Wednesday, August 27, 2014

To the Teachers!

Do you remember your favorite teacher? I had several, from Mr. Engle my wonderful sixth grade English teacher, to Madame Kohn, thanks to whom I can still read (if not still speak) French, to Sister Mary Frances, who led the chorus, and also taught us about the philosopher Teilhard De Chardin.

My sister Mo and me the night of our chorus concert "Neath a Southern Moon"--Sister Mary Frances was ambitious!

  Each of my kids had some stand-out educators. Sheridan's first grade teacher Mrs. Weldon was a saint who also made learning fun, and annually directed the little ones in a play (Sher's year it was "The Happy Healthy Club." If memory serves, Sheridan played the role of a tooth.) She also let them watch Dennis the Menace cartoons while they ate snack, so she was popular indeed.

 Evan's fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Koch, worked hard to get him organized. At the first parent-teacher meeting, I walked in to the classroom and immediately located his sweatshirt, his jacket, a "missing" library book and so on. As I sat down with the stuff, she smiled and said, "Three guesses what I'd like to talk about!" It took the Naval Academy to finally pull him together, but it all began with Mrs. Koch.

Rose had a real gem for speech and debate her freshman year of high school, Mr. Redican. He challenged the students to become fine writers and even finer public speakers. I've saved several of her speeches, including one where she taught the class how to surf. Though Rose skewed more toward music than drama, I credit Mr. Redican for much of her poise in front of a crowd.

PJ had two amazing teachers in fourth and fifth grades, both men. At Mr. Goldberg’s "Fast Finishers" evenings, each child told the story of someone who overcame great odds to succeed. Mr. G would wear a tux to these events. Mr. Dillon was "so cool," and often told the kids about his many dogs and funky house, along with the math and science. I credit Goldberg and Dillon with PJ's decision to become a teacher.

Among Julie's instructors, one I recall very fondly was Mrs. Irvin, her kindergarten teacher. She was the gentlest, most nurturing soul ever. Julie (who was going through a shy phase) adored her and participated eagerly in all class activities, just because Mrs. Irvin asked her to.

Jules and Mrs. Irvin
 I get very annoyed when I think of how teachers are often regarded in this country. In many places they are woefully underpaid. I sometimes hear people talk about what a cushy job it is, with summers off, and I flash to the twelve hour (or longer) workdays that begin with early morning class and end with grading papers far into the night. I saw what goes into preparing lesson plans when PJ did his student teaching. It is one of the most important jobs there is, opening the world of learning to our children, and I wish we would treat it as such.

So here’s to the teachers, as the school bells ring again. God bless them, every one.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Heart of Darkness

Me on Lewes Beach 2006. ipod in my ear 24/7 to drown out the noises in my head

 A few months ago, I suddenly stopped taking my medication. There is no rational reason; I make no excuses. I had been on Abilify and Wellbutrin since 2007. Those two meds had worked wonders controlling my bipolar disorder, and I’d been so stable for so long that I thought it would be OK to quit. I had been feeling flat and emotionless, and I wanted to feel strongly about things again. And after all, it had been seven years—wasn’t there a good chance I was “cured” now? 

During my brief, prescription-free hiatus, I cried, a LOT. I awoke feeling crushing despair, and nothing good that happened during the day alleviated that overpowering emotion. I didn’t experience any manic episodes (those had been my hallmark, pre-diagnosis), but I was plunged back into the depressive part of my illness. The deep, deep sadness never lifted until I got myself back to the psychiatrist and went back on the meds—and even then, it took a while to feel any improvement.

I’m back to “normal,” but I live with the knowledge that someday pharmaceuticals may stop working for me, even if I keep taking them faithfully. I am haunted by the memory of the feeling of complete joylessness, of hopelessness, and I cannot bear the thought of ever going back to that dark place. 

My mom also battled depression, many years ago. In those days, mental illness had even more of a stigma than it does today—Mom didn’t even tell her own mother. When Mom finally saw a doctor, she told him she had to stop herself from walking in front of a bus; it was that bad.

So when I heard about Robin Williams, I thought: how terribly hard it must have been to be loving and giving and funny and productive, all those years, all the while battling this monster called depression that I couldn’t handle myself.  He was living in the dark place, that place where it seems there is no way out. And I understood why he would be sad enough to finally take his life.  

Mom and I survived. We were the lucky ones. Robin Williams, and too many others, were not.  I look at my own kids and worry about their mental health. We talk very openly about our family history, and they know it’s absolutely OK to ask for help if and when they need it. 

Centuries ago, people like us were said to be possessed by demons.  In a way, they were absolutely right. With luck and the right treatment, the demons can be defeated. But sometimes, despite everything, the demons win.

Jesus heals woman possessed by demons
It is my prayer that our world will someday become a place where no one suffers alone, where everyone can get help.  And I believe, with all my heart, that in the end, there is a Heaven where the demons are banished for good, and where all the sufferers step out of the dark place at last, and into the light.