Monday, November 5, 2007

BSHS Commencement Speech

Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Good evening, friends, family, faculty, staff and graduates of the 2007 class of Berkeley Springs High School. I am honored to be among you tonight. The lines I read are from a poem that Dylan Thomas wrote for his father. Thomas’ father was a robust and militant man most of his life. He had a hard edge to him. He was ambitious, honorable, and courageous. Thomas was disturbed when his father became blind and weak with old age. He was not the man that he had grown up knowing. He wrote the poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” to help empower his father to not give up his fight, but to continue on in his fierce natured ways. The idea of his father simply giving up and lacking the ambition to continue scared and upset him deeply. I understand that fear. I have shared those similar emotions with Thomas. Though they aren’t fears of death and dying, they are fears of apathetic attitudes and forgotten lessons. These feelings emerge every August and every May; when a new group comes in the classroom door and an old group goes out.

Every year I have 100-150 students walk through my classroom doors and that isn’t even counting the students that I don’t have in class, but am in daily contact with. The thought of the daily contacts with students is mind numbing. My first thought in August is, “OK, I have 9 months with these kiddos. We have our work cut out for us.” I ask myself, “How can we meet test scores, teach the curriculum, and in the process teach students how to think like life long learners? How can we ensure that these young adults will continue to fight for their lives, their believes, their plans, their goals, not just here, but more importantly after they leave our classrooms? How can we help them guarantee success? How do any of us make a difference in the lives of another, especially with only 9 months?”

The answer is: I have no idea. I can’t guarantee any of it. However, I can guarantee that I work really hard to help you discover the gifts inside each of you that will enable you to attempt to do all of those things. I can guarantee that when you walk into my classroom I will challenge you. I will challenge your beliefs. I will challenge your thoughts. I will teach you to challenge yourself, to reevaluate your own thoughts and beliefs. I will challenge you to dig deep within yourself to find accountability, personal success, relevance, empathy, dreams, and a hunger to do the right thing even when it seems that you can’t or it would be easier not to. I’ll guarantee that I will teach you to rage against the dying of the light and not settle for less that what you deserve. That I will guarantee. In return, I guarantee that you will challenge me daily as well.

Tonight is May 25. I told you I normally get weary in May. I, like Dylan Thomas, fear that students will no longer feel ambitious or want to take on the world after all of the hard work. I am fearful that the time we spent together will be lost and forgotten. It isn’t the idea of ME that I am fearful they will leave behind; it’s the life lessons- that is what I worry will not transcend onward with them when they leave the comfortable confinement of these high school halls. Tonight, I don’t feel that way. Two years later we are together again, still learning, still feeling, still challenging, and most importantly, still raging.

Though the Dylan Thomas poem that I opened with is technically about life and death, I find it relevant standing here today. I find it relevant because we need to embrace the middle moments. So often we are trying to get to an end or a finish line that we forget about the process, we forget about the middle of it all. The beginning and the end of everything are quite important. However, we must ask ourselves about the relevance of what happens in between the two, and how we must rage with every second of the middle. The middle part is what makes life worthwhile and meaningful. The middle moments are what we live and where we can be an active participant. The middle is where we learn, practice, and perfect our rage.

When I talk about rage, I am not referring to the hate, anger, and violence we see all around us on the news, in the movies, in music, etc. I’m referring to the passion of a positive fight. The passion of belief. The passion behind knowing and believing in right and wrong. The passion behind love. The passion behind choice. The passion behind having the right to decisions and creating opportunities. The passion behind not giving up and giving in. The passion to fail and learn from it. The passion to set boundaries and plans only to revise and start all over again. All of these wonderful middle moments are yours to experience.

As you go into the world, you will begin new chapters of your life, and these middle moments will take place at the most random of times. At times you will experience confusions, sorrow, happiness, helplessness, love, hate, pride, success, all of the emotions in the spectrum. I remind you to identify them, claim the emotion, embrace them, and learn from them. In this process, I ask you not to forget who you are and who you want to become. Remember all of the lessons that we learned together here; look forward to all of the lessons you are about to embark upon. Continue to create a belief system. Continue to stand up for your beliefs and your values. Challenge yourself. Challenge those around you. Continue to grow. Continue to learn. Continue to educate yourself. Continue to give back to your community. Continue to raise the bar and expect more of yourself and more from those around you. Rage against the dying of the light and never settle for mediocrity. Create what defines you. Find what makes you passionate. Find what makes you rage.

Today, not knowing when we will meet again, when you may see one another again, or what the future has in store for any of us, I say the same words to you that Thomas said to his father, “DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT. RAGE, RAGE AGAINST THE DYING OF THE LIGHT.” Seeing that today is a Friday, I can’t let you leave without saying my closing remarks for the week, just like I have done every other Friday before, “Be safe. Be careful. Be fun. Be you." And to steal a line from Ms. Files, ‘Return with Honor.’ Live with Honor.”
Thank you and Congratulations to the Class of 2007.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Seven Souls

Author's note: This piece was written in 1991 when I was 12 or 13 years old. The seven individuals that the title refers to are 6 of my very dear friends who were my best friends at the age of 12 and continue to be some of the best women that I know today. It has become a tradition that at each one's bridal brunch we present her with a framed copy of the poem. Though it is not the best writing that I have ever put forth, the sentiment is of the greatest.
(7 + 2 that we picked up along the way. )

Seven Souls

The love that is in the seven souls is fading.

What little is left, others are beginning to steal.

They give excuses for the changes;

Excuses they all know are not real.

These seven souls were once one body.

Together, they could do anything.

As one, nothing was out of their reach.

As one, they reigned as king.

The seven souls could have ruled the world,

If they would have stayed as one.

But the time and love moved forward.

A wall was built - left was to run.

They ran from each other looking for love.

The answer to that can be found.

But they search in the wrong places.

In the mother body it is kept sound.

The seven souls must break down the wall.

Brick by brick it can unfold.

Hard work and patience is all it takes.

The love can be found; the heart is of gold.

Inside the mother body the heart still beats.

It's pattern and rhythm are very weak.

It grows stronger as the wall begins to break.

The seven souls have found the love they did seek.

So I looked to the man in the moon to help me find a way

to save my lonely sisters before the break of day.

Now on a clear night

when the moon is just right

Second star from the left, see seven angles fly.

A Cathardic Moment-A Public Confession

Author's Note: This is and will always be a work in progress.

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you
Why are you best with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room

Just like moons and suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got cold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind the nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that may ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
-Maya Angelou

Currently, I am reading a book, Lucky, by Alice Sebold. She is the author of The Lovely Bones. This particular book is a memoir, an actual account of a moment in her life; a moment that redefined her life forever. I am slightly addicted to this factual telling of her story. Her voice, brave and full of truth, speaks to me. Reading this book is a journey. It is a search for my own personal answers, satisfaction, and meaning. In short, it is a cathartic moment that is hard to process, yet needed.

On the last day of the spring semester of 1980, Alice Sebold was brutally attacked, raped, and sodomized by a stranger in a campus park. She reported the attack. She took all of the correct steps to help find and prosecute her attacker. The next day her mother picked her up to take her home for the summer.

Young Alice and a younger version of me brand similar scars. It is my time to tell my story. I need a voice; I have a long overdue story to tell.

On the second Saturday of February 1996, I went on a date with an older man that I found intriguing. I liked him. I assumed he liked me seeing we had been on several dates prior to that dreaded evening. However, when I awoke from a drug induced knock-out, one that was not provoked by me, to find my body bruised, beaten, lacerated, soar, dying, damaged, invaded, and temporarily soul-less, I wondered if I would ever allow myself to "like" another man. I wondered if I would ever allow myself to like me again. My mother was not there to take me home; it was the way that I engineered it. No one would know for a very long time.

On that brilliantly beautiful, sunny Sunday, (isn't it funny that I could still find beauty in that morning) I awoke from a groggy dream of violence. As I began to move around I realized that I was a literal physical mess. My body hurt. My brain hurt. I was drenched in sweat and tears. Adrenaline kicked in, and I knew that I was in a bad place, a bad moment; I needed to find safe ground. A monster lay naked beside me. I hated him. It took a few piercing moments to realize exactly why I hated him. I grabbed my tattered clothing, covered myself as best as I could, careful not to wake the monster that was asleep beside me, and crept silently, shamefully back to my own dorm room. It was the longest "walk of shame" that I had ever or would ever encounter in my life. Thankfully, campus was quiet that morning except for the small sobs that escaped my swollen and bruised throat. At that exact moment, I hurt physically, emotionally, and mentally more than I could have expected my body and mind to endure. My spirit was nonexistent. (I believe that it was at this moment in my life when I might have given up on God, for he/she had given up on me. It will take years of my life to reconcile this spiritual argument.)

I returned to my dorm room to find all of the other girls not there. It had been a suitcase weekend. One silent prayer answered. I shed my clothing, wrapped them in a tattered, old bath towel, and shoved them deep in to the trashcan, which I later took to the dumpster myself. It was instinctive to hide the evidence of my shame. I was not thinking; I was operating.

I placed my body, my mind was not there, into the shower, and proceeded to scold myself physically with scorching water and what felt like a Brillo pad. I was attempting to cleanse what was left of me. The shower turned pink from the damage done. I could feel him all over me. His hands, his arms, the weight of his body, his finger nails, his penis, his mouth, the struggle. I threw up in the shower until I was nothing but a heaving convulsion. I couldn't stop. I sank to the floor of the shower until I realized that the injuries to my legs, inner thighs, and genitals could no longer take the strain I was putting on them. I was a girl trying to hold the weight of rape on her back. I was alone. I was ashamed. I was scared. I was sick. I collapsed in the shower and let the purity of water soak me. There wasn't enough purity to erase the marks left on my being. I crawled to a hunched position and stopped.

I dried off. I dressed in sweats and a turtle neck shirt. My friends and I, twenty four hours prior to this moment had called maintenance to complain that our heating unit was stuck on high. We had been spending most of our time in shorts and sports bras with the windows open. It felt like August in that room even though it was only February. With the shame of my battered body, I dressed to cloak who I had become inside and out. In short, it physically felt like the deepest level of Dante's Hell. I took a handful of Advil and chased it with a beer, smoked a cigarette, and then crawled into bed to attempt to sleep off what I was hoping was just a bad night terror. It wasn't. Shock wears off; what was to emerge and be left standing was but a shadow of who I ever thought I would become. These things didn't happen to nice, suburban girls like me. Only animalistic strangers did this to other people, not a man that I would willingly go out with. Denial is a great gift in the early stages. It helps you sleep at night. However, even denial wears off after a bit.

It was during my first attempts at sleep that episodic moments of the previous night began to connect themselves. Dinner at a local eatery. A bar in Sunny Side. A fight broke out there. He moved me out of the way so that I wouldn't get hurt. A party on Grant Street. Throughout this whole course of events I had consumed one beer at each of the locations. 3. For a college freshman at WVU that is an appetizer. At the party I remembered that I had to use the restroom. His home was across the street. He offered to escort me there to use the restroom and avoid waiting in a line at the house party.

We went to his home. I used the restroom and walked out; he gave me a beer in a glass; we began to chitchat about going back to the party. This is where the details begin to become fuzzy. Almost like a movie dream sequence. I remember bits and pieces of a violent struggle. I remember fighting hard with every ounce of strength that my body could muster under those conditions. I remember digging my perfectly manicured nails in the flesh of his back and coming back again and again to create paths of blood. It couldn't stop him; he was stronger. He was twenty seven and a former Marine returning to school on the GI Bill. I was an 18 year old girl sporting an athletic, but mere 129 lb frame. I was no match for his years and stature. He got what he wanted. Unfortunately and perhaps thankfully, my brain protects me from the finite details that take place in between each struggle and the moment of penetration. Though I don't remember all of it, I know that it happened; I still bare the scar.

Later on that Sunday, my friends returned from boyfriends' house, parents' homes, where ever they may have been. I was roused from my nightmarish coma to hear the commotion in the other room. The girls used our room as a common living area. It was our meeting place. It is where we shared our deepest darkest secrets and girlish giggles and tears. I could not share this with them. I could hardly share it with myself. Instead I listened to them tell tale of their fabulous weekends. Finally, Melonie asked me why I was so quiet and dressed in sweats and a turtle neck when the room was the same temperature of molten lava. I lied. I don't remember exactly what excuse I used, I believe it was something about a bad hangover and food poisoning that had left me with a temperature. Either way, I was not known for dishonesty, it sufficed the crowd. They asked how my date had gone. I told them in short, that he was just not that into me and he didn't want to see me again. They were furious that someone would not want to continue to date their best friend. Imagine what they would have done or been like had I told the truth at that moment. It was all too much to handle.

I lived in silence for a year. I kept my mouth shut for fear of what saying it out loud might do. I continued to hate God for those months. I began to see men as objects, for that is how I had been viewed on that night. I either dismissed them or learned to control them. My behavior by my friends, though they found it typically not me, accepted it. I turned into a diva. I would never let a man control or own my body. I made them my puppets and learned to work them they way that I found fit. I became defiant with my family and offered no excuse for my actions. I would go weeks at a time not talking to friends and family back home. I wasn't the same girl that they loved and loved them back. I became deviant in all other areas of my life. If I could make myself bad then I did that, he did not. The mind of a soul-less woman will create such illogical obstacles that it is sickening with later reflection. However, 10 years later, I can still empathize with that young girl and the decisions that she made during those 12 months.
On two separate occasions during that 12 month period I ran into our former military hero. The first time was at a local bar. I didn't realize he was there. He knew I was. He sent a beer and shot to me from across the bar. I slammed the shot before realizing who had sent it. Eye contact was made. I shuttered. I left and vomited in an alley.

The second sighting was worse. I was in the same bar a month or so later. He and his buddies walked in. I watched him. I watched him for what felt like hours; it was only minutes. I couldn't take my eyes off of this monster. He approached me, I froze in hatred. Not fear. Hatred. I glared. He thought I was flirting. Not once was a word uttered between the two of us. He approached me. He grabbed me by the hair and kissed me. I did not return his advance. Instead I got a grasp on my chair, pushed him forward and with every bit of my pent up secret punched the thing in front of me. His 6 foot 4 inch frame fell flat on his ass in the midst of bar scum. The bouncer, being a friend of mine, didn't ask questions, he simply escorted him from the bar and was told to never return. It was a small victory. This was the last time I saw him.
The following September, I met a man with who I would eventually fall deeply, madly, truly in love. For a time my love was reciprocated. He began to share his inner thoughts, dreams, fears, and shame with me. I always held back. He knew I was damaged some how and would press me to let him in. I wouldn't. I didn't know how. It was the first of his cheating moments; he found warmth in the arms and body of others who would let him in. I couldn't blame him.

On a drunken evening, a year to the day, I confided in a friend that I was keeping a dreadful secret that was hurting my relationships with everyone, friends, family, and the love of my life. I shared. I shared in evil detail. I sobbed. I vomited. I drank vodka.

Courtney convinced me that in order to start repairing the strain that had been placed between me and my girlfriends that I needed to share my story with them. She placed phone calls. In the middle of the night cabs were called and my best friends were summoned in a drunken haste to report to her apartment for an emergency meeting. She explained that one of us was hurt. My friends left their lovers. Left their half finished beers. Despite the past year, they dropped what they were doing to come and hold my hand while I admitted to the ugliest shame I could have ever admitted uttering. They held me. They loved me unconditionally. They got pissed. "God hath no fury like a group of college co-eds scorned." We drank heavily. We passed out in a heap on her floor that night amongst beer cans, empty liquor bottles, tissues, and tears. It was the beginning of liberation for the power and glory of women is truly amazing.

Eventually, I told my boyfriend. He reacted strongly. He was supportive, but supportive in a very masculine way. He tried his best. He stopped seeing the other woman. He taught me to love again. He taught me to like myself. He taught me a lot. For THAT I am grateful. The a separate narrative.

It would take longer to repair the destruction the rape and the secret had done to my parents and me. For some reason, on a winter night years later, I placed a phone call to my parents. I had not talked to them in a few weeks. My mom answered.

"Mom there is something I need to talk to you about."
"What is it Heather? Did you call to randomly yell at us again?"
"No mom. I really need you to listen."
"Fine. Go ahead." She was put out.
"Mom, February of 1996, I was date raped by the Marine. I needed to tell you this. I had to tell you this. I am sorry. I feel ugly." I came right out with it. No sugar coating in this family unit.
Silence. A long silence. A silence that last eternity.
A muffled sob. A sigh.
"Your father and I have spent 3 years trying to figure out what happened to you during that winter to make you hate everyone so much. Did you report it?"
"Why not?"
"I couldn't. I was scared, alone, and ashamed. I thought maybe that I deserved it."
"Heather! What were you are you thinking?!"
"Mom, are you going to tell my Dad?"
"Your father and I don't keep things from each other about you and Bryn."
"Mom, please don't." I am a Daddy's girl. I didn't want him to know.
"I can't make that promise to you."
"Mom I can't talk anymore about this right now. I'll call you back later to finish this conversation."

We have yet to finish that conversation. I have yet to ask her to ask me about it. She has yet to ask about it without my prompting. My mother and I are a weird dichotomy. To this day, I don't know if my father knows or not.

It would take even longer to reconcile and attempt to heal the relationship with myself. A horrid break up with the boyfriend forced me to face a few of my own personal demons. The main issue being my inability to deal appropriately with nonsexual intimacy. He once again found comfort in the arms of the former woman. With ugly words, sobs, and pleading arguments, we separated. I felt empty again. I needed something, and strength was the only idea that I could grasp. I need to borrow someone's strength.

At the time, I was taking a course on campus on Human Sexuality. It was a well designed course. However the instructor was a campus minister. Seeing that I had been arguing with God for several years, I wasnt trusting of her at first. One day after class she engaged me in a conversation. She was amazing. Smart, witty, down to earth, and she had the one element that I needed to tap into...strength.

I had an impromptu meeting with her at her office at the Campus Ministry Office. I barged into her office in hysterics. She recognized me from her class. Without words, she moved from behind her desk and embraced me. I muttered the words, "I am desperately searching for some strength. I think you may be the strongest woman I have ever met. Do you mind if I borrowed a little bit of yours?" She chuckled and told me together we would go on a journey to help me find my own. Over a period of time, I confided in her. I was honest with her. I told her EVERYTHING, all of the horrid details. The break up. The rape. The destruction I was causing myself and my family. She helped me learn to heal myself. She helped me find purpose again. She finally said the words that I didnt even know that I needed to hear. "Not all of this ugliness is your fault. You did not ask to be raped. You did not ask to fall in love with the wrong man. You did not ask to lose faith in who you are. It is your job to work on rebuilding yourself appropriately." She helped me find the tools to do just that. I learned to heal.

I still hold on to some shame, however, today my shame is different. As an adult I realize that I SHOULD have reported it. It was my job and duty to report it. It is the ONLY regret that I have about my life. However, that young girl of 18 felt that she couldn't. It is hard to reconcile that she and I are the same person. I have been relatively open with the events of that night. Not so much the emotional aftermath as the factual details. When asked about it by friends, I am honest. I rarely bring it up first unless I am having a moment where I feel secure and that the individual in front of me needs to know. Those moments are few and far between, yet they are suffocatingly powerful. I am having one of those moments now. Perhaps it is redemption for not doing what I should have done 10 years prior. We can't rewrite history. Telling my story is powerful and cathartic. It is an education to others. Education makes more informed people and safer choices will hopefully come from that education. That is what I have left to rely on, that and my conversations with God. Thankfully, she and I were able to come to an agreement on a few things.

I have always noticed patterns. Things come in threes. Several months ago I saw a billboard that is sponsored by one of the local Rape Crisis Centers. "There are three words that all victims of rape need to hear...YOU WILL HEAL." I wept in the car that day. A friend asked if I was interested in becoming a rape crisis counselor. I declined at the moment; having had a fragile moment. I cried on the way home for not feeling strong enough. Last night I read a book about a young girl who was raped in a college park on the last day of the spring semester by a man she didn't know. The next day her mother picked her up to take her home for the summer. A year later, she watched her attacker be taken away to jail for 25 plus years. I cried in her hurt, her pain, her victory, and then I decided to finally cry for my own 18 year old damaged girl.

June 12, 2006

It has been exactly a year. One year ago I made a big move from the Eastern Panhandle back to the town I ran away from 10 years prior. The last time I had lived in Charleston I was 18, angry, confused, and ready to get the hell out of my parents' house. I spent the next ten years angry, confused, and ready to get the hell out of someone's house, be it a boyfriend's house or my own brain.

I have lived an interesting adult life. Some say I should have been the first reality based TV show. If that were the case, I would have never been employable. The right people knew the right things at the right time. Some tales aren't worth telling out of school. Nonetheless, I have always been on some search, and today I woke up with a very unfamiliar feeling, and I think I am now well on my way to obtaining my goal. For the first time in my life, I woke up with a twinge in my heart that felt like contentment. I finally felt for a small moment or two that today I wouldn't have to run from something uncomfortable or attempt to create a solution. For those few seconds everything was alright in my world. What a fabulous feeling!

A year ago I moved from a quaint, artisan community snuggled in the mountains in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. I had been there for about 3 years. I moved there after doing a crazy-assed, bizarre 7 year stint in Morgantown. I LOVE Morgantown, but at the exact moment in my life I had to leave there. My life was rolling in a downward spiral of excessive partying, all the wrong men, and poor mental health. I have a crazy wonderful group of friends still there that I refer to as the family that I was able to pick. However, even their love and support wasn't quite enough for me to get my shit together. I needed to physically move myself to a safe place, a place where I could start a new and heal.

I made a decision in haste to quit the bar scene that had been paying my bills and habits, and start teaching again. Within 2 days of my decision I had applied, interviewed, been made an offer, accepted the offer, and was looking for living arrangements in a town I had NEVER been to or heard of before! A lot of sad goodbyes, and one week later I was living in the world's smallest town and smiling through tears of unexpectedness.

For the first week I lived in a one room cottage, and the closeness of that room forced me to begin a process that I was desperately needing to do, yet didn't quite no how to do it. I began getting to know myself, I tried really hard to like myself, I wanted to learn to love myself the way that the people in my life thought I should love myself. Obviously, this can't be done in a week. I had 20 some odd years to work through. It was just in that physical place at that exact moment I was able to finally get some of the noise to stop and breathe. It was scary. It was obscene. It was liberating.

I remember my first night there. I was miserable. I hated my life more at that moment than ever. The only difference was that my brain was clear enough to listen to the misery. It was the first time it had been that clear in years. Not wanting to accept defeat and admit to making yet another huge mistake, I didn't want to call my parents. However, I needed to call someone familiar. I called the bar in Morgantown instead and asked for a daily update of what the regulars had been up to and how everyone was. A small egomaniacal moment...I was hoping that life didn't continue on there without me. It did, thankfully. Deep down I knew that mine was going to continue as well. I hung up and did something I hadn't done in years. I called my mom, but it wasn't our typical "Heather just called mom to appease her" phone call. I called my mom because I wanted to. I called my mom because I just needed my mom. I called my mom because we had been working for a couple of years on getting through and getting on. She answered the phone to listen to a sobbing daughter tell her how miserable she was. How she knew that she needed to be miserably alone for a while before anything was going to be okay again. My mom listened. She didn't try to fix it. (Perhaps we had both hit a level of enlightenment that day.) She listened and breathed with me. She said the right words at the right time. "You will learn to be okay if you would just learn to listen to what your heart tells you that you need." In that small one bedroom cottage, located in a town that I never had heard of before, isolated not only by the mountains, but from everything that was ever familiar to me, I began to listen to what some people refer to as your heart song.

My heart song kept me in this safe haven for three years. I met wonderful people, accomplished wonderful goals, and created life long friends and memories there. I can't tell you what a therapeutic place Berkeley Springs is. There is some type of energy there that you can't explain and wouldn't want to. You just have to experience it for yourself. It truly is a beautiful place. I began to get healthy in this place. I learned a lot about what I used to be, who I currently was, and who I wanted to become. I learned that being angry is useless unless you use that emotion to fuel some sort of proactive behavior. I learned that sometimes it is okay to feel like shit; you just need to know that it isn't okay to stay feeling like that. I learned there that it is okay to trust people and if the trust level is broken life will continue, it is just one more life lesson to put in your repertoire. I learned unconditional love. I learned respect. I learned professionalism. I learned a great deal. Then I got antsy...

I began feeling like things were going too well for me. I needed to shake my life up again. I needed a new challenge. I was feeling to good there, like I was hiding out or something. I needed SOMETHING. The greatest challenge that I could think of was to move to Charleston where I had run from before. I knew that my parents were leaving there for at least 5 years due to a job offer that my father couldn't refuse. I knew that my sister and grandmother were there. One of my best friends from college was living with my sister and I desperately missed Jeremy. I had several friends from pre-school to high school that I still kept in touch with. I figured what the hell?! Lets rock and roll.

I moved here and within the first week I was screaming "What the fuck?! What had I done?! " I had friends, but didn't have any friends of my own. The people that I ran around with were always friends of friends. I kept running into creepy blasts from my past. I didn't care for my job at first. Loved my students, but kept comparing it to the first placement. I was already pulling out the map looking for my next crazy adventure. I kept telling myself to slow down and breathe, that it takes about 1 year to really get your feet on the ground. I have been counting down the days to the one year with gritted teeth, then this morning I wake up and realize that I have been here for a year. When did I quit counting? I feel content. When did this happen?

It must have happened a few months ago without my realization. I realized this morning that somewhere along the way I decided that it was all going to be okay. Life will work out the way it is suppose to. I like my job. I like the life style. And in the process I have made myself a friend to myself and developed a peer group that is strong in character, funny in personality, brilliant in the intellect department and uniquely different from one another. Lawyers, paralegals, political movers and shakers, teachers, doctors, nurses, scientists, artsy fartsies, mothers, fathers, number crunchers, suits, dredlocks, you name it; they are it. They all have their own story to tell. They all add something to this world. They all are working on the same goal that I am...listening to their heart song. For that I am thankful today. For them I am thankful today. With these thoughts on the forefront of my mind this morning, I realize that today will be a good day. You can't ask for much more. Today for the first time in a long time I think I am going to stay right where I am. I don't want to be anywhere else other than HOME.

Collector's Item

Collector's Item

I watch you sleep in my bed tonight and wonder,
What am I going to do with you?
I could put you on the shelf
where I have put the ones before you.
No, dust does not suit you.

I could place you under the glass with Mother's thimbles.
No, there are no pricking needles.

Maybe in the book with Daddy's stamps.
No, age won't turn your corners up.

I remind myself that you are a man,
not a neglected doll.

Why didn't I think that with the others?
I left them to rest there.

One day they were just gone.
I never thought much about it.

I think you might be different.

-Heather McChesney

August 23, 2006

Have you really had a teacher? One that saw you as a raw but precious thing, a jewel that, with wisdom, could be polished to a proud shine? If you are lucky enough to find your way to such teachers, you will always find your way back. Sometimes it is only in your head. Sometimes it is right along side their beds.

The last class of my old professors life took place once a week, in his home, by a window in his study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink flowers. The class met on Tuesdays. No books were required. The subject was the meaning of life. It was taught from experience.

The teaching goes on.

In an attempt to have my students reflect on the people that have made an impact on their lives, I read to them Tuesdays With Morrie at the end of the term. I ask them, Have you met your Morrie yet? Tell me about them. My heart swells with stories of grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters, ministers, and yes, sometimes even a teacher that is found within a classroom. Inevitably, they ask me about my Morrie. Though prepared for the question, I always weep.

MKJ was my junior and senior English teacher in high school. She saved me in a way. She very much saw me as a raw and precious thing. She saw something in me that I was unable to see. I was a difficult teenager. I acted out. I questioned everything. I pushed boundaries. To make it worse, I was a very smart kid with an even smarter attitude. She was relentless and never gave up on me. I vividly remember a football game when she grabbed me by the shirt, took me to my parents, and said, "John and Cindy, when you kick her out of your house, and you know you should, she has a room at my house. Together we will help her find her potential."

I was shocked that a. she said that to my parents, b. she really was willing to put me up if my parents put me out, and c. she actually cared. It was a slow process, one that would take years, but eventually I figured out what she was talking about...the reaching my own potential.

MKJ and I kept in contact for years via email and the occassional visits. I updated her frequently, but like many times, life starts to get in the way. Too busy to return the email or phone call. Computers crash and email addresses are lost. After a few years, I desperately tried to get in contact with MKJ. No response. I was convinced that I had dissappointed her or worse that something tragic had happened to her. Eventually through the grapevine I heard that she had retired due to health issues. I was really unsure as to what had happened to MKJ.

However, today as I was walking down the hall lost in thought, I literally ran into someone in the hallway. I looked up and it was MKJ! Immediately we hugged and both wept. Her first words, "Where have you been?! You are one of the ones that sits in my heart!" We briefly caught up and traded every bit of contact information that either of us could provide to insure that we NEVER lose contact again. I called my mom soon after and cried again. My mom said, "Remember, I always told you everything happens for a reason!"

This afternoon I immediately sat down and sent MKJ a very long email updating her on my life and asking about hers. I want to share with you the last paragraph of what I wrote to her today.

I am so excited to be in contact with you again. I can't thank you enough for making a huge difference in my life, not just in high school, but even when I was deciding a degree program, a profession, deciding what kind of adult I wanted to become, and more importantly, when I am making decisions about my kids on what really matters. Your influence has reached beyond me and has helped me be a better person and teacher and in turn helped to make many a student success story. My kids always ask me who my mentor/role model is. I always say the women in my family and my most favorite teacher, MKJ! As a repayment I have made a decision "to pay it forward". That is how we change the world.

I am so excited that this year, when I am asked who my Morrie is not only will I tell them about this woman, I will be able to tell them of our reconnection and our on going friendship. Not only was I lucky enough to find her the first time, she returned!

I do indeed believe our own personal Morries help us to change the world one small moment at a time. I hope you all take the time to think about the question I pose to my students at the end of reading the book...who is your Morrie? I hope that you are able to share your stories and pay it forward as well.

Dancing Lessons

"Dance. Dance.
Wherever you may be.
I am the Lord of the Dance," said He.
"And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be.
And I'll lead you all in the Dance," said He.

Singin' and dancin', that is what our two-story house located just on the outskirts of town was always filled with. From the front window you could see Mom in the kitchen shakin' her rounded hips, singin' along with the radio. Bryn, the younger of the two of us, in that small kitchen standin' there, shakin' and smilin'. Her hair flippin' in her face as she attempted to minic the moves our Mom was makin'. Dad, asleep in the faded recliner, always layin' there with his ratty headphones coverin' his ears. I never could figure out if it was to drown out the rest of us, or if he really was listenin' to somethin'. By the rhythmic beat of his obnoxious snorin', I think it was safe to assume that some type of delightful music was fillin' his unconscious mind.

I am the one you could see standin' there, watchin' it all. The observer you might say. Not that I couldn't or wouldn't dance, sing, and carry along with the bunch; I just like to watch most of the time, that's all. Standin' there. Takin' it all in. Thinkin' and watchin'. Lost in the music that was fillin' my own mind. Then Mom would take a breather from all of her loud singin', with her hips still swingin', she would throw out her invitation.

"Heather, life's a dance! Come here, girl, let's see ya live!"

That was all I needed. I'd find my beat, and with one hippy, hippy shake, I was out on that old linoleum dance floor, livin' with the rest of them. And boy did we live.

My two-story house at the end of Woodvale wasn't the only house filled with life. A mere five or six miles away you could almost bet the same thing was goin' on within the walls of another home. It was just a different type of dancing, a different type of living. It was my grandparents' house. It was my grandparents' kind of living. The kind that took your breath away and made your heart pitterpatter with the hopes of doing it that same way some day. My grandparents didn't just dance, they loved. And as they loved, they would twirl and loop around, moving to the beat of their own kind of music. Grammy and Puddy, as they were known by the family, could make anything look easy and natural, whether they were dancing a magnificently, graceful waltz, a sly, sexy foxtrot, or a jitterbug that would knock your bobby socks off. It didn't matter. They were good. It made you wish you were that good. Watching them, watch each other, as they lived and loved all over the living room was like watching the most beautiful love story unfold right before your very eyes. It was this love and life that trickled down and molded our family. Our grandparents gave us our first dancing lessons, our lesson on life.

There did come a time when the dancing stopped and the music began to fade. A time when we all were the students of the greatest lesson of all. Parkinson's desease had silently crept in and Puddy's body was being held hostage. His spirit was alive, but his body was loosing the battle. His dancing shoes lay in the corner collecting dust. Time seemed to be passing in slow motion. Our family couldn't seem to find the beat anymore.

On one frigid, wintry day, while my grandfather lie in the starched sheets of a hospital bed, I sat in the sill of my oversized window in my own apartment. Below, on the street, cars passed and couples held hands. I fell back in a time warp of a childhood memory, my first dancing lesson.
My grandfather, with his outstretched arms, and I, barely tall enough to reach his waist, follow his lead and dance in the living room.

"1-2-3. 1-2-3. 1-2-3."

I step on his toes, but he pays no attention.

The music plays and still he counts, "1-2-3. 1-2-3. 1-2-3."

I am a princess as I spin around and around the room in my grandfather's arms.

"All ladies must know how to properly dance on their wedding days," he instructs in his charming manner as he continues to glide us around and around and around. I pay close attention to every move that we make and to the words that he speaks.

The telephone jars me from my memory, and a the music fades from my ears, I am left with the sadness, knowing that he will not be there to lead me on my day. I answer the dreadful telephone, knowing that the time has come.

The family is circled around an impersonal hospital bed. The staleness of sterilization is ecompassing our senses. I lean over and a tear kisses my grandfather's cheek. A smile takes over his dying face, and a spark flickers in his eye.

"Heather, old girl, we will be dancing on your wedding day. Won't we?"

I smile and kiss him goodbye, "Yes, Puddy. Yes, we will."

Today I hear a tune from long ago. I stand, stretch out my arms, grasp my imaginary partner's hand, and begin.

"1-2-3. 1-2-3. 1-2-3," I count out loud, just as I was taught when I was a young girl.
I twirl around and around. I dance like I have never danced before.

Still stepping on toes, I whisper to myself, "Yes, Puddy. Yes, we will."