Voices, and Values, and Thirteen Very Hard Goodbyes…

My writer’s block continues, but alas, I am making myself go through the motions.

I honestly have no excuse because the greatest material in the world is placed at my feet daily. An elementary school is an oasis of lesson-learning, tale-telling, and just downright funny stuff kids say. My issue is trying to convey all the wondrous ways my heart is filled by the kindness, and innocence of my sweet friends.

I’ve been pondering a theme for this blog for about three weeks. Originally, I was going to work up something around the theme of “Cowboys,” because putting all grandmother bias aside, I have a picture of the cutest little cowboy ever. Case in point:

Next, I had to come up with two other topics to tie together and teach a lesson, inspire, entertain, or just fill the blank spaces. The only thing I could come up with was “Princesses,” because I definitely know one who is five months old: Case in point, again:

I then started thinking about my kids at school. All of them: the cowboys, the princesses, the big-bow girls, the ball-cap-wearing boys, the adventurers, the investigators, The town criers (gossip spreaders), the rambunctious ones, the fashion experts, the compliment givers, the wide-eyed seekers of knowledge, the future teachers, welders, nurses, oil-field workers, doctors, lawyers, professional athletes, future community leaders, and change-makers.

Elementary schools are filled with hope. The adults are the molders, and shapers, the teachers, and confidence builders. We get to inspire and motivate, and let each student know we believe in them. We show them the future, and encourage them to dream big dreams.

We do all this, even though we know the great odds that face most of our boys and girls. The broken homes, the loss of a parent, the addictions, the poverty, the dysfunction. We keep encouraging, and believing, and teaching, and inspiring, knowing all the while that no matter how much we do, their success or failure in many ways will be greatly influenced and determined by their home lives.

I’ve been in education for quite some time, and each year it seems that are students are increasingly facing difficult, and heartbreaking situations. Times are already hard enough and families are struggling for the most essential basic needs.  And then there is COVID. And exorbitant gas prices. And a baby formula shortage. And record high inflation. And the supply chain issues that cause our kids to do without ketchup!

God bless all the families struggling! And bless all the school children who have powered through and adapted in ways that are almost unimaginable. If nothing else, they are learning to be resilient!

As an educator, I’m classified as “old school.” Though times have changed I haven’t changed many of the methods and philosophies that have survived over the years. As my dad always said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

Even though I remain steadfast in doing many things the old-fashioned way, there are those days I feel like a relic that should be placed in a Museum for the Obsolete. 

My age is a thing of mystery around the halls of our school. The concept of time is usually lost on younger kids, so students have guessed my age to be anywhere between 25 and 80. And just the other day, one of my regulars, who I have met with for two years, unwittingly caused me to go home and place cucumbers on my eyes, and amp up my wrinkle defense regimen.

My friend and I were headed to my office, and took a different route. As we were going up the stairs on the opposite side of the building, he remarked, “We’ve never gone this way before.” I agreed, and then stated, “Last year, you were already upstairs, so I just came and got you out of class.”

He stopped and said, “You saw me last year?”

I pointed to the room that I used the previous two years and said, “Remember, that’s where we used to meet.”

Without a moment’s hesitation he replied, “Oh, yeah. That was back when you looked younger.”

Elementary schools: an oasis of never-ending one liners…

As I sit in my office (the one that accelerates the aging process), I often think about the immense level of responsibility that is placed on schools. Educators don’t just teach the curriculum. We are now, out of necessity, in charge of teaching manners, social/emotional learning, dealing with others, getting along, following basic rules, empathy, teaching right and wrong, and the importance of making good choices.

As the school counselor, it has been eye-opening for me to hear about the daily lives of my students.

Let me state, without reservation, that I am in no way making judgments or being critical about anyone’s parenting skills. I fully understand the struggles, the hardships, the sacrifices, and the day-in, day-out overwhelming responsibilities that come with raising children. I look back on my early days and years of motherhood, and in reflection, there are many things I would do differently. I definitely wasn’t always “mother-of-the-year” material, but to steal a thought from Merle Haggard, as a Mama, I tried.

Having said that, parenthood involves sacrificing your personal wants and needs for those of your children. I think this is what is missing in most young families today. The unwillingness to give up “me time” (phone time, social media time, video gaming time). Again, I’m not pointing fingers. I made my fair share of mistakes as a mother, but I did make sure that I talked with my boys each day about what happened at school. I checked their folders (behavior charts), oversaw their homework time, and always provided a dinner time meal at the table (unless we were going to games and watching their Dad coach).

Parenting is hard: moving kids to their own beds, potty-training, teaching and applying discipline, regulating a routine that helps them have appropriate times to sleep, play, learn, eat, nap, explore, and socialize. Parenting is the never-ending job of preparing your kids to one day take wing and fly solo. It is hard, and wonderful, exhausting, heartbreaking, joy-filling and without a doubt the best and most important thing that you will ever do.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m old school. I believe in God and Jesus. I believe in our country, and the American dream. I believe that hard work pays off, and that education is the key to rising above one’s situation. I believe “in baseball, and hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet” (if you get that reference, you too have visited the age acceleration room).

In my opinion, two of the most important things parents can do to prepare their children for success are developing a daily routine, and sitting/eating around the kitchen table.

If you observe elementary students in the cafeteria, you will quickly understand that most kids don’t sit at the table at home. They also are not taught basic manners (napkin in lap, elbows off the table, not talking with food in your mouth, saying please and thank you, and not eating with one’s hands). Just yesterday, I witnessed two first graders eating salad with their fingers.

I’ve also been shocked and amazed (not always in the good way) at some of the lunches packed in lunch kits. One day, a young lady had a bag of chicken (previously frozen) in her lunch kit. Its purpose was to serve as a coolant for the lunch, but unfortunately, by lunch time, it had thawed…

Other details that are common across the board that kids talk about (and let me say, kids will tell it all):

Many kids have no set bed times, and many still sleep in their parents’ bed. They are allowed to play video games for hours upon end and that is where they pick up foul language—(many times by overhearing/seeing the adults playing video games).

Most of these kids don’t have sit-down meals or must fend for themselves when supper time rolls around.  Their parents are on their phones most of the time. Many students don’t always take a bath or brush their teeth, their clothes aren’t always clean (because sometimes they don’t have water). They know way too much about grown-up things and have even used the world “mating” in conversation (followed by, “you know what I mean…”)

As a counselor, I hope and pray that these kids can rise above all the obstacles and road-blocks.  I try to encourage them daily to believe they can, and to learn to find their voice, and to use it to not only express their feelings, and worries, and fears, but to also tell others when they are scared or feel they might be in danger.

I pray they weather whatever storms come into their lives.

As I was contemplating how to write this blog, I stumbled upon a story in one of my morning devotionals. It was about 36,000 songbirds (most were canaries) that were brought by ship across the sea. When they set sail, they contently sat in their cages, as the sea was calm and life was easy.

On the third day of the voyage, there was a great storm and the ship rocked back and forth, with waves crashing against it. The children aboard the ship were frightened and began to cry. Suddenly, one of the canaries began to sing. Soon, all 36,000 joined in, and the more the boat rocked back and forth, the louder they sang. The fear that had been realized moments before subsided as everyone listened to the beautiful symphony of the birds.

And you know what? When we find our voice and learn to sing through the storms of life, we begin to seek the good, and through our relentless spirit, overcome our fears and learn to move ahead, even though life might not be as we hoped or planned.

As happens so many times when thoughts and connections for this blog aren’t working, I am hit in the face with a story, or a song, or a person who holds the key to the weaving required to help these disconnected thoughts make sense.

The past Sunday in church, I was blessed to hear Keron Jackson sing, “This Blood.” It was exactly what I needed to hear at the very moment I needed to hear it. His voice is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. I mean when you have a bunch of Baptists raising hands, getting filled with the holy ghost, and giving you a standing ovation, you’re doing something right.

Click here to listen to “This Blood”

I knew there was more to Keron’s story. It had been hinted about, and since I couldn’t stay and listen to his concert that evening, I did my own research. And what I discovered was just short of amazing.

I want you to hear it in his own words. I want you to hear his story with his voice.

Click here to listen to Keron Jackson’s story

Like the canaries and Keron, it is my hope that the students I’ve worked with this year find their voice. I have met individually with 17 students for at least 20 minutes per weekly session, and I adore each one of them. They make me laugh, and sometimes cry. Some days we have to have a “come to Jesus” meeting, where we address their poor choices and the consequences thereof. No matter what we discuss, or what games we play, I always try to end each session by saying, “Make good choices, and remember, I’m proud of you and I believe in you.”

I usually get a “thanks, Mrs. Keith” on their way out. But lately, I’ve had a couple of “I’m really going to miss you next year,” and even a few I love yous.

I’ve been in education for 36 years, and I’m not going to lie. Without a doubt, by this point in May, I’m done. I’m ready to call it. I’m ready for the end.

But not this year. This year, I’m overwhelmed with the reality of some really hard goodbyes. My second graders (13 of them) are moving on to the Intermediate campus, and I will no longer be their counselor. I know they will be in good hands, but it’s still so very hard to let them go.

I have watched these little ones grow into confident, funny, smart, likeable, loving, almost third graders. I have such big hopes and dreams for each of them, but I can’t help but wish I had more time. I wonder if I gave them the tools they needed to take this next step? I wonder if something I said will help them when times get tough? I wonder who they will become? I wonder how I can come back next year, and not see their smiling faces?

I feel like the mama bird nudging her babies out of the nest, understanding that while I’m not ready for them to go, it’s time for them to fly.

So as I long for more moments around the kitchen table, I am reminded of the singing canaries and Keron Jackson finding their voices,

I stand firm in my belief that my little birds will fly high, believing in themselves and their dreams.

May they find and use their voices to say and do great things.

 

 

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