A Voice in the Heavenly Choir

lynn-leeFrom the time that I gave birth to my 3rd child I didn’t have time to do much else other than take care of my family. This is understandable being as these children were born within 3 ½ years of each other. Being a person with many interests, I often felt a tinge of jealousy for women who had the time, talents and energy to do the things that I would have enjoyed. But I was always able to pacify myself with Ecclesiastes 3:1. “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose…” Most of these women were in a different time and season in their life. They were either older than me and had their children at least partially grown, or they were yet to be blessed with a family. I knew that my children would not be small forever, and that this was my time and season for full-time motherhood. Later on I would have more time to follow my interests and build my talents.

Then I met Lynn Lee. Lynn was friendly and outgoing and she was the kind of person that everyone took an immediate liking to. She often told people exactly what she thought about almost everything. But she had a talent for doing it in a way that made you want to please her, not become defensive or angry. Having always been a basically shy person myself, I admired the way she spoke to everyone and made friends so easily.

Lynn and I shared a love for music, but she seemed to have been blessed with more talent in that area than I. She had a beautiful alto voice and was always the first one in the choir to get the part right. In church choir everyone wanted to sit by her so that they could hear the part correctly. She had led church choirs and directed the music for our churches children’s group, as well as a children’s singing group at her children’s elementary school. She claimed she didn’t play the piano well, but when asked to play a song for a meeting when no other pianist was available she played it perfectly.

Lynn was very active in PTA and in the church. She spoke freely about her beliefs and feelings to many people. When Lynn put her mind to something, she did it. When she decided she was a few pounds overweight she started a diet and exercise program that gave her a figure that made many of us envious.

Lynn had done, and was doing, many of the things that I wanted to do. She had many talents that I admired. Unfortunately, my reasoning of times and seasons did not work in this case. Lynn was a couple of years younger than I was and, at the time I met her, had one more child than I did! I struggled not to become jealous. I figured that the Lord must have his purposes for allowing Lynn to develop her talents so far and to be able to do so much by such a young age. Sometimes the Lord’s purposes are made known sooner than we would like.

When the tumor on Lynn’s adrenal gland was discovered we all decided that it must be benign. The doctors assured her that with its location it probably was. I figured that no one could be so well with a tumor the size of a ham inside them unless it was benign. The operation to remove the tumor went well. Life seemed to be returning to normal. Tests were done on the tumor removed from Lynn to determine whether it was benign or malignant. We were all shocked when we heard the news that the tumor had been malignant. Lynn was devastated. But the doctor assured her that he felt he had gotten the entire tumor.

In the days that followed Lynn learned all she could about the type of cancer she had and weighed her options. She found the type of cancer she had was very deadly. No one lived past a few years with this cancer. But it was also a very rare disease and there weren’t many figures to go by. Lynn felt she would be the one to beat the odds. Besides, she believed in miracles. When she felt impressed not to have the chemotherapy that the doctor’s suggested she felt that was “the miracle” that she had been looking for.

Not long afterward some of Lynn’s symptoms returned. Fearful that the cancer had come back she visited the doctor. She was overjoyed to find that instead of the cancer she expected she was carrying a baby! Unfortunately her doctors did not share her joy. They cautioned her about continuing her pregnancy, fearing that the cancer may return. She made the only decision she felt she could and delivered a healthy daughter.

I’ll never forget the night the word went around that her cancer had returned. It was a church western dance and dinner. The Lee family came for the dinner and then went home. Lynn’s good friend Cindy told a few of us that the cancer had been found in many of her vital organs and in her lymph nodes. I didn’t really feel like dancing that night. I also no longer felt envious of Lynn Lee.

At this point Lynn chose to go on an oral form of chemotherapy. She started on a small dose and gradually increased the dosage. For some time she tolerated the treatment very well. She was able to care for her family and do some of the things she enjoyed. We all felt a miracle could still happen. But as time went on, Lynn’s treatments intensified, and the cancer continued to grow. Lynn made it known to her doctors that her main purpose in life now was to care for her family. With all the talents and interests that Lynn had, when it came down to what really mattered, she chose to spend what little energy she had left on her family. It was now her time and season to cut out all the extras and get down to the basics. We all have times and seasons. Ours will probably not be the same as our neighbors. It’s not up to us to question why others do not have the same lot in life. Only the Lord knows everyone’s timetable.

So many people cared about Lynn that when she could no longer care for her house and family there was more than enough help offered. As I searched for a way to show my support I decided to help with her older children who were home with her in the afternoons. One day a week I brought in something to entertain them. Often the kids were already busy so I just visited with Lynn. By this time she had pretty well accepted the fact that she was dying. She had lost most of her hair from chemotherapy, she was thin as a skeleton from malnutrition and still the tumors grew. Their large size in her abdomen made her look five months pregnant.

During this time in my life things were not going great for my family. My husband had lost his job and had started his own business. The business had its ups and downs but lately it had just been down. Financially we were in a desperate situation with no hope in sight.

As I visited with Lynn she talked of her hopes and dreams for her family without her. She hoped her husband would remarry and felt her family would be just fine. She also talked a lot about dying. She told me of times that she had prayed to be taken immediately. Her pain was so intense she felt she could bear it no longer. We talked of enduring to the end and of the Lord’s timetable. At this time once again I found myself envious of Lynn. I know it sounds silly, but she saw an end to her pain. She knew it wouldn’t be long until her life was over and her pain was ended. Mine seemed to have no end in sight. As I prayed and pondered these things I realized that we are all given tests of enduring to the end. Sometimes it’s enduring to the end of our life, but more often it is enduring to the end of each test, whether large or small.

The holiday season was coming and our church choir was preparing for the annual Christmas music program. Before Lynn’s illness she was a constant supporter of the choir. During Lynn’s surgery and recovery we missed her greatly. For brief periods Lynn had felt well enough to come back to choir, but she had not sung with the same gusto and surety in her voice. The disease had taken a great toll on her. This season Lynn was greatly on the minds of all the choir members. Mary, our choir director, kept us posted on Lynn’s condition and events in her life. As we prepared for a joyous Christmas celebration we felt a sad emptiness knowing that Lynn may never sing with the choir again.

One day Lynn asked a favor of me. She had borrowed a baby swing from her friend Cindy and while using it the seat had become torn. Lynn asked if I could repair it. I told her I would and took the swing home but I wasn’t really sure what I would do about it. Cindy was expecting another baby, but the swing was very old and I wasn’t sure if she wanted to use it again. Also Cindy was a very talented seamstress. I didn’t know if I could do as good a mending job as she could. I thought maybe I would talk to Cindy and see what she wanted done with it. The thought also crossed my mind that now that Lynn had given the swing to me maybe she would no longer worry about it. But she did! Every time I saw her she asked if I had fixed the torn swing. I wasn’t sure what I would do, or how I would find time in my schedule to do it. What a busy season to worry about a baby swing for a child that wasn’t due until March!

One day I got a phone call from Lynn. She needed one last favor. A water pipe had broken in her house flooding almost the entire thing. No one had heard the water running, while they slept, over the noise of Lynn’s oxygen machine. Her husband had ripped the carpet out of their room so she could walk around on a dry floor before he left for work. She needed someone to come get everything up off the floor. I called a few women from church to come and give me a hand. As we went about rescuing wet toys, clothes and blankets from the flood Lynn rested. She seemed a little sicker and frailer that day so we tried to let her sleep. Before I left I asked if she needed anything else. “No,” she said weakly, “But have you fixed the swing yet?” Why was this swing so important to her? It was as if this was the one last loose end she needed to tie up in this life.

“I have a day set aside next week to do some mending,” I answered. “I promise I’ll do it then.”

I don’t know why I woke up early that Saturday morning, I had intended to sleep in. Everyone else was still sleeping, and I had a million holiday preparations, but I decided to start mending the swing. Somehow I felt an urgency to get it finished and back to Lynn. It mended a lot nicer than I thought it would and I was finished by the time my family awakened. I decided to take it right over to Lynn. The same urgency prompted me not to wait until my normal visit later in the week.

When I went to the door Lori, Lynn’s sister, answered. “Lynn slipped into a coma this morning,” Lori said softly.

“She asked me to mend this baby swing,” I explained. She asked me about it everytime I came, I think it was important to her.”

“Come in and show it to her. I don’t know if she can hear us, but if it was important to her maybe she will know it is done”

I came in and looked at Lynn. Her once long and beautiful hair now stuck up in small pieces from the top of her head. Her face, that at one time had been round and robust, showed every bone of her skull. Her arms and legs, that had propelled her jogging and swimming, lay thin and lifeless on the bed. Her abdomen, which held the constantly growing tumor, was the only part of her body that wasn’t thin and emaciated.

“I brought the swing,” I said lamely. “It came together very well. It’s all mended and I’ll give it to Cindy for you.” I held it up as if she could see. Why hadn’t I mended the swing earlier, when she really could see it? But, maybe she could hear me, I thought. Maybe she did know that I had fixed it and felt some comfort. I realized then that when the spirit prompts, listen and respond. Sometimes there isn’t time to put the prompting off.

That night there was Christmas party at Cindy’s house. I took her the repaired swing, satisfied that I had upheld my commitment to one of Lynn’s last requests. Cindy took the swing and thanked me, having no idea why I chose this time to bring it to her. As we waited for everyone to arrive Cindy and I spoke of Lynn’s condition. Later that evening a call came that Lynn had passed away. The party turned into a melancholy gathering. It wasn’t exactly the holiday celebration we expected, but it was good to be around friends who knew and loved Lynn as we mourned our loss.

Sunday, at church and at home, it seemed as if I was only going through the motions. I knew that Lynn’s time was near, and yet when it actually happened it was so hard! I was glad that it was our Christmas music program that night. Keeping busy seemed to be the best remedy to my ceaseless thoughts. I arrived at choir and was heartened to see many friends. We practiced a few songs, but my heart just wasn’t in it. Then Mary stopped us. “Lynn Lee passed away last night,” Mary announced. “I was with her when she left this earth, and I want you to know that it was a very spiritual experience.” Mary then recounted her story of sitting at the bedside with Lynn’s family and being with her as she drew her last breaths. Tears that had been restrained now flowed freely. We all sat in silence, feeling each other’s grief, until Mary said, “Now lets sing for Lynn!” New energy filled my soul! We would sing our praises to the Lord. Our friend had left this earth, but her spirit was still in our midst. We were determined to give a performance that Lynn would be proud of.

“One small child in a land of a thousand,” we sang. “Cover him, Joseph,” and “Oh holy night,” rang from our lips. We sang of Christ’s birth, and the spirit testified that He lived. We sang of Christ’s life and we received further witness. We sang of Christ’s death and we knew that His sacrifice was for us. We sang like we never had before, and we knew that through Christ, Lynn, and all of us, would live again. Mary often said that if we did our part in preparing our music, angels would attend us where we lacked. Angels certainly were with us that night, and perhaps one was a woman who no longer suffered the pain of the world. Perhaps one of them had a beautiful alto voice that had been silent and unused for some time. Perhaps one of them was free of pain for the first time in many months.

When someone dies at such a young age, Lynn died two months shy of her 32nd birthday, it’s only natural that we ask why. Only the Lord knows why Lynn had such a short earthly mission, but we can wonder. Perhaps Lynn’s family or friends needed to have this experience for their growth and development. Maybe her untimely passing has had an effect on the many acquaintances that knew and admired Lynn. Perhaps her mission was complete or she was needed more in the heavenly realms. And maybe, just maybe, there was an empty seat in the heavenly choir that only she could fill.

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Public School Problem: Too Many or, How Should the Funds be Spent?

It seems these days that everyone has an opinion about what is wrong with public education.  Well I can’t speak for most of the world, but for my little end of the teaching world I think the problem is too many.  Too many changes too fast, too many things to do in too little time, too many kids in a room and too many people with too many ideas on how to fix it all.

A short time ago the state of California began allowing school funds to be spent differently than before.  Funds that were traditionally restricted by category were opened up for use across categories.  In addition, schools received new funds meant to assist struggling students.  This more open use of funds did not come without some strings attached, however.  Districts were required to involve staff and community members in the decision making process of how the funds should best be spent.

I have been involved in the process for the last 2 years as a teacher and a community member and while it is clear that input is being collected, it is unclear to me if it is being heard.  Therefore I made the decision to draft this letter to our local superintendent to express my feelings about how funds would best help our children and our schools.

I think there are others who have similar feelings about what is lacking in our public schools, so I am posting this letter here.  Please let me know if you agree, and feel free to pass on any part of what I have said to your local administration.

Dear Superintendent,

With California’s Local Control Funding Formula the goal is for districts is to gather feedback from employees, parents and community members on how district funds are budgeted.  I have participated in this process as both an employee and a community member, and was quite excited to be a part of the process.  However, after seeing how the whole process works I am really not quite sure that my input is really being heard or considered.  I don’t mean to say that the process is not working, nor that input is not taken into account.  However the two methods that have been used to gather my input, district survey and LCAP community meetings, seem to be more efficient at gathering broad categories of information than on identifying specifics.  When only broad categories are surveyed it leaves specific choices in the hands of district decision makers, rather than other stake holders.  With that thought in mind I made the decision to draft a letter that outlines my specific recommendations.  My hope is that this will provide clarity on what I feel would be of benefit to our students to better fulfill their needs and education.  While these opinions are my own, conversations that I have had with others in the district lead me to believe that I am not the only one who feels that what I am presenting may be of benefit to our district.  Of course the final decision of how funds will be spent is in the hands of the district, however my hope is that my ideas will at least be considered.

I think the number one priority for district finances should be to restore lost resources, most specifically support personnel.  You see, it is important to have good curriculum, safe and clean facilities, technology, books and materials, however the most valuable asset to schools are people  While I think that competitive teacher salaries are important to attract the best I think the teacher’s union does a fine job of presenting the benefits of competitive salaries.  And while district level support is needed and necessary I don’t think this is an area that has been neglected in recent years.  My intent here is to focus on a need that I have not seen adequately addressed in either surveys, LCAP meetings, nor in union negations.  What I am suggesting is that not enough resources are currently being funneled into support personnel.

I have been a part of this community and/or employed by this district since 1988.  During that time I have repeatedly seen the number of support personnel cut while class sizes has gone up and teacher responsibilities and work load have increased.  When I began working in this district, roughly 20 years ago, we had bi-lingual aides, title one aides, special education aides, custodians that cleaned our rooms nightly, TOSA’s (Teacher on Special Assignment) as well as a myriad of office assistants.  When the budget was tight many of these positions understandably were lost.  However, as money has been restored these critical support resources have remained unfilled or eliminated.  In addition, when fiscal challenges arose class sizes was increased, and to the best of my knowledge have not restored to previous levels.  While I acknowledge the importance of competitive salaries, I believe that an increase of support personnel would help decrease the workload and improve the morale of overworked teachers in a way that a higher salary cannot.  While I recognize that the district has made it a priority to provide technological and instructional support at the district level, I think that the area that is being neglected is support at the individual school levels.  While I don’t think I am alone in that I am glad to chip in when times are tough, I never imagined that my Master’s degree was preparing me to empty my own trash, dust my own room or to spend my days on some of the myriad of clerical and support duties that could be performed by classified employees.  I think that better support at the school level would free teachers to have more time for lesson development, provide meaningful feedback for student work or work with struggling students during off school hours.  With that in mind I have some specific recommendations in the following areas.

  • Special Education Instructional Assistants– As a Resource Specialist much of my job is spent working with and coordinating the time of RSP Assistants. There was a time that we were able to provide support within our reading intervention classes, grade level ELA and math classes and in addition support many science, social studies and survey classes.  However, the number of aide support hours allotted to our team has been diminished a bit at a time, and now many classes with a need must go unsupported.  During the same time period that support has diminished our expectations to support students has expanded.  Not only do we provide support for students with IEPs, we also support EL students, students with 504s and students with no such designation who we support under an RTI (Response to Intervention) model.  Not only do we feel handicapped by the limited number of support hours available, we also struggle with finding and keeping quality personnel for these positions.  For some reason our district has determined that SDC (special day class) Assistants work 29 ¾ hours while Resource Assistants work 25 hours per week.  I have lost quite a few good assistants to SDC classes because they need to work as many hours as they can.  I feel as if our need is just as great, if not greater, as the SDC classes since we support the entire campus, not just a small, limited number of students.  I also feel that we should be working toward attracting and keeping qualified personnel in these positions to better support our students and teachers.  Our department has 3 Instructional Assistant positions, and over the last 2 years we have had no less than 10 different individuals in those 3 positions.  In one of the positions we had a long term sub for nearly a year as an adequate replacement could not be located.  This constant turnover and lack of consistency has been a source of difficulty, challenge and confusion for both our teachers and students.  I feel that a competitive salary offered with appropriate hours would go a long way to helping alleviate this difficulty for all.
  • Bilingual Assistance– At our school we have two half day Community Liaisons, one who speaks Spanish, and a second who speak Vietnamese. These support personnel provide translation services when needed.  While they are both helpful and beneficial, I feel as if we need more bi-lingual support.  There was a time that we had bi-lingual translators in the classroom to help with instruction.  Now I must reply on other students to translate, other teachers or Instructional Assistants who may be bi-lingual or resort to Google Translate.  In addition, when I need someone to call a parent who does not speak English the correct language translator may not be available.  One part of my job is to plan IEP meetings with parents, many of whom do not speak English.  The district has a process to do this, however the process is cumbersome, inefficient and time consuming.  I feel as if my time could be better spent if we had more support in this area specialists did not have to spend so much time trying to find someone who can properly communicate with a child or parent.
  • Other Classroom AssistanceLarge class size would not be as difficult to handle if we just had more assistance of some sort in the classroom. Many students who do not speak English, an increasing number of students with severe behavior problems and higher demands on student achievement have all combined at a time when extra classroom help is less available than ever.  There was a time when our district had many title 1 aides available for extra assistance.  I believe these are no longer available anywhere in the district.  Their presence is greatly missed to assist with students educational activities, complete clerical jobs, or just provide an extra set of eyes and hands.
  • Custodial Needs– I think the cleanliness of our classroom says a lot. A clean and orderly classroom sets the tone and creates an environment for our students to learn.  Students do not thrive in chaos and clutter.  While I understand the need to ask teachers to temporarily empty their own trashcans, I find that to be problematic as a general policy.  I can’t remember the last time my room was dusted when it was not me doing the dusting.  I feel as if we show our teachers that we respect their time and view them as professionals when we provide them with a cleaned classroom.  Enough said on that topic, I just think this should be a higher priority.

 

While I think the problem in public education is too many, I think the solution may be more.  More hands to assist with the work where the work really is.  It seems that the more that is often offered is more advice, instead of more help.  Teachers in California are some of the most highly educated professionals you could ever meet.  A California teaching credential requires a minimum of 5 years, and most teachers go on to earn a master’s degree.  Why do we want to keep bringing in experts, when we are the experts?  Give us help where it is needed so we can do our job the way we know how to do it.