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Dear Shelley Moore Capito,

Dear Senator Capito,

I’ve called your office more times during the past couple of weeks than I have called any politician’s office in my entire life. You see, I’m worried about your intentions.

Your job as a senator requires you to make decisions in the best interest of me and the other 1.8 million people who live in West Virginia.

You aren’t doing that.

I saw the recent photo of you and  President Trump with a caption that said together you will bring back jobs for coal miners. That’s a lie, and you know it. There are a variety of reasons coal can no longer be the backbone of West Virginia’s economy, and your support of environmental deregulation at the risk of harming state residents won’t fix it. (http://fortune.com/2016/07/20/why-donald-trump-wont-bring-coal-jobs-back-to-west-virginia/). But you realize many or your constituents don’t want to read or hear the facts. They just want their politicians to fix something that is permanently broken. So unless you have a plan to find new jobs for former coal miners, and I’ve seen nothing of the sort, you are lying. And you are voting against the best interest of unemployed coal miners because they don’t want to hear that life as they know it has changed. Apparently, their vote is more important to you than their health is.

This same political pandering must be why you aren’t questioning Trump’s executive order on immigrants and refugees. After all, I’ve seen your written response to those who questioned your support. You defended yourself by saying that Trump is acting in the interest of national security. It’s not about national security. It’s about rhetoric and feeding into the hate that spurred Trump’s campaign. And you know it. His actions certainly aren’t based in fact.  Experts in homeland security have expressed concern about his order:  http://www.npr.org/2017/01/31/512592776/will-trumps-refugee-order-reduce-terror-threats-in-the-u-s. But many West Virginians don’t understand immigration or the extreme vetting that refugees must already endure. They seem to think that being Muslim is practically a crime and use this to justify their distrust and even hate while calling themselves good Christians.  But you don’t care if their opinions aren’t based in reality, and you choose to feed their fears anyway. I thought your job is to protect West Virginians regardless of their misguided beliefs. If so, you’re failing.

Which brings me to the issue that is probably bothering me the most: your plan to vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Ms. DeVos doesn’t have a degree in education, has no experience working in a school environment, never attended a public school or state university, sent all four of her children to private schools, and supports for-profit education. No matter how I look at this situation, I cannot understand how you could believe that putting her at the helm of our nation’s public education system is good for the Mountain State. Let’s face it, West Virginia is already struggling with educating our young people. During the 2015-2016 school year, 51% of our state’s high school juniors scored below the reading proficiency level, and 79% of them scored below the math proficiency level. Twelve percent of our adult population hasn’t even graduated from high school. Let me repeat that, more than 10% of our adult population hasn’t even graduated from high school!

Please explain how Betsy DeVos, a woman with no education experience, will be able to help West Virginia. Since we live in such a poor and rural state, I certainly can’t imagine how her passion for private schools will help.

I hate to be cynical, but do you actually like having an under-educated constituency? Do you believe that the less educated we are, the more gullible we will be? I certainly hope this isn’t true, but since you have a pattern of voting in ways that support your constituents often misguided beliefs and against their best interests, I find myself wondering.

Even more importantly, I’d also like to prove myself wrong. I ‘d like you to show me that you aren’t making decisions because they are popular instead of being right.

That is, after all, what we mothers have often told our children to do.

Maybe it’s time to start behaving in the same manner.

Sincerely,

 

Trina Bartlett

The Curve

the curveWhen 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.

365 Reasons to Smile – Day 100

IMG_1727Everyone thinks that the first students to attend a new high school are very lucky. And in many ways, they are.  But in some ways, they aren’t.

Take, for example, my son’s new marching band. Last year, during his freshman band experience at an established high school, he suffered through a grueling band camp and long rehearsals. In return, his band traveled all over the state, and sometimes even out-of-state, for competitions.

This year, there are no seniors at his brand new high school, so the band is already much smaller. And the new school wasn’t even available for rehearsals, so the band had to use the middle school. Band camp was shortened as a result of all faculty being required to take courses about the technology at the brand new school, Worst of all, the band doesn’t have a budget for traveling to competitions. Raising that money is the responsibility of the boosters, which didn’t even exist until a couple of months ago.

The band does have brand new uniforms, and it does get to play home games on an amazing new football field. In fact, this weekend’s band competition, sponsored by another high school, was moved to their field after several days of rain.

The small band did its job, and the parents were some of the loudest fans in the stands.

The band won its division.

As my son noted, his band is the only one in the division, but at least it got first place.

Looking on the bright side always makes me smile.

Day 100: Being Optimistic

Day 99: Trying Something New   Day 98:  The Sound of Children on a Playground  Day 97: Good Advice  Day 96: Red and white peppermint candy  Day 95:  The Soundtrack from the Movie Shrek  Day 94:  Accepting Change    Day 93:  True Love     Day 92: Camera Phones   Day 91: Bicycle Brakes    Day 90:  Heroes Day 89: The Cricket in Times Square  Day 88:  The Grand Canyon  Day 87: Unanswered Prayers  Day 86: Apples Fresh from the Orchard  Day 85: Being Human  Day 84: Captain Underpants  Day 83: The Diary of Anne Frank  Day 82: In Cold Blood Day 81: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  Day 80: The Outsiders   Day 79:  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Day 78: The First Amendment Day 77: People Who Touch Our Lives   Day 76:  The Rewards of Parenting    Day 75:  Improvements   Day 74:  Family Traditions   Day 73: Learning From Our Mistakes  Day 72: Live Music  Day 71:  Sleeping In  Day 70:  Grover  Day 69:  A Good Hair Day   Day 68:  A Sense of Community   Day 67: Kindness    Day 66: Living in a Place You Love   Day 65: Gifts from the Heart  Day 64: The Arrival of Fall  Day 63: To Kill a Mockingbird   Day 62: Green Lights Day 61:  My Canine Friends  Day 60:  Differences   Day 59:  A New Box of Crayons   Day 58: Bookworms  Day 57: Being Oblivious   Day 56: Three-day Weekends  Day 55:  A Cat Purring  Day 54: Being a Unique Individual   Day 53: Children’s Artwork  Day 52: Lefties  Day 51: The Neighborhood Deer   Day 50: Campfires  Day 49: Childhood Crushes  Day  48: The Words “Miss You”  Day 47:  Birthday Stories   Day 46: Nature’s Hold on Us  Day 45:  Play-Doh   Day 44: First Day of School Pictures  Day 43: Calvin and Hobbes  Day 42: Appreciative Readers  Day 41: Marilyn Monroe’s Best Quote   Day 40:  Being Silly  Day 39:  Being Happy Exactly Where You Are  Day 38: Proud Grandparents  Day 37: Chocolate Chip Cookies   Day 36: Challenging Experiences that Make Great Stories  Day 35: You Can’t Always Get What You Want  Day 34:  Accepting the Fog    Day 33: I See the Moon  Day 32: The Stonehenge Scene from This is Spinal Tap  Day 31: Perspective  Day 30:  Unlikely Friendships  Day 29: Good Samaritans  Day 28:  Am I a Man or Am I a Muppet?    Day 27: Shadows  Day 26: Bike Riding on Country Roads  Day 25: When Harry Met Sally  Day 24: Hibiscus   Day 23: The Ice Cream Truck  Day 22:  The Wonderful World of Disney   Day 21: Puppy love  Day 20 Personal Theme Songs     Day 19:  Summer Clouds  Day 18: Bartholomew Cubbin’s Victory Day 17:  A Royal Birth    Day 16:  Creative Kids Day 15: The Scent of Honeysuckle   Day 14: Clip of Kevin Kline Exploring His Masculinity Day 13: Random Text Messages from My Daughter     Day 12:  Round Bales of Hay Day 11:  Water Fountains for Dogs    Day 10: The Rainier Beer Motorcycle Commercial Day 9: Four-Leaf Clovers  Day 8: Great Teachers We Still Remember Day  7:  Finding the missing sock   Day 6:  Children’s books that teach life-long lessons Day 5: The Perfect Photo at the Perfect Moment     Day 4:  Jumping in Puddles   Day 3: The Ride Downhill after the Struggle Uphill    Day 2: Old Photographs Day 1: The Martians on Sesame Street

A Portrait of Jesus

This past week, while much of the news focused on Congress, the debt ceiling and the federal shutdown, another story caught my attention.

portrait of jesus WBNS-10TV

WBNS-10TV

A school district in Jackson, Ohio agreed to take down a portrait of Jesus that had been hanging in a school since 1947. The district is not removing the portrait because, after 66 years, it realized that the portrait might be a violation of separation of church and state. It’s removing it for financial reasons.

In February, the ACLU of Ohio and the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the Jackson City School District for “endorsing one religion improperly.”  The school attempted to argue that the portrait was part of a “limited public forum” but eventually agreed in court to remove it to avoid “risking taxpayer money.”

The actual story wasn’t what caught my attention. I’ve read about plenty of similar stories over the past couple of decades. What caught my attention was someone’s reaction to it.

“This is why are country is in trouble,” the person wrote. “We are turning our backs on Christianity.”

I couldn’t have agreed with that statement more. I just agreed for entirely different reasons.

I don’t believe many of our leaders or citizens are acting in a way that Jesus wanted.

From what I know about Jesus, he didn’t care about himself. He cared about everyone else. EVERYONE else – regardless of socioeconomic status, criminal status or religion. He simply cared about people and did all he could to help them while trying to teach all of us to do the same.

I can’t imagine the Jesus that I know would care whether or not his portrait was on a wall in a school. My guess is that he probably wouldn’t want it there. He didn’t want his image (or what  a lot of people consider his image) to be worshiped.

The type of worship he wanted was for people to understand his words and behaviors and to practice them every day.

There are those who would argue that the portrait of Jesus in a school was just a reminder for students to listen to his words and to do their best to practice his behaviors. If that is what they believe, I applaud them. But if they are trying to promote Christianity as a religion in which all people should believe, then I do have an issue with that.

I don’t think whether or not someone is a Christian defines whether they are good or bad  or worthy or unworthy. But I do believe that Christianity means that, instead of judging others, we love and care for them.

And that’s why I agree with the person who said we are turning our backs on Christianity. My agreement has nothing to do with the label and everything to do with the behavior.

Which is exactly the message Jesus was trying to teach us: it’s all about how we treat others.

365 Reasons to Smile – Day 68

cardinalLast Friday evening was a bit chaotic.

My son is attending the newest high school in the state, and Friday was the first home football game.  When I arrived early to volunteer in the concession stand, guards were already directing traffic, music was already blasting and the color red was everywhere.

The community was celebrating the area’s newest team – the Spring Mills Cardinals.

The team lost 75 – 0 anyway.

The loss wasn’t unexpected since Spring Mills has no senior class this year, but the score should have been discouraging.

Yet no one seemed particularly bothered.

The students still expressed pride and enthusiasm, and the community still showed its support. Adults and youth alike stayed late to clean up the stands and haul garbage.

And no one complained.

Recognizing that a sense of community is more important than a sports competition always makes me smile.

Day 68: A Sense of Community Day 67: Kindness   Day 66: Living in a Place You Love  Day 65: Gifts from the HearDay 64: The Arrival of Fall  Day 63: To Kill a Mockingbird   Day 62: Green Lights Day 61:  My Canine Friends  Day 60:  Differences   Day 59:  A New Box of Crayons   Day 58: Bookworms  Day 57: Being Oblivious   Day 56: Three-day Weekends  Day 55:  A Cat Purring  Day 54: Being a Unique Individual   Day 53: Children’s Artwork  Day 52: Lefties  Day 51: The Neighborhood Deer   Day 50: Campfires  Day 49: Childhood Crushes  Day  48: The Words “Miss You”  Day 47:  Birthday Stories   Day 46: Nature’s Hold on Us  Day 45:  Play-Doh   Day 44: First Day of School Pictures  Day 43: Calvin and Hobbes  Day 42: Appreciative Readers  Day 41: Marilyn Monroe’s Best Quote   Day 40:  Being Silly  Day 39:  Being Happy Exactly Where You Are  Day 38: Proud Grandparents  Day 37: Chocolate Chip Cookies   Day 36: Challenging Experiences that Make Great Stories  Day 35: You Can’t Always Get What You Want  Day 34:  Accepting the Fog    Day 33: I See the Moon  Day 32: The Stonehenge Scene from This is Spinal Tap  Day 31: Perspective  Day 30:  Unlikely Friendships  Day 29: Good Samaritans  Day 28:  Am I a Man or Am I a Muppet?    Day 27: Shadows  Day 26: Bike Riding on Country Roads  Day 25: When Harry Met Sally  Day 24: Hibiscus   Day 23: The Ice Cream Truck  Day 22:  The Wonderful World of Disney   Day 21: Puppy love  Day 20 Personal Theme Songs     Day 19:  Summer Clouds  Day 18: Bartholomew Cubbin’s Victory Day 17:  A Royal Birth    Day 16:  Creative Kids Day 15: The Scent of Honeysuckle   Day 14: Clip of Kevin Kline Exploring His Masculinity Day 13: Random Text Messages from My Daughter     Day 12:  Round Bales of Hay Day 11:  Water Fountains for Dogs    Day 10: The Rainier Beer Motorcycle Commercial Day 9: Four-Leaf Clovers  Day 8: Great Teachers We Still Remember Day  7:  Finding the missing sock   Day 6:  Children’s books that teach life-long lessons Day 5: The Perfect Photo at the Perfect Moment     Day 4:  Jumping in Puddles   Day 3: The Ride Downhill after the Struggle Uphill    Day 2: Old Photographs Day 1: The Martians on Sesame Street

I Am a Product of Head Start

head start

Head Start graduation

In second grade, I was told I should never brag, and I took that admonishment to heart.

I have no recollection why I was boasting, but I do remember Carla Shown looked at me with disdain and said, “No one likes people who brag.”

Her words have stayed with me, but there are times when we have to balance the lessons we learned in our childhood with our experience as adults.

Now is one of those times, and I am going to brag a bit.

I am a product of Head Start.

I feel an obligation to brag, because the voices of low-income children aren’t being heard above the clamor about Syria.

Head Start provides early childhood education, health and nutrition services as well as parent support for low-income children and their families. The services are designed to foster stable family relationships and address early childhood developmental needs.

Research tells us that children who have been through Head Start and Early Head Start are healthier, more academically accomplished, more likely to be employed, commit fewer crimes and contribute more to society.

Common sense tells us that the future of our country hinges on our children, and we should invest in our future.

Unfortunately, common sense often doesn’t prevail on Capitol Hill, and, as a result of sequestration, Head Start has eliminated services for more than 57,000 children this school year. The program is facing even more cuts in the future.

We are going backwards.

Head Start began in 1965, and, because of where I lived, I was enrolled in the program in the early 1970’s. I still have the report cards that documented my progress at mastering a list of tasks and skills and the photos from graduation ceremonies.

At first glance, the photos of my Head Start graduation don’t tell much of a story. There is no indication that the chubby little girl in the red dress would grow up to be the outspoken person I have become.  Nor does it indicate that the little boy in the striped pants would someday graduate from Dartmouth.

But it does show what hope looks like, and if we don’t do something to meet the needs of our children now, we will be seeing fewer and fewer of such photos in the future.

365 Reasons to Smile – Day 8

Whenever someone uses the word “deduct,” I always think of Mr. Hoff. He once asked his class to use the following four words in a complete sentence:  defeat; defense; detail; and deduct.

None of his students were able to put together a logical sentence, and Mr. Hoff gave an impish grin and said “Defeat of deduct go over defense before detail.”

My classmates and I may have groaned, but I’ll never forget that sentence or those words.

Mr. Hoff was my fifth grade teacher, who I recently wrote about in my Charleston Daily Mail blog.  I was shocked when many of Mr. Hoff’s former students from Oregon started posting and commenting on the blog.

But I shouldn’t have surprised.

Mr. Hoff was an amazing teacher, and being reminded of a great teacher who made a difference always makes me smile.

Day 8:  Great teachers we still remember

Day  7:  Finding the missing sock

Day 6:  Children’s books that teach life-long lessons

Day 5: The Perfect Photo at the Perfect Moment

Day 4:  Jumping in Puddles

Day 3: The Ride Downhill after the Struggle Uphill

Day 2: Old Photographs

Day 1: The Martians on Sesame Street

Shame is Not a Form of Birth Control

I had to double-check my calendar this morning to assure myself that it was actually 2013 and I hadn’t been sucked into a time warp.

I hadn’t been.

Instead, I was sucked into reading news articles about a school assembly featuring an abstinence-only proponent whose only educational credential is a Psychology Degree from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

See: http://www.dailymail.com/News/201304110267 and http://www.wvgazette.com/News/201304110229 .

I can’t emphasize enough how inappropriate the assembly was.

Almost 20 years ago, when I was working in the field of sex education, experts had already proven that abstinence-only and shame-based tactics don’t work. And promoting a particular religious philosophy in a public school is simply prohibited.

But self-righteous people, who believe they actually know what God is thinking, seem to find a way around these issues.

The speaker, Pam Stenzel, and her sponsors, a religious group called Believe in West Virginia, say her speech wasn’t faith-based. Instead they say it was just a warning about the dangers of sex before marriage.

Those few words should have been enough to keep this woman out of the public schools.

A real sex educator doesn’t pretend that a wedding ring can protect people from a sexually transmitted disease, an unplanned pregnancy or heartache.

A real sex educator doesn’t outright dismiss homosexuals, who are still fighting for the right to even be married.

And a real sex educator doesn’t condemn, judge or shame.

Instead, a real sex educator gives facts – not statistics that have been manipulated to fit a certain dogma.

A real sex educator will agree that sex is the only human behavior that has the potential to create life or to threaten a life. The educator’s job is to help individuals make decisions to prevent unwanted consequences.

And a real sex educator will spend time talking about healthy relationships and about treating others with respect –  not condemnation.

Years ago, I was that person, and I will never forget making a presentation about AIDS and HIV in a middle school classroom. As I interacted with the students, the teacher, who was obviously not happy I was there, took out his Bible and placed it open on his desk. He pretended to read, and I pretended to ignore him.

A year later, I had the same assignment and found myself in the same classroom. But instead of taking out his Bible, the teacher made a point of welcoming me and telling his students they should listen. He then privately told me that “a really good person” from his church had been diagnosed with AIDS. Instead of noting that a lot of “really good people” had been diagnosed with AIDS, I was just grateful that he had become a bit more open and less judgmental.

Now, I am hoping the same for all those involved in permitting the recent school assembly at George Washington High School.

The Permanent Mark of Bad Behavior

Mena-Peopel-Suck1There are times I feel as though mean and difficult people are the masterminds behind a sinister plot to take over the world. They know they’ll eventually just wear out the rest of us with their rude comments and insensitive behavior.

But then I come to my senses and realize if they were actually smart enough to carry out such a plot, they’d have more sense than a second grader. That’s when you learn some of life’s most important lessons. For example, I learned that a poor decision or a mean word will stay on your permanent record card forever, and a blemish on that card is never going to help you succeed.

Of course, I learned that lesson the hard way. I got the first black mark on my permanent record card when I was in second grade. I’ve had countless since then, but that’s the one that taught me about consequences and guilt.

The exact details of my crime are rather fuzzy, but the guilt is forever etched in my conscience.

The problems started because I was a bus rider.

In second grade, we didn’t have cliques, but there were two distinct groups: bus riders and walkers. (In those days, only the children of teachers came to school in cars.)

I perceived the walkers as privileged. They didn’t have to wait for anyone or abide by any schedule other than the ring of the bell. They didn’t have to arrive at school until the very last minute, and they could leave as soon as the bell rang at the end of the day.

I was jealous.

Those of us who rode the bus were just stuck. Since my bus ran earlier than others, there was a group of us who arrived at school much earlier than we actually needed to be there. In order for school officials to maintain order, they required us to immediately go to the cafeteria and sit quietly until given permission to go to our classrooms.

The wait was long and boring, especially since we were always being told to “quiet down.” Even now, almost 40 years later, I find that difficult. In second grade, it seemed impossible.

I don’t remember who came up with the scheme or how we executed it, but a group of friends and I decided we were going to escape the prison in the cafeteria. We didn’t make it far and were soon discovered hiding in the bathroom. After yelling at us, a teacher escorted my fellow criminals and me to the principal’s office.

The only thing I knew about the principal’s office was that it was where the really bad kids went. I was pretty sure there was a jail cell in there, where we would be handcuffed and chained to the bars as punishment for our crime. My worries grew as we were told to sit outside Mr. Mitchell’s office and “think about what we had done.”

By the time Mr. Mitchell opened his door and told us to come in, I was shaking.

Mr. Mitchell sat behind the desk and lectured us and lectured us and lectured us. As he talked, his face got redder and redder and redder. The only words I remember were “your permanent record card.”

I gulped.

I was supposed to go to college and get a job. I had no idea how I was going to tell my parents that all their hopes and dreams for me had been erased with one stupid decision. (Yes, I really did worry about such things as a young child.)

For years, I worried about my permanent record card and that time in the principal’s office. Many nights, I would lie in bed thinking about the implications. My concerns finally began to fade when I was an adolescent and transferred to a different school district. As my records were being reviewed, no one mentioned my criminal past.

I had been granted a pardon, and I was grateful. But, now, I find myself getting tired of passing on the gift of a pardon to others.

This week I am especially tired. I wrote in another blog about the death of a young West Virginian. While most of the feedback was positive, there were also individuals who left comments that belittled the individual and his way of life. The comments were hurtful and rude and pointless.

They were also permanent. Even if they are deleted, others have already read them, including friends and family members.

The situation bothered me to the point I couldn’t sleep at night worrying whether or not I should even have written about the young man’s death.

But then I remembered another important lesson from second grade: most people are mean to others because they don’t feel good about themselves, so you should try to be nice to them anyway.

I guess I’ll keep trying. Even though the marks made by  negative behavior (by both me and by other people) may be permanent, marks for positive behaviors can be permanent too. I just have to keep reminding myself of that.

Everything I Need to Know About Valentine’s Day, I learned in First Grade

candyheartsI always liked school, but I absolutely hated first grade. That’s because I had a very, very, very mean teacher.

Even forty years later, I’m still traumatized by memories of Mrs. Gladwill.

Normally, I’d feel really guilty calling someone out by name but 1) I’m not the only who has scars inflicted by Mrs. Gladwill and, 2) She’s dead. She died in 2008 at the age of 94. I know this because my mother sent me a link to her obituary. My mother, who is a very wise woman, knew I needed closure.

There’s no need to go into all the details of why first grade was difficult. There are just too many of those details, such as:

Watching fellow students have their ears twisted;

Sitting in class in fear of having “accidents” because, instead of giving permission to use the bathroom, Mrs. Gladwill gave lectures about “not planning accordingly”;

Having my desk put in the corner of the room so others couldn’t cheat from my papers.

But my worst memory, by far, is Valentine’s Day.

Back in the early 1970’s, before there were strict dietary guidelines in schools, Valentine’s Day parties were one of the celebrated days of the school year. Preparation began well before the actual day. By the beginning of February, letters were sent home with both the names of classmates and a list of snacks, such as cookies, cupcakes and candy, that parents were asked to contribute. We used that list of names to painstakingly address a card for every single classmate – whether we liked the person or not. But we did pick out “the best” cards and candy (every card had to have candy) for our friends.

In school, we decorated mailboxes (shoeboxes covered with construction paper) in which our Valentine’s Day cards were to be delivered. The actual celebration was to be a festival of sugar and giggles.

The day before the big Valentine’s Day party, I could no longer hide the fact I couldn’t swallow. I’d begun to worry the day before at school when eating lunch was a painful challenge. At breakfast, while I was trying to somehow swallow a spoonful of Cheerios, my mother took one look at me, told me I looked like a chipmunk and declared I had the mumps.

I wasn’t just devastated. I was horrified.

Mrs. Gladwill simply did not tolerate illness. Every day, after she took attendance, she would take a piece of chalk and scrawl the names of the absent on the blackboard. In the eyes of first graders, having your name on the blackboard was equivalent to the adult version of being forced to wear a scarlet letter. Walking into the classroom and seeing  your name on the blackboard was the ultimate walk of shame.

Being diagnosed with mumps was not only a sentence to take that walk of shame, but it also meant I was going to miss the Valentine’s Day party. In the eyes of a six-year-old, life couldn’t have been much worse.

That Valentine’s Day was probably one of the longest days of my life as I spent every minute imagining all I was missing. Finally, sometime after 3:00, I heard the squeal of the school bus’ brakes as it stopped in front of my house. When my brother came into the house, he didn’t call me chipmunk or tease me for missing all the festivities. Instead, he handed me the shoebox I had so painstakingly decorated only a few days earlier. But now, it was full of Valentine’s and candy. I spent hours reading and treasuring all of the cards, even the ones I knew weren’t heartfelt.

A few days later when I returned to class, my name was one of many written in dark chalk on the blackboard. Apparently, some nameless person (me?) had come to school with the mumps and shared the virus with everyone else.

Eventually, attendance went back up and our class returned to the same, miserable status quo. But I didn’t. That Valentine’s Day taught me a lot about love:

1. Love is about the memories we treasure because, even though they sometimes grow out of difficult situations, they remind us of people and challenges we’ve overcome.

2.Love is about finding a song that will mean something to you at any age. For me, the  Rolling Stones got it exactly right. “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well you just might find, you get what you need.”

3. Love is about having a family whose support will always make the worst day a little bit brighter.

4. Love is learning to treasure all the small gifts, even ones from people who may not realize that they were giving anything of importance.

5. Love is about taking care yourself, even when others will try to make you feel as though their needs should come first.

Most of all, I learned that Valentine’s Day is much more complicated than cards, or candy or having just one special person in your life. It’s about recognizing and acknowledge everything that makes you happy.

And, over the past 40 years, I’ve been immensely blessed with people, memories and circumstances that make me happy.

Which, is why, even though I may not entirely succumb to the sappiness of Valentine’s Day, I certainly embrace the sentiments, and the lessons, it’s taught me.