Almost always, at midterm of the semester, I develop a bad attitude: I start grousing about students, complaining that they’re not performing to caliber, noting the many who are not attending class, wondering what other kind of work I’m qualified to do (?) because I’m so tired of this teaching gig. Like the monthly cycle I used to dread, I can almost predict it to the day, but then before I realize it, we’re about two weeks away from the end, and miraculously, the rainbow appears.
Y’all have my permission to slap me silly the next time I start; I mean it.
Today, a good day, I remembered why I do this work. It isn’t for everyone; let me be clear, but for me, I cannot imagine how I could possibly love an occupation more, and it’s not just those damn students who make it so great.
I woke at 5:45 a.m., the usual time when my alarm sounds. It annoys me, usually, but I rise and start my day. By 6:30, earbuds in, gloves on, and well-worn sneakers laced up, I’m on my way up the hill with a little Lynyrd Skynyrd on Pandora. I hike up the asphalt trail, warming up and breathing hard. About 20 minutes into the hike, I turn around and pick up the pace. Downhill is not quite a sprint but neither a jog, somewhere in between as I try to keep the pace slow enough that I don’t jar anything too drastically or trip over my own feet. At about the 30-minute mark, I turn around and walk/jog the last few minutes back to my house, and when I arrive, I feel energized and ready to take on the world. After showering and dressing for work, I eat breakfast and visit with Leo the bird, filling his water and food dish, giving him a special piece of lettuce or some millet. Then, I leave for work.
The best thing about that whole scenario is that I don’t have to worry about the time. Sometimes I leave home at 8:05 a.m., other times 8:30. Sometimes I’m really slow and it might be 8:45, but rarely is it later than that. The flexibility that my job offers is incredibly valuable to me; it gives me great peace-of-mind to have the leisure in the morning to treat my body the way I should and attend to Leo. After all, he is 20 years old.
My colleagues: you’d have to experience it to completely understand, but I’ll try to put it in perspective. We’re something like a family. We bicker and barter and sometimes we really step up in support of each other but more often we’re commiserating or teasing each other. Most of the faculty share one huge office divided by cubicles. The lack of privacy, especially when working with students, can be problematic, but the camaraderie at other times reminds me of the television show The Waltons and their nightly ritual of saying good-night. Good night, John-boy. Add to that a group of highly educated stand-up wannabes, and we have some really hilarious pseudo-conversations sometimes, so funny that I’ll be laughing about it hours later. Yeah, and I’m being paid for that, sort of.
Make no mistake: I make up for the late arrivals and collegiality during evenings and weekends, and I haven’t had a true lunch break in a couple years, but those things are important in my life, to the quality of my life, and really help me wake up at 5:45 with a little less crankiness.
Nonetheless, it’s the students (you knew this was coming) who remind me why I love this job. It’s not all students and it’s not even some students all the time, but it’s most of the students, and sometimes it doesn’t even have much to do with school work. You’ve heard, I’m sure, that we’re headed to hell in a handbasket? Ask any teacher who’s been doing this work for any number of years, and you’ll find out that’s not true. Teachers who teach, those who love their work and their students, will be the first to tell you that students haven’t really changed over the years. Society changes, and culture changes, and sometimes it does seem that values weaken some, but I can say with complete certainty that we are in good, capable hands. Here’s why:
Meet “M”. I met him last semester in my class, a young man who struggles with mental illness, who lives with a woman who also struggles with mental illness. They support each other and both contribute to the conversation about mental illness, going so far as to be participants on panels and informational venues. “M” is in my class, again, this semester and told me about his early mornings, 4:00 or 4:30, when he rides his bicycle to work several miles, riding home later to prepare for school. This is all in addition to school. But what struck me most about “M” was last semester when he and his partner were both in my class. I knew the challenges they were facing, and one day, I felt compelled to hug his girlfriend; I felt she needed some support. It wasn’t her response that surprised me, but his: he came to me later and thanked me for the gesture. It was important to her, he said, and the love in his voice, the tenderness and concern for her, touched me deeply. More concerned with her suffering than his own, his empathy for her responded to my hug. See what I mean? No hell in his future, none other than mental illness and the costs of healthcare.
Then there’s “B.” I met him last semester, too, and I was impressed immediately. A nontraditional student and irrepressible perfectionist, he soon stood out as a class leader, and I sought his advice and help. This semester, he’s in two of my classes, so I see him every day; I remind him, frequently, of his good luck, and he responds that he had no other choice, or something equally dismissive, but our friendship has grown this semester and my respect for him is immense. A committed father and husband, his priorities in life are clear, but he’s involved in many groups and activities beyond school. His humor, his leadership among students, his stellar academic work, and his kind heart endear him to me more all the time. The only questionable association he has is his personal friendship with Donald Jr., and I’m going to cut him some slack there. He also doesn’t drink, and that might be his problem, for I have found that a couple glasses of wine will take the edges off.
There’s so many students like these; I could write about them, each one, and people would think I was making it up, but I’m not. These are our students: they are parents, children, spouses, employees, friends, veterans, young, old, male, female and confused. They struggle, and they’re trying their best to better their lives while working and managing dysfunctional vehicles and relationships. If you want to see and experience the best that Montana has to offer, I invite you to visit your local community college, where you will find instructors who are doing their best to help students, citizens, who are also doing their best.
But take my advice: don’t do it at midterm.
Since 2003 when I first started college at Montana State, I’ve never vacationed during Spring Break. Other people would talk about their vacations, sometimes even exotic locales, but not me: I had work to do. As a nontraditional college student, I was driven and focused on doing well at school, and just generally, vacations were few and far between. As a teacher, I always have plenty of work to catch up on, and I always used that time to grade papers or finish up unfinished business. Sometimes it was spent working on taxes. Finally, after fourteen years of higher ed, I planned and enjoyed a real Spring Break. This might be the beginning of a tradition.
My friends know that the last several months have been difficult; during that time, my cousin Jamie has been one of the stalwart supports in my circle. Always just a text message or email away, she frequently checks in and checks on. More like a sister, she and I share a connection that goes deep. We understand each other at a very intimate level, and we share pretty much everything. Despite that we’re separated by more than ten years, we have a lot in common. I’ve wanted to visit her in the Bay Area ever since she moved there, and finally, we made it happen. I gave myself a gift last Christmas: a trip to San Jose to visit Jamie over Spring Break. Finally, I was one of those people who actually spend Spring Break having fun rather than working the entire time. Maybe I’ve turned over a new leaf!
The first day of my “vacation” was spent traveling, and it started out badly. Due to stormy weather in Salt Lake City, my flight was postponed so that instead of arriving in SJ around 4:00, I didn’t get in until after 9 p.m. Dinner plans with Jamie and friends were ruined (for me, at least), but I still arrived on the same day. On Sunday, Jamie had everything planned: brunch at Absinthe in Hayes Valley; a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge; a stop at Coit Tower; shopping at Union Square; a drink at a beautiful hotel in the area; dinner at Dosa, a fabulous Indian foods restaurant. It was perfect.
Monday Funday was reserved for wine country! We started our day leisurely, then drove first to Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma County. A light breeze cooled the day, but the sun shined, and I felt crazily indulgent, tasting wine midday on a Monday. We shared the patio with only a few other lucky people. From there, we headed north to Robert Keenan Winery in the Napa Valley. There, we were nearly alone with the winery staff who were very friendly and accommodating, even inviting Jet to join us inside. I splurged and bought two bottles of wine and spent much more than I usually do (think 14 Hands Hot to Trot at Costco), one for me and one for Jamie. I brought mine home in my suitcase, worried that all my clothes would be pink when I got here, but all’s well, and I’m saving the bottle for a special occasion. We wrapped up with dinner at Rutherford Grill, where I ate the best veggie burger I’ve ever had and drank more wine.
Tuesday, we hiked; it was beautiful and pastoral, and Jet joined us. Happy dog, happy dog, happy, happy, happy dog. I miss my dogs a lot, and spending time with Jet was therapeutic (she also shared the bed with us). She is a beautiful animal with a loving heart. The first hike of the new year, it was challenging and exhilarating at once. My smile in the photos shows clearly how I was feeling. After returning home to shower, we ventured to Half Moon Bay where we shopped in some sweet little stores and bought matching bracelets. I had bought us both matching bracelets when we hiked in Glacier last fall, and we were wearing them while I was in California; it might, also, be a new tradition. We stopped for drinks in a watering hole/hotel and it seemed like we generated a certain amount of attention though I’m not sure why. Maybe we were having too much fun.
Finally, we ate dinner at Moss Beach Distillery; enjoying an ocean view table, we watched the sun set on the water as we ate and contemplated our last day together. The meal was perfect, as all our meals were, and I felt really happy and content and about five pounds heavier. We also laughed, a lot. More than once during my visit, we found ourselves wiping away tears as we laughed about some silly thing. It was a bitter-sweet ending to an exciting and emotional four days together.
Yesterday, we rose early, and Jamie delivered me to SJC for my journey home. It was mostly uneventful except for some crazy turbulence between Seattle and Helena; I wondered for a moment who would teach my classes if I didn’t make it home. Sorry, students: we didn’t crash. I was in bed before 8:30 last night and slept until nearly 7 a.m. today. I guess I needed the rest after such a fantastic experience.
Today, life resumed its normal rhythm: I graded papers, went for a lovely 4-mile jog, and did some laundry. I also got word that my tenure has been approved by my college; now I just await the final decision by the Commissioner and the Regents. That’s a nice gift to return home to and a reminder that my work is what enables me to enjoy the finer things, like visiting my cousin in San Jose. I guess I’ll keep teaching for a while; I can’t wait to open that special bottle of wine. Cheers, friends.
Last year, midway through the fall semester (my life is delineated by a school calendar), I lost my dad and my marriage on the same day: October 31, 2016. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect, I see that as the defining moment when I went from Karen Henderson, Nelson’s daughter and Chuck’s wife, to Karen Henderson, temporarily undefined persona.
Losing my dad was a shock, losing my marriage, not so much. My dad had more surgeries over the past ten years than most people have colds; I couldn’t even guess how many times he was hospitalized, but I’m almost certain that the people in the ER at St. Vincent’s Hospital knew him by sight and possibly by his first name. The surgeries started before I even left home. He had major back surgery when I was a teenager, and over the intervening years, a brain surgery to remove a tumor, heart surgeries to install stents and a pacemaker, shoulder and hip replacements, and amputations to remove both legs below the knees. More than once, we gathered at the hospital ready to get the bad news: his heart wasn’t strong enough for the surgery. But that never came. There were some very close calls, some last rites delivered by priests, some miraculous recoveries, but the Grim Reaper was cheated many times, sometimes by a hair’s breadth. So, when on Monday, October 31, 2016, my sister Terri called and said bluntly, “Karen, Dad died,” I wasn’t prepared. Sitting at my computer staring at the screen, my thoughts were that it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. He had been well, all things considered. He’d been at my nephew’s, Ryan’s, wedding in August, and he had been pretty well since then. There’d been no hospitalizations, no close calls, no warnings, none that I knew of, anyway. How could it happen that quickly, out-of-the-blue?
I went into reaction mode and contacted the people who would need to know, my boss mainly. I would have to miss some work, probably. Chuck was already in bed, and I didn’t bother telling him until later, an omission pointed out to me later by Nancy, my counselor. When your dad dies, it’s probably important enough to wake your husband. Yeah, probably, but I waited. I guess I figured the reaper might as well take whatever else in my life that was nearing that precipice.
The memorial service was torturous for me; there’s no other way for me to describe it. I wondered then, and wonder now, if other people feel that way when they lose someone important. I did not want to be there; I wanted to be any other place than in the center of attention, the recipient of the kind comments and warm hugs of family and friends. Constantly afraid of losing emotional control, I steeled my will and my emotions and refused to feel anything. Only one moment caused a crack in my façade, and that was when my girlhood friend, Connie, came up to me at the reception. I hadn’t seen her in the church, didn’t expect her to be there at all. Her words I can’t recall, but the sentiment and her hug touched the very base of my soul, and I almost lost my composure.
I’ve thought about all of that many times since. Funerals, memorials are supposed to offer closure, some kind of resolution, but all I wanted was to get away. I wonder if it is like that for others. One of my favorite “This I Believe” essays is titled, “Always Go to the Funeral,” and its message is quite different, that showing up for the funeral is a sign of support and respect. While I appreciate the outpouring of support and the people who came to show their respects for my dad, the whole thing was painful for me and not something I would willingly endure again.
Only a month and a few days later, I signed the documents that would end my twenty-four-year marriage. Two men, incredibly important in my life, left in the span of less than two months, neither of them entirely willingly. How does a person process that kind of loss in a healthy way?
Six months: that’s what Nancy tells me. She says it takes about six months before a person recovers to a point of being able to make relatively good decisions. “No major life decisions for at least six months,” she says, “and a year would be better.”
From what date, I wonder. October 31st? My dad would say, if he could, that I was always terrible at following advice, bull-headed, obstinate, difficult. God knows, he gave me plenty, and most of it I ignored. Chuck would agree; definitely more temperate than I, he could sometimes see the train wreck before it happened, but he was powerless to prevent it.
People tell you how it will be, and they’re right: at first, you’re numb, and when it begins to wear off, like Novocain from the dentist, you feel tingling, reminding you that you’re alive. Then, unexpectedly, there will be that “thing” that strikes a chord in your heart, sometimes at the most inopportune times. Suddenly, you’re in the middle of Walmart, crying at the memory of something, you’re not sure what, or it suddenly hits you that you won’t ever again see your dad. Never. Not ever. You look around, and everyone is going about their lives as if there hasn’t been a major shift in the tectonic plates of the earth, your earth. You wonder how they can’t know.
I’m always different, always more difficult. It’s unusual to lose one’s father and one’s husband at the same time, and honestly, some people would suggest that I deserve what I get. I can’t argue that; the only thing that keeps me relatively sane lately is this: six months. It’s been four, almost, if I count from October 31st, 2016.
I marched today; I marched in solidarity with people (not just “women”) to support human rights. For some people, today was definitely a response to our new president, but for me, it was more a positive response to support human rights for all. It would be very easy for me to go negative; believe me, but I don’t see anything positive coming out of that, and right now, I really need more positive than negative, so I choose to view it in a positive way.
It was awesome, really. They expected maybe 5,000 people, but as I drove into Helena from Montana City, I could tell there would be many more. The streets were clogged with traffic. I had planned to meet my friends at the “mall-that-isn’t” but there was nowhere to park. We ended up meeting at the college and walking the several blocks to the capitol. That’s okay; I didn’t get my usual 30 on the treadmill today anyway. People were everywhere. There were just lines and lines of groups of people, many holding signs of the most original thought. I didn’t get many photos because I was too enthralled with just watching and being dumbstruck by the theatre. It was inspiring.
I saw on the Helena Independent Record website that they estimate 10,000 people were there. It felt like it. Inside the capitol building, people were everywhere, and I saw only one security person. It felt a little like the “people” had taken over.
We didn’t stay until the end. We all got chilled, and we knew the exodus would mean a traffic snarl, so we left early, but as I reflected on the event, I thought about my own life and how over the last several months, it’s been women who have sustained me. Many people don’t know the pain and tragedy of the past months for me, but there are a group of women who do know, and they are the heroes of my world. My cousin Jamie is at the forefront. From day one, she has been by my side, checking in, asking about my sleep and my eating, worried about my destructive behaviors and a solid constant in my changing world. Though much younger than I, she has been the voice of reason more than once.
Then there is June. June and I have been through hell and back (another story), and what’s amazing about her is her resilience and her take-no-shit attitude. She is a straight-shooter who calls ‘em like she sees ‘em, and too bad if you don’t like it. Sometimes I didn’t like it, but I had to hear it, and June was one to tell me.
Then there’s Deb M. and Karen RC and a collection of my colleagues and Facebook friends, who check in from time to time, despite their own busy lives, just to make sure I’m not alone or lonely. My friend Kerri recently spent part of the afternoon chatting with me on the phone, checking in, making sure I’m okay. My cousin Susan has been another support, someone I know I could call on any time, any day, despite the physical distance between us. She’s more like a sister than a cousin. And there’s my good friend, Laura, a busy mom/working woman/wife/activist who made time for me several times to vent on the phone or to go for a hike. What an unbelievable group of strong, compassionate women have surrounded me.
Tonight, I’m so humbled by it all. It’s true that sometimes women can be “mean girls.” I’ve seen that, too, but today I witnessed what I consider one of the most altruistic gatherings of people in support of others that I’ve ever seen (in such mass), and in my own life, I’ve felt it lately too.
I’m sure I’ve left out someone important, someone who has been a critical support, and I acknowledge that there have been some dudes who have been pretty darn considerate, but if I survive this crazy disruption of my life, and the next four years, it will be due to the love of my “sisters” and to female solidarity.
“I didn’t know,” are the saddest words I’ve ever thought or said, and I’ve thought them more times than I like to think about. I was reminded of that tonight as I was (finally) reading the “books” of my creative writing students. They contract for grades based on total content versus quality, which allows for differences in aesthetic values and also allows me to defer reading to more convenient times. Tonight, I read Michaela’s book.
Michaela is a lovely, spirited, charming, young woman, a slight person with a big personality. She may have never missed a day of class, and she contributed energetically to everything we did. Her poetry was inspired, some of our favorites, and her consistency became something we all counted on: she was always there and always prepared.
As I started reading her short story titled “Ears Shaped Like Kites,” I found the tears at the ready. About a childhood dog who dies, it resonated with me from the very first sentence until the last in a way that grabbed my soul and tightened relentlessly. I could neither put it down nor control the tears; at the end, she wrote:
I crouched on the shower floor and wailed ugly sobs for what must have been an hour. I’ve never cried that way before. I must have sounded like a dying animal. Ironic. Everything that had built up the past few days came crashing down like an undertow in the sea after a thunderstorm. Everything came out in a hideous melody. The sound of mourning isn’t a very pretty song.
Right? The last two sentences just seemed perfect to me. She knew how I felt, not only when my dog died, but when my love died, when my other dogs left, when the disappointments in my life suddenly slapped me in the face. It wasn’t pretty.
It was the preface to her book that really got me and inspired this post. She wrote:
…this past semester has opened up a new door for me. My writing instructor Karen has been an absolute joy and the major supportive force in this. The excitement and ease that I have when writing now makes me feel like I’m 8 years old again, and I’m very grateful for that. Words are powerful, and I’m glad they’re back in my life.
So, that was what set my nerves at the ready and when I read the story prompted a vast supply of tears, but the thing that touched me the most about those words was that “I didn’t know.”
I worked with Michaela for four months, and during that time, we lost a classmate to a car accident, so we were a close group, but I didn’t know. Until our last day of class, when she lingered after class with a Christmas gift (including homemade puppy chow) and told me how much she enjoyed the class and appreciated me, I didn’t realize how I had touched her life and, maybe, how she would touch mine.
Then I thought about my course evaluations, from all my classes, and the inevitable evaluations that judge my performance poorly. I remember the words of one student who said she felt left out, that she wasn’t one of the “favored” students, and my reaction was “I didn’t know.”
At the beginning of a new semester while reflecting on the previous one, I can’t help but feel kind of helpless; in these two examples, someone spoke up, someone told me the truth. I can’t help but wonder how many other times I didn’t know.
As 2016 dawned, back in January, I had no inkling what it held in store for me. I’m glad I didn’t know because much of the beauty of this year would have been marred by my preoccupation with the drama to unfold as the year wound down. It’s been one of “those” years.
In January, we adopted Lance, our newest fur baby. A terrified little guy, he had clearly been mistreated, and we didn’t know if he could ever come to trust us. Since then, and with many hours of Chuck’s patience, he has bonded to us and his sister, Rosie. He’s a different animal than the frightened, nippy little guy we brought home. Getting him was one the bests of 2016.
We spent many days out in the motor home this summer, everywhere from Glacier National Park to Tongue River Reservoir and places in between. I hiked nearly every week of the summer, and floated around in my kayak with June and Julie one great weekend (thanks to my friend, Corrie, for the loaner). My soul soaked in the outdoor love. That was one of the bests of 2016, too.
Professionally, I’ve been at the top of my game this fall. I’m working with some fabulous students, some who not only meet the bar but exceed it by a stretch. It’s been fun and rewarding. I’m advising a couple new clubs that are really showing promise in the way of leadership from some amazing, motivated students. I sit back and marvel that all I have to do is advise and watch. I’m collaborating with other teachers and working on some exciting, new challenges in terms of projects for students, real-world kind of stuff. This continues to be one of the bests of 2016.
However, as is the nature of the yin and yang, 2016 has been brutally painful. It began in October when a student named Joe, who was in my Creative Writing class, lost his life in a lake due to a car accident. He was a beautiful soul, a real writer, a promising student leader and an important reason why, just the day before he died, our class was able to put together Helena College’s first-ever poetry slam. We took it hard; the day we returned to class after his death was little more than tears and processing for all of us, and even now, I tear up when I remember Joe. That was one of the worsts.
It got even worse, however, when on October 31st, my dad died very unexpectedly. So many times over the years he had close calls, hospital stays, surgeries, everything, and each time, we were prepared for the possibility, but when it finally came for him, it was quick and unexpected, a punch in the gut. I did not at all enjoy being on the receiving end of people’s sympathies—though I did very much appreciate them—and I think I did not handle myself very well. To those whom I may have come off as abrupt or testy, I apologize. I’m good at some things, but that is not one of them. Today, I count it a good day if I can remember Dad without getting teary; that was definitely the worst.
It wasn’t the only loss I experienced this year, however. After almost 24 years, Chuck and I have decided to divorce. Anyone who’s ever been married or in a long-term relationship understands that it takes two to tango, or not. I own my failings at being a partner, but we have some very good memories from during those 24 years, including successfully operating our business for 18 of those years, living in the Shields Valley, where we still count good friends, and raising Adam together. Adam is truly as much Chuck’s as he is mine, and I will forever owe Chuck my deepest gratitude for being such a fine father to him. I could never repay that. This is the worst.
I am ready to be done with 2016. I will welcome 2017 with hope and enthusiasm that it will be more of the bests and fewer of the worsts, and I thank you, my friends, for your support and love.