50-year old people. Why would I? On the rare occasion when I did consider them, my thoughts were limited to the idea that they were really old and knew all they needed.
In just over a year, I will be 50, and most of my friends have either reached that milestone or are very close.
I no longer think that people in their fifties are particularly old, and I am quite aware that everyone needs to learn more.
Personally, I am still seeking answers to those things I’ve never been able to understand. For example:
- Why does the trip home always take half the time as the trip to get there?
- Why do the people who hurt us the most also teach us the most?
- Why does life speed up just as we begin to truly appreciate it?
- Why do we cry when we are happy?
- Why are we are the most comfortable in our own bodies at a time when our bodies are starting to fall apart?
But none of these is nearly as pressing as the question that has recently been consuming my thoughts: “What is the purpose of Windows Updates and why do they always occur when I most need my computer?”
Last week at work, I was using my laptop during a meeting when I lost access to it.
The reason? I had postponed installing the Windows Updates far too long, and Microsoft had decided that my time was up. The updates took control of my computer with absolutely no consideration of my needs.
I should have known better since, just the night before, my personal lap had done the exact same thing.
But this was work and the meeting was my first obligation of the morning. I turned on my laptop, started the meeting, and then the updates began.
For almost an hour, I muddled through while my computer processed “essential updates.”
I have absolutely no idea what these updates were because when laptop finally began functioning again, everything seemed exactly the same. Exactly.
Maybe that’s the whole point of these updates – they are some kind of digital Botox so the operating system appears immune to the effects of aging.
Or maybe the updates are a gimmick intended to convince Microsoft users that they are using the most up-to-date software when nothing is really changing.
Or maybe I don’t understand technology.
None of this mattered, though, when I was stuck in a meeting without access to my computer.
Instead of hiding being the screen while tapping on keys, I was forced to pay close attention to what everyone said and take notes the old-fashioned way: with pen and paper.
Which got me thinking about all of the updates in my life.
At times they may seem intrusive and unwanted, but sometimes they are absolutely necessary.
Sometimes they make us stop and think.
Sometimes they make us do things a bit differently.
And sometimes they make us appreciate those things we usually take for granted.
I’ve never been a cat person.
From the moment I was born, I was a dog person.
An entry in my baby book documents that. On one of my first trips to the local public library, I toddled across the floor, grabbed a book from the shelf, handed it to my mother and pointed at the picture on the cover.
Then I uttered one of my first words.
Not much has changed in 48 years. I still compelled to reach out to every dog I see. Since the time I was four when my first dog, Charlie Brown, came into my life, my best friends have always been dogs.
Yet, somehow the cats in my family now outnumber dogs.
I could blame my daughter and husband for their appreciation of the quiet and generally undemanding nature of cats, but I would be avoiding the truth. At some point, my heart grew a couple of sizes larger, and I let the cats in.
I don’t love them for the companionship and unconditional love that my canine bff’s have always provided.
I love them because they make me think. In all honesty, they have actually provided me with ten important life lessons:
Number 10: If you need a nap, just take one. Period.
Number 9: Don’t spend time trying to get people
to like you. Some people will like you. Some people won’t. Spend your emotional energy doing what you like rather than trying to please anyone.
Number 8: Always let people know when they are creating circumstances that make you unhappy. If you don’t, nothing will every change.
Number 7: There is absolutely nothing wrong with small spaces. In fact, sometimes they are the best spaces.
Number 5: If the weather outside isn’t comfortable, come inside. Otherwise, spend your time outside exploring and enjoying nature.
Number 4: Always act as though you are in charge. Even when you have very little control, pretend you do.
Number 3: Embrace your curious side. That’s the only way you’ll ever experience something new.
Number 2: Sometimes, the box really can be the be part of the present, especially if you take into account the wrapping, the bow and the ribbon.
And the Number 1 lesson I learned from my cat?
Love is love. Don’t worry about what others think about whom you should or shouldn’t love. Love who you want.