For the 35 years we’ve been married, my husband and I have had a visitor come into our house every night after dinner. This person arrived without fail, at exactly the same time to inform us, entertain us, and inspire us.
Of course, the answer to this (appropriately in the form of a question) is:
Who is Alex Trebek?
In those earliest days, my husband worked nights and I’d tape Jeopardy on our Betamax recorder to watch together later. (For the record, I still deny any claims of peeking ahead that might come when I’d manage to get a particularly hard final Jeopardy question). This nightly routine became a subtle part of the foundation being poured for the marriage we were building.
When our first baby was born, the Jeopardy theme music became her favorite song to dance to. She’d pull herself up to our console TV and sway to the music. Perhaps this was the first step in her lifelong love of music.
Throughout the coming years and three more babies, we’d all watch Jeopardy and Alex.
Sometimes, we’d know a lot of the answers and feel so smart. Sometimes we wouldn’t know many at all and be mad at the questions. But still, we enjoyed the visit.
Alex Trebek was the perfect visitor at our home. Classy, interesting, smart, handsome, funny, kind. And, as a good guest, he never stayed too long. His thirty-minute visits flew by. But it was okay because we always knew he’d be back the next day.
I know my family is not alone in this.
When we heard Alex had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it jolted us all. This constant in our lives was now being revealed to be on borrowed time.
And yet, he continued on.
Through what we would come to find out was excruciating treatments and therapies, he soldiered on so he could still come into all our homes.
For a little longer.
My son was the first to alert our family group text of the news of the death of Alex Trebek. I don’t think any of us managed to read that text without wiping our eyes.
I found myself crying as if I had lost a friend.
And in a way we all have.
To say that 2020 has been rough is the understatement of understatements. So many things we used to take for granted have been taken away or look completely different. Now, our nights will look different, too.
I hear Alex had taped enough shows to go through Christmas.
Guess that sounds right.
This reassuring voice who stopped by for nightly visits for so very long wouldn’t end his visits without giving us one last precious gift.
And in a year that has left us with so many questions, let’s open that last gift slowly and savor the answers for as long as we can.
"Please give this your utmost attention and return.”
Thus began another year of back-to-school forms. And this year, with all four kids in the school system now, I was somewhat overwhelmed when I began to fill out one duplicated enrollment card after another.
Name. Address. Phone number.
The more I filled out the vital information for my children, the more I realized how I wished I could tell the schools what really was vital about each of my kids. Yes, emergency medical forms serve a purpose, but our kids are so much more than the sum total of their allergies.
So, when I am done filling in emergency phone numbers, I want to tell my five-year-old’s kindergarten teacher something really important about my son. I want to tell her that he is more than ready to go to school this year. As the youngest child, he has done nothing but watch the others go and do and live. It is his turn now and he is thrilled. But his shyness might make you think he’s not ready. Please don’t give up on him. He’s an amazing kid.
And after I have filled out all parental release forms, I want to tell my eight-year-old’s teacher about him. I want to tell her that his heart is beautiful. And I know that because he wears it on his sleeve so often. And this breaks my heart because I know that school kids as well as society in general aren’t always kind to little boys who live by their feelings. Please look out for him. He’s an amazing kid.
And once I have written down what my children are to do in the event the school should ever close early, I want to tell my eleven-year-old daughter’s teachers about her. I want to tell them about my daughter’s dramatic flair. I want to tell them about her great sense of humor and how she loves to make people laugh. As a matter of fact, my daughter would do anything to make a friend happy. And as she dives into adolescence, that absolutely terrifies her mother. Please keep an eye on her. She’s an amazing kid.
And upon completing the student directory form, I want to tell my fourteen-year-old daughter’s teachers a few things. I want to tell them that going off to high school this year was hard, even for my most confident child. I want to tell her teachers that she will most likely never let them know she was nervous at all. No, she will most likely be as easy-going as always. It’s just her nature. She will always smile. Please smile back at her. She’s an amazing kid.
I guess when the very last form is filled out and filed away, and our children have filed into class for another year, we parents have one basic request we would make of their teachers. We are turning over to you our children. May you not just see them as part of your classroom. But may you understand they are part of our hearts.
Please give them your utmost attention. And return.
They are amazing kids.
*Excerpt from The Book of Mom: What Parents Know by Heart, by Tammy Bundy,
published by St. Anthony Messenger Press
(The Bundy Bunch circa 2001)
Walking With Miss Millie tells the story of a friendship between a 10-year-old girl and her 92-year-old neighbor. This novel actually sprouted from my own life when my daughter –during her middle school years, was given the chore of walking our elderly neighbor’s dog. But just like feisty Clarence in my novel, the neighbor’s dog refused to walk unless his owner went along. One day led to the next and soon, it was understood that the unlikely threesome would walk and talk on a daily basis.
I knew I had to tell this precious story. But when I got ready to write it, other parts of my world were demanding to be heard from. I taught at a wonderfully diverse high school and for the most part, the students got along as well as teenagers normally do get along. But during that particular time I had been reading Writer’s Notebooks with a few disturbing issues of race relations. Some wrote about feelings of pent-up anger and hurt, others wrote stereotypes about people whose skin color was different from their own.
Of course, I want my students to live in a world of acceptance. But reading their honesty, made me think of my own family. Ten years ago, my brother-in-law and sister-in-law began a foster-to-adopt program. Since then, our family has grown to include three beautiful African American boys. So when I hear of injustice, bigotry, and racial tension, it’s personal.
More than ever, I need the world to be better, to do better.
And so, as I sat down to tell this story of an elderly lady and a young girl, my students’ struggles and my own hopes for them and my nephews rattled around my head as well as my heart. That’s when I decided to take the story of the unique friendship and set it long ago in the South—making my characters different races. I wanted the novel to not only celebrate our uniqueness, but to also embrace what we have in common.
I know it’s tricky to write a story with a message or moral in mind. The word “didactic” is in danger of popping up. But I’m a teacher and that’s a risk I was willing to take. I also soon learned that writers are discouraged to write outside their own race. But by the time I learned this, I was blissfully too far in love with Miss Millie and Alice to abandon them. I had to tell their story. Plus, how boring would the world of art be if we all only stayed in our own lanes?
And so I continued to write the story and hopefully honor the characters that were planted in my heart several years ago. Now, eight drafts and six years later, it is finally coming into the world.
Do I expect Walking with Miss Millie will enlighten students to be kinder to each other? Do I think it has the power to make a better world for my nephews and all kids everywhere?
Of course I do.
That’s why every writer writes, isn’t it? We write to make a difference. We believe we can affect change or in the very least bring a tear or a smile to a world in need of being reminded of its humanity.
In my experience, that’s when the magic happens—when we get to tell the story that only we can tell.
Last night there was something in my school email that really got my attention. Sure there was something about AIR testing continuing this week. AIR (American Institute of Research) is a refreshing acronym for a suffocating set of tests that we have to give our students to determine whether they learned what they needed to learn. These tests will take some of my students out of my classes three days this week alone. And that’s only part of the educational time they will strangle from us.
But that wasn’t the email that got my attention.
Of course there was another email reminding all of us about OTES (Ohio Teacher Evaluation System) and our SGM (Student Growth Measures) –these are yet more acronyms the powers-that-be have come up with to try to hide the obvious fact that they believe a certain test given on a certain day can accurately deduce whether a teacher is effective. This email was about the final steps involved in this year’s process to determine our success.
But, that wasn’t the email that struck me, either.
The email that got my attention last night was from a student. She wrote the email early in the morning when she couldn’t sleep. “I had to get this off my chest,” she began. Then she attached the poem she had written. This poem was raw and deep and powerful and painful.
And yes, I have this young lady in my Creative Writing class, but this poem was not an assignment. She wrote out of her darkness, in an attempt to find light. Her words were about secrets and hurt, but when I read between those pain-filled lines, I saw a plea for help. I wrote her back telling her that her poem was powerful and beautiful –like she is. Then I notified her guidance counselor.
Today, that young girl was smiling. I don’t profess that all her problems are gone. But I can confidently claim that she knows she is more than a test score to us. Her worth is not determined by a data point. And there is no acronym invented that can tell me more assuredly what kind of success we are having this year.
Something about the card I received almost 18 years ago wouldn’t let me throw it away. Of course, my husband might argue I lean towards that tendency for too many things –but this was different. This was special.