Saturday, August 28, 2010

Never Giving Up

Call me innocent or gullible when I wrote this post about discovering my electric company had been overcharging me for the 18 months since D signed a contract with them. I thought I'd make a quick phone call to the provider, we'd laugh about it, part as friends, and a refund check would be in the mail.

Reality is a different universe.

Because I do not want to be responsible for causing readers of this blog to turn to strong drink or blood pressure medications, I will not regale you with the details of the last month of repeated phone calls. Let's just say I was dealing with a call center in the Philippines with people who speak broken English, and there is no actual physical location where you can talk to a real person face-to-face.

 Oh, silly me.

This process involved untold calls, faxes of proof, and promised return phone calls that never came. You know how customer service people give you their name and employee number when you talk to them? Well, that is Worthless Information because you will NEVER talk to that same person again. You will have to retell and retell and retell your story ad nauseum.

But I learned some magical things that I'd like to pass on to you if (please, God, no) you ever get in a situation with your electrical provider:

  1. Always ask for a supervisor. The call people cannot do much to help you.
  2. If the supervisor cannot help  you, ask for these magic words: the ESCALATION TEAM.
  3. If after a month, you still are getting the run-around, Google the name of the CEO of the company and email him. Because, people: that was the Magic Solution.
After documenting my month-long struggle to the CEO, he responded to my email in 15 minutes. When the person told to call me the next day did not return my call, I emailed Mr. CEO again. And again, he responded in 15 minutes. I am glad the person at the top cares; I am sad he is so distanced from the company that he thinks that customer care representatives are actually, I don't know: caring about the customers.

Anywhoo, his personal secretary called  and left her personal phone number. I contacted her after school yesterday and the results were stellar: I have a credit for this month, a refund check coming in the mail for 18 months of overcharging, a new lower rate that is 6 cents a kilowatt hour less than my previous rate and no fee for changing before the contract ran out.


I was thisclose to giving up because the first week of school as an elementary school teacher has enough challenges of its own. But you know what pushed me over the top? The two nights in a row I stayed home for promised phone calls that never came. When I needed to pick up the first day photographs of my students from a local drug store. Heck has no fury like a second grade teacher scorned over bulletin board photographs.

The new lower electric rate, coupled with the new energy efficient windows and attic insulation will make my electric bill (in this house that is really too big for just me) manageable.

To quote Winston Churchill, "Never, never, never, never give up."

And emailing the CEO is a good idea, too.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Year Two

One of the many organizational helps that D left behind is in that funny little closet that holds the central heat and air unit in the hallway. There is a ziplock bag with a spreadsheet to record the date each month when I change the filter. I'd love to say I remember to do this each month. (It is not for lack of writing utensils, because he left several pens in the ziplock as well.) According to the number of spaces on the sheet, it should last me until about 2021. The bag also contains yellow copies of any work that has been done on the HVAC unit (don't judge me because I know fancy technical phrases) and warranties.

All of this came in very handy today. You see, the first day of school on Monday found the mercury soaring to 107 degrees; Tuesday it was 108. Even in central Texas, this is considered hot as ... well, anything. (I'd use the "h" word, but I teach seven year olds who can read well now.) Imagine our bliss when we heard that a "cold front" was blowing through last night. It dropped the temperatures to the high 90s, and I'm here to testify that  felt significantly cooler.   Can I get a witness from fellow teachers who have playground duty?

It was, alas, too late for my central air. The heat caused it to overwork itself, freeze up and leak water. I'd seen D change towels out on that funny shelf in that funny closet over the years, but never paid any attention to how it all got fixed in the end. I finally called the A/C people listed on every sheet in the ziplock bag spanning a period of 10 years. The friendly secretary said the serviceman could meet me at home after school, but that I should turn the A/C off and leave just the fan running. Which would have been doable if I hadn't been in my classroom calling on my break. Quality Friend Connie to the rescue! I may or may not have a hidden key outside my house, and she slipped inside to switch off the unit so my house didn't float away due to condensation pouring out of the unit.

The repairman was polite, efficient and immediately effective. He let me watch and take notes, and explained I should be adding one cup of water mixed with one cup of bleach to the T valve by the W valve each month when I change the filter. But only during A/C months.  And then my head spun off and rolled down the hall. How did I live decades with central air and never know that algae grows during the summer in the drain and can clog the unit? Anyone else know that? Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?

So, my A/C is fixed. My head is full of new things I should know but didn't. And I'm once again aware that D's terminal illness left him time to prepare some things that are helpful for me like my Central Air Tutorial in a Ziplock. 

But he must have forgotten the advice for how to continue on in life without him.

It hit me pretty hard the other day that I spent the last year mourning the loss of D. But now? I find myself mourning the loss of me. Of my old life. The one that is gone forever. 

I try to console myself that all my empty-nester friends are watching their children scatter across the country, and many of them are now living alone. Or with just a husband. Which is not a "just" at all.

 Again: I don't feel lonely. I just feel so alone. My days are filled in my classroom. I love teaching, children, their parents, my fellow teachers and so on. But there is so much time that it is just me. I know I need to get out more. (Probably part of my problem is that most of my friends are in the teaching profession and the first weeks of school are just Peak Season for us all. ) No one seems to be available.

I'm not giving in to self-pity. People become widows all the time and figure out a way through it all. With my strong Swedish heritage, and the longevity of my relatives who almost all lived to be 100, I am probably not even half way through my life. And to quote Garth, I am much too young to feel this old. And alone.

Waiting for the rejuvenation that a cool fall always brings. And looking for a balance to fill in the gaps called "alone".

Monday, August 23, 2010

The First Day of School

Today was the first day of school in my neck of the woods. What do you think greeted us in the media?
A school in Los Angeles that cost $528 million to build.
A nearby district that would no longer allow its teachers to have microwave ovens in their classrooms. (Something about microwave popcorn setting off alarms. As a fellow teacher suggested: why don't they just have an inservice on making popcorn in the microwave?) (And PS: This was the same district that tried to CHARGE teachers for having mini-refrigerators in their rooms a few years ago.)
A district having to remove anything that covered/decorated more than 20% of the walls after carefully applying bulletin boards for a week.

What should they have been reporting about?

Well, how about what I saw coming down my ramp today?
Kindergartners on the way to their parents after their first day of school ever.
I peeked out of my door to see what all the commotion was, and this is what was waiting for these newly initiated K-ers:
Can you see down at the end? I rushed in to my room to get my camera because it was the cutest thing: every parent down there seemed to have a camera or video running. Some were standing on benches and chairs for a better shot. I'm not so sure there weren't some in the trees. It looked like Channel 8 was waiting at the end of that ramp.
But the best part? The look in the parents' eyes as they watched their five year olds march out of the building. I know how quickly time will pass. They'll be watching those same children  marching across a stage and reaching for a diploma in seemingly no time at all.

Parents, today you picked the good part: the part that cannot be taken away from you. And I hope you are treasuring these moments in your hearts. The children saw the pride and excitement in your eyes on their Big Accomplishment of making it through their first day. And I know they'll come back with that same excitement tomorrow.

Thanks for reminding me why I love to teach.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Farewell, Summer

The clock is ticking the countdown of summer: the first day of school is tomorrow. What to do with those last golden hours? How about "Jersey Boys" with a fellow teacher? And for a bonus, how about running into another fellow teacher there? The world is apparently populated by wonderful teachers.
Remember having trouble falling asleep on Christmas Eve as a child because you were so excited about the coming Christmas morning? That's how I always feel the night before the first day of school. 

I teach at an exemplary school with committed professionals. I have precious students and supportive parents. We are given all the supplies we need to teach with excellence. And I'm getting paid to do a job I love, love, love.

I am blessed in this life.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Meet the Teacher 2.0

Well, after working approximately 3, 455 hours in the last two weeks on my new second grade classroom, I am proud to announce that it is ready to open for business on Monday.

I am now inside the school (as opposed to being on the Back 40 in a portable classroom, where I've spent the last four years.) My front windows face the butterfly garden, my back windows face our classroom garden. And I feel compelled to quote Cicero: 'If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need." (Though the instructional planning guides would like to add math, social studies and science to that list for classroom completion...)

Welcome! What is not to love about all these floor to ceiling windows that cover two sides of my room? (The room I came from had four small windows with security screens that kept the room dark, dark, dark.)
Our room has separate boy and girl bathrooms. My life with second graders just got so much easier.

This will be our writing and word work center. (I promise: this room is twice the size of the one we had last year!)
This is part of our library. I'm adding more and more chapter books for my 19 seven-year old best friends. (Look carefully at the wall on the right: I PAINTED the bulletin boards Bumblebee Blue. They are literally 60 years old, and I am tired of putting up and changing paper all the time as a teacher. The teacher next door had painted hers and told me that things stay up better, and she was right. One million staple holes fused by blue paint. Why didn't I think of that YEARS ago?)
More painted bulletin boards above the computer station. And see that light shining down from heaven on the right side of the photograph? I have a teacher's desk for the first time in five years! There was not room for one in the portable, so I've set up my own little Happy Kingdom in that corner of the room.

Got the room ready just in time for Friday's "Meet the Teacher". Since I'm looping with this class and already know the parents/students (and  almost expect to be invited to family reunions this year...), I wasn't sure how many would come. Well? Almost everyone.

School starts Monday. I'm tired, but I have Sunday to rest. And catch Broadway Across America's "Jersey Boys" with fellow teacher Jennifer.

Coming soon to a school near you: a 175 day journey through a Magical Year.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Back to School: Teacher Edition

Yesterday, the teachers in my district returned to school for Inservice. If you are not in education, you may never have given much thought to what teachers do to prepare for the new school year. (Note: It is not like the book, "Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready For Kindergarten" where the aforementioned teacher shows up a few minutes early to set up her room. That books grieves me so much that I have banished it from my classroom. Most teachers have spent days and usually weeks during the summer in workshops, curriculum work and room preparation.)

Well, first thing on our list was pancakes served up fresh from a local restaurant. Nothing says welcome back like the aroma of blueberry and gingerbread pancakes!

And then we are down to the serious business: catching up with our old friends after a summer away. Oh: and we talk about all that new curriculum stuff, too.
There was much talking and laughing and cheering. You think seven year olds with new backpacks and crayons are excited about returning to school? They have nothing on seasoned teachers who can't wait to begin the new school year.

 I am so proud to be associated with a group of such dedicated and enthusiastic colleagues. The 2010-2011 School Year is shaping up to be one of the best yet.

Let the celebration begin!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Hope Does More Than Float

One of the many gifts that D left behind for me to find after he was gone was a parallel Bible containing the NASB version (which I usually read) and the more user friendly Message Bible. I love to see familiar verses come freshly alive with the vivid description of the Message.

Today I was reading Romans 5:3-5 in the NASB:  "... we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulations brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us."

Following? Tribulations bring perseverance, which brings proven character, which brings hope. And hope doesn't disappoint, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts.

I've done a lot of reflecting on this process  as I've worked at fixing up my soon-to-be second grade classroom. Remembering where I was this time last year: only weeks from having lost D, but starting a new school year. Our Crazy Librarian stopped by my room this week and commented on how I was there in body at the beginning of last school year, but my mind and my heart were someplace very far off. And here I thought I was fooling everyone. Functioning well during the day, but coming home to sit and stare into space for many, many long hours. Glad no one was looking in my home's windows and preparing a case to have me legally certified as many bricks short of a load.

But in the back of my mind? There was always that small glimmer of hope. That hope that "doesn't disappoint" that things were going to get better. Even though I could never imagine that the cloud of grief in my heart would ever be gone. I sat through two sessions of my GriefShare class: numb the first time; thawing to reality the second. And gradually, so gradually, realizing that this trial was bringing perseverance and proven character that eventually sprouted  hope. A hope of healing that became a reality. 

I love being a teacher because we have our own calendar that is renewed each August. We basically get to start all over again each new school year. I can see the full circle of a year without D. A year spent going through every drawer, closet, nook and cranny throughout the entire house as if I was doing an archeological dig of D's life. And now I'm done.

Another full circle experience? The GriefShare leader called me yesterday and asked me to be a leader beginning in September. Well? Yes, please! If I can hold out the smallest grain of hope to anyone going through this experience, I will be glad to do the training necessary and give the time to the class.

And I close this post with the Message's version of our verse about hope:

"We continue to shout our praise even when we're hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we're never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary-we can't round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit."

Amen and amen.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Feathering the Nest

Ummm, remember that unfinished classroom I showed you on Monday?
After 4 days it is still largely unfinished. Not for a lack of work.
But everything is now a lovely shade of O'Brien's Bumblebee Blue.

I had to laugh at myself that with ALL the boxes I still need to unpack and sort, I felt the need to put a new coat of paint on my shelves. (And, don't tell the other teachers: to iron my curtains with  my iron and ironing board lugged from home.) I just know that I will soon be spending  ten hour days in this room and I want it to look nice and feel like home.

I think the general population (read that: not teachers) would be amazed at the amount of time spent fixing up classrooms during the summer. We are not required to be at school for Inservice until next week, but most of us are logging some major "volunteer" time in our rooms. I know I'll go over the 40 hour mark tomorrow for the work I've done this week. But how many jobs let you fix up your work area any way you want to? (Granted: most of it is with our own money, but it is so worth it for the pleasant surroundings we create.)

The first year I taught was in the early 80s. The only supplies the school secretary would give us were a red grading pencil and ONE ROW of staples at a time. I am not making that up. In the mid-80s I taught at a school that required us to paint our own chalkboards on the wall if we felt we needed them. (They did supply the paint. But not the brush.)

The school I am teaching at now gives us a stipend for beginning of the year supplies (thank you, PTA!) Still, there is so much that a teacher must buy... without a tax deduction for the effort. But we want our rooms to be a place that our students love coming to each day. And I think every teacher at my school is successful in that endeavor.

Time enough to look over all the new curriculum next week during formal meetings. For now, I'm preparing the room to be a magical place...because we'll be making the future.

Monday, August 9, 2010

On Your Marks, Get Set....

One week until Inservice begins for teachers in my district.
This is the time that we have to face this:
A classroom waiting to be unpacked and set up.
I eased into it this morning by spending about four hours moving boxes and bookshelves around. I'm in a new classroom and a new grade this year, so I'm not sure where everything will go in my new space.  And I kept getting distracted by my new view:
A beautiful new Butterfly Garden in front of my new room.
And it seems to be working just fine.

Starting up a new room is a lot of work, but there are so many great things I'm looking forward to. Students and parents I already know and love. A new team of teachers that I admire and look forward to working with. A new room with a view. A fresh calendar for a new school year that is full of promise.

Two weeks will bring the return of my 19 seven-year old best friends. And for the room to be filled with  laughter, the smell of new crayons, and the beginning of a new year.

Can't wait!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Gone Country

Summer is rapidly coming to a close, and this last weekend I took a final road trip before the classroom lures me back to unpack boxes and staple bulletin board paper. (I'd say "move desks around", but they, alas, have not arrived yet.)

I visited different friends in the same rural area of north central Texas. It is located in a valley that is beautiful for its sweeping views and peaceful surroundings.
My first stop was at the country home of a couple who have been my friends for almost 25 years. We had our children at the same time, and walked through some of life's greatest trials together. This is a view of their porch. When I've visited with these precious friends, I always leave feeling caught up, and as if my life is sorted out. Thanks P & C for a lovely time!
A few miles down  some paved and  dirt roads  was my next destination. 

32 years ago I pledged a sorority at college, and six of the former members were invited to K's country home to reconnect and reminisce.
Here is a picture of the sunrise over her pasture...
...and a sunset over her pool.

But the best view of all?

Scroll down...
My precious friends who came from as far away as Colorado and Tennessee.

We talked and laughed, and it seemed like only days had passed since we'd last been together.

I know that I cannot take credit for having such wonderful friends in my life. God has surely blessed me with so many precious people throughout the years, and I am very grateful.

We told our stories and realized we would never have imagined the roads that our lives would have taken us down when we were sitting in our third floor dorm rooms dreaming of the future.  There have been many hardships and trials, but the end of each tale is that God has been faithful to each one of us. 

I'd love to share their stories, but they aren't mine to tell. Let me just say that I am privileged to know such strong and amazing women. 

Thanks, friends, for a relaxing and refreshing weekend.  And let's do it again. Soon.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Random Acts of Kindness

I've been thinking a lot about the verse in Isaiah that says, "Your husband is your Maker..." I can't tell you how often I lift prayers toward heaven that begin with, "OK, Lord, if You are my husband now, You are going to have to help me with (fill in many, many blanks.)" As the fog of the last year of grief seems to be lifting around me, I've had to deal with things that are totally new to me. Life is one big learning curve at times. But always, God is faithful to lead answers or help my way.

My "Check Engine Soon" light came on a few days ago. Particularly concerning me because I'm going on a short road trip soon. I emailed a friend, and he said to take it by an AutoZone store, and they could run the "computer test" that would give the cause. Who knew? I stopped by today, a friendly young man plugged something into a secret place under my steering column, and then he laughed. He walked to the side of the car and screwed the gas cap in correctly. Problem solved. I tried to pay him, but he said, "No charge!" with a smile in the 101 degree heat we are experiencing in central Texas. He had no idea how grateful I was.

There was a problem with the Toll Tag on my car, and when I tried to take care of it over the phone I was told they could not talk to me. The account was in my husband's name and I'd (deep breath) have to bring in his death certificate to have the account put in my name. (Exhale.) Luckily, the office is not far from my home so it wasn't a huge physical inconvenience. Just an emotional one. I handed the paper through the window slot at the office, and held off the Ugly Cry. The lady behind the counter reached through the window and held my hand. That touch made my day.

The biggest thing I've been dealing with since loosing D are my skyrocketing electric bills. Seriously: my staying in my home is dependent on getting those bills down. They are the driver behind the roof insulation and new energy efficient windows throughout the house this summer. I just keep lifting this problem to God and saying, "HELP!" 

And the help came through the neighbor across the street. He walked over to tell me how good my new windows, brick work and front door looked. I mentioned my electric bill as a reason for the new windows. He told me he was able to get a great rate on his home bills. How much? I asked. Turns out it was about 6 cents per kilowatt hour less than my rate. Who knew there was such a difference? 

Well, the next day another friend told me about a website at that the state of Texas provides to let you compare electric rates of different providers. This also led me to go over my electric bills since losing D and realizing they have overcharged me for the past 17 months. In between the refund for the overcharge, the new much lower rate I will soon be locked into, and the energy-efficient changes of the summer, my electric bill is going to become manageable. 

Coincidence? I think not. I know I'm in good hands and everlasting arms. Amen.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Where is That Promised Land?

After working through a two week marathon on the house, and spending about 12 hours cleaning after all the projects yesterday, I woke up this morning ready to do something fun. Only, I turned over and went back to sleep for three more hours. Should have been my first clue something was a little off.

I got up with a slight headache and tried the aspirin/hot cloths on my face approach. Followed by putting my hot mug of tea on my face as I read the paper. Hmmmm. Time to follow my grandmother's advice for whatever ails you: get out and stir around a little.

I went in search of a mirror for the master bath, and realized at the first store I was feeling  a little crummy. By store two I was admitting to feeling hot and achy. And store three? Well, I didn't make it that far. With apologies to my grandmother, this "stirring around a little" was only making things worse.

So, I did what any sane (yet sick) person would do: I called my sister and whined. High whine, people. And yet, she took the call. She listened, commiserated, and informed me that the mold count on these hot summer Texas days was off the charts.

 Ahh. My old nemesis mold. I glanced in the mirror and realized that I could trace my  sinuses where they protruded around my face. Time for pillows on the couch and a long, long nap. 

I woke up feeling slightly better, thinking about the need to tell someone that I was sick. Along the lines of "if a tree falls in the forest does anyone hear"? I realized if I don't tell someone that I'm not feeling well, no one knows. And for some reason that made me feel very lonely. Like "buy miniature Butterfingers to consume in great quantities" lonely.  

I'm still trying to figure out the balance between these thoughts I'm working through, yet going forward with a positive attitude.  A two-Kleenex issue came yesterday while I as thinking about turning one of the three spare bedrooms into an art/sewing/scrapbooking/exercise/TV room. I don't want to just buy a single chair for me: at least if there is a small couch/loveseat I can pretend that someone else may sit in that room with me occasionally. Pitiful, I know. But I do not want to give into self-pity.

I realize I spend about the same amount of time with friends outside of the house as I always have. It's just there is not the constant companionship of a husband inside the house to fill in the gaps any more. 

I'm trying to give myself permission to enjoy the alone time, to pursue new interests, and to honor the past in the midst of it. These transitions in life are usually marked by my beginning a new journal. I've kept journals since 1987 and have about 10 three-ring binders to prove it. I always seem to know when it's time for a new one: something major has usually happened, and it's time for a new start.

A verse I have been reflecting on a lot lately is one D and I had read at our wedding:

"The land into which you are about to cross to possess it, a land of hills and valleys, drinks water from the rain of heaven, a land for which the Lord your God cares: the eyes of the Lord are always on it from the beginning even to the end of the year." (Deuteronomy 11)

I'm reminded of this verse often as I ask God, "How do I live now?" My life - your life - is still "a land for which the Lord your God cares." I want to cross into that land of promises for my future. I want this to begin a year of Jubilee; of freedom. I want to fill my new journal with the promises of God that are "yes" and "amen". 

Pressing on.