Reflections and Refractions

A not-so simple look at my life and dreams, now and forever!


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The Grandma Diaries (I’m Mad for Mad Men…)

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Let me be perfectly honest: I am too cheap to spend the money for “premium” TV Channels–so no AMC for me and no Mad Men until it began streaming onto Netflix last fall.  I knew before I even watched one episode what the title meant because as a child, I had often heard my father call himself a “Mad Man.” I’ll admit, too, that while Dad wrote copy and was creatively involved in the production of numerous commercials and advertising campaigns, he was no Don Draper. He actually was more like Mr. Cooper. That this one show, not on a regular network, could garner so much attention and be awarded so many Emmy’s is a testament to how the public views that mythical place known as Madison Avenue. For there is nowhere else like this place where products, not even released to the general public, already have been tested and tried…and where the words that shape the American landscape originate.

The authors of the words which can annoyingly rattle around our brains for days have learned one thing: spend much time writing about what the product can do for YOU and use as few words as possible.  I could rattle off a few slogans and few people wouldn’t know the end of the line (well the Baby Boomers) Like Double your pleasure, double your fun with ….. or Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what…. .  Even a logo…without words conveys a powerful message, cueing your brain to think; hunger, running shoes, disaster. Few people around the world do not know what the Golden Arches mean. And, afterward how thankful for the relief an Alka Seltzer can bring! So–Mad Men became for me an addiction–binge watching to see just what it was that I did not know about in the 1960’s and ’70’s when Dad was a true Mad Man. (Because while I alive then, I was really too young to live it, if you know what I mean.)

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Dad was an advertising executive for J. Walter Thompson, and our lives as children were pretty interesting from that perspective. We never knew if Dad would come home with a big box–RCA Color television–or a case of an unusual soda in dark green bottles or bring my mother several cartons of Lark cigarettes or not come home at all.( Kind of like Don Draper.) And our mother could sometimes be Betty! Smoking in the dark alone in her bedroom!

What really lured me into consuming this show was mention of ad campaigns I knew my father had taken part in as a Creative Director. You see, even though Sterling and Cooper is the name of the small agency in Mad Men,  the fact is that J. Walter Thompson created the commercials for Ponds (that so soft skin!) and Pan Am and Heinz.  Oscar Mayer Weiner. And Kodak–how could I forget that? When Don Draper presented the Kodak carousel slide projector in Season 1, episode 12, I almost cried. We had one because wherever our father was, he was there with his camera or movie camera recording our lives for posterity. (Granted there are about 8 miles of film with  all our relatives shielding their faces with their hands, but they’re there forever immortalized on film.)

We were probably the only family on our block who spent more time watching TV commercials instead of the shows, which is why the reruns of old TV shows are almost totally new to me now.  Seriously, Dad would question us as kids.  What was the message in that commercial?  How did you like that one? Who was the that commercial aimed at? We were probably the only kids who spent their time thinking about how the Mad Men went about creating the illusion that Palmolive Dish Liquid was infinitely superior to Ivory Dish Liquid or why SOS scrubbing pads scraped stuck on grease better than Brillo. (Spoiler Alert: Both Brillo and SOS scrubbing pads were manufactured by Proctor and Gamble: just a ploy to get you to buy the more expensive SOS pads.)

Dinner time found us sometimes talking about new products that Dad brought home from the office.  One evening, I guess I was about 7 or 8 years old, he brought home a box of sodas in dark green bottles. We hadn’t tasted anything quite like this drink, which was clear and bubbly. And the discussion went something like this: “Which kind of drink do like better: coke or this ?”  Our response was not what he wanted to hear. So Dad tried another tact. “Well, what would you call this drink?” Our responses: “It’s definitely not coke!” “It’s definitely more bubbly.” “It’s definitely like an uncoke.” And our Dad–“The UNCOLA!”  We never got paid for our contributions.  But we did get to drink a lot of 7-Up that summer.

peggy cast2 joanDad would have lots to say about Mad Men if he could have been sitting on the sofa next to me watching, there’s no doubt. How much of that show is based on what truly went on in advertising agencies during the 60’s might be up for some debate.  I can hear him now–“No, that’s not the way it was,” or “Did we really smoke that many cigarettes in 5 minutes?” (In a word. Yes.) I wonder, too, how Mom would have reacted.  She certainly did not grow up as prissy as Betty but there were times when I saw the hurt in Betty’s face–the same hurt reflected in my mother’s eyes when Dad didn’t show up for dinner the third night in a row. What Mad Men does better than any documentary or docudrama is this: captures the essence of an age where innocence was lost during the one decade of my life when society seemed to change more than any other time–and the Mad Men in advertising stayed just one step ahead in the Age of Aquarius.

 


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Sam Asks: What Influence Does Our Reading Baggage Hold Over Us?

It reminds me so much of what I learned in reading courses. if children are to become proficient readers, we must allow them the freedom to explore a text through their lenses. Excellent read–and so glad you were able to figure out how to continue the discussion on your students’ terms.

Reflections of a Book Addict

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Everyone has baggage. It’s just a fact. Every book you’ve read, relationship you’ve had, and song you’ve heard add up to your life experience. It’s what makes you who you are.

Everyone’s baggage looks different. Everyone’s baggage affects them differently. There’s no telling what’s in somebody else’s suitcase, even people you know well, or think you know well.

A colleague and I had an experience with this recently. We were co-teaching a lesson in close reading to about twenty 6th grade students. The idea was that the students would investigate the theme of an article about the tragic AirAsia crash. They would jot their thinking on Post-It-Notes, and then sort them into theme based categories before finally crafting a central idea statement, which reflected their new understanding about the article.

It sounded great on paper. EXCEPT: we didn’t account for the baggage. OUR baggage. My colleague and I are…

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The Grandma Diaries (Where She Apologizes for her disappearance for 2 months…)

Life has a way of intruding itself into every corner of one’s life.  such was the case for me during these past two months where I reflected upon the sadness of my dear friend’s granddaughter’s death, my own  increasing frustration with ill health, and other family difficulties too numerous and painful to describe right now, right here. And, too, there was that wondrous moment when my youngest daughter text messaged me with the news that her daughter had arrived–a week early and just two days after her baby shower.  See, life has a powerful way of enveloping one into complete and utter confusion and clarity, born from time spent reflecting on what next to say–and what’s worth saying. So, dear readers, I apologize for not keeping my promise to blog everyday this year.  I have a lot of catching up to do.


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The Grandma Diaries (In which she thinks about her former students and testing…)

Several weeks ago I read a blog, entitled What the Data Won’t Show posted by a former colleague of mine. And, as I read it, memories of my years teaching special education at Broadway High School came flooding back. I taught high school special education before SOL tests were mandatory. But–that didn’t mean my Intellectually Impaired students were exempt from testing. My students understood the importance of passing “the test.”

I still am haunted by the words one of my “higher functioning” students said to me one day in frustration and pain as he struggled with reading. “I’m smart enough to know how dumb and stupid I really am. I’m like a broken lightbulb that’s not too bright.”

Let those words sink in for a moment: these words reflecting the pain and suffering of student with an IQ right on the borderline between (the now defunct and not politically correct Mentally Retarded) and Slow Learner. He was student who had been held back in kindergarten with hopes that he might “catch up.” He never did, catch up, that is. He was always several steps behind, running a race where, through the years, repeated failures and missed tries meant the gap grew larger through his years of schooling…until he ended up in my classroom, stubborn, defiant, and defeated. And unable to read beyond a primer level.

Back, when I first started teaching special education in the county, the prevailing thought was that if a student hadn’t learned to read by sixth grade, they would never learn. But—my background at a residential school for the Mentally Retarded (Intellectually Impaired) where every student learned to read and write in cursive, I knew that there was hope yet for my student. Unfortunately for him, he had lost hope and motivation, for what use is there to try if you’re going to fail anyway?

Back then, there were SOLs for every subject. Those standards have been around for more than forty years. And, in a notebook, they are actually harmless and helpful to young teachers like I was because I picked and chose the SOLs that could accommodate a specialized curriculum like I needed to teach: my high school students, like all their typically developing peers, required 4 units of English; 3 units of Mathematics, 3 units of Science; and 2 units of Social Studies. And, like their peers, they were required to take the standardized test which would allow them to receive a high school diploma.

First in the late 1980’s, there was the Competency Test which all 11th graders took. If a student didn’t pass they were allowed 2 retakes: one in the Fall of their Senior year and once in the Spring of their Senior year. I read the test, and we worked hard on the skills that would be necessary for my students to pass. And they did. My angry, frustrated ,

 

 

defiant student passed this test. My mentally retarded students passed this test (which was essentially a test of basic skills people find essential to survive society: knowing how to balance a check book, read a newspaper article and determine the main idea, read a recipe, etc.) They stood proudly at graduation and received regular high school diplomas because they had earned them by virtue of passing the Competency Test.

And–then angry regular education teachers spoke out–“How can these low functioning kids pass this test? It’s NOT fair to the kids who are taking AP courses.”

So the Literacy Passport test was designed–and of course the Intellectually Impaired student failed this test in droves–and didn’t receive diplomas–just Certificates of Attendance. Until Special Educations teachers spoke out about the unfairness of this practice of giving students a test in 8th grade, which limited the futures of deserving special education students. So special education students were allowed to retake this test (and it was a miserable 20 page CLOZE reading test that became progressively harder until even I couldn’t read the words.) But–we special education teachers persevered and in one year, all five of my Intellectually Impaired students passed this test–after retakes during every year of high school in both Fall and Spring.

And—once again regular education teachers complained that “It is not fair! These students have not taken college preparatory courses.”

By then, President George W. Bush, having allowed NCS Pearson, Harcourt and Brace Publishing, and the Houston Superintendent of Schools in the back door of the White House devised what most teachers refer to the “Every child is left behind.” act. While there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to improve education across the board and provide equity in education, the proposal by the federal government to enact legislation requiring the states to formulate standardized testing based on standards written by some people with no background in education seems at best foolish, and at the worst, the wholesale abuse of children everywhere.

For, to me, just a teacher, a special education teacher, it seems that every time we SPED teachers are able to teach our students what they need to know to pass the tests which would allow them a regular high school diploma, the ante is upped. And, as hard as we work to teach students the skills they need to pass the test, as soon as the SPED population passes the test—then more restrictions come in to place until it becomes almost impossible to imagine a child with special needs being able to pass the test.

What’s not fair is the inability of legislators to recognize just how much the educational system has become a business, and not a place where learning is embraced for the sheer joy of learning. I worked hard to help my students pass tests I knew, just from reading them, were inherently unfair to children because the standards did not mesh with anything we know about how children really learn.

 

 

 

A prime example of the ludicrous nature of the testing frenzy could be encapsulated in my last year as a public school teacher: I had five special education students of varying skills and abilities. There were two academic coaches. One, the Math coach, insisted that I administer a fifth grade level math “probe” once a week to a student I knew functioned on a first or second grade level.

An aside since I can’t resist—every time I heard the word “Probe” I thought about rectal thermometers—and how invasive that would feel.

In fact, both coaches insisted that I administer weekly tests in reading comprehension, reading fluency, mathematics fluency and mathematics computation. I knew where my students’ abilities lay. These probes took up the better part of one whole day, while my students who were not being tested did seat work in absolute silence—without any direct instruction. And—two of these students had to take the grade level SOL tests, while three of the students were administered an alternate assessment. I felt more defeated than these students did by a system that did not take into account how students learn and grow.

In the meantime, there are students who, like my student twenty-eight years ago, feel defeated by a system that never seems to give them credit for what they have accomplished. I am also haunted by the words an innocent nine year old girl said to me ten years ago… “If I failed that big test, how come they passed me into fourth grade? “

No one, until now, will know that this little girl missed the cut off by 42 points—which is purely remarkable for someone with a 60 IQ. Nor do they know that the little girl who started out the year reading on a first grade level, ended the year reading on a second grade level…

“I’m smart enough to know how stupid I am….”


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The Grandma Diaries (In which she ponders the elusive mystery of how God answers prayers)

I cannot even begin to explain the intricacies of God’s mind or heart and how He answers the prayers of the faithful and the not-so-faithful. I know that there have been times when I have been incredibly angry with a God who seemed not to hear my prayers, those times when I know I wanted something to happen MY way–and it didn’t happen.  And–I know there have been times when faith was all I had to keep myself together; times when the only thing I could do was to submit my will and my entire being into His hands. (Not a few people thought I was crazy during those moments.)

This week, my faith was tested as it has been in the past with a sorrow that seems to run deep into the marrow of my bones because I know this story only too well. I have been blessed for the past 34 years to have a friendship with a woman who has stood by me through thick and thin.  It is the kind of friendship that we can pick up and carry on with even though months may go by when we haven’t contacted each other in the busyness of our lives. She is the only person I would go with on a pontoon boat to the middle of Smith Lake and allow my children–including a very young Maddie—jump off a 30 foot cliff into 200 foot deep water.  Seriously. Did I tell you that my friend is an ace nurse with a heart as big as the Grand Canyon–perhaps larger? She allowed me to take risks and encouraged my children to take risks.  For, if you have the courage to jump off a cliff and swim to safety, you  might be a person who can tackle anything life throws out at you. You might even begin to develop some faith.

My friend is my children’s God-mother, her husband their God-father.  Staunchly faithful, she made sure that she came to almost every important life event that my children went through. Because, she. has. more. energy. and. faith. than. three. people! And, we all love her and her family with a love that grows each year. My friend has two children: a son who is 36 and a daughter who is 29. I have know these two for most, if not all of their lives.  Maddie, when she about 5 asked me this:”If Rosemary is our God-mother and Bob is our God-father, then does that mean that Marcus is our God-brother and Whitney is our God-sister?” In a word: YES!

So back to the test of faith this week.  Rosemary rarely calls out for help, but when she does, you know it is serious.  And it was–a call for Prayer Warriors because her young grand-daughter, just 6 months old, had contracted bacterial meningitis. Little Sophia was in ICU, full of IV’s and given at least 3 powerful antibiotics.  Little things became reasons to rejoice–Sophia reacted to painful stimuli or eyes remained focused.  There was hope that a complete recovery was possible.

Little Sophia’s condition worsened over the weekend. Her brain had swollen with no way to relieve the pressure except with doses of Lasix..  There was little hope that, even if she survived, she would not be extremely brain-damaged. Little Sophia, struggling for breath when she first arrived, had been intubated, but by Sunday night her condition was grave. I prayed, as many did for a miracle to happen: one of those miracles you hear about on TV where someone at Death’s door has a remarkable recovery. The miracle that did happen was that Sophia stayed alive long enough for her Aunt Whitney to say her “good-byes” after driving straight through for about 26 hours to be at Sophia’s bed-side with her older brother.

Sophia Valentine died at 11:39 PM on March 8, 2015.  She was 6 months and 6 days old. Long enough for her to have become a loving presence in the lives of her parents, grand-parents, aunts and uncles, and her two siblings: Justin who is 2 and her twin sister, Evelyn. Short-lived enough to cause people to question God.  Short-lived enough to cause people to wonder just how God answers prayers.  A short little life ended, seemingly, before she even had a chance to actually LIVE.

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I cried when I heard–knowing only too well the anguish a hurting family can feel. When you’ve lost a child, it seems as if the world has tipped the wrong way.  Old people are supposed to die, not the young. But–that’s not the way things happened. Diseases happen.  Germs invade bodies. And, all the doctors and nurses in the world cannot stop death.

Little Sophia was so sick, too young to voice her pain, and too small to fight the ravages of germ war-fare going on inside her little body. I prayed for a complete recovery.  I prayed for her healing.  I prayed that those who cared for her would help her.

And, in a moment of clarity, when I opened my heart to hear God’s voice, I knew that prayers had been answered.  Not the way we would have liked for them to turn out, but answered none-the-less. Sophia is out of pain.  Her little brain is no longer swollen.  There are no needles poking her.  She is whole again and living in God’s glory.  Her little smiling face and happy demeanor are welcomed in Heaven. And, yes, I now like to think of her as little Justin and Evie’s special Guardian angel. 

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The coming days will be hard ones for her family.  I know that. There will be bad days and worse days. Until one day they will laugh.  There will be some sign that Sophia is in their midst. And, while forever sad, they will come accept this tragedy as their tragedy, but not Sophia’s tragedy.

 

A wise priest told me, in the dark days following my own tragedy, as I clamored with the “Why’s” this one thing which has sustained me: “It helps to think about life as if it’s a tapestry. Only God sees the complete picture, but know this: Every thread, no matter how long or short, matters in the complete design.”   mossy-waterfall-172x230

I imagine that there are parents who hugging their children just a little closer tonight.  I hope so!

And I will never be able to solve the elusive mystery of how God answers prayers because God is God.  I can only ponder.

Blessings on Sophia’s family.

With all my love, now and forever,

Joyce


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The Grandma Diaries ( Forty Shades of Purple)

This past Wednesday was Ash Wednesday.  Which meant NO MEAT (fasting) and going to church in the middle of the week. Why? To have the Priest mark blessed palm ashes on my forehead in the shape of a cross.

ashes picture I have to admit that our priests and lay people have this ashes giving down-pat because most everyone had a “First in Line” kind of cross on their foreheads.  There is something about having that dark mark on your head which seems to shout out, “Look, everyone! I am a Christian. I am a Catholic.”  There’s something both powerful, yet humbling in this experience. “You are dust and to dust you shall return.

The young priest who gave the homily challenged us to use this Lenten season as a period of time for reflection and looking into ourselves to find the inner peace that lives within our hearts.  Not only that, but he said, “Lent is NOT a season of mourning, but of preparation for the Pascal Mystery.”

So–even though we are four days into Lent, I am going to tell you one of the things I feel I was called to do. It’s a simple thing, really, but mostly time consuming and sneeze inducing. My husband Frank will tell you that I am collector–a sentimental packrat, and he would be right.  However, Frank also has his own stash of stuff that collects dust as well.

I attacked our bedroom closet. This closet has been kind of the bane of my existence since we moved into this house. Sometimes I believe that the former residents of this house, who also built this house, must have been midgets, because everything is on the smallish size–including the closets. Our closet simply was not meant to hold two people’s clothes and our shoes and our books and our lock box and other things of a sentimental nature–like my mother’s broken, but still serviceable brass art box.

But since I am committed to down-sizing on the off chance that we might want to sell this house and move closer to our grandchildren (and children), I was determined to clean out the junk.  There is something edifying about clearing out the cobwebs and dusting shelves which probably hadn’t seen a dust cloth since the last time I attempted to rearrange our closet. I have to admit that I was amazed at how much junk we had managed to cram into that small closet. Two full garbage bags later, three canvas totes filled with memorabilia, three shoe shelves dusted and shoes sorted into “Give Away, Throw Away, and Keep,”  one pile of clothes I no longer wear, one new laundry hamper, and a rug on the floor  and I was finished.  A small miracle–a tiny closet that we can actually WALK. INTO.

From the dust that I will eventually become, there amid the dust in my closet, I reflected on those words. Here I am–truly just a minute speck of dust in this enormous universe that God created, but yet so loved that God sent His Son to carry the weight of all of our sins, after being scourged, by carrying the cross he was nailed upon. 

Sometimes it takes cleaning out the junk, putting it into piles, looking at it, deciding what to keep, what to donate, what  to toss, to understand what reflection truly means. And, now, when I look into my neat closet, I feel some inner peace having started to get rid of the clutter.  I am, however, still a work in progress, for cleaning up and out is a messy business–as it should be for all who are alive.