Hiking Montana

I was an overweight kid, and my least favorite class was gym, or physical education, as it is euphemistically called. My least favorite week of the school-year was the week of physical fitness testing: no pull-ups for this fat girl, only marginally more sit-ups, and if I could be violently ill on the day of the dreaded “600,” that was all good…until I had to make it up the next time I was in attendance. At least I didn’t come in last since I was the only one “running.”

An overweight, asthmatic (diagnosed in adulthood), I was always the last person to complete the torturous 600 meters around the track, often forced to face the ridicule of my classmates, especially the boys. Gym teachers took little pity on me, probably just as disgusted with my poor physical condition as my juvenile classmates.

I started smoking around 12 years old, and by the time I reached the age of majority, I was fully addicted to nicotine, a fantastic accomplishment for an overweight asthmatic. With the exception of about a year when I was pregnant with my son, I smoked until the age of 34, finally succumbing to the intense pressure to conform to appropriate social norms and give up the devil.

About this time, which would have been the latter half of 1996, I decided to get serious about exercise. Previously, my attempts at physical fitness had been sporadic and mostly related to weight loss. In 1989, at the age of 27, I finally got sick and tired of being fat and tired and joined Weight Watchers, losing fifty pounds in six months. During that time, I did exercise occasionally, but I was also smoking, so my weight loss can be mostly attributed to calorie restriction. When I quit smoking in 1996, I gained back about twenty of the fifty pounds I had previously lost, and in order to get back to a desirable weight, I started walking. The exercise had a two-fold effect: it helped with my weight loss efforts, and it also helped distract me from my addiction. The healthier I got, the more I had to lose if I reverted to unhealthy behaviors, so it became a new, healthy preoccupation.

Sometime previous to this, I saw a doctor about my allergies and asthma and got treatment and medications for my breathing problems. As my walking picked up, I gradually started jogging, and soon, my jogging became regular running. I began running up to six miles a day, which helped me drop my weight back to my goal of 138 pounds. For several months, I ran Highway 89N between Clyde Park and Wilsall, always trying to improve my speed and/or distance. Sometime around the year 2000, I developed a stress fracture in my pelvis requiring eight weeks of nothing more rigorous than walking. I put back a few pounds.

Since then, my weight has gone down. Today, I consistently weigh in the 140 range though I can fluctuate five pounds either way. I have not had any tobacco products in 22 years, and my nutrition is constantly informed by my training in Weight Watchers. I whole-heartedly endorse the program that gave me a “normal” life, twenty-nine years ago. Though I am now vegetarian, I eat a normal diet, one that sometimes includes indulgences, and I always eat food I enjoy. More than anything else, though, I credit physical activity with my ability to maintain a healthy weight.

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This last weekend, I hiked with Mark on Friday and Saturday, and today, I logged four miles on the walking path near my house. Tomorrow we’ve planned another hike. For someone who used to dread the 600 meter fitness run, I’ve come to love, really love, the exertion and challenge of cardio exercise, especially the zen-like results of a hike in Montana. More even than the physical benefits, of which there are many, the mental and emotional benefits of hiking Montana cannot be over-stated. Some people would claim that I tend to emotional extremes, and that’s probably an accurate assessment, but I am much calmer now than I was as a teenager, and I often wonder how different my early years might have been if I had known the calming power of a walk in Montana’s natural beauty. The peacefulness is part of it, the beauty, the challenge, the vastness of Montana’s natural spaces, the quiet, the forced focus on the here and now, the demand that other stuff be relegated to later. All of that, and more, is part of the magic.

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I thought about that today while on my walk, listening to Staind, one of my favorite stations on Pandora. I thought about it again when Mark asked me to meet him tomorrow afternoon for a hike: I felt the endorphins spike in response to the stimuli. My teenage self could not have known that at age 55, I would be healthier than at any other point in my life. She could not have known how the prospect of a five-mile hike in 40 degree weather would be the equivalent of a date at the movies. She would have been very hopeful.

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I remember, as a young kid, longing for the day when I would be forty years old. At that age, I reasoned, I would be a grandma and it wouldn’t matter to anyone if I was fat: how wrong I was and how sad that I thought my joy in life would be as a fat grandma, feeding my grandchildren cookies. Turns out I haven’t gotten any grandchildren yet, but more importantly, the last thing I want to do is bake cookies. There are mountains to climb, rivers to ford, trails to follow, and many places to get lost. Love where you live.

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SOT (State of the Teacher Address)

Lately, I’ve had a bit of writer’s block going on, and the more one worries about writer’s block, the worse it gets. “I haven’t written in months…how can I be a good model if I can’t put a couple sentences together?” These are the thoughts I’ve entertained most days for at least several weeks in a row. So, here I am, preparing my State of the Teacher Address, and wondering how I’ll navigate this treacherous territory.

I’ve noticed that most click-bait blogs today have “? Number of things you should do, know, whatever, if you’re this…” I don’t know: it draws me in because there’s a limit, I guess. So here goes:

Ten things you should do when addressing the throngs of adoring students and other random readers (yeah, I’m talking to you, Brazil) who haphazardly end up on Karenhendersonblog.com.

  1. First, realize that it’s been a while, and if this post is essentially lame, people will forgive you. After all, they’re not going to read it much longer anyway.
  2. Throw them a morsel of bait: my personal life is undergoing transition…I’m kind of lost right now.
  3. Tell them how important they are to you: Oh, god…you guys…is there any way I could possibly explain the emotional reward I get from working with students, day in and day out for several months at a time, knowing that you hate me with the fires of hell at midterm but at the end realize it was all for your own good, that I sacrificed my own social life to grade your papers and help you improve your communication skills, all in service to your overall achievement??
  4. Tell the truth: That is the truth. Really.
  5. Support it with evidence: I have the evidence; I have the data that show that our students go on to do amazing things, both at the university level and in the workplace. I helped make that possible. Students we’ve sent to Missoula tell me they were well-prepared for the rigors of university work, that they never once felt behind or under-prepared or “less than” their university peers. This isn’t only my efforts, but this is the efforts of my colleagues, good men and women who truly take their rewards from the successes of their students.
  6. More evidence: It happens nearly every day; someone tells me that something I said, something I did, something has inspired them to keep trying, keep working, keep striving. Sometimes it comes in messages from other students, like it did today, about comments overheard somewhere about how my influence, my presence in someone’s life was meaningful and made a difference. I never know when that sweet gem of love will descend on me, but it happens frequently enough that I know to be patient when things are mostly dark and complicated.
  7. Students love hearing about my personal life, my loves and my losses, especially my losses. They rally around like fans at a rock concert and give me dating advice, offering both X and Y chromosome insight. That love is almost enough…
  8. Remember, students, college life is temporary. It’s sweet—difficult at times—but this is a time in your lives you’ll never repeat. College is temporal; you’ll move on, join the real world, and this life will be a memory of stressful tests, annoying homework, strong social involvement, and intense relationships. The real world is somewhat different, which is why I’ve yet to join it.
  9. What you’re doing now matters, too. Often, people delay their own dreams and hopes and desires because they’re looking down the road. There’s nothing wrong with that—necessarily—but today, this minute and the minute that just passed…you’ll never get them back. They’re gone. How did you experience those minutes? Were they wasted in bitterness or barely acknowledged at all? Pay attention to the now.
  10. Know that I love you: you are more than my job; you are more than random faces moving through the semesters of my life (because I am a perennial college student who refuses to give up the life); you are real humans with names, faces, families, problems, hopes, dreams, and challenges, and no matter how many students will intersect my life, everyone of you leaves a piece of yourself behind with me, and each of you take a piece of me with you into your futures (don’t try to do the math; the DNA thing would be very complicated). This job is so challenging that no amount of money could really compensate me, but it is also so rewarding that nothing else will ever satisfy me.

Go into the world and do well, but more importantly, go into the world and do good, and make sure you come back some day and say hello.

Thankful Thanksgiving

It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I posted something here. I’m the writing teacher, should probably be a little more consistent in my posts…

In my defense, it’s been “one of those” semesters. Without belaboring the details, let me just say I’ve found renewed reasons to be thankful. Let’s get started.

It’s Thanksgiving, almost, in less than six hours. In the spirit of the season, I’ve been thinking about what I’m thankful for, and not surprisingly, the word “people” comes to mind. I am thankful for my family. Like most families, we’ve had our differences over the years, and very often, I feel kind of “out of the loop.” I’m that relative, the one who lives away, the one who’s always been different, the one that no one understands. I get that. I don’t understand myself, so it’s all good. Nevertheless, my sisters are solid supporters and my mom is, well, my mom. Moms never give up on their kids. We had a great time this summer when my mom visited me in Montana City, and one year after my dad’s death, all of us are starting to recalibrate our lives.

Other family…my cousins, I think I’m the luckiest woman in the world when it came to DNA relatives. I get so much love and support from people who are related to me only by a parent…and I never, ever, take that for granted. I’ll call them out: Paula, Lisa, Susan, Joselle, Gayle, Nikki, and Jamie. Jamie, more than any other person, saw me through the pain of the last year, not only supporting me but sometimes calling me on my shit, saying, “Karen…what’s the truth here?” These women are truly selfless and loving and…family.

These people are the foundation of my life, the ones who allow me to have any sense of who I am. However, none of these people live and interact with me daily. Let me mention Mark. We met online in May, both of us a little nervous about another round with love, but we connected with our mutual love for the outdoors. We both have histories, stuff in our lives we’d rather not revisit. We both have sons, which gives us something in common other than our love for hiking and kayaking. We both have jobs that interfere with being together. This is the reality, but we’ve had fun together and enjoy each other, and so far, things are working pretty well. My mom thinks he’s nice because he sends her snapchats frequently. I’m happy my mom likes him.

Then there’s my work: this is where I get most of my sense of self, my confidence, my joy, my motivation. Without my work, I’d not know who I am or what I should try to accomplish. It seems kind of wild considering I didn’t start this gig until ten years ago…and then it was only part-time as a graduate student. This year, especially, I’ve seen the rewards of years of growth, from that insecure, uncertain English teacher in 2007 (which, by the way, my journal confirms was a conflicted, confused individual), to the relatively secure, sure English teacher of 2017. Maybe knowing what one doesn’t know is the key. When I mention my work, what I’m really focusing on is my students. They know who they are: we had a semester that should never happen. We were attacked in a way that is unconscionable, unbelievable, unfair. There were others involved, too, who suffered the effects of being subjected to scrutiny only because of their association with us, and yet we prevailed. And no matter any legal outcome or any professional scrutiny, I know…with 100% certainty…that I have made a difference in the lives of people who are not as “connected” [as if I am] or as well off, or as educated as I have been. I have helped to empower the next generation of people who will continue to question those in power, those with the authority, earned or not. And, oh, by the way, my students in writing are doing amazing, academic, smart, powerful work, and to think that I have had the privilege of inspiring that kind of scholarship…it just does not get any better.

Thank you, universe, or whomever is in charge. On Thanksgiving Day, I’m very grateful.

Checking In: Fall 2017

We just passed the midterm of the semester, and I’ve written here exactly once since school began. “Where have you been, Henderson?” would not be an inappropriate question, and I do have some pretty good answers.

First, for much of the fall semester, I was a member of the hiring committee for the President of the University of Montana; an honor beyond my status in most ways, I was fortunate enough to represent Helena College in the process. I can say with complete confidence, I’m excited about our new President, Seth Bodnar. I think he’s going to bring a lot to the university and a diversity of thought that we need. I can’t wait for him to take over, and I know a lot of people feel that way.

Secondly, I’ve been in Missoula for not only meetings of the committee but also for football games! Mark is a Grizzly fan from way back and holds season tickets. As a hanger-on, I get to attend the home games when he’s going, which has been most of the time. I think we’ve missed one. It’s been fun; I’d never been to a live college football game before, having been a nontraditional, studies-focused student when I attended MSU and not one who made football a priority, except when Adam played in high school.

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Speaking of Adam, we met up a couple times this semester in Missoula, and I got to meet my grand-dog, Virgil, who has been challenging Adam in his parenting skills and patience. He’s a cute little guy, though—Virgil, that is—and reminded me why babies are so cute: otherwise, they’d never live to the teen years, and by then we’ve invested so much into them that we have to see it all play out.

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I also met up with my bestie, June, one time when I was there for committee meetings. She proudly showed me that I have been elevated to the status of having my photo on her mantle, not an insignificant feat, and I had to take a picture—of our picture—to prove it. We had a great visit and since had many phone conversations about school, work, families, and boyfriends, real and imagined.

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It won’t surprise anyone to know I’ve been working a lot, too. Work involves a variety of facets, above and beyond daily classroom activities. My clubs, specifically, demand a lot of my time and energy but also motivate and energize me by our accomplishments. The Helena Helm published its fourth and fifth editions this fall (sixth edition coming next week, God willing and the creeks don’t rise), and its FIRST EVER print edition the beginning of October. Considering that we started out with a ragtag group of journalist-wannabes (including and especially me!) who had no idea where to begin, to now having both online and print editions of quality news and entertainment and the collaboration of the Helena College Tech Club, which is helping us set up a new web-presence and domain, I think we have made amazing progress, and I could not be prouder of the students behind it. Joy, our editor, was also the inspiration behind the newspaper, but we’ve got some new blood this year who promise to add intrigue and levity to our otherwise scholarly publication. Here’s our new site:

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TRIO Club S2S has already accomplished a significant amount of work this fall. We partnered with the Helena College Psych/Soc Club for the NAMI Walk and had good fun doing it. We have several projects we’re working on for the future, including the first ever CAT/GRIZ Face-Off on November 18th. A family-friendly event, it will be an alcohol-free (hey, you can’t have everything!) event on the Helena College campus, open to faculty, staff, students, families, and friends of Helena College. Potluck will be the menu, with TRIO S2S providing dessert and drinks and featuring our “world-famous” photo booth, complete with swag generously donated by the MSU and UM Alumni Associations. During the event (and prior to, for a few weeks), we will also hold a food-drive for the Helena Food Bank, placing bins around campus for food donations dedicated to a specific team. No matter who wins the game, the winner of the food drive will retain bragging rights on HC campus, and the ultimate winner will be Helena Food Bank and those who need food donations during the Thanksgiving season.

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TRIO S2S has another event in the coming weeks: a dedication of our memorial trees (one on each campus) to students who’ve attended Helena College and died during or soon after they left the college. In my five and a half, almost six years, I know of at least six students who’ve been in my classes at some point (two of them at the time of their deaths) who have died. Last fall, with the death of Joe, I asked TRIO S2S to take on some kind of memorial for those students, and they did. It was not a project without challenges and obstacles, sometimes daunting ones, but through persistence, resilience, and determination, we managed to plant two trees and order two very heavy bronze plaques (“these will last 200 hundred years!” said the man at Crown Trophy) dedicated to the memory of students we’ve lost. Wherever I go, whatever I do in the future, this is something meaningful, tangible, honest, and important that I had a hand in. Doesn’t get much better than that.

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The rest of the semester is likely to whiz by just like the first part has. Next week will offer up some difficult memories for me from last year, as we will mark one year since my dad has passed and nearly one year since I began a new life as an unmarried woman. I’m optimistic that 2018 will be a good year, and I’m fairly confident that I will be busy. There’s that. 😊

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And So It Begins…

Students in Writ 095 are currently working on their blogs. The first assignment is an “About Me” piece. Simple, right? Maybe not. “Pay attention to length,” said I, “and grammar and mechanics matter. This is a writing class, after all…”

What about you, Teach? (Spoken in a true, Vinnie Barbarino accent…look it up, you young’uns). Yeah, so I have been teaching at Helena College for five and a half years now, was tenured this last May, and plan to die in my heels. In other words, I’m pretty sure this is my last professional stop, despite my young age…and I have no plans to permanently retire. At some point, I’ll cut back to 3/4 time or part time…but teaching runs through my blood as much as merlot. Not gonna get loose of me in the immediate future.

So, teaching, English, writing, literature, learning, all these are some of my priorities in life. Student success is my biggest celebration, and I would not quit teaching if I were rich, but I’d like to try rich for a while…

I live alone, but I do have a cockatiel who’s my companion. His name is Leo, short for Leonardo, and he and I have weathered 20 plus years together. I have a son who’s 30 years old, and an ex-husband who I don’t write about but who was an important part of 25-plus years of my life. My other passions are hiking, kayaking, music, reading, and teaching, not in that order.

Fall semester 2017 is a new experience for me: it’s the first fall semester, ever, that I’ve entered college with the status of “single.” It’s the first fall semester that I’ve entered college without my dad. It’s not that my dad was especially critical to my teaching, but he was critical to my sense of self: I always had a mom and dad (lucky, I know). He died last October 31st. Every day since then has been, “the first _____ since Dad died.” November 1st will change that, but October 31st will be a tough day for me to survive.

You want to know “about me”? I was a mediocre high school student who grew into a pretty darn smart mom, who became a really smart college student who excelled, who became a competent, committed, caring college teacher, who lives her life to the best of her abilities without regret. Let’s get to work.

Fall Semester 2017

I know people who love fall (Gina!), and though it’s not my favorite season (summer!), it ranks as number two for me. As we move through August, into September, we are in that season between seasons. Wasps remind us that winter is coming and will kill all those annoying insects for a few months’ reprieve. Trees begin to turn, the tops usually start first, just a few golden leaves then gradually more. The mornings…have you noticed? This morning was unusually cool, close to 50 degrees when I rose, too cool to run in my usual tank top; I wore sleeves. No one in western Montana can escape the smoke right now, which is also an indication of fall, at least over the last several years. And if you’re a teacher…well, you’re only too aware that summer is coming to an end. One of the first questions I get from teacher-friends is “are you ready?” It’s a silly question; I’m not ready and never will be, but this fall, for me, is different.

My dad’s birthday was September 1st; this is the first one since I’ve been alive that he won’t be. If you’ve lost a parent or someone very close to you, you understand the “firsts” that occur throughout the year that follows the loss. This is the first birthday; in June was the first Father’s Day. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, my sisters’ and my birthdays, Mother’s Day, their anniversary, all of those passed during this first year, too. This year will be the first Halloween, the day he died, one year ago. My sister, Terri, always loved Halloween more than almost any holiday. I wonder how she’ll experience this coming one.

It seems cliché; my relationship with my father was strained, and now I regret that. Of course, I do. That’s how it works, and I’m not special. Many people before me have experienced the same thing, which is why it’s cliché. We like to believe we’re an evolved species, but I wonder about that. Even when we know better, we continue to make the same mistakes. It’s a form of hubris, I think, a very common human foible. Each of us believes we are the exception somehow.

I enter the fall semester of 2017 with trepidation. Last fall was one of my worst, personally, and one my best, professionally. I hate to think that one precludes the other, but it seemed to work that way. Aside from the fact that my dad is gone, I enter fall semester as an unmarried woman, the first time in twenty-four years. Nearly all of my personal relationships have undergone significant change; some didn’t survive my divorce, some resulted from my divorce, and some are still in transition. In many ways, I’m a different woman than the one who returned to campus for convocation 2016. I hope I’m not hardened; I hope I’m still the Pollyanna optimist I’ve always been, but I’m not sure…

I struggled after Dad died, and the memorial ceremony was one of my worst experiences. My marriage was crumbling, my dad had died unexpectedly, and emotionally, I was a wreck. I survived it, but that was all. Since I don’t live close, I was not there when his cremains were installed in the cemetery, and though I’d been to Billings several times, I never stopped at the cemetery. I thought about it; I wanted to, but I didn’t, until Sunday.

Mark and I went to Billings for a party to celebrate my sister Julie’s new firepit. I told him before we left that I wanted to stop in Laurel and see my dad’s final resting place. On the way home, I got involved in a phone call and forgot my plans (I wonder…), but Mark didn’t. He turned off in Laurel and found his way to the cemetery where we located my dad. It was August 6th, so nine months plus after he’d died. I guess that’s how long it took me to be ready, and I’m not going to apologize for that. To whom would I apologize anyway? Like many other examples I could conjure, I’m frequently late in my ability to make sense of things; I’m a pretty smart person, but sometimes it takes me a while to process.

A few years ago, my dad started playing on the internet. Soon, he discovered memes and “fake news,” which annoyed the living hell out of me. Political opposites, I finally told him to stop sending me that shit, which to his credit, he did. Occasionally, he’d send me something he thought I’d enjoy, and one email message he sent me remains in my “inbox,” and I revisit it from time to time. It’s incredibly emotional for me because I love Andre’ Rieu, I love strings, I love this song, and I loved my dad. See if you can get through it without tears; I can’t. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1yfX6VnrSU

Fall semester 2017 is coming, like it or not. I guess I need to get ready.

The Things We Never Say

In just over three weeks, I’ll be back to work full time. I know there won’t be a lot of sympathy for me based on that, but it does make me feel a little panicky. I’m not managing summer very well; how will I manage a fall semester I’m not yet ready for?

Now that I’m moving back into “teaching mode,” as opposed to summer slacker mode, I’m thinking about my upcoming classes and things I hope to do again and things I hope I won’t do ever again (yeah, no need to start a list for me, students), and I’m thinking about all those times when I should have told someone something but didn’t. I’m thinking of those many times when someone did something nice for me, and I thought about telling them how much I appreciated it or how much some little thing meant, but I didn’t. Time moves on, gets away from us, and after a while it seems silly to send someone a thank you card, especially after three years. But you should; I should. And since I’m moving back into “teacher mode,” this will be about teachers, but it could be anyone a person encounters, including teachers. It could be a coworker, a boss, a stranger or even a police officer or a judge! It could be any person who makes any kind of impact on your life. From a teacher’s perspective, here’s what it looks like:

Kaitlin’s not coming back; she is transferring to another school, and I’m quite sad about that. I was looking forward to having her in class again this fall, along with her pal, Nikki. Nikki, too, will not be in my class as scheduled, and I’m not sure why, but I hope it’s because she was accepted into the nursing program: that damn nursing program. I really like those two women, and the fact that they took classes from me, more than once…the same class…is a testament to them and to me: to them for facing a demon (College Writing) and taking it on…with the SAME instructor, and me, for being that instructor they chose to take again. Here’s the thing: I know they like me, too, because they told me. I’m so grateful they told me.

Last May, Nikki and Kaitlin showed up unexpectedly in my office, one holding a white orchid plant and one a bottle of wine (how’d they know????). They sheepishly explained that they wanted to spare me the embarrassment of tears in class (and how’d they know that?) by bringing them to my office, privately, with a card I did not immediately open. To say I was touched by the gesture is an understatement, of course, and I filed it all away “to process later,” and the three of us went to class.

It was the card, more than the flower or the wine (believe it or not) that touched the core of my soul, and I’d love to write the sentiment here, but somehow that feels like it would be a violation of the intensely personal messages the women wrote for me. I can say that I was surprised, had not realized the impact I’d had on those two women who had to repeat my class. When I finally did sit down and read the card, there were tears galore, all mine, some happy but some a little sad, what I could have done better had I known more…

Both were registered for Creative Writing this fall, and I was so excited to work with them in an entirely different genre, one much more relaxed than academic writing. I know them both so much better now; I could really enjoy them, I thought, and we all could make grand, academic strides, but now that won’t happen. In fact, I don’t know if I will ever see either of them again. What I do know, however, is the way that I touched them and how they touched me. The gifts, but especially the card with the long, handwritten messages, one on the inside left and the other on the inside right, remind me that what I do every day matters, both good and not-so-good. One of them wrote that my consistent support kept her going at times…and I wondered how many times I had not been as supportive as I could have been. In the future, I’ll think about her comments when I’m dealing with other students, and I’ll remember that I don’t always see reflected to me—at the time—my efforts and impact. Sometimes, I see a blank stare.

I’m pretty good about telling people they’ve been important in my life; I love sending handwritten “thank you” cards (old fashioned as that is), and I enjoy giving people the thanks they deserve, but there have been those times when it’s seemed not as important or a little excessively sentimental (oh, yeah, that’s me for sure…) and I didn’t do it. I regret that now. My life’s work is teaching, and it’s only through my interactions with students that I really know how I’m doing and whether I should keep doing it or whether I should apply to be…I don’t know…a meter-reader. Nikki and Kaitlin reassured me that I should give the old teaching gig another year or two, and I’m excited to do that and eager to up my game and see how much better I might be this year, to see how many students like them I might meet.

So, do it. Whether a teacher, a spiritual leader, a parole officer, a neighbor, or a stranger, there’s never a negative outcome when we express our gratitude and affection for each other, and sometimes it inspires those people to try even harder, to give a little more. I know I will, and if any of you know Nikki or Kaitlin, tell them I’ll miss them a lot this year. I won’t be the same without them.

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