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The Boston Marathon is special. I’ve never run it. But I watched it with great intensity all of my undergrad years at Tufts. I would wake up early on Patriots Day, pack myself a lunch, hop on the T, and settle myself roadside right around mile 22, at the top of the infamous Heartbreak Hill. And I would stand there hour after hour, often with tears streaming down my cheeks, cheering til my voice was gone and my hands hurt from clapping. This event is truly unlike any marathon I’ve seen, as either a runner or a spectator. I’ve run in awesome marathons, including twice in Chicago which is a total party from start to finish. But it is nothing like Boston. Boston is special.
It’s starts at least a week before with daily human interest stories on the local news and in the Boston Globe. These are your typical tug-at-your-heartstrings,-look-at-all-the-obstacles-this-runner-has-overcome-to-be-here kind of stories. The oldest runner, the youngest runner, the disabled one, the one running for his/her dying parents/sibling/spouse/child/friend, all tinged with an Olympic hero quality, except that this is Every Man and Every Woman, strapping on their running shoes and finding glory. I love that shit.
The day itself is filled with moments, both public and personal, large and small, stories of immense personal sacrifice and triumph, all embodying the strength of the human body and the strength of the human spirit. I once saw a young man running with the words “Will You Marry Me?” scrawled on his t-shirt dropping to his knees right at mile 22 to propose to his girlfriend on the sidelines. He’d been carrying her ring in his sweaty hands for twenty-two miles. Numerous times, I’ve seen Dick and Rick Hoyt, the now famous father pushing his grown son in a wheelchair the entire length of the race. And I’ve seen thousands of ordinary men and women who have dedicated months to training and are literally on the road to their life’s greatest accomplishment.
What is most special about that day is the overwhelming feeling of camaraderie that pervades the city. People don’t come out to root for the stars like at most sporting events; this is not about cheering on overpaid professionals, who may be perfectly good at what they do but do not always earn the hero moniker. Every one is there rooting for people they don’t even know, people they’ll never know. It’s not like that at all marathons. I can tell you from experience that there are long stretches of the Cleveland Marathon where fans silently line the streets and crane their necks looking down the road for that single particular person they know, completely ignoring all the struggling runners right in front of them. The last time I ran it, in fact, I found myself shouting at the spectators, “Cheer for everyone! Cheer for everyone!” thinking, “Who raised these people?” It obviously wasn’t my mom, who instilled in us a don’t-stop-cheering-until-the-last-person-crosses-the-finish-line mentality. She had her own Boston Marathon moment, running it in 1979 when there were still relatively few women on the road. She said that as she neared the halfway mark, a veritable scream arouse from the women of Wellesley College and it was a few seconds before she realized they were screaming for her. There she was, in her early thirties, with that trademark long white hair blowing in the wind behind her, keeping up with the big dogs, running with mostly men as she let the feminists of Wellesley carry her forward to her best ever finish of 3 hours and 4 minutes.
Boston is part of my lore, the state in which I was born and city in which I was educated. As it is for so many runners, it remains the single marathon I would ever allow to lure me back on the road for that kind of distance. It is special. And it will continue to be so, even when we feel helpless and vulnerable, sad and angry. Braedan and I are running in a 5K next week, his first ever road race. I like to imagine that someday he might decide to run the Boston Marathon. And if he does, I’ll be right there at the finish line, cheering him — and everyone else — on. Because that’s what we do.
You’ve heard it all over the media these past eight days: The teachers in Sandy Hook were heroes. And they were. No doubt about it. But they were also just teachers; they were doing — in a most basic and ordinary sense — what teachers do, all over the country, each and every day.
Teachers support and protect and nurture the children in their care. No matter what. I know, I’ve been there. My first three years of teaching were in an elementary school in the City of Compton, outside of Los Angeles. And while there were many stereotypes about Compton that were proved wrong by my students and their families over those years, it was nonetheless an impoverished city besieged by gang violence. And so, of course, there were shootings. Not school shootings, in the sense we now know them. But shootings right outside our school, that we could hear and, one time, even see. Gun violence that definitely placed me and the eight and nine-year-old children in my care in grave danger.
I learned pretty quickly what to do when the code red alarm would go off. I’d check outside my door and grab any child walking by (which one time caused great stress to the teacher who had allowed a little boy to go to the bathroom right before a shooting) and lock my door. Then we’d sit on the floor on our reading rug, under the windows that lined the back of the classroom, facing a residential street. We were close enough to the windows that if stray bullets came through, they would fly over our heads — or so we hoped. I’d read and sometimes the kids would share their stories of friends and neighbors and cousins who were shot, the way my sons talk about their summer vacations. We’d wait, with no cell phones and not even an intercom or building phone to contact the office (these schools were lacking in so many ways). And after a while, the All Clear bell would sound and we’d go about our day. No heroics, just grown-ups keeping children safe and calm, acting like the teachers they were.
In the last month of my last year there, I was coaching soccer after school on our asphalt playground. And we heard gunfire. More than I’d ever heard before, so much that I almost thought they were fireworks. I looked about, at the kids running across our “field,” enjoying their last moments of practice, and at the moms with their baby strollers lined up on the wall, ready to walk them home. One nodded at me (she knew the difference between gun shots and fireworks) and I blew the whistle and started to gather up my kids, right when the Code Red alarm sounded. I stood on the ramp to the trailer that served as our library and shooed the moms and the children, strollers and soccer balls, into the door. It was automatic. I didn’t fear for my life, standing out in the open as I was. I simply did my job.
As I stood there waving my arms, “In, in. Faster, let’s go” (in English and Spanish), I looked up over their small heads and saw a guy on a bike racing down the street on the other side of our fence. He was pedaling furiously and looking over his shoulder with his hand at the waistband of his sweatpants . . . where he was holding his gun. It was a bike-by, for crying out loud. And I was close enough to see his face. Suddenly, three guys from a house across the street burst out their door, jumped off the porch and chased after him, on foot. (What exactly they were trying to accomplish is beyond me.) My last kid was whisked through the door and I was safely behind them, though I already knew that the danger had passed.
The next day, the police came to school to record my statement and I easily picked the guy out of a photo line-up. A month later, I was packed up and on the road to San Francisco (not a moment too soon, according to my dad, who’d spent the past three years being nervous for me when I wasn’t nervous for myself). That fall, I received a phone call from the Prosecutor’s Office and they flew me down to LA to testify against this guy in court. A known gang banger, he had threatened a young teenager that morning for telling his friend to say no to gangs. Payback, that very afternoon, was getting shot in the face and leg (thankfully, he did survive). It was the shooter’s third strike and in California, that means you’re out. I was, as you might imagine, a very credible witness, white teacher lady and all. When it was the defense attorney’s turn to cross examine, he mocked me and my story, “Oh, I’m sure you were veeerrryy heroic, standing out there and letting all your students inside before you, while you just calmly surveyed the scene,” and on and on as if I’d embellished my role with undue heroics.
“No,” I told him. “I wasn’t playing the hero. I was doing my job.” What I did that day on that playground was automatic. I didn’t think about it, I did it. When you are a teacher, your students really are your “kids,” and you will do whatever it takes to keep them from harm’s way.
Victoria Soto, Rachel D’Avino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, and Mary Sherlach did not intend to be heroes when they walked into work at Sandy Hook Elementary last Friday. They intended to be teachers.
I know many of you, like me, have felt hopeless in the face of such tragedy. Wondering what you can possibly do to ease the pain and suffering of the families in Newtown. The answer, sadly, is little. There are no words strong enough to bring their children back, no teddy bear that could replace the joy of a brother or sister, no flowers that can bring beauty back to these dark days.
But there are things we can do. Even if we can’t take away what happened last Friday, we can work this day and every day, to ensure nothing like this happens again. I know that sounds like talk, just happy hopeful words that pundits and politicians like to use when we don’t know what else to do. But I really believe that kindness matters. And that kindness can make the world a better place.
I’m not going to get into gun control, which I happen to believe is (and always has been) an absolute necessity, nor will I specifically address access to mental health care, although I think it’s pretty obvious our society has failed on that front. But I will share Ann Curry’s plea that we all engage in 26 Acts of Kindness. I’m calling for 27 acts, because as much as we want someone to blame and as irresponsible as her gun ownership may have been, Nancy Lanza was nonetheless a victim. And besides, one additional act of kindness can only help.
Here’s a link to some of the things people have been doing, some specifically related to Newtwon, such as calling the local coffee shop and paying for 100 cups of coffee with your credit card. But many of them are more local, donations made to local organizations, paying the toll for 26 cars behind you on the highway. They speak to the inherent kindness in people and they give us hope and provide light in the darkness.
This afternoon, my boys and I are buying 27 canned goods to donate to the local food shelter. We’re sending some extra money to the Hurricane Sandy relief funds. We’re gonna squeeze some extra time out of our very packed weekend to make and deliver breakfast to the pediatric oncology floor at the hospital, for those families who stuck there instead of home for the holidays. We already have and will continue to provide Christmas presents for a family we know who have struggled mightily over the past year. And we will make and mail 27 snowflakes, inscribed with wishes, to the Connecticut PTSA who is collecting snowflakes for Sandy Hook, in an effort mighty similar to Austin’s wishing stars.
It doesn’t take away the hurt, it doesn’t bring children back to life. But, in our own small way, as we begin the shortest day of the year, it lights the darkness. We can each light the darkness.
I worked pretty hard to keep my political commentary off the blog this year, hence the recent scarcity of updates. (Of course, if you’re my Facebook friend, you know I certainly didn’t hold anything back there!) Today’s post is not specifically about politics, although it does contain some of my political views, which should come as no surprise to those of you who’ve been reading me all along. My message here is not about health care or elections or even voting, but it is about the power of one voice.
On the morning of Election Day, I posted this photo and comment on my Facebook page:
It got an awful lot of Likes awfully quick, but the very best thing that happened as a result (besides that now no one ever will be able to tell this child he doesn’t qualify for health care) was that it was shared by an old student of mine, now a sophomore in college who wrote, “Thank you, thank you, thank you to my 4th grade teacher, Krissy Dietrich Gallagher, for not only being the first person to teach me about the true meaning of democracy, and the power of one voice, but for fighting for her children no matter what the stakes are, and now taking strides to educate others about the right to health care. You are amazing, Mrs. Gallagher.”
How about that, huh? Now I’m not sharing that here just to give myself a public pat on the back (but it does make me feel very very proud and I did read it aloud to anyone who would listen that day), but to encourage all of us to tell the people in our lives how we feel about them.
That favorite teacher of yours? Find them and let them know how they influenced you. That neighbor you see out running early each morning no matter what the weather? Tell him you admire his dedication and drive. Even the little things, like an extra friendly cashier at the store … tell them you appreciate their smile. I can remember cringing as a teenager when my mother would compliment total strangers. “That color looks lovely against your hair,” she’d say while I’d roll my eyes and try to disappear behind her. But just think about how much it would make your day to hear something like that. It’s so easy, so simple, but it really would make a difference.
I have a favorite teacher, and she might be reading this right now. But it’s a been a while since I’ve told her that. And I’ve never told her that each time I create a new log-in for a website and have to answer a security question (you know, what was my grandfather’s first name or what city was I born in), I choose “Who was your favorite teacher” and type in that long last name that was once a fourth grade spelling word for our class. And I should tell her (I’m pretty sure I just did!) because I would be thrilled to know if one of my old students was typing in my name.
I know many of you are already doing this with the 30 days of Gratitude, where you publicly list all you are thankful for each day on Facebook for the month of November. So let’s all do that, Facebook or not, November or May. We’ve spent the past six months arguing with each other, so let’s move on to thankfulness and appreciation. We all have a voice and each of our voices has power. Let’s use that power for good.
I was going to post about Halloween today — with pictures of the boys in their various costumes: the packaged Target variety for trick-or-treating (which has been postponed until Sunday)and the we’ll-indulge-Mommy’s-crafty-side variety for Storybook Character Day. But it all seems a little inappropriate in light of the destruction and suffering being caused by Hurricane, I mean SuperStorm, Sandy. I realized this when I opened my email Tuesday morning to find a message from a local store announcing their “Sandy Shoe Sale!” and I thought, “Really? . . . You’re drawing in customers for shoes when people have lost their homes and livelihoods. Really?” I suppose veterans must feel the same way about the inevitable sales associated with their assigned day. (I’m less worried about offending ex-presidents with February mattress sales though.) And it of course reminded me of this ever so poignant (and rather depressing) Facebook post:
So instead of writing about our long lazy day off school on Tuesday (yes, we had our first official “Hurricane Day” due to high winds, downed trees and lack of power throughout Northeast Ohio), I can’t help but think of those suffering who were already suffering. Childhood cancer is the place my mind automatically goes, regarding hurricanes and anything else. And so I find myself thinking about all those kids and their families who believed they were already dealing with their life’s hardest thing. And how much harder it suddenly got on Monday night.
All those kids and their families who’d been holed up in hospitals for chemo and surgeries and stem-cell transplants, parents traveling back and forth between home and hospital, juggling work, other children and their sanity. And suddenly, there is no home, or the other kids have nowhere to go because schools are closed and they certainly can’t come into the hospital in the middle of cold season, with their snotty noses and hacking coughs. I think of the patients who were already in isolation due to stem cell or bone marrow transplants, living in a veritable bubble, who suddenly have to be evacuated through the cold and far-from-sterile streets of New York City to another, over-crowded, unfamiliar hospital. I remember back to the days following both of Austin’s kidney-sparing surgeries, the first in early October 2007 and the second in December 2009, when he had to lie so flat on his bed during recovery that he was actually strapped down. Restrained, with velcro strips attached to the bottom of the bed. There was a medical reason for this, of course: his kidney had to “settle” after being so thoroughly manipulated. But all I can remember was the overwhelming longing I had to hold my baby while he cried out in pain. I just wanted to pick the boy up and rock him in my arms, the single place (then as now) that he feels most safe. And I was unable to do that.
So today, I think of Austin and the others like him, both young and old, who are rendered completely immobile following their complicated and risky procedures, being moved down stairs because elevators are out of order and placed in ambulances to traverse the city through puddles and bumps and twists and turns. And I wonder how much new suffering can be piled on the old suffering.
But I don’t mean for this to be such a downer. I actually mean to say that this moment, like so many others, makes me feel lucky. And on the cusp of the season of gratitude I hope we can all step back and acknowledge how deeply fortunate we are and how truly rich our lives, on most days, in most weather, are. We have friends and family, a roof over our heads, health and mobility, choices and freedom, stores with shelves full of food and gas stations with tanks full of fuel, heat and running water and electricity.
And to those who don’t have some (or any) of those things right now, I wish you this: a good sense of humor, a deep well of patience and, above all, hope.
I love the Olympics. Love, love, love. I love the cheesy emotional pre-stories, focused on hardships real and imagined in the athletes’ lives. I love the over-the-top attention on America’s sweethearts, like the women’s gymnastics team, or on America’s heroes, like Micheal Phelps. I can still remember the feeling I had in the winter of 1994, sitting on the floor of my college apartment in suburban Boston and watching Dan Jansen in his last ever Olympic attempt. The lead-in story was all about his sister’s battle and eventual death from cancer and about how Jansen, clearly the best speed skater in the world, simply couldn’t manage to win gold. But he did that day and I will never, ever forget it. I love those moments.
But one thing I don’t like about the Olympics is the inherent assumption by media, audiences and athletes themselves, that if you don’t win gold, then you’re a loser. These people are the absolute best in the world at what they do. Imagine being the second best in the world at something. The second best in the whole world. Heck, imagine being the eighth best in the world at something. That guy in the last lane of the pool, who straggled in to eighth place in the 200 meter breaststroke? He’s better than 99.99999999896825% of the people in the whole entire world (or something like that). But, oh, at the Olympics, he came in last. Loooooo-ser.
Which brings me to my brilliant idea, which is not mine at all but stolen from our family friend affectionately known as Uncle Pauly: the ninth man. The Olympic committee should establish a ninth lane with a non-world class athlete. Not just an overweight couch potato — that would be too obvious, but someone who’s in good shape. A college athlete or a weekend warrior, someone fit and strong who can run, jump, swim, dive, or leap next to the rest of the competitors. Can’t you just picture that neighbor of yours, the one who’s out early every morning running in rain, snow or oppressive heat, dashing along next to (or, more likely, lagging behind) the rest of the track runners? Or some young, strong, high schooler attempting the long jump after the other eight have competed … where do you think they’d land in the sand?
Of course, it would never happen — the legal wrangling it would take to allow some average Joe onto the parallel bars or the 10m springboard diving platform would be the first of many hurdles. But it sure would show the rest of us just how talented all those athletes are. Yes, even the ones who “lose.”
Every once in a while, it’s nice to be reminded of all that is right in the world. We hear stories every day of death and destruction, fire and hatred and political wrangling. Incompetence and sickness, war and poverty. This is what glares from the headlines and blares from the news programs.
But there are bright spots that too often get overlooked. Of course, Thursday my faith in the inherent fairness of our system of government was “upheld.” But politics aside, here are two really great clips if you’re feeling down. Many of you have seen the first on Facebook, where it made its rounds last week. It’s so worth reading through again though because it is filled with touching and surprising acts of humanity and kindness. My favorites — although it’s hard to choose — are the man in Melbourne jumping into the water to save that woman’s dog and the old Japanese men volunteering to work in the clean-up of the nuclear power plant. Oh wait, and the letter from the three-year-old girl to the grocery store (did you notice the age of the responder?) and the man giving away his shoes, and the . . . Oh, just check it out yourself.
The second is a bit long, but I highly recommend watching it through to the end because the last minute is the best part. Kids get a bum rap these days, for being selfish, hooked on technology, obsessed with wealth and fame, ignorant of the struggles of those who came before them. But this video shows young people coming together in a way that can only be described as beautiful.
Take a few minutes. Let your faith in humanity be restored. If we look closely, we’ll see that there are acts of beauty and kindness all around us. Now go, and have a nice day.
Of course, our excursion on Wednesday would not have been complete without some media attention. Here’s a link to video coverage on the Lima news.
Interestingly, when I said I’d never heard of Bluffton before, I was wrong. I have and I think many of you have as well. Five years ago, on March 2, 2007, the Bluffton University baseball team was on its way to Florida for the opening game of their season, driving through Atlanta, when their bus went over an embankment killing the driver, his wife and five players. So, there they were on Wednesday, a team of young men on the eve of their five-year remembrance ceremony, doing something for someone else. Looking outward instead of inward. Focusing not on the legacy of their own tragedy but on preventing future tragedies of a completely different nature. Like I said in that video above, those boys carry a lot of weight. Their statement is loud and it is clear and it is powerful.
Speaking of school tragedies, there is not much to say about the shooting at Chardon High School that hasn’t already been said, time and time again over the past few days. But here is something so amazingly simple that we can all do for the students there. One of Cleveland’s radio stations, Kiss FM, has a Rock Your Prom contest — one of those click-here-and-vote-for-your-school kind of things — where the winning school will receive $5000 towards their prom, along with a DJ, “club style event,” and lights/video/digital effects etc. Chardon High is one of the many schools listed and there’s a Facebook campaign encouraging everyone to vote for them. It’s totally simple, you don’t have to log in or anything, just follow this link and click Chardon, every single day until they have a resounding victory. No matter where you live or where you went to school, no matter if you’d never heard of Chardon, Ohio before turning on the evening news on Monday … here is something we can give them, a small comfort in this time of tragedy, a little token of our sympathy. They’re still just kids after all and they deserve something special to look forward to.
When I was in eight grade, we had an assembly and, while I can’t remember what on earth it was about, I do know that the man up on stage opened up by asking us our definition of success: What does it mean to be successful? I quickly rose my hand and offered my answer: “Being happy.” And I got laughed at.
Now, I was a very popular middle schooler and knew that my peers and classmates weren’t laughing at me so much as at the radical notion of success being defined, not by money or fame or power, but by something as ordinary and seemingly achievable as happiness.
But, after the death this weekend of another icon of my middle school years, I stand by my pronouncement. I was never a huge Whitney Houston fan, she didn’t sing my favorite ever song and I certainly hadn’t given her much thought over the past ten (or twenty) years. But, as I found myself singing “Greatest Love of All” and still knowing every single word by heart, I must acknowledge that she is undoubtedly part of the soundtrack of my life. From eight grade graduation to school dances to “One Moment In Time” (and imagined greatness on the field hockey field), her songs and her voice provide a backdrop to my adolescence.
And, as she joins others from those mid-80s glory days (The Kind of Pop, of course, and movie stars like River Phoenix, who we all loved), I know that the brave fourteen year old girl who equated happiness with success was right. I would take my life over their’s any day.