Post #2 Memories

I have many more than ten, but I will list the first ten memories that come to mind:

1. My son Adam’s birthday

2. The day I married Chuck

3. My first few days of college at MSU

4. My 45th birthday

5. September 11, 2001

6. The day I chipped my front tooth while riding my old banana seat bike

7. The day I graduated from MSU with my BA

8. My first day as a college teacher at MSU

9. The day Adam and I drove to Billings to get Basco

10. The first time a developmental writing class completed the semester 100%

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, about #10 and the group of students in that section of Writ 095 who–one year ago–managed to complete the entire semester together, everyone passing and no one dropping. It had never happened to me before, and as far as I know, it’s never happened to anyone I’ve ever known who has taught developmental writing.

There are lots of reasons for that, of course, and most have nothing to do with the instructor. Many students who enroll in developmental courses are unprepared for college in myriad ways. Some students overextend themselves, registering for 18 credits while working full time and raising families. Some don’t understand that college requires more than just showing up; there is studying to do, papers to write, tests to take, and other demands. College is not an extension of high school; college instructors expect a lot more. Some students experience trauma in their lives: children get sick; spouses lose jobs; parents or siblings need help; and there are all kinds of problems with creditors or the law. When we consider all the potential problems that might occur, it’s a wonder anyone makes it through.

That’s one of the things that stands out to me about the class that did complete together. I know some of those students very well, and I know that there were seriously sick children. I know that problems with the law affected a couple students, and some of them were struggling in most of their classes. Somehow, though, we managed to complete the semester together, and we celebrated at the end with a breakfast celebration. Dr. Bingham, our CEO, and Dr. Runge, our chief academic officer, both came to congratulate the students, and Tia Kelley, the Gen Ed division chair, was there, too. Val Osborne and Val Curtin from Financial Aid were there, and Sarah Dellwo, the registrar came by, too. It was a big deal on campus.

This semester, so far, all students are showing up–more or less–on a regular basis, and all are completing the assigned work. I feel like all three of my classes are strong and have the potential to be another exception to the rule: the class that completes together. I dare not get too excited this early, but I’m hopeful.

It’s that hope I want to focus on most. I wonder if students realize how important their success is to all of us. Our world tends to sharp, binary thinking: yours or mine; Democrat or Republican; female or male; young or old; win or lose. For us (professionals in education), though, a student’s win is ours, and a loss is ours as well, and no matter how hard I try not to focus on lost lambs or the prodigal student, I can’t help but feel a personal failure each time a student fails to complete. I could have done something more, something differently, something better.

Not all of those students who completed the course also completed college, and in fact, a couple of them did not enroll for the following semester. I still consider it a win though because those earned credits and earned learning are always theirs now. They completed the commitment to themselves for the semester. It’s a win, and I’ll never forget how rewarding and special that last day of class felt to all of us. I’m hopeful that I’ll get another chance to feel that way again. Maybe even this semester.

September 11th, Weight, and Trolls

Three different topics have been dominating my thinking over the past week: September 11th; weight; trolls. This will be my attempt to pull those three disparate topics together with some semblance of reason.

Let me begin with weight: if you haven’t known me for long, you won’t understand that weight—my weight, especially—has colored the way I experience the world for my entire life. For the last 25 years, I’ve considered myself more or less “normal” in the weight department, but my psyche has and always will be an “overweight psyche.” By that, I mean that so much of my early life was dominated by the problems of being overweight that I probably will never completely be free of the overweight mentality that dominates my life.

In the last several months, I’ve been very successful in upping my daily workouts and lowering my caloric intake. My weight, while hovering in the low 150s or upper 140s, remains stubbornly stable, but my overall well-being and fitness are probably at a recent high. Last week I attended another Weight Watchers meeting (I highly endorse this healthy program) where the leader said, “You look fabulous. I’m not just saying that; you look fabulous.” The strange thing is that I believe her: I really do, but I also know that feeling “fabulous” is only one small comment away from feeling defeated and demoralized, completely unlovable and desperate. It all came back in a big way while reading this article titled, “It Happened to Me: I Wrote an Article about Marriage, and All Anyone Noticed Is that I’m Fat.” The author wrote about being married, and the main topic of the commentators (trolls) was her weight.

Trolls: this is an appropriate segue into my second topic (or third, if you’re keeping track). There was a time where the only place a person might encounter a troll was while traversing a bridge, not so anymore. They’re everywhere, but especially online and especially anonymous. I was reminded of them again by the above linked article. The author posted a picture of herself and her husband on their wedding day, and immediately, the trolls were out, pointing out to an overweight woman that she was overweight. It might have slipped her memory, right? As if it didn’t already dominate every single, waking moment of her life that she was a lot fatter than the ideal Barbie of the 21st century. The question I always have is why? Does it make some people feel better to make some other people feel horrible and unlovable?

I totally get the idea of accountability, keeping people honest, not allowing falsities and untruths to go unchallenged; however, I do not understand the motivation that some people have in hurting other humans, and I can see no other reason for such behaviors. And there are hundreds of them: they comment on people’s appearances, weight, race, age, or whatever. Everything is fair game to them. They berate people who are in accidents, blame them for their own misfortunes; they blame police for doing their jobs and protestors for disrupting the peace, being looters and thugs. They disparage teachers as ineffective but blame society for raising a “gimme” generation. They claim to hate the pull of celebrity, but they’re the first ones to comment on the antics of any naughty celebrity recently caught in a scandal. They’re haters, and they hate. It’s what they do, and I…I…I hate it.

September 11, 2001. We marked the passage of the 13th anniversary of the attack on America last week. It’s a somber day for many people; it’s especially bitter-sweet for me. In 2001, we had a brand new exchange student living with us in li’l ol’ Clyde Park, Montana. Wakhas arrived on 30 August 2001, and none of us knew how to deal with the events of September 11th. Wakhas was Muslim, and he was in an unfamiliar town in Montana, thousands of miles from his home in Berlin.

Those who knew us then know that the story ends well. We and Wakhas weathered the storm of international strife in the same way most people did, and maybe even better. Despite our different cultures, Wakhas and I became (and remain) very close. We practiced respect, understanding, and cooperation.

In 2011, Wakhas and I wrote a short story about our experiences, written in the first-person perspective, alternating his view and mine. I sent it to a variety of publications and got a reply only from the Billings Gazette. It was good, but too long. A week ago, I got a call from a colleague from Billings; she was remembering our story and calling to encourage us to revisit it, maybe rewrite it, maybe a young adult novel. “There’s a need,” she said, “for YA literature about September 11th and about cultural understanding, tolerance. I think about your story a lot.”

Haters and terrorists fall into similar categories for me. They do, however, motivate good people, and that’s what I love, love, to remember about September 11, 2001. Never before, in my baby-boomer memory, had America and Americans come together with so much resolve and so much compassion. Good people were moved to do something, to make a difference, to lessen the suffering of other Americans, without concern for politics, religion, race, age, or class.

Charles Dickens said, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity” (A Tale of Two Cities). Since 2001, it seems to me, we’ve become more foolish, less wise, and the haters are taking over. I emailed Wakhas and told him about Elizabeth’s email. I expected reticence, indifference, wariness. He replied enthusiastically, writing that it “would be an opportunity for us to send out intercultural peaceful overtones.” He signed off with, “Big hug.”

Big hug, indeed.


Out of Africa won seven Academy Awards in 1985, including Best Picture (up against The Color Purple and others). It was nominated for four more Awards that year. Since then, critics disagree about the quality of the film, some claiming the pacing was too slow while others remark about the incredible cinematography and the original score. For me, no other film will ever come close to affecting me as dramatically as Out of Africa.

From the first line of the movie—which is identical to the first line of the book—this film stole my heart and owned me: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills…” It was Meryl Streep’s voice, as Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dineson) in a Danish accent, soft and reflective, that viewers hear first, and when I first heard it, Karen Blixen, Meryl Streep, and Karen Henderson all sort of merged into one female protagonist.

The scenery of Africa is stunning, and much of the cinematography was filmed from the sky as Karen and Denys Finch Hatten (Karen Blixen’s lover played by Robert Redford) flew overhead in Denys’s bi-plane. The musical score adds to the incredible feeling of being there–flying over Africa and seeing for the first time the expanse and the majestic creatures of Africa from the air. Even today, I sometimes listen to the soundtrack and revel in the feeling of endless possibility and limitless potential, the feelings the film conjures for me during those scenes.

It was Karen Blixen (as played by Streep) who really spoke to me, however. An unbelievably independent woman, Blixen endured indignity after indignity because of her gender and her independent spirit, but she never gave up on her dreams, and she rarely even acknowledged the indignities she experienced. One time, only, in the film, she goes before a British magistrate and prostrates herself publically, begging for land where her African workers can go live after she is forced to sell her farm. Everyone else is more embarrassed than she is and she finally wins the promise of the magistrate’s wife to arrange for land for the Africans. This is the first moment in the film (and toward the end) where I have never been able to control my tears. Something about her humbling herself in that way because she loves and cares for her workers always touches me deeply, and from there on throughout the rest of the film, I cry in every scene until the end.

Another moment that speaks to me happens toward the end of the film as Karen prepares to leave Africa. At a hotel with a Gentlemen’s Club, where she had previously been banned because she was a woman, she is invited to join the men for a drink. Taken aback, she graciously joins them for one quick shot of whiskey, whereby all the men stand to honor her. It’s too late, really, but it’s sweet vindication of her as a woman to be reckoned with. Other parts of the film that stand out in my mind include Karen’s relationship with her head servant, Farah, and a waltz she shares with Denys about midway through the film. The contrast of the gentility of the music, the literature, the food and drink, and the manners, with the ferocity of the country, the animals, nature, and other humans strikes a discordant tone, yet at the same time the contrasts illuminate and validate the qualities of the other.

After I saw the film, I became a devotee of Isak Dineson (Karen Blixen), reading everything I could find about her. I was astonished to learn that we share the same birthday, April 17, and that she died the year I was born. Wanting to know more, I read a biography about her—the title I no longer remember—and I was somewhat disappointed to learn that she was actually a difficult woman quite often, she could be quite contrary, she had high expectations of people around her, and she sometimes had rather grandiose illusions of herself; I was saddened to realize that this woman I idolized was not as perfect as I initially believed. She was a real woman—an incredible, independent, strong, determined, sensual woman—but still real and still flawed. I had thought we had so much in common. Ah, perhaps we do.

International Literacy Day

Monday, September 8th, is International Literacy Day. I thought it would be appropriate to mention it here and post a link so you can check it out. Our first major writing assignment in Writ 095 will be a Literacy Reflection, a paper that examines, analyzes, and reflects on your own literacy. This is a great place to start. Check it out:

I’m Impressed!

Wow. I have to say I’m impressed by the tremendous response from students in Writ 095 and their willingness to go outside their comfort zones to create blogs. I know this has been a challenging and uncomfortable experience for some people; using technology like blogs–if a person is not used to it–can be incredibly frightening and frustrating. Despite that, many students have expressed interest and excitement in trying out this (relatively) new communication tool.

While not exactly “new,” blogs are still something most people have not tried. Until I decided to use blogs as a learning tool, I had never had my own blog either, and it has been a steep learning curve for me, too. My experience with Facebook has helped me feel less intimidated, but I have real respect for those of you who have not used much technology at all.

Your positive attitudes and willingness to “give it a go,” demonstrate a disposition and ability to take on new challenges and uncomfortable experiences. With that kind of an attitude, nothing can stop you. I am excited to start reading what you have have to say.

Losing a Pet

Some people will never understand the trauma of losing a pet. Until you’ve loved one, how could you understand?

My youngest sister and her family lost one of their two yorkies today. My sister texted me this morning, knowing that I would want to know that Max had died and also knowing I would totally understand. Our dogs are not our pets; they are full-fledged members of our families. Even more than that, they are the unconditional members of our families. No one has a choice about which family he or she is born into, and neither do dogs have a choice about which family adopts them. Nevertheless, they cheerfully accept whatever meager scraps of love they’re offered and never complain that a family down the street might have been a better deal.

All those times we mistreat our pets by leaving them alone all day, forgetting to arrange for timely meals, or dismissing their pleas for love because we’re busy or distracted, those all go by the wayside as soon as we award them a smile. The tails go up and side to side, completely forgiving and forgetting the neglect we might have imposed upon them, those of no choice. They never question, never doubt, never walk away. They simply seek our love and approval and express their joy when they get it.

Max was a special dog, too. Yorkies are known for their ability to smile. I’m not joking. He literally pulled his lips back and smiled as he wagged his little stub-tail and butt from side to side. He was especially happy when my husband would visit. My husband, Chuck, is also known as “the dog whisperer” because dogs instantly love him. Max really loved Chuck, and he would even smile when I visited alone (because he knew I belong to Chuck). He had the cutest bowed legs, as if he rode a tiny horse. In his last years, he would often just wander off to his bed under the counter when he was too tired to interact any more, but he would cheerfully respond when someone called his name.

My sister isn’t answering calls or my texts; she’s mourning tremendously while trying to logic the irrationality of despondency due to a dog. I’m thinking about Max and anticipating the inevitable nearness of losing my beloved Captain Basco. He’s been suffering lately with pain–we know this because his tail has been down, not in the usual high and wagging position. I don’t know how I’ll function when he goes; I will certainly have to cancel classes because I will be a trembling, sobbing mess.

Recently, a friend posted on Facebook a quotation taken from Winnie the Pooh: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” (A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh)

That pretty much sums it up.