What Excellence Looks Like

Before dawn, on Friday, September 21, 2017 a group of teenagers gathered on a hilltop in Arlington, VA.

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They were invited to watch the sun rise on the Autumn Equinox — hours before the school day was set to begin — with Mr. Summers, their IB Philosophy teacher at Washington-Lee High School.

Each of these kids had to find a way to this hilltop on their own, which is miles away from the school. There was no bus. They had to walk/bike/figure-it-out to get there.

Here’s the kicker: This was an optional activity. It won’t make much of a blip in the grade book, and it certainly will not make-or-break any student’s grade.

What happened next astounded me: Dozens of kids showed up.

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Mr. Summers inspired these young people to go well outside of their comfort zone, and do something different. He helped them see a moment in a new light. He brought them to this hilltop to inspire and motivate them in a quest for wisdom.

And it was joyful! It was full of energy and optimism and adventure and fun and community.

I’m the parent of three teenagers. I know precisely how hard it is to get a young person out of bed and moving in the morning.

And as a general rule, teenagers tend to resist doing anything associated with school work that is not “required.”

(And in all fairness to kids, it’s because the academic pressure on so many of these students is so intense you can literally see the burden on their shoulders. I have my own views on that. That’s a whole different story for another time.)

Today, I want to show you what a person who defines excellence looks like:

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I know that Mr. Summers inspires excellence because I was first person witness as he inspired each and every one of these students to find excellence within themselves and to bring it to this hilltop before dawn on a Friday morning in September.

I also know that Mr. Summers inspires excellence because I learn Philosophy through my daughter. What she’s learning in class becomes the topic of our dinner table conversations. Mr. Summers’ excellence inspires excellence in my kid, and I learn through her. Just as I learned Government through her from Mr. Kuhn last year, and Biology from Dr. Hoo the year before. There are so many teachers who have taught me over the years, through my children.

Teaching is T-H-E most noble profession. Teachers literally shape the future. Our society does not appropriately recognize or compensate teachers for the contributions they make.

Which is why I remain eternally grateful, and perpetually inspired, that people like Mr. Summers continue investing their talents in our future. The world is a better place for it.

 

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Smaragdine Sisters

I have the B-E-S-T sisters in the world — both the ones I was born with and the ones I married into.

I grew up sharing a room with Joyce, and I’ve been sharing with her ever since. We’ve shared secrets — both the kind that make your heart dance, and the kind that break it. We’ve shared clothes and shoes and books and cars and all manner of stuff. We’ve shared dreams of amazing adventures and magical futures. Some of those things we’ve checked off the list. Some of them we’re still working on. :)

When I have something that is weighing me down and I share it with my sister Joyce, she always finds a way to lighten my load. She may already be carrying a mighty burden. But if I say “help” she always — and immediately — finds a way to ease what I am struggling with. (Lina’s pretty good at this too.)

Here’s a picture of the three of us from way back in the 80s. :) L-R it’s me, Joyce, Carolina.

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(Carolina doesn’t really dial into the blog-o-sphere, or any kind of online “sharing,” really. I’ve got a lot of love for her too, but I’ll need to find another form factor to get it to her…. that’s why we’re all about Joyce on this one…) :)

To know my sister Joyce is to love her. She’s just like my father in that way.

Joyce helps me believe in all of the things I really need to believe in. I love and admire her so much.

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So at the tail end of an incredibly difficult week, Joyce sends me email to let me know that today (March 17, 2017) is our day!

Here is today’s word of the day on Dictionary.com:

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Joyce is a gem on this earth. She is a treasured treasure to her Treasure. She’s the best mother on this earth. She is my radiant beauty and my faithful friend. She’s my partner on some of the biggest dreams I’ve had in life.

Here’s to Joyce and to all things Smaragdine! And to a happy Saint Patrick’s Day!!

Mary

p.s. for those of you who don’t “know” know me, my last name (and Joyce’s) is Smaragdis. I didn’t want you to go away thinking we were really emerald-green in color, or anything nutty like that. :)

p.p.s. If the two of us got to play lead roles in Wicked, Joyce would let me be Elphaba because I’d tell her I’d want to defy gravity and she’d say OK, I could go first. That’s the kind of person she is. And if we did that, then I guess I would be emerald-green in color.  wink, wink. :)

 

 

It might be *my* last time

It was a perfect day in Washington, D.C. today. (As far as the weather goes, anyway.)

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Papou and I played hooky. We went walking — all over the National Mall. We went to the MLK Memorial, the WWII Memorial, along the reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial.

My dad used to be the most active, healthy, athletic person I knew. He used to climb mountains. He would walk at least five miles a day. Every day. Into his seventies, he could run faster than me. It was exactly four years ago today — right after he got diagnosed —  that my father and I were horseback riding in Mendoza, Argentina.

We move at a slower pace now.

I hate Alzheimer’s with a burning passion.

Today, as I was walking with my father through the majestic columns of the Lincoln Memorial, the thought occurred to me that it might be the last time I manage to bring him here. It made me weepy, that idea did…

And then, I realized, that it might be *my* last time. You never know. Who’s to say he’ll go first. Once I got my head around that idea, I decided we had time to go around one more time. :)

When I’m with my dad, my mind always drifts to “what if it’s his last time doing this… ”

Today I realized that if I flip that coin and consider “what if it’s my last time… ” I manage to squeeze a little bit more fun out of the adventure.

:)

Mary

 

 

Opposites Attract

My eldest daughter (aka the first one I loved) spent (virtually) all of her Christmas money on pens and stationary. I’m talking fancy pens. With all kinds of different tips and ink and weight and texture. Pens from Japan. Pens from Germany. Pens from every corner of the globe have been arriving to our house in the mail.

She has been testing them out, writing little cards for each — just to get the feel for each of her new treasurers.

Here’s what she wrote for me:

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And here’s what she wrote for her dad (aka the love of my life and my reason for living):

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She fully captured each of us in these cards.

You spend so much time thinking about your kids, and worrying about them and fretting over them and praying they’ll find fulfillment and happiness in this life.

You think you know them inside out.

Turns out, they know you just as well.

My sweetheart and I couldn’t be more opposite in so many ways. And yet, he is my Συντροφιά, and I would be completely lost without him in this world.

Opposites really do attract.

Mary

p.s. This was evident to me very early on in our marriage. I  told him: “My love for you is infinite.”  He asked me this: “Are you sure you’re not dividing by zero.”

To Thank a Teacher…

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My eldest child graduates from High School tomorrow.

There are teachers to whom I am profoundly grateful. I’ve written to a handful of them. But there are so many more to whom I have not yet written. And I’m running out of time…

The words in this post are taken from letters I did manage to write to specific teachers.

So much of what I have to say should be heard by a great many more. And not just those who have taught my child over the years, but those who’ve done these same things for children I don’t even know.

In this very small way, I’d like to express one mother’s gratitude to the extraordinary teachers who share their talents with our children, and shape our future …

To the amazing teachers who have invested their talents in my child,
     The morning I watched my teenage daughter walk into the school building for her very last day of High School, I flashed back to the very first day I saw her walk into a school as a very young child, all those years back.
     You were there. You were waiting, with your arms open to welcome her. My little girl started her journey with you. It was scary. You reassured her. It was hard. You helped her. At every step, you were there. And you are the one who set her on this incredible path.  You set the tone for what her experiences could be like. You helped her understand — and you helped us all understand — what is important. And what just isn’t. In elementary school, you taught my child some of the most enduring lessons that she learned during her years in our school system. I still see the imprint you left on my child so many years ago.
     And those years have gone by so quickly. Before I knew it, my little girl had become an adolescent. The rigor in her academics increased, and so did the expectations. It was a bumpy time. And in that turbulence, we found you.  You were there to share your gifts, and smooth the way. What talents you have! How do you manage to help an adolescent find the excellence they have within, and inspire that child to bring it forward, time and time again? I don’t think my daughter had any sense for what her scholarly potential could be until she met you. She began to blossom with you. Your classroom is a place of rigor and excellence, but it’s also a place that is safe and friendly and kind. You, and the extraordinary teachers that came before and after you, have turned my child into a scholar.
     In High School, she took off. Her ability to reason and to find intersection points between bodies of knowledge that open up new windows of insights have challenged how I understand the world. She can string together a series of words — everyday words — and turn them into something that can take your breath away.  She demands independent thinking, analysis, substantiation, reasoning, context, proof. Her expectations challenge you to elevate the caliber of contributions you make to discourse. Again and again she’s challenged me in this way.
     You have been absolutely instrumental in helping my child achieve this growth. Your standards are those that she now holds herself accountable to. It was your excellence that inspired her to truly find hers.
     Your patience, and your humility, and your desire to understand different perspectives helped her grasp how critically important all of those things are in scholarly work, and in life. She wants to understand the opposing view. She will coax and encourage and demand until she gets it. She will examine and question and debate until she understands it. She has learned all of these things from you as well.
     She was not this person when she stepped into your classroom for the first time. But in your care, and under your tutelage, she has become stronger than I ever imagined she could be.
     The journey to get her there was not easy. The pressure to perform was intense. Stress was very high. It took a great toll. I worried whether this high stakes dynamic would snuff out her love of learning.
     And there you were again. You helped her learn how to manage all these things as well. She never stopped working hard for you. Your class had the rigor and the highest level of expectations she found in other classes. But with you, she drank up everything you taught her with this thirst. With you, she never lost the joy and pleasure and discovery of learning.
     I’ve met you in person just a couple of times. Really, we barely know each other. If we encountered each other on the street, we likely wouldn’t even recognize one another.
     And yet you’ve made such an important and enduring and positive impact on this person that I love so much in this world.
     You are exemplary. Yet society does not appropriately recognize or compensate you for the contributions that you make.
     How does a mother thank a person who has been so important to shaping their child? How can I convey the appropriate level of gratitude for all that you have done?
     My child is so well prepared for what is ahead. The gifts you have given her will pay dividends for her lifetime.
     I have so much to thank you for. Truly, I don’t know how.
     I just know that as my girl becomes a young adult, I can see glimpses of the scholar and the citizen that she will become. And in her reflection, I can see her teachers. In that reflection, I can see you as well.
With profound gratitude,
Mary

 

Potential

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I think one of the hardest parts of raising kids is to help them see in themselves the greatness that you see. Helping a young person truly understand the scope of their potential is so hard.

I think this is especially true with girls.

When a stranger — who has no bias or vested interest — sees something great in your kid……. And when that person says it out loud…… And when that feedback gets back to your kid…. It’s as if this magical mirror has been held up to your child…. And suddenly their own reflection comes into sharper focus, and they can more clearly recognize the greatness within …. And through this, their assessment of the measure of their potential  expands….
And it’s all because someone else — a stranger — saw it. And they said something.
When this happens for your kid, your heart does a happy dance.
The take-aways:
  • Being a teenager is so hard.
  • If you see greatness in a young person, say something.
  • This simple act can inspire confidence, decimate constraints, and unleash potential.
Mary

When a butterfly (or Biden) flaps its wings…

I’ve got a prediction about the 2016 US Presidential Race. And I want to get it in quickly,  so that I can credibly claim “Did I call this, or what?” in about 6-8 months…

Prediction: We will have an independent/3rd party candidate in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Race that will create a disruption the likes of which we haven’t seen since Ross Perot in ’92.

Today, Biden announced he isn’t running.

I think lots of folks on the left were hoping he would. I think the two front runners on the left each have passionate and loyal followings, but both these candidates have issues they  need to overcome if they’re going to win a general election.

Meanwhile, on the right, I think we’ve got candidates appealing (and inspiring a good deal of enthusiasm) among pockets of constituencies, but no one (it seems to me) really appealing to the mainstream in a big way.

I think this sets us up for a third party/independent candidate.

There are lots and lots of people who are right smack in the middle. They want to vote for someone they believe in.

I think what we’re seeing right now is creating the right sets of conditions for an independent/third party candidate to enter and actually have a shot at winning.

That’s how things look from where I sit. Thanks for indulging.

:)

Mary

p.s. the biggest problem with my theory is that I don’t have an answer to this question: “Who??”