The Wrath of Mama Bear

“wrath” (noun) – strong, stern or fierce anger

I tutor at-risk students in the local school two full days per week. The principal had to work hard to juggle my schedule since, by federal mandate, no pull-outs can occur during “core instruction time.” To me, this is ridiculous since many of the students I work with are critically behind their classmates. Core Instruction Time is merely time when they feel overwhelmed and more lost than ever. It is time when these at-risk students often give up completely. It certainly is not effective learning time.

To meet federal rules, in the mornings, I work with smaller groups in the classroom itself, focused on independent reading skills while the teacher works with other students on general language arts skills.

some of my “bear cubs” at the end of our Immigration Activity time

A few weeks ago that teacher and I put together a special morning of activities to end a language arts unit on Immigration. (You can read more about the activities and see photos HERE.) You can imagine my frustration when the acting principal interrupted us to make it clear all students had to be in the gym for a rah-rah presentation by the candy fundraising company. I argued. I ranted. I cried. I cussed. In other words, I totally lost it!

I cried all the way home. I cried while I whipped out a ripping letter to the editor and submitted it to four local newspapers. I cried while I drove my kids to town for errand-day. I cried myself to sleep that night. I was overwhelmed with anger.

At first I was upset with myself. How selfish could I be? Yes, I had put extra effort into the special activities. Yes, I had come in as a volunteer on a day off to do the activities. But it seemed petty to be so angry about something that was easily re-scheduled, right?

Now it is two weeks later. I just finished rewriting and condensing the letter at the request of an editor. It will be published in one of the papers later this week. (You can read the final submission at the bottom of this post…) And I am STILL angry.

As I thought about this over the past few weeks, I realize this incident is a picture of the overwhelming problems at this local school (and at many other schools across the country.) There is no time for anything more than prepping for state tests and “core curriculum.” There is no time to include art, music, free reading, or one-on-one tutoring, even though there are shelves and shelves full of research that show how these things increase proficiency in core subjects for at-risk students. But, apparently, there IS time for fundraising companies to have access to our students during that same core-instruction time.

In talking with teachers and the principal at this school, I discovered another thing that makes me furious. They constantly urge the students to “just say no” to harmful things such as drugs, alcohol, abuse, and dangerous situations. They expect the students to learn to judge activities on the merits of how this will help them or harm them. They urge students to stand up to (or avoid) parents who are making decisions that will harm the children. (The majority of our students live both below the poverty line and in very dysfunctional family situations.)

And yet, the response I got from school staff when I questioned this abuse of core-instruction time, was that they “had no choice.” They couldn’t turn down the mandated presentation time by the fundraising company. They couldn’t even demand an afternoon assembly. In other words, they couldn’t “just say no.”

And that makes me angry. That makes me furious. That brings out my WRATH!

I’m no longer beating myself up for my “inappropriate” response to a “frustrating situation.” I’m no longer going to apologize (again) for my angry words. I am like a mama bear, protecting her cubs. When they are at-risk, she roars!

And, in the process of writing all of this down, I realize there IS something good to be found in this situation. I now have a specific discussion topic of a real-life harmful situation for my tutoring students to wrestle with. Perhaps, as I share my anger and what is behind that anger, these students will gain the courage to speak up about things that anger them, things that are harmful to themselves. Maybe that is one way to protect my “cubs” and help them be ready to face the challenges of life out here on the edges.

Dear Parents:

School administrators say they have your student’s best interests at heart even while bemoaning the lack of parental support. You hear them (or maybe they say it out of your hearing) complain about students who live below the poverty line and whose parents can’t pay for special activities.

Today’s focus on testing and on a “core curriculum”, has limited time available for other subjects during the school day. At our local school, funding shortages recently eliminated weekly “enrichment” time. There has been no time for art or music for years. Prepping for state tests is of higher importance than educating a well-rounded student!

Your child may complain about this year’s school lunches—only healthy food, no seconds, limited calories (even for student athletes). By federal mandates, students can’t have outside food until late afternoon, when the entire school has finished lunch “hour.” No parties can be held on half-days before holidays. Or rather, no treats can be eaten at those before-lunch parties.

Administrators claim to be concerned about these issues. But it is now “that” time of year, time for candy sales. It is time for YOUR child to become the coerced worker for fundraising companies. Students miss core instruction time for presentations urging them to become the high-sales winner. There are tantalizing prizes based on sales levels, most of which will break within weeks. Students are pushed to sell something they would not even be allowed to eat at school!

Of course, there is no time for art or music. Of course, no candy is allowed at the school. Of course, you, as parents with little extra money, are asked to help your students sell lots of candy to all your relatives. (And, of course, neither the fundraising company nor the school will explain that the majority of money made by these efforts will go to the company rather than to the school.)

If you see a problem with this situation, it is time to rebel: refuse to buy any candy, prevent your child from becoming unpaid labor for the candy-company. School fundraisers do more harm than good for students.

Sincerely, Jill Emmelhainz, Reading tutor


The Cleaning Police

This time the "cleaning police" pulled everything out from under the bed and in the closet...

I’ve been part of the Cleaning Police for many years now. You know…trying to teach our kids how to be civilized. Trying to teach them how to clean. Trying to teach them why they should want to clean. After so many years, I get tired of being a Clean-up Officer sometimes.

Now, I need to make it clear. My standards are not high. In fact, I’ve probably been at risk many times of losing my Officer status with the Cleaning Police. If our house is not filthy and the dust-bunnies are not yet taking over the corners, I see no reason to waste time with chores. We have far more interesting things to do!

But…eventually even my limits are reached. I remind the kids that we live in a house, not a barn. I calmly let them know we must start first thing in the morning to clean up the mess. I try to make it clear how important this is.

And then in the morning, they (of course) wander off, other things on their personal agendas. I finally corral them, and threaten dire penalties if they do not begin cleaning AT ONCE!

Anna's room DOES look nice when it is neat and clean!

The whining commences…but so does the work. Eventually order is restored—the house is clean, mama is happy again, and my poor “slaves” are finally free to follow their own interests again.

I try…really…I TRY to be more consistent. I remember my growing up years when Saturday morning was chore time and my sisters and I had to pick jobs out of the chore jar to complete. I’ve tried a schedule. I’ve tried chore charts. I’ve tried rewards. I’ve tried punishments. I’ve tried rotating the various jobs. I’ve tried letting each child become a “specialist” in their favored jobs. Sigh… Anything works for awhile. Then we slack off. We find more interesting things to do. And the dust-bunnies and the clutter threaten to take over our world.

I’m a member of the Cleaning Police. When do I get to resign?

Take Time to SMILE

You have forgotten what it is to smile
In your too busy life come, rest awhile.

{Lucy Maud Montgomery}

...gettin' silly...

I smile often. I smile as a greeting to strangers. I smile in agreement when talking with a friend. I smile at the wonderful, creative ideas my kids come up with. I smile at the antics of some of the critters around here. I sometimes even smile at the irony of bad service or frustration bureaucracy.

And I love to laugh. Even more than smiling, laughter lightens the mood of those around me, whether friends or strangers. (You should SEE the looks I get when I laugh out loud at something I’m reading in a coffee shop!) I enjoy getting silly and laughing with my kids, my mom, my friends. And it’s even more fun when they initiate the silliness and trigger my own laughter.

Some parents worry about what their child thinks of them. I take it as a compliment when I’ve said something silly and my oh-so-serious son says with disgust, “MO-om…” Then I know I have done my job well and enriched his life with a laughing moment. After all, “they” say laughter makes you live longer. (Just who are “they”? Dunno…“they” seem to be authorities about many things. But I digress…)

James with the Cheshire Cat Smile

Something I treasured after our son James died a few years ago was all the comments by friends about his smile. So many remembered how his smile lit up the room, how the memory of that smile stayed with them for hours, how he delighted in mischief and in making them smile as well. One commented that James was like a Cheshire Cat—even after he left the room, his smile was still with them. I hope others think of me that way…

The quote at the start of this post was a good reminder to me. It has been a hectic week in every way. Yesterday, I was rushing to get out the door, discussing something with Randy, thinking ahead of everything that needs done over the weekend, and not-quite-looking-forward to being a chaperone for a school trip. Anna came into the room wanting attention for the third time in as many minutes…and I snapped. Neither she nor I had any hint of smiles at that moment.

...playful, colorful SMILE-bringers...

I was too busy. I had forgotten my smile. Fortunately, once we got to the State Fair, our little group took time to enjoy the Chinese Acrobatic Troop. When the bouncing, colorful lions (dogs? dragons?) came on stage, I suddenly found my smile (and my laughter) again.

Maybe I should make a large print of those wonderful critters as a reminder that the more hectic and busy my life gets, the more important it is to SMILE.

A Fruitful Time?

“There is a great difference between successful and fruitfulness. Success comes from strength, control, and respectability. A successful person has the energy to create something, to keep control over its development, and to make it available in large quantities.

A Time of Fruitfulness...

Success brings many rewards and often fame. Fruits, however, come from weakness and vulnerability. And fruits are unique. A child is the fruit conceived in vulnerability, community is the fruit born through shared brokenness, and intimacy is the fruit that grows through touching one another’s wounds. Let’s remind one another that what brings us true joy is not successfulness but fruitfulness.” -Henri Nouwen

If you follow my updates on Facebook and the blog entries I write for Lybrook Community Ministries about living in Navajoland, you will already know that the past few weeks have been difficult.

  • Repeated electric brown-outs have fried appliances, including making my oven and my washing machine unreliable.
  • Modem issues and poor service led to a change of internet providers which caused chaos with our on-site network.
  • A friend who lives on-site took a bad fall with major injuries incapacitating her for a few weeks. We helped with animal care for that time and office work is still behind.
  • The mission truck was out of commission for a few weeks with costly repairs needed.
  • There is a huge (invisible) leak in our water lines meaning we only turn the water on for a

    ...water leaks and other challenges...

    short time each day to take showers, do laundry, and refill every bottle, pot, and pitcher with water to use throughout the day. (The backhoe guy is here today, trying to find the leak and finally fix it.)

  • Anna’s precious kitten has disappeared.
  • Repeated heavy rainstorms have made it difficult to get into and out of the remote canyon where Nettie is working. The bad roads have also prevented us from going in occasionally to help out with mustang taming.
  • Those same amusement-park drives on back roads took out the oil pan on our PT Cruiser which was our best bet for navigating slippery, pot-holed roads.
  • On-going requests for additional or repeated information from state agencies make getting EMT and education certifications and licenses a prolonged, frustrating process.
  • Our comfortable, familiar weekly schedule has changed—due to Randy’s teaching, Anna being in school, and Jakob’s youth-group-church changing class offerings. We still haven’t found a new workable schedule.
  • Randy is struggling to juggle teaching responsibilities (at local middle school and at community college in town) and still oversee most of the above maintenance issues of this property. He is exhausted…
  • Delays and rescheduling are typical out here…but it is still irritating when the volunteer fire department cancels meetings and the backhoe guy appears two days late, with no phone calls letting us know what is happening.

Are you still with me, even with all that whining? Good. Because that litany of frustrations, challenges, and complications is NOT the focus of this blog entry.

In talking with my sister yesterday, I discovered the underlying frustration I’ve been carrying. It feels like we are treading water, barely keeping afloat. We are at a cross-road for this ministry. We have finally identified a specific ministry focus. We need to follow-up with local leaders and local schools to define and refine the vision. We desperately need to begin the process of building a stable financial base for this mission, both for a transition period and for long-term ministry.

To be successful, there are things we need to be doing. To be successful doesn’t mean treading water. To be successful means there should be concrete projects finished and checked off the to-do list. This has certainly NOT been a time of success.

And as I whined and complained to my sister, she had a wise response. She challenged my perspective. She reminded me that this could well be the most fruitful time we have had here so far. Even when we don’t see it, others are looking at us. They are watching to see how we deal with challenges in life. We are still here. We have not given up. We are still reaching out to help others. This frustrating time might well be a very significant time.

For now it's fruit-salad...not steak.

Hmmm…it sure doesn’t FEEL significant. And it certainly doesn’t feel “good.” I’ve been pondering what my sister said, and I hope she’s right. I hope this really IS a fruitful time. (It certainly isn’t a “successful” time!)

I guess it’s time to make fruit-salad, rather than wishing for steak…

Flying…or Grounded?

Fly by the seat of one’s pants: 1. to pilot a plane by feel and instinct rather than by instruments 2. to proceed or work by feel or instinct without formal guidelines or experience.

I use this phrase a lot. This is my favored way of moving through life. Make an extensive list, then chuck out the list and “fly by the seat of my pants.” I like the freedom in this. I enjoy the creativity it allows. I thrive on the possibilities in front of me when I live this way.

I love to "FLY"...

Unfortunately, this method of living makes it hard to stick tightly to schedules and routines. Just ask my kids who were all homeschooled. We were NOT a family who were all sitting at our desks by 8:30 am, ready to proceed from subject to subject on regular intervals indicated by a bell.

Eventually, most things on my lists are covered, finished, checked-off. All the “basics” get done along with a million other serendipitous things as well.

I used to beat myself up for not sticking to a schedule. Occasionally I vowed to change. I would buy a day-planner, fill it in, and compulsively stick to the plans…for a few days or a week at most. Then it was back to spontaneous living once again…sigh…

Eventually, I realized there is nothing wrong with this style of living. After all, I DO get everything done that needs to get done. I usually find a decent balance between responsibilities and fun. I don’t get bent out of shape when the unexpected happens—whether good (a friend stops by) or bad (pipes break and we have no water for a few days).

I realized last night that this is a significant reason why I enjoy homeschooling so much. When we educate our children on our own, we are not tied to a school schedule. We are free to follow whatever opportunities appear.

Nettie is currently working as a wild-mustang-taming intern at “Mustang Camp.” There is an unexpectedly large batch of newly caught wild-horses coming in and the owners are short-handed. Jakob will be headed back into the canyon to stay for a few days as another “hired-hand.” He will be hand-feeding a few of the newcomers, getting them comfortable with being near humans. This is time consuming, but not difficult work.

I can't "fly" to Mustang Camp...I've been grounded

I so much wish that I could go back to Mustang Camp for the month. I enjoy being around horses. I know I would be good at the taming and training. I could even take horse-crazy Anna back with me. What an awesome experience it would be!

But…Anna is now in school. Yes, it is going well for her. Yes, it was a good decision to enroll her this year. Yes, it gives me more freedom to work on other projects during school hours. BUT…I can’t fly by the seat of my pants for now. I can’t just move her and I back to Mustang Camp to follow this opportunity. We have a school schedule to follow instead. She is learning to live with regularity and consistency…but we have lost room for much spontaneity, at least for now.

So I will make more lists. And I will go where opportunities lead me. But creativity and spontaneity will have to happen within the confines of an external school-day schedule this year. Right now I’m mourning the limits on freedom…

I’m not currently “flying.” I’ve been “grounded” for now.

My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Night

Just like Alexander, I’m having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night…

There are very good reasons for quitting ski patrol, all of which make perfect logical sense. And I’m certain this is the right decision. But I worked so hard to get the certifications. And James was supposed to patrol with me. And I survived the training and got my Senior certification (even after James died). And I love teaching OEC to new candidates… But I’m quitting. And I’m tired of grieving losses. I’m having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night so, like Alexander, I think I’ll move to Australia.

My oldest daughter leaves for a new job on the other side of the world on Tuesday morning. And I’m going to miss her. And she is anxious and worried about leaving. And I don’t want her to go. And she is excited. And I’m jealous that I’m not the one traveling. I’m having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night. Maybe I’ll fly away to Australia on Tuesday…

My middle daughter Nettie is having grand adventures taming wild-mustangs way back in a canyon this month. I wish I could tame wild-mustangs, or at least have an adventure, even if it is hard work and not so grand at all. I’m having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night. If I moved to Australia THAT would be a grand adventure…

A friend is planning the first four weeks of her family’s home-school year. And instead of planning interesting studies and fun outings and museums to see and music to listen to, I’m stuck with a public school student. I have to pick my youngest daughter up from school each day, then fight with her to get her homework done and her chores done and her room cleaned. (I think Hurricane Irene actually devastated her bedroom…that MUST be the explanation for the chaos in there…) I’m having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night. I’m gonna run away to Australia. (Maybe I could call it a field trip?)

Another friend asked me too many questions this weekend. And when I talked to my husband about it, he asked me more questions. And I’m tired of questions and I want some answers. This feels like a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night. Do you think there are answers in Australia?

Besides, I think everyone else is having fun with friends (even my youngest daughter who is now in school.) And all of my friends around here don’t have enough gas money to visit. Plus they are all too busy for me to visit them right now. And the church in town is changing their schedule (again) so I probably won’t see my friends on Wednesday nights anymore. This is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night. If I’ve got to make new friends, I think I will look for them in Australia. Everyone has “mates” there, right?

I’ve got a zillion things on my to-do list. And I hate doing so much paper-work. It gets boring doing the same things over and over. And I think my younger son is bored too. Some times this all adds up to a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night. Can I add “run away to Australia” to my to-do list?

I’m going to crawl back under the covers and cry some more. I sure hope I can fall asleep sometime tonight. And I sure hope I feel better in the morning. And I sure hope I survive this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night. Otherwise, I’ll send you a postcard from Australia…

with thanks to Judith Viorst for the story of Alexander's Day