My Other Mom.

My other mom died early Saturday morning.

I was at a journalism workshop when my best friend of nearly 30 years tried to call. I thought maybe he had seen my Instagram post about how hard teachers work and wanted to catch up. But when I didn’t answer, he sent me a text asking me to call him, and I knew. 

At the first break in our workshop, I called him.

“I have some news,” he began.

How does a person make that phone call, telling people your mother is dead? I wished I could have spared him having to say the words out loud. If I was next to him, I could have put my hand on his arm, squeezed, and said, “It’s okay. I know. You don’t have to say it.”

But I wasn’t next to him, I was states away, hoping against hope that my instincts were wrong.

“Mom passed last night,” he managed.

The absence of the personal pronoun is important there. Because she wasn’t just his mom, she was my mom too.

Not my biological mom, of course, but his mom was the kind of woman that made her son’s friends her sons and daughters. From the time I was 16 until six weeks ago when I saw her last, she was my mom.

She sent me birthday cards and Christmas cards in the mail, always signed, “Love you honey. Come see us soon. Love, Mom and Dad.”

She told me which boys were worth crying over and which ones weren’t, even though I cried over all of them.

She and Dad took me in—twice—when I decided I’d had enough abuse at the hands of a fiance. Helped me move my things, fed me, sheltered me, tried like hell to convince me I did not need a man who hurt me with hands and words. Didn’t judge me when I went back to him.

And then she convinced me that my parents would never give up on me and I needed to trust them and accept their help.

When I moved from Montana to Nebraska, I didn’t get to see her and dad as often as I would have liked. But when time and money allowed visits, their door was open, and I have fond memories of sitting in their living room talking for hours. And every visit, she told me how glad she was that I was part of her life.

Before I had the crazy idea to drive across most of the country, the plan for the summer of 2017 was singular: go to Montana and see Mom. When it was time for me to leave her barely two months ago, she held my hands and looked in my eyes. We didn’t speak for quite some time, and finally she said, “I love you so much.” 

Now it is clear what an absolute gift that trip will always be.

More Than One Kind of Work Ethic.

Dear Senator Sasse,

I am one of your constituents. I teach in a public high school in Nebraska. Last summer, I attended a town hall you held in Papillion, and I was impressed with your candor and demeanor. Even though I disagree with you politically, I want to hear what you have to say, and I usually keep my mouth shut.

But I take issue with the op-ed you wrote for the New York Times. Next week, I will begin my 17th year of teaching. I’ve taught in Utah, Nebraska, and as a grad assistant in Ohio while earning my master’s degree. I’ve taught a variety of subjects and thousands of students at this point, and here’s one of the many things I’ve learned: there is more than one kind of work ethic.

I’ll concede that I’ve had students who tested my patience because of their lack of will to work–though more often than not, those kids actually worked crazy hard in other classes or at their jobs. I’ve had kids who worked three jobs to help their parents pay the bills. I’ve had kids who took AP classes and did sports and did extracurricular activities and somehow still made time to hold down jobs. I teach mostly juniors and seniors in high school, and nearly every single one of them has a job. They do not lack work ethic.

I’ve been a newspaper adviser for six years now, and every editor-in-chief I’ve had has been a combination of the following: AP student. Honors student. Athlete. Dancer. Club member. Volunteer. And they all have also had jobs.

But I kind of expect that of my EICs. So let me tell you a little about the kids who aren’t the “top-tier” student.

The student who has the emotional work ethic to get out of bed every morning and go to school in a space he feels unsafe because he is Muslim. Because he is liberal. Because he is conservative. Because he is not athletic. Because his grades are failing. Because he is gay.

Or the student who has the emotional work ethic to get out of bed every morning and go to school in a space she feels unsafe because she is Catholic. Because she is overweight. Because she is skinny. Because her grandmother is undocumented. Because she is a woman. Because she is queer.

There is more than one kind of work ethic, and the kind you write about in your op-ed is valuable, to be sure. But to not acknowledge the emotional work ethic placed upon students today is short-sighted and, frankly, insulting.

My students work hard. They might not be working hard in my class on a given day, but in 17 years, I’ve learned to step back and learn about that kid–what else does he have going on in his life? Is he working hard someplace else?

To close, a quick story about two students I taught last year. Senior boys, who took my introductory journalistic writing class. This is a class comprised mostly of freshmen and sophomores who want to be on newspaper or yearbook staff. These boys were graduating, and therefore, would not be on staff. I had no idea why they were my students, and initially, I was suspicious of how long those two senior boys would last. Journalistic writing is not for the weak–we write and we talk to people we don’t know, and I make kids draft and draft and draft their stories.

Yet every day, those two boys showed up and learned. They wrote. They revised. They asked questions. They revised again. They had their work critiqued by the entire class.

They did not need my class to graduate, and could have taken a study hall. Their lives outside of school were not easy. But they stayed and successfully completed a class they did not need.

Work ethic? Yeah, they had it in spades.

I implore you, Senator, to spend some time during your recesses and talk to teachers and talk to students about their work. Go visit the good people at Nebraska Loves Public Schools and see how you can help their mission.

The students of Nebraska do have a work ethic. They might not all be detassling corn in the summers, but they are working physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Acknowledge them.

Sincerely,

Julie L. Rowse

Labels and Plans.

On a piece of scratch paper at my sister’s dining room table in Delaware, I wrote this list:

• Apple Distinguished Educator
• Google Certified Teacher
• Certified Journalism Educator
• Adobe Certified Associate
• Piano teacher
• Jazzercise instructor

“I can’t be all of this,” I told her. “I’m trying to, and it’s not good. But I’m not sure what I want to be, or what I should be. I don’t know what I want.”

This mini-meltdown was early in my 2017 summer road trip, and one of many things that occupied my mind as I drove for hours and hours. I eliminated Jazzercise instructor, for now, because while it would be fun, it definitely isn’t necessary. I currently only have two piano students, and I’m not quite ready to let them go. Two is manageable with my schedule, so that label stays, but I’ve also reached a point where when they decide they’ve had enough, so will I.

But the rest? I put my journalism skills to use as I considered each label. Why was it important to me? How would it affect my life, both long and short-term? When would I get all of the work done? Who would I be if I was able to amass each label? What would happen to me if I failed in each attempt to add letters at the end of my email signature?

This exercise proved helpful, as I realized my desire to be an Apple Distinguished Educator was driven by a desire to be part of a club I perceived as “cool.” That’s not a good enough reason to put in the work required for that particular moniker, so now I can cross that off the list.

Which leaves me with three pursuits—a much more manageable endeavor than six.

Luckily, working toward Google Certification and Adobe Certification are goals I can meet concurrently with my teaching load. I teach in a Google school. I teach a class that uses Adobe Creative Cloud exclusively. With the right planning, I can do both. It might take me longer than others, but I’m confident I will succeed.

Which leaves me with Certified (and eventually Master) Journalism Educator.

For 17 years now, all I’ve wanted to be is a newspaper adviser, and now I am. So it makes sense that I should want the backing of a larger organization to recognize not only my love for journalism, but also my capabilities. I’ve put off this particular label because it’s scary. I have to study, take a test—one that is only offered three times a year—and what happens if I fail? I feel like I’ve failed so much lately that taking another chance almost seems foolish.

But then I remember the most important label on that initial list of six: teacher. Educator. What message am I sending to my students if I put something off—something I want—because I’m afraid I’ll fail? And what’s the worst that could happen if I fail, anyway? How on earth can I expect my students to take any risks if I’m standing in front of them unwilling to take risks myself?

So I’ll make a plan and I’ll work hard, and eventually get those certifications and hope my students learn two valuable lessons: first, you don’t have to be everything. And second, fear of failing should never be an excuse not to do something.

A Birthday Request.

 

For my birthday, I want... (1)

So my birthday is Monday, and for two decades now, it’s a day I have dreaded. A day where all I seem to be able to focus on is how much of my life is a disappointment or a failure. A day where, one year, my sister literally had to force me out of bed and then she drove me around while I sulked about another year gone.

A couple of weeks ago, I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Option B,” which tackles grief and loss at various levels. The impetus for her book was the unexpected death of her husband. At one point in the book, she shares a conversation she had with a friend who was lamenting turning 50. And Sandberg quietly noted, “Dave won’t ever turn 50.”

I’d been thinking for some time that I needed to make peace with my birthday, much like I finally made peace with Christmas. And Sandberg’s anecdote was the final push. I should celebrate another year in this chaotic world, instead of shaking my fist at the skies that my life doesn’t look the way I thought it would when I was 18.

So here’s my birthday request. There are two parts. First, at some point between now and Monday, do something that you really and truly love, but you’ve either put off or denied yourself. Get two scoops of ice cream. Go on a hike. Read a book. Get a massage. See a movie. Write. Paint. Sing. Lay on the grass and look at clouds. Anything that reminds you how wonderful it is to be alive, do it. Maybe write about it, even, or take a photo of it, just so you can return to that reminder in darker times.

Second, give a genuine compliment to someone you’ve been meaning to praise. Send a thank you note for a comment made at church. Text a sibling how much you love him. Call a friend you haven’t talked to in a while and say, “Hey, been thinking about you.” Connect in a real way to remind you how wonderful humans can be.

I have a few things planned–Jazzercise, hair cut, Sephora, a movie, sushi, and I hope cake at some point. I’ll probably read a little and write a little and buy some flowers.

But most of all, I will relish that I am alive and that as messy and troubling as the world can be, it can also be beautiful and full of love.

Wonder Woman: Competition vs. Collaboration.

I took my niece to see “Wonder Woman” today. It was my 2nd time seeing it but her first–I offered to take her when I saw her briefly in between my June trips, and she agreed to wait. She’s cool like that.

As I drove her home, I asked her what her favorite part of the movie was, and she couldn’t pick just one. But then she nearly broke my heart when she said, “I don’t understand why people get angry about it. I mean, have they seen this movie? She’s a boss!”

I’m pretty sure her question was rhetorical, but I set about answering it anyway.

Because I am that aunt.

So here’s a close approximation of what I said to her.

Some men get uncomfortable when women show their power, because they don’t see women as collaborators–they see powerful women as competitors. What do you do with a competitor?

You crush them.

Right. So what does Steve Trevor do when he realizes what Diana is capable of? He gets out of her way. When he understands her power and they fight a second time, what does he do? Figures out how to help her, how to work with her. Collaborate.

When you start dating, I really hope you are able to discern if someone sees you as a competitor or as a collaborator. One guy I dated and really wanted to marry saw me as a competitor. When we played board games or computer games, I had to lose on purpose, because he would get mad if I won too many times. He was struggling with school and career decisions, and when I would offer to help him, he would turn down my help. I had my life a little more together than he did at the time, and he didn’t see me as a collaborator. He saw me as a competitor. How happy do you think I’d be if I’d married him?

Uh, not very.

Right. So, just remember that.

By the way, Wonder Woman as a film was just pure joy–even on a second viewing. So glad Warner Brothers and DC finally got one right.