Gifts

I am a woman of many words. A lover of language. A vocabulary nerd.

I made my sophomores read this about the importance of precise expression.

I seldom exhaust my supply of synonyms.

Yet here I am in the wake of an outpouring of affirmation, support, and generosity that has stunned me in my lexical tracks. I am indeed (profoundly):

  • overwhelmed
  • affirmed
  • validated
  • moved
  • touched
  • amazed
  • blessed
  • comforted
  • flabbergasted
  • floored
  • humbled

… and

  • gobsmacked.

Owing to the generosity of friends, formers (my students, past), family, and colleagues, the students and staff of Phoenix Academy High School will indeed visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, yet “visit” in no way approaches an adequate depiction of the itinerary that awakes our young travelers. All made possible by the contributions of so, so many donors. (I also have to thank DIane Ravitch and my wonderful NPE colleagues, Jamica Ashley of The Herald-Sun, Jane Stancill of the Raleigh News & Observer, Jim Jenkins of the N&O editorial staff, and Rachel Herzog of The Daily Tar Heel for their generous and thoughtful publicity. No one has ever had a better Warholian 15-minutes than I have, courtesy of these wonderful advocates and journalists!!)

In addition to the $15K+ that came in via online donations in only TWO WEEKS, we received two very special gifts: (1) a kind and gentle stranger from California – a businessman who could have made hay of his gift but asked to remain anonymous – called to say that he would fund any shortfall and asked to simply be notified of the amount we needed, and after reaching our goal, (2) a local supporter of the USHMM reached out to provide a supplemental amount to each participant for the museum shop and “treats.” As if the set pieces were not “treat” enough, bless his genuinely selfless soul! When he wanted to help, I told him that I would love for each student to be able to select a remember stone from the museum gift shop.

He sent me this:

aa's stone

a photo of his stone, and then wrote a huge check to provide not only a stone but also other “treats” to each participant.

I am truly stopped in my tracks by these magnanimous gifts.

Gifts from strangers to strangers, given not for any sort of personal gain but in earnest hope of enriching this world – of making it better by promoting love and tolerance and genuinely equal opportunity for my kids. My kids who so often have to take whatever life has dished out.

The trip itinerary is here: Phoenix Academy Tour of DC. It totally does not suck.

Then came the personal gifts. The donor of the “treats” reached out to museum officials, and the universe rained awesomeness (yeah, I know that’s not particularly impressive diction, but when it comes to awesomeness, our hyperbolic teen term may know no superior). This week, on Wednesday, April 30th, I will be the director’s guest at the private commemoration ceremony during the Days or Remembrance. I am so [insert any word from above list in bold and italics] it’s hard to express, even with the myriad words at my disposal.

The past two weeks’ whirlwind of fundraising and planning have been the best kind of work – the work that you know will bear fruit – that your faith assures you will yield lasting good. But to sit at that invitation-only ceremony on Wednesday – a  gentile – and hear the reading of names, well, no words could ever suffice. That evening, I will also attend the Tribute Dinner at which Romeo Dallaire (NIck Nolte’s character in Hotel Rwanda) will receive the Elie Wiesel award.

My teacher-nerd heart may explode.

Meanwhile, friends are visiting, calling, and reaching out from all over the nation and even from across the pond. I am bombarded by the riches of my life – the gifts I have received but cannot hope to accurately remember (yes, I split that infinitive), much less to adequately appreciate (that one, too).

But here is a sampling scatterplot of blessings:

. . . clean water, two loving parents who made sacrifices to advance my happiness and opportunity, a solid-to-excellent public school education, a decent mind, three university degrees, a body that was almost perfectly healthy for 50 years, chances to travel and live abroad and learn other languages, the chance to experience my grandparents’ farm with a roto-dial phone (a party line, no less) and black and white television that only received two channels, a fairly innocent small-town childhood, the richness of life in two amazing college towns (Athens in the REM era and Chapel Hill in the Moral Monday era), swimming in the phosphorescent waters of Thailand, visiting the Uffizi, Cezanne’s Aix, and L’Orangerie, never being hungry, always having sufficient medical care, wonderful pets, wonderful friends, wonderful family, and especially the wonder of growing two new humans and nursing them and loving them through their childhoods. I survived the Cold War and witnessed first the hatred of people who looked liked me toward those who don’t during integration in Mississippi, and then, though I still see that hatred in much more muted and insidious form, I saw President Obama elected.

I will be “a tar heel dead,” and that make me Happy.

Graduation (18 of 18)

I am a member of a kick-ass, take-no-prisoners, justice-demanding, compassion-hurling church – the one I would create from scratch if called to start a church.

I relish my favorite poem. I relish my favorite music. I relish my favorite people. I suck the marrow out of life with heightened sense of wonder and appreciation.

I have known great and true love – the love of both man and God. And now I look from this new perspective of terminal illness to see how intentionally each thread of my life has been woven and I am in awe. (UPDATE: 4/48: For example, I posted this last night, 4/27, and my church announced this today. Because awesomeness.)

I am clearly much more blessed than cursed.

In fact, for any one of my many blessings, many people might have traded a substantial portion of their time on this rock.

So when people tell me that I am being “heroic” or “have such a great attitude,” I try to tell them some version of this, which is true not only for me, but for many of you:

Not only does “my cup runneth over,” but every day brings precious new gifts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why This Trip

Aside

When I was diagnosed with ALS, it was hard going public. Instead of embarking on a second career in law and policy advocacy, I had to figure out how to tell people that I am dying – you know, faster than most people.

I appreciate that social media has permitted me to follow both the small and grand escapades of many former students, long-time friends, long-lost friends, and inspiring new colleagues & political compatriots. Also, the thought of individually telling so many people seemed daunting, and I worried about how would I keep straight what information I had shared with whom.

So after informing the people in my innermost circles, I decided to announce my diagnosis very deliberately on Facebook – to be as candid, informative, and reassuring as I could be. The response has been a very surprising, very public, and very gratifying whirlwind of generosity! So, so, so many people have asked to be part of realizing my desire to take 32 “at-risk” high school students to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. So here’s how to contribute.

The North Carolina Foundation for Public School Children is acting as the fiscal agent for the project entitled Writing Wrongs: Student Voices for Justice. You can read all about the project and donate here. And I’ll be deeply grateful. Moreover, I can honestly say that as I face the daily, increasing difficulty with walking, I am comforted and meaningfully encouraged when I look forward to this trip and this project with these kids. Thank you.

~~~~~~~~~~******~~~~~~~~~~

But in addition to asking for help funding this project – one I deem to be a truly worthwhile cause in its discreet form – I want to be candid about the broader issue . . . the question at the core of all the major debates raging in our country:

What will be our top priority: the advancement of our ideals or the advancement of our economy?

We can advance both. And we definitely should.

( One of my favorite remarks from Diane Ravitch – and you hear the same message from Pasi Sahlberg here – is: “You aim for equity and you get excellence.” She delivers this line and much more to Bill Moyers here.)

But when pressed, which will we subordinate to the other?

Will we determinedly insist upon justice and true democracy and trust that innovation and competition can survive? Or will we elevate competition, codify privilege and advantage (in campaign finance, contracts of adhesion, and unequal access to education), and embrace social Darwinism? (For you Bible buffs, Matthew 6:19-21 also speaks to this quandry.)

We force our public school students to declare in the pledge that we are a nation “with liberty and justice for all.” The message on the Statue of Liberty purports to welcome the “tired” and “poor” – the “huddled masses.” We love to think of ourselves as a country in which all are truly “created equal” and have equal opportunity from birth.

Unfortunately, the reality is that there is neither liberty nor justice for all (you should go to law school if you don’t want to take my word for it), immigrants face legal and social hostilities (whether documented or undocumented), and “equal opportunity” is a story that the privileged among us (us . . .I am including myself here and this Brian Andreas story is all too true: “I’m much better at the brotherhood of man thing, he said, when I can afford to live in a good neighborhood.”) use to comfort ourselves – to justify our enjoyment of our privilege without having to face, and thus to spend time, energy, and money sorting out, the savage inequities in our society – the prejudices and poverty into which many children are born, not because their parents are unworthy people but because the playing field is decidedly uneven. (As a dear friend recently put it: “We are born on third base, but prefer to believe we hit a triple.”)

But friends, the field is patently uneven, and most of us owe more to the lottery of our birth than we attribute to it. It’s so hard to take the limited time that most of us find to enjoy our lives and families and instead to devote our resources to making the field fairer for others. I get it, but I feel it’s what we ought to try to do. Moreover, I rather passionately agree with this powerful little Colbert master-ditty. 

So if you contribute, I want you to understand that you are giving not to a mere museum visit for some at-risk teens; this trip is intended to be part of a movement, a catalyst for the empowerment and inclusion of voices in our society the messages of which some among us might be uncomfortable hearing.

If I had normal life expectancy, promoting equitable and excellent public education – “choice” and “21st-century skills” for EVERY child in this, the richest country on earth – would be at the core of everything I did.

But I will not get to dedicate the years I had hoped, so this trip . . . it’s me passing the torch. For the more cynical among you, you can envision me throwing a sort of ideological Hail Mary. But I genuinely believe what Margaret Mead so famously said:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

In the groups emerging/continuing to contest growing inequity/injustice (Common Cause, Rootstrikers, Public Campaign, Public Justice and Public Citizen – and their state-level counterparts) and in the surging movement to combat the market-based education reform agenda (The Network for Public Education and dozens of state-based organizations, like our own Public Schools First, NC), I find great hope.

And if we keep teaching the great truths – keep inspiring and enabling the voices of our youth – education will save us all.

That’s why this trip.

So please, contribute. But don’t for one moment be mistaken about what you are enabling.

As I face the fact that I will probably not be able to walk through the museum this May on my own power, I take solace in the possibility of this project not being a mere outing, but becoming a tangible step in the advancement of my personal agenda, as articulated by Nelson Mandela:

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

I thought you should know that your money will be used to buy arms.

 

 

 

The ALS Card

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

First of all, Sunday, when I “went public” about my diagnosis on Facebook, I did not expect – could not have imagined – the utter flood of kindness, support, and ill-deserved praise that would surge into my inbox, onto my Facebook page, and into my text and voicemail.

The most surprising and humbling was the great Diane Ravitch writing this and spreading my story and causes to her many dedicated followers. The irony, of course, is that all I have done all my life was my job (yes, I hope with passion and dedication, but just my job) while she has refused to let significant health issues of her own prevent her from taking on powerful lobbies and monied interests to fight for kids by writing a New York Times Bestseller, founding the Network for Public Education, and incessantly and tirelessly traveling/speaking/blogging to mobilize and support teachers, parents, and advocates. She is the only hero here in the grand sense of the word. (Be sure to watch her on Moyers & CO. this weekend!)

I look forward to blogging the links to the blogs of the tireless unsung heroes who work without recognition or remuneration to battle the wave of market-based education reforms that seemed unstoppable until they built the foundation for the counter-movement. (For a bit of humor to lighten the mood, here is North Carolina’s delightful Dov Rosenberg: https://scontent-a-iad.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-prn1/t1.0-9/150316_10151089258278742_49523783_n.jpg)

I’m just an outraged teacher-turned-attorney working hard to stay true to my beliefs and principles. One who happened to get sick.

To get “dealt the ALS card,” so to speak.

And before Sunday, I thought I was ready to play the card with reasonable courage. But now . . . well . . . I cannot conceive how I can ever live up to the confidence and praises expressed by my family, friends and colleagues.

But I hereby pledge to try; I am so deeply touched and inspired.

When I spoke Friday to Stephanie Ansaldo, the director of the wonderful Echo Foundation, about funding a trip for my students to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, she said something which, to be honest, I had not considered:

“Use ALS; it’s going to use you.”

Now, I need to be very frank about something (and if you know me, you’d not believe me if I professed otherwise): I do not mind a spotlight. As much as I am genuinely determined to pursue certain ideals, I enjoy the opportunity to command the room. Most teachers and litigators have at least a modicum of ego.

On the other hand, I feel a powerful responsibility to play the ALS card (1) strategically, (2) sparingly, and (3) in a manner that it redounds to benefit the causes about which I am passionate.

So . . . to the many kind friends and supporters who have emailed/messaged to ask about donating, the Kickstarter site will soon be active and you will be able to donate to my project – the one at the top of my very short bucket list. I’ll post the link here, on Facebook, and on Twitter. We are calling the project Writing Wrongs; after visiting the USHMM, our students will create an anthology of original pieces reacting to their own experiences with inequity, injustice, and racial hatred. I’ll certainly take that as part of my legacy.

You can also contribute to the Duke ALS clinic here.

So . . . what to do with the time that we are given? The best we can with the cards we’re dealt.

I have the ALS card.

Here’s to winning some tricks with it.

“Welcome to the end of your life.” “Thanks. It’s good to be here.”

Or at least, it’s not awful, and I’m not scared. God has delivered on the promise of a “peace that passes understanding.”

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Welcome to the place I plan to record my final thoughts on all things I deem most important. After two decades as a high school English, ESL, and Japanese teacher, I went to law school. After three years of law school I passed the bar, but took a teaching job because something was going on with my leg, and I needed to figure it out.

On March 12th, 2014, I learned that I have ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and that over the next 2-10 years – most likely 3-5 years – my motor neurons will gradually stop working and I will lose the use of my limbs, then become unable to breathe and swallow, and then cease to be.

Well, hello there, Death! I was not expecting you, yet, here you are.

This entry is a prelude for posts to come.

I will indeed post about the progress of my new companion, ALS, after each visit to the Duke ALS clinic – approximately quarterly. But this will not be the ALS Channel: All ALS, All the Time.

I have a tons more to say.

Before my diagnosis, I had set up this blog and entitled it “Teacher. Lawyer. Kill Me.” with the tag line, “I attended law school because I was troubled by education policy. Now I’m trouble about many more things.”

If my life expectancy were normal, I’d be dedicating my time to these “many more things,” so I’m going to stick to that plan.

  • I want to join my fiery, righteously indignant, kick-ass colleagues in education blogging as we defend the essential civic institution of public education against an onslaught, a wrong-minded and dangerous take-over by private interests that threatens the nature of American democracy.
  • I want to promote and support the efforts of Common Cause, Rootstrikers, MoveOn, Public Campaign Action Fund and others attempting to give truly equitable political power back to every American by reforming campaign finance laws and promoting income equality.
  • I want to beg everyone I know plus everyone I’ve never met to contact their representatives to support the Arbitration Fairness Act – to learn about the incredible perversion of traditional contract law that has occurred in the name of The Federal Arbitration Act. I am dumbfounded by the injustices that lawyers and lawmakers tolerate in the law, and this is a glaring flaw in our system that strips rights from consumers, employees, patients and almost any average person who interacts with a more powerful business entity.
  • And I want to write about the lack of “liberty and justice for all,” even as we continue to indoctrinate students by forcing them to pledge to a flag and declare the existence of equity that simply does not exist in our society. Our system continues, rife with racism, bigotry, gender inequities, and other evils that undermine the best efforts and highest ideals of our society. I am deeply convinced that until we name the wrongs in our communities, states, and nations, we will be unable to ameliorate them.

Yet I am hopeful.

I see in this age of technology the means to deliver to all equal power in the political process.

I see a rising tide of impassioned and truly righteous educators and parents coalescing against power forces to save their children from terrible education policy . . . and making headway.

I see public interest lawyers and zealous academics, some of whom I am now privileged to call friends, pushing back against pro-corporate policy shifts that further disenfranchise average Americans, especially the poorest, the least sophisticated, and most vulnerable among us.

I see strong leaders like Robert Reich and Lawrence Lessig dedicating their considerable talents not to the pursuit of personal gain but to the righting of wrongs.

I participate in a vibrant and impassioned church community that believes faith demands action – speaking up for those who cannot effectively speak for themselves; calling for genuine equity and social justice.

And I have been privileged to participate in the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina as a broad range of people come together to demand compassion and justice from lawmakers.

Through this little blog, I intend to join / continue in this work and to spread these messages until ALS completely robs me of the ability to do so. The outcome is not so important. It is the effort and knowledge that many others are similarly troubled and inspired that imbues the acts with meaning, genuine value, and profound comfort.

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So welcome to the end of my life.

There’s going to be lots of good fun, food, friendship, and fight on this journey, and you are welcome to come along.

There is great comfort in dying after having pursued my highest ideals with everything in my power. In my law school application, I quoted Plato’s Apology in which Socrate’s tells the Athenian Senate (which is threatening to put him to death unless he will compromise himself) that

“For often in battle there is no doubt that if a man will throw away his arms, and fall on his knees before his pursuers, he may escape death; and in other dangers there are other ways of escaping death, if a man is willing to say and do anything. The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death.”

My plan to keep outrunning unrighteousness and then to greet death as a friend, just like the youngest Peverell brother in the Harry Potter series.

Feel free to cheer me on.