We just got the official news that our summer camp for kids with trachs was cancelled this year. With all the closings due to COVID-19, it’s no surprise, but it’s absolutely gut wrenching for the campers and the volunteers who go each year. Especially for the campers. Last summer, as we packed up to leave, the little boy I drove up from Savannah asked me what day it was. I told him it was Friday. He promptly replied, “Then I want to come back Saturday.” He meant the very next day. Camp is a world of its own. It’s an escape from reality.
I’ve been reflecting a good bit this past week about camp. About what it means for kids with special needs, whose daily lives are filled with treatments, procedures and medications. Kids who are often singled out and maybe even bullied at school because of their differences.
This reflection led me to remember a hectic day last summer. We’d just gotten our group of campers into the cafeteria for lunch, when two of mine said they needed to use the restroom. One of them uttered those dreaded words, “I don’t know if I can hold it.” SO, we set off at top speed for the bathrooms. The two campers in my care had just shimmied through a row of other campers seated at long tables, when a little guy I didn’t know from a different special needs camp jumped up and stood between me and my little guys.
Before I could say a word about needing to catch up to my charges, he said (in such a serious tone of voice it was almost alarming), “I’m in that house too.”
He stared at me. Expectant. Waiting. I had no clue what he was talking about for a good 10 seconds (as I’m hoping we won’t completely miss lunch because we have to walk back to our cabin and changes clothes before the next activity). Then it hit me. I was wearing a T shirt with a printed Gryffindor logo on it. Luckily, I recovered fairly quickly, considering. “Oh, yeah,” I said. “I’m a Gryffindor through and through.” His face. It just lit up completely. We’d connected. Not through that physical place, as magical as it is. But through a world built by J.K. Rowling.
This is why I’m passionate about writing books for kids. They can’t always escape physically to a place where their problems feel miles away. But, hopefully they can always pick up a book and escape to a world built by an author. In these days of isolation, we need this more than ever! We need to build connections with people we might not get a chance to see in person like we used to. We need to see someone across a crowded room, and stop them to say, “I’m in that house too.”
In July, I lost my dad. He was always one of my biggest cheerleaders, even when I didn’t give him much to cheer about–especially during my high school years. Sometimes, it was embarrassing how much he’d brag about me to anyone who would listen. But I’d give almost anything now to hear him brag about me. What I’d give just to hear his voice one more time. He was especially proud that I was writing books. I still cry every time I think that he won’t be around to see Jeremiah Justice Saves the Dayreleased. He helped raise funds on Kickstarter to make it happen.
My dad was 82 when he died, so on some level I knew he wasn’t going to be around forever. But when his death came, it was sudden and unexpected. It left so much unsaid–at least from my perspective. I had so much I should have thanked him for. I started wishing right away that I’d called him every single day from the day I left for college, just to tell him I loved him.
This isn’t new advice. Just like when you’re a new parent, and you hear from countless people, “Cherish every moment. They grow up so fast.” We hear from our friends who’ve lost a parent, “Don’t take them for granted. They won’t be here forever.” But advice like this is easy to throw off as a clichés. We think, “Yeah, yeah. I know.” But let’s face it. We really don’t know. We don’t know how fast our kids grow up until they’re gone. And we don’t know how fast we can lose our parents, who’ve been there for us our entire lives until that moment. And, we’re busy. Raising kids is all consuming and leaves us exhausted half the time. Being a caregiver for elderly parents is physically and emotionally challenging many times. Believe me, I get it. But, it still doesn’t make the clichés untrue.
So, here’s my two cents for today. Don’t think, “Yeah, yeah. I know.” Pick up the phone and call your mom or dad. Or both. Tell them you love them and you appreciate the sacrifices they’ve made for you. You’ll be glad you did.
With the help of Kickstarter and some amazing collaborators, I was able to raise the funds I needed to bring Jeremiah Justice Saves the Day into the world. Local Savannah artist Rashad Doucet agreed to illustrate the book, and his work is amazing! Every page has movement and action. I think kids are truly going to love this book.
I wanted to take the chance to share some of Rashad’s illustrations. Enjoy! More news will be coming soon regarding the date the book will be available to purchase. Thanks to everyone who has helped make this dream come true. I hope we can break some barriers and show that special needs kids can most definitely be superheroes.
Many moons ago, I blogged about the Welsh word hiraeth (HEER-eyeth). The word is used to describe a homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or even a home which maybe never was. It describes a sense of nostalgia and yearning for lost places of your past.
I’ve thought of that word many times since then, and wondered why we don’t have such a word in our language. Am I the only one who gets this word? Who deeply feels this longing for places in my childhood that I can never return to? I’m pretty sure I’m not.
The above picture was drawn by my Aunt Rebecca. It depicts me (as a small child) approaching my grandma. I love this image. It shows how casual life could be up there in the mountains–my grandma in her fuzzy slippers and floppy hat. She added vines of wisteria for a whimsical effect that I find especially fun. It also reminds me of how much I always wanted to spend time with my grandmother, and in the picture I’m walking toward her carrying my own smaller version of her coffee mug.
If there were a place and time that I could return to for just a while, it would be here–on my grandparents’ porch. I’d share my drink and ask her to tell me stories. To have that moment would satisfy the longing I feel for that place and those people. If you could have that moment, where and when would it take you? Who would you see? What would you do? I’d love to hear your stories.
I know I’m not the only one who’s hurting over recent events in our nation. I’m certainly not the only person praying for our country to figure out a way to come together and stop allowing differences of opinion to lead to a loss of civility. One of the best things about America is our diversity, and yet we’ve become increasingly divided.
I wish I had some answers. I wish I could fix things that aren’t working. I wish I had a way to level the playing field and give all kids opportunities. One thing anyone who knows me can tell you is that I love kids. Working with kids is all I’ve ever wanted to do, and all I’ve done as a career and as a volunteer in my community. Some days at work, my precious little patient “J” takes my hand. He doesn’t say anything, but he holds onto to my hand. It melts my heart into a puddle and I yearn make this world a better place for him. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such sadness for my country.
Even though I don’t have the answers, I’m encouraged that my community is having a service of unity this evening. Maybe, just maybe, if all communities around the country begin listening to each other and addressing issues we can start to see changes. Little changes, when multiplied around the country, can become big changes. I look forward to doing whatever I can do locally to make this community a welcoming place of opportunity and acceptance for anyone who lives here.
This novel gave me more insight into race relations in America than anything I’ve read up to this point. One of the best descriptors I can apply to The Hate U Give is “real”. It is raw, it is gritty, it is sad, and it is even funny in places. But I didn’t find it to be sensationalistic or gratuitous. For parents of younger readers, there is a fairly large amount of language, including multiple F bombs—but staying true to form, it is “real” language for the characters in the novel.
The book condemns police brutality, but not police at large. I appreciate the way Ms. Thomas creates a compelling and likable character who also happens to be a police officer. Having a character like Uncle Carlos creates balance in the narrative, making it clear that not all police officers are racist. I found Starr’s family to be compelling and well developed as characters. Every one of them reminded of someone in my own family. Some of Starr’s high school friends might be a bit stereotypical, yet truthful enough that you’ll likely also see similarities to your own high school friends—we all had at least one that wasn’t great for us, but we found him/her hard to “drop” from our life.
I am not a fan of rap music and know very little about the late Tupac Shakur. However, the meaning of the acronym THUG LIFE really made me think. As a pediatric nurse and certified teacher, I’ve spent my life working with young children. I see kids that seem broken, cynical and filled with rage because of the environment they live in. Some of this has already occurred by the time they enter our public school system in pre-K. As adults in our society, we need to work together and listen to each other in order to find real solutions to the causes of suffering. This was a book that was hard to read in many ways, but it was also a book that I needed to read—and I’m glad I did.
***Spoiler alert*** If you haven’t read The Hate U Give, you might not want to continue reading.
Starr’s life is abruptly changed during what should have been a routine traffic stop. Not only does she see her childhood friend gunned down, she isn’t sure for a long while that she won’t be shot herself. It is just her, her dying friend and the armed police officer who just shot her friend—alone on a dark street, until other first responders arrive on the scene. During these moments, the police officer aims his gun at Starr. The terror she feels during these tense moments comes through to the reader. Her internal monologue as she remembers the rules her parents taught her about interacting with police accompany her increasing anxiety as she watches her friend Khalil breaking those rules one by one. I found myself as the reader silently pleading right along with Starr for him to keep his hands in sight, don’t move, don’t argue, etc.
After the shooting, the police officer testifies that he mistook a black hairbrush in the door of the car for a gun. Khalil opened the door while the officer had walked back to his car to check on Starr. The officer saw this as an attempt to go for the gun and shot him in the back 3 times. The horror of the situation is palpable. Yet, Ms. Thomas creates a scenario that is very plausible.
At first she and her parents want to keep her identity a secret. Her parents want to protect her, as she has already suffered enough. Eventually, they help her understand that sometimes speaking out against injustice is worth the heat you’ll have to take for it if you ever want things to change. One of the best things about this novel is the transformation of Starr, as she becomes stronger and more certain in her beliefs. She also reflects on her own biases, and owns up to feeling ashamed of her friends from her old neighborhood once she starts making friends with affluent kids in her private school. My heart ached for her in the scene where she denies to her two best friends that she even knew Khalil when they ask her if the guy that was shot was her old friend. Any one of us who can remember the angst of our teen years will relate to Starr’s feelings in many ways—especially the way we tended to blame ourselves for things that were never actually within our control in the first place.
Starr’s parents particularly resonated with me. They are torn between wanting to stay in the neighborhood where they were raised and protecting their children from many of the pitfalls that are so common there. Garden Heights isn’t a particularly safe place to live. There are gangs, guns, drug dealers and looting going down. Hearing gunshots sounding at night is a common occurrence there. After Starr’s best friend is killed in a drive-by shooting, her parents decide to move all three of their children to a private school in the suburbs. Eventually, it becomes clear that it isn’t safe to remain in the neighborhood, and the family makes the painful decision to leave. We feel the pain and shame Starr’s father battles over his feelings that he’s selling out and abandoning his home to the gangs. It’s heartbreaking.
The most gut wrenching part of reading The Hate U Give is the realization that this story is the reality for thousands of young black men in America. Garden Heights was a fictitious neighborhood in an unnamed city and state in our country, but it could have been anywhere. For the young boys growing up in this neighborhood, there existed a lack of hope—a lack of the promise of a bright future awaiting them. This lack of hope is mirrored in real communities across this country. Starr’s father was able to leave behind the life of gangs and crime, but he makes it clear to Starr that it’s nearly impossible to do. He was only allowed to leave (without being killed) because he took the rap for a gang leader who was facing his third conviction and would have been sentenced to life in prison. Through his character, as well as Devonte and Khalil, it isn’t hard to see why young men in their situation might make bad choices, even knowing the potential consequences. Starr’s half brother Seven was probably my favorite character. The scene at his birthday/graduation party where he confronts his mother was so beautifully written, yet so painful to read. I found myself rooting for him the whole story, and would have been completely devastated if Ms. Thomas had allowed him to die (which I feared in at least two scenes!).
I hope this book creates honest discussion within communities. It is a discussion we need to have in our country, no matter how difficult it is to openly talk about. Of course, I’d love to hear what you thought of this book.
I’ve read some articles recently about how “no one wants their parents’ stuff” anymore. It might be true. Most young people don’t entertain with fine china and crystal. Life is more casual than it was in previous generations. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have registered for china and crystal before our wedding. We never use it, and it brings me no satisfaction stored in a cabinet. I’m certain my two young adult children won’t want it, so it will likely be hauled off to a thrift shop one day.
I try not to become too attached to “stuff” in general. As we are in the process of evacuating for our fourth hurricane, I can’t help but be reminded that stuff can be destroyed in moments. But I’d be lying if I said there weren’t things collected by my parents and grandparents that I wouldn’t miss–things that I’m drawn to for the joy they bring me.
My grandmother had a wonderful sense of whimsy. She didn’t collect expensive, delicate objects but rather she was drawn to folk art and chunky wooden things. These egg cups were a childhood favorite of mine, and I still love them. They don’t get used, but they sit on top of my kitchen cabinets and the sight of them brings a smile to my face.
Whimsy at its finest!
Another strange acquisition of my grandmother came from her time in China back in the 1930’s. She picked up this “puzzle”. How many babies are there? Two or four? I spent many hours as a child turning this over and over trying to be certain of my answer.
One of my favorite collections of my grandmother is her Figgjo Flint Norway pieces. I loved drinking from the mugs–sitting next to my grandmother on a porch swing while she sipped her coffee. I’ve been able to add a few pieces to the collection through Ebay, and I’ve given some away to cousins who share the same special memories.
Do you have any objects from your parents or grandparents that you enjoy? I’d love to hear about it! Thanks for sharing.
I recently read an article that gave valuable insight into why life for a person with high functioning autism (frequently still called Asperger’s Syndrome) is so challenging. It’s one of the best I’ve read to help us “neurotypical” people empathize with those on the spectrum. If you know a single person on the autism spectrum, please take a moment to read this (click hyperlink above). I forwarded it to several people that I especially wanted to read it, and I hope they did. If we can change the lens we view people with ASD through, our interactions with them can become more positive, and hopefully there will be less misconceptions on our part for their actions.
Let’s be honest. Sometimes, it’s easy to get frustrated with someone who gets upset by so many things that “shouldn’t” bother him. We think, It’s not that loud, it’s not that bright, I can’t even hear anything. It’s tempting to want to say, “Just do it.” Whatever “it” happens to be at the moment. Go there. Do that. Say this. But what me, and anyone else that loves a person on the spectrum, sometimes forget is how much tenacity, sheer will, and courage it takes to just get through a plain old day. Like so much of autism spectrum disorders, this tenacity is invisible. The world doesn’t see it, because the world doesn’t see what it takes for someone on the spectrum to cope with his or her challenges in the first place.
If you’ve read my previous blog post What I’ve Learned in the Asperger’s Trenches, you’ll know I have a son who was diagnosed with Asperger’s in preschool. He’s almost 21 now, and even though it’s been a long and sometimes painful journey to get to this point, we still celebrate the milestones he reaches–even though some days each tiny step forward is followed by a big leap backwards. Life is tougher for him that I wish it was. But I wanted to write a post acknowledging exactly what it’s taken for him to get to where he is today.
I chose the word tenacity for the title of this blog because it represents one of my son’s character traits that has been a part of his personality for as long as I can remember. He actually has many of the same personality traits as terriers: intelligence, loyalty, bravery, and especially tenacity–an absolute unwillingness to give up on something he’s set his mind to do. But it’s the trait of tenacity that’s helped him persevere through the worst times.
This trait showed up at an early age in my son. His preschool teacher observed that he was very rule oriented and thrived on structure. She used this to set goals for him, and by God he was going to make that goal no matter what. It continued on into Boy Scouts. He joined a troop when we moved back to Georgia (from Germany) that had some boys who ostracized him, at one point even informing him that he couldn’t stay in their patrol. I’ll admit, I suggested he find another troop, but my son wasn’t having it. He called the scout master and asked if the other scouts could decide who stayed in patrols. When he heard the answer was no, he said, “Good. I’m staying in my patrol then.” He wasn’t going to let anyone keep him from his goal of becoming an Eagle Scout. Which he accomplished beautifully.
When he started playing the saxophone, he was in one of the lowest “chairs” in his middle school band. This didn’t seem to bother him until the kid next to him started annoying him throughout the entire class. I made a comment that if he moved up to a higher chair, he wouldn’t sit next to that kid anymore. Once my son latched on to that concept, he started practicing the saxophone like his life depended on it. By the end of the year, he wasn’t only in the top chair he was awarded the Outstanding Woodwind Player in his band at the final concert. In high school he was nominated for the Governor’s Honors Program for music.
When he started looking at colleges, his first choice was Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Known for extremely competitive acceptance rates and challenging course work, it was nevertheless where he set his sights on going. Not only did he get accepted, he was accepted “early action” which affirmed his decision to go there in the first place. But it hasn’t been easy, to say the least. At Georgia Tech, sheer tenacity has kept him hanging on through some of the most challenging years of his life. When he mentioned the possibility of transferring to a less rigorous school, my husband and I fully supported his decision to do so. But ultimately, he has stuck it out at Tech and will be a senior in August when the Fall semester begins. Seeing him walk across that stage to receive his diploma will be an absolutely overwhelming moment of emotions for me, representing a culmination of years of overcoming obstacles.
If you are a parent of a child on the spectrum, I’d love to hear from you. We’re definitely all in this together. My best advice is to take each day at a time. Don’t look ahead too far into the future, but celebrate the small successes of today. I’d love to celebrate your child with you and cheer for him or her to reach every single goal.
Wolf Hollow is a book that I couldn’t write about for quite a long time. It required some time to think about first–to marinate in my brain for awhile due to its themes. The writing is amazingly descriptive and beautiful. It evokes the same beautiful rural imagery of books like The War that Saved My Life,To Kill a Mockingbird, and Because of Winn Dixie. And like those books, it also deals with some very adult issues that kids face on a daily basis in this world.
In Wolf Hollow, the main character Annabelle comes from a loving home and is surrounded by a large support network. Even though the novel is set during war time, she lives a relatively peaceful life until a new girl moves to town to live with her grandparents. Enter one of the most unlikely villains you’re likely to encounter in children’s literature. Betty isn’t your typical school-yard bully. She isn’t Nelly Olson on steroids. She is sadistic. Cruel. Manipulative. Dangerous. Dishonest. Evil. She poses a threat to anyone who comes between her and whatever she takes a liking to at the moment.
How could a young girl be evil? Ms. Wolk brilliant shows readers this as the narrative unfolds. Her writing is gorgeous, and makes the reader feel as if he/she is right there in the thick of it all. The story will force a reader to face prejudices and ask the question,”What does evil look like?” Kids and adults alike will root for Annabelle and Toby (a veteran of WW1) who appears to suffer from PTSD (known as shell shock back then) and keeps to himself.
Betty makes it her mission to torment Toby. Her methods are calculated and terrifying to read about. You will ask yourself, “How could a little girl be this cruel?” Almost as frightening as the fact that Betty would do some of the awful things she does, is the fact that people so readily believe her side of things. She’s like a spider, craftily spinning her web and waiting for an innocent victim to wander into her trap. If J.K. Rowling had written a book about a middle school aged Bellatrix Lastrange, Betty could have been Bellatrix’s best friend–they are cut from the same cloth.
Wolk’s perfect pacing builds to a momentous climax. I won’t spoil the ending, but be prepared that it will make you think. It’s not easy, and certainly not your typical fairy tale happily ever after. But when are endings ever that way in real life?
Several years ago when I taught fourth grade, I attended a training on childhood poverty. We were each handed a tool to measure how comfortable we were doing various tasks. The questions were things like, “Would you know how to cash a check without a bank account?” and “Could you organize a formal function for 300 guests with a seating chart?” I don’t remember what the exact questions were, but when I was finished and was told how to “score” my inventory, it revealed that I was solidly middle class. How could this assessment measure my social class? It simply looked at the tasks that I felt I could easily accomplish. I felt completely comfortable performing tasks that middle class Americans tend to perform on a regular basis, and because of this “comfort zone”, I was categorized as middle class.
Why is this important? Because most teachers in America come from a middle class background. It’s what they know. It’s where they are comfortable. It’s what they understand. Therefore, when planning lessons, assigning homework, holding conferences with parents and interacting with students, the teachers are viewing each situation through a “middle-class lens.”Through this workshop, it became apparent to me that the very way I perceive the world, react to situations, evaluate objects and behave are all tied to my socioeconomic level.
And this is fine if I’m teaching in a school where my students all have the same perceptions and experiences. But what about when we have students who live in poverty? When assigning homework and projects, don’t I make the assumption that my students will have pencils, crayons, paper and electricity? And to be honest, don’t we tend to assume that a student will have a parent to help them? Because we help our kids and our own parents helped us. This is where we can run into trouble.
The book, How to Steal a Dog, offers readers a glimpse into what life is like for a child living in poverty. Even though Georgina’s family has lost their apartment (after being abandoned by her father), life goes on for them. Her mom still has to work and the kids still have to go to school. They live in their car with no assurance of safety, no comfort, and no real hope that things will get better any time soon. Georgina’s teacher isn’t aware of her changed circumstances and makes incorrect assumptions.
I highly recommend this book. Read it yourself and read it with your kids. It offers a wonderful insight into what life is like for families living in poverty. Families who are hit with unexpected setbacks or tragedies that change their circumstances in the blink of an eye. If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear what you think. Also, if you’re a teacher with experience teaching children who live in poverty, please reach out and let me know of your experiences.