2013-2014: Mission Complete!

As I do every end-of-May or early-June, I’m reflecting on another school year being over. Unlike folks in the corporate or business world, my time is marked by the school year versus the summer. Ah, the life of an educator… I started this school year having just been freshly moved from a one-on-one position with a student I loved like my own child. I missed my student but was a little excited to be back in a high school setting with older kids. I started a totally new position and learned how to do it as I went along. The year operated smoothly, and I began to love the intelligence, wittiness, and sarcasm of many teenagers. I probably thought every day of my former student and wondered how she was doing, but that didn’t stop me from beginning to feel at home at South Stokes High School – the school where I started my teaching career nine years ago. South Stokes, despite its flaws and age, feels like a second home. Perhaps the fondness comes from growing up in an older farmhouse as a child; I think I can appreciate the memories and legacy a place might hold. South Stokes will be celebrating its 50th birthday next year – it’s a treasure in the community. It’s a place that holds many good people within its wall every week day. On that note, let me add that the employees at South Stokes are incredible people. I’ve met people who are real friends within the professional realm but also carry it outside into their personal lives. My coworkers are incredibly caring, exhaustingly selfless, and often make me laugh to the point that my sides hurt. I feel like I work with people who understand me, will accept my sarcasm, and will love me regardless of the crazy things I often say. To say that I haven’t enjoyed this past school year with its positive experiences and amazing people would be a lie. It’s been an absolute blessing.

Today I’m also reflecting on the previous five years I spent with the little girl I’ve grown to love so much. This year was her last year in elementary school, and next year will bring a load of new challenges when she starts middle school. Part of me wants to still be with her to help her through things, but I realize it must be God’s plan that we take our own paths on a daily basis now and learn how to be just plain friends instead of teacher and student. When I started working with E, she was beginning kindergarten. She’d already qualified for and attended two years of preschool because of her physical disability (cerebral palsy) but in order to function in a regular education classroom, she required a one-on-one assistant. I took the position with little information and certainly no experience. As the days passed in kindergarten, E learned to write, which often required me to hold my hand over hers to literally get her to make the formation of letters correctly. We learned how to work as a team. As an adult and educator, I learned far more about communication and patience in my years with E than I ever thought possible. Sometimes there were moments of pure stress, anger, and frustration that E would meltdown right in the middle of class, and it was during those times I felt my propensity for compassion and calmness expand. There was no manual or cerebral palsy handbook to tell me how to handle this sometimes emotionally-fragile little girl or how to support her. I learned how to dig deep into a well of acceptance and understanding to help her when she was having moments of utter despair. fall 2008 004

But don’t get me wrong: for all the times we cried and hugged together, we laughed and giggled and shared smiles every single day. E was always very mature and understood my sense of humor pretty quickly. We joked and picked on one another, and it was incredibly rewarding. E was always a joke-teller – the two-liner jokes with a question and a punch line. My favorite joke to this day, that I think she first told me when she was six years old, goes like this: “How do you get a Kleenex to dance?” “You put a little ‘boogie’ in it!” I can’t tell you how often I’ve thought of that joke and snickered to myself in remembering it.

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The other aspect of my life that I’ll always connect E to is the birth of Ella Grace. In the year I was pregnant, E and I had to do things differently because my expanding belly prevented me from doing a lot of the physical things I did to assist E daily. I think that during that year we laughed numerous times over how I inadvertently bumped E with my belly. E was always good to take her challenges and slip-ups in stride and laugh at herself. I’d like to think that I helped with that because if I ever made a mistake myself, I purposefully apologized but brushed it off with a chuckle and moved on. After Ella was born, I told E’s mom several times that I think E had done a good job to prepare me for having a daughter of my own. E had been like my daughter before I had one. As a matter of fact, E told me weekly that I was her “mom away from her mom,” so after Ella was born, I was able to say she was my “daughter away from my daughter.” We were literally like family. She could often predict what I was thinking or going to say, and I could do the same for her. It’s hard to describe that kind of bond with a student to another educator because most educators are balancing a classroom of multiple students. Yes, while I was with E, I assisted and managed the other students in the classroom, but my main focus was always E. Before I was transferred away from E, we had just completed her fourth grade year.

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She had tackled so many obstacles and challenges in her education up to that point, and I’m always sad when I think about how I didn’t get to experience her last year of elementary school with her. E had begun blossoming into a beautiful and VERY smart young lady. She had developed quite the attitude and gumption that I know it will take to tackle life with a physical disability, but to match her sassiness, she was showing her incredibly kind heart and sweet spirit to her classmates and other adults alike. We get together for dinners and visiting periodically now. I think we always will, and I’m so thankful. I survived this school year without E and she survived (and still even thrived) without me, but I hope that as we both go through life, we stay in each other’s hearts even though we’re not by each other’s side.

Sweet Summer

As a school year winds down for me, as an educator, my thoughts begin to shift to the summertime and the activities it will hold. When I was younger and still a student, summer always meant going to the beach and making a week-long trip to my grandmother’s house in the Virginia mountains. As I grew older and got married, summer meant taking trips to new places with husband and in-laws, as well as celebrating a wedding anniversary every July 16. In the more recent times, since having our daughter, summer now means spending time with her, making trips to the library for story time, going to the pool, making travel memories with her, and celebrating her birthday every July 20. Despite the changing activities of each summer, the end of May/beginning of June signifies a new sense of freedom and relaxation for a couple of months. Evenings won’t have to be rushed through with dinner, homework, bath, and bedtime. We can stay up a little later, stay outside to play a little bit longer, read a few more stories before bedtime, or make an impromptu family trip to the local ice cream place in the evening. Though I do enjoy the wonders of autumn and winter, summer holds a special place in my heart with its memories and good times.

My earliest summer memories involve family trips to see extended family or traveling with extended family for a week at the beach. When I was young, my dad’s side of the family always had a family reunion in the summer. Those occasions included seeing my first and second cousins, aunts and uncles, playing games outside (volleyball, badminton, or baseball), having family sing-a-longs with my dad and uncles and aunt leading either instrumentally or vocally, and eating lots of yummy foods. I think a dessert I first remember being my favorite as a child was the cherry cheesecake made by my Aunt Carreen.

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Other childhood memories of summer include week-long trips to the beach with my mom, aunt, and cousins and friends. If you’re local enough to know the area of Myrtle Beach, then you might have heard of Apache Campground in North Myrtle, which boasts the longest pier on the East Coast (or at least, back then it did). I spent a week most summers with my family at the Apache Campground, where we spent our days sleeping, lounging on the beach, spending hours in the ocean with my cousin, reading books, and enjoying the pleasure of salt air and a perpetual coastal breeze. We didn’t spend our days shopping or seeking out activities to stay busy – we were there to purposefully be “un-busy.” J My other childhood summer memory includes a trip to my grandmother’s house in the Alleghany Mountains of Virginia. My grandmother’s house sits on the bank of the Cowpasture River, a pure and clear country river that runs over beds of black slate or smooth river rocks. There is no mud or grass on the bottom, so it was always easy to go into the river and enjoy hours of playing and floating. When my cousin and I were young, we spent the majority of our time playing in the river, with our grandmother nearby to supervise.

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When we weren’t outside, we liked to spend our time watching old movies (like The Sound of Music and Big Business – both of which I can still quote today), making trips to the K-Mart in the next “big” town over, or going to the local camping post in the Douthat State Park to get specialty flavored ice cream. The days and weeks of these summers were simple, but they gave me wonderful and special memories.

When I met my (now) husband and we became serious enough to be included in each other’s family vacations, I began to travel to very new and far locations. I experienced my first long commercial flight on a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii with a stopover in San Francisco. This was the summer after we graduated from high school, and with a little bit of financial help from my parents, it was my graduation gift from my (now) in-laws. I experienced a lot of culture shock and travel anxiety, but that first trip ignited my passion for traveling. I remember the first flight of that trip occurred on Friday, July 13, and though I’d never been superstitious of a Friday the 13th, I was nervous that day! Since that first trip, in following summers with the Vosses, I’ve been to theme parks in Orlando, Florida; Cancun, Mexico; Acapulco, Mexico; Aruba; Calgary/Banff, Canada; Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Montana; and the ultimate trip that took us to Ireland. I learned a great deal about my (now) husband and (now) in-laws on these trips, including how giving and adventurous they were. We did some arguing at times, but we’ve also done a ton of laughing and loving while on those incredible summer trips.

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After my husband and I got married, our summers held the focal point of our wedding anniversary. On our honeymoon, we traveled to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, a beautiful Caribbean location with white sand beaches, turquoise blue water, and for me, a place to catch a nasty stomach bug from the water in the fresh fruit! It was still a beautiful honeymoon.

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Since then, we have celebrated wedding anniversaries with trips to Charleston, South Carolina; Boston, Massachusetts; Washington D.C. and Savannah, Georgia. Last year our anniversary occasion led us back to the place that means relaxation, peace, and comfort: my grandmother’s house in Virginia.  Anniversary summer travels continued to create great memories and make me feel so blessed to experience new places with the love of my life.

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As if summers were not exciting enough in our lives, our daughter arrived four days after our 6th wedding anniversary on July 20, 2011. That summer holds an abundance of memories, including the unpleasant latter weeks of pregnancy, as well as the wild and difficult days of new parenthood. However, in the following summer, we picked up our tradition of vacationing and made a long car trip to the eastern coast of Florida for our daughter’s first experience with traveling, vacationing, and the beach! As a family, we experienced the stresses of traveling with a baby, but we also discovered the joy of a new dynamic and new meaning with the family vacation. The next year took us to the coast of North Carolina, to the beautiful southern portion of the Outer Banks. As a family, our activities usually revolved around Ella Grace and having her experience new things, but much joy was taken in giving her experiences and seeing her reaction of happiness and wonderment.

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While summer travels and vacations make irreplaceable memories, I’m also appreciative for the simple, everyday memories of summer. Last year, with Ella Grace being two years old, I was able to do “real” activities with her, like taking trips to a local park and its awesome playground, as well as her first trip to the library, for which she did an incredible job of having self-control and being quiet – tasks that can’t be easy for a toddler. We made trips to get ice cream in the warm, balmy evenings, and we spent lazy mornings watching cartoons and playing with her toys. I won’t have these types of summer days for many more summers. I imagine that as Ella Grace gets older, her summers will become full of summer camps, activities with friends, and her own agenda for her social life. But until the times come when she wants to depart from the family to make her own memories, I will cling to our sweet, summer days together and cherish the special times we are having.