Much Loved: Stuffed Animals & Their People

I am a lover of stuffed animals. I collected many as a child and even more as an adult. My husband didn’t have many stuffed animals growing up because his parents thought stuffed animals were not a “boy thing.” They were not bad parents, just very misinformed. We began our animal collection soon after we began dating. At one point, we had a menagerie of seventy-two stuffed animals. As we moved from place to place, we had to narrow down our tribe, and I made many a child happy with my animal gifts.

A few years ago, when I was at my favorite bookstore in Manhattan, The Strand, I came across Mark Nixon’s book, Much Loved. Mr. Nixon took photographs of people’s stuffed animals and wrote about their origins and stories. It was such a sweet and comprehensive look at the importance of stuffed animals in people’s lives, both young and old.

Four years ago, I created community writing project to celebrate my school’s Young Authors’ Week. The project asked students to write about and take a photo of their favorite stuffed animal. I then compiled all the submissions into a big book that we keep in our school library. Both children and teachers loved this activity.

I thought I would immortalize some of my own personal collection. I realize that many of my stuffies are getting up there in age, as am I, and I want to make sure I preserve their memories.

Thank you to TWT: Slice of Life and SOS: Sharing Or Stories
for inspiration and encouragement.

Problem Solver

Problem solver. That is who I am.  That is who I am at the core of my being, of my soul.  I’m not sure if that’s because I faced daunting problems in my childhood that I felt compelled to fix.  Fix my father. Fix my mother.  Fix my sister.  Fix my family. Fix my friends.  Fix my father.  Fix my father.  Fix my father.  I was destined to be a teacher, a helper, someone to step in and find a solution. I became a learning specialist to help children fix their problems:  problems with reading, with writing, with numbers, with attention, with organization, and most importantly, with self-esteem.  I think I excel at solving problems.  I love problems and like the challenge of mulling over pathways that slowly materialize into solutions. 

When I saw How to Solve a Problem: The Rise (and Falls) of a Rock-Climbing Champion by Ashima Shiraishi, I knew I had to sit down and read it immediately.  First, because of the its problem-solving nature, and second because it was written by a teenage, female rock-climbing champion.  I couldn’t pass it up.  In his youth, my husband was a rock-climber, and we have spent many an afternoon watching climbers, both young and old, tackle the boulders and rock walls in New York’s Shawangunk Mountains (The Gunks). I was interested to hear about how this young athlete tackled her climbs.  Teaching in n girls’ private school, I knew that it would be a great mentor text for talking to our students about the importance of embracing failures and failing forward.  This is just what Ashima describes.

And so I started.  And so I fell.

And so I climbed again,

Listening to what the fall had told me –

Ashima  lives in New York City with her father, who is a dancer and her mother who designs Ashima’s climbing pants. At the age of fourteen, Ashima became the first woman in the world to climb the Horizon boulder in Mount Hiei, Japan.  She was the second person ever to solve this climb.  At the age of fifteen, she won the IFSC Youth World Championships for the third year in a row.  Throughout the book, Ashima explains how she solves the problem of finding her way up and across giant boulders. Untangling these boulder routes were very hard and she fell often. The falling helped Ashima to see the problems in a different way, and to finally solve them.  She has been climbing since of the age of six, and I believe there is no stopping her. She falls and falls often, only to ascend into greatness.

How to Solve a Problem

Take a deep breath in and out -
Slowly ask yourself:
Can I?
How about?
What if?
Why not?
Set your imagination free,
Dare to dream,
Invent and innovate,
Put your ideas into action,
Watch them take flight,
Watch them plummet
To the ground,
Pick them up,
Dust them off
And try again
And again, and again.
Revise them –
Add something,
Change something,
Take something away
Until it’s brand-new.
Put it into action,
Watch it sputter... pause...
Stop and start again,
Watch it take shape
And become the reality
Of your wildest imagination.

Sacred Rest

Walking through the winter gauntlet that is January and February, I have been on the hunt for rest, not just sleep but rest – physical, emotional, spiritual, social, and sensory.  I have found some inspiration these past weeks from a book recommended by a colleague who is also seeking rest. 

Sacred Rest by Dr. Saundra Dalton Smith skillfully explains the  need for rest to restore not only physical health, but emotional and spiritual health as well. The book is formatted in a way that allows the reader/patient to easily pick the chapters they want to focus upon according to what type of rest they are seeking. Dr. Dalton Smith provides her readers with supplemental materials to guide them towards a healthier, restful lifestyle.  Through her website, she provides quizzes, podcasts, playlists, and prayers to help readers on their journey towards a restorative, happier life.

Indeed, the author explains the medical reasons behind the need for rest and sleep, and meticulously gives information on recent studies in each area of rest.  However, the most beneficial information that Dr. Dalton Smith provides is her insight as a fellow human, woman, wife, and mother. She is walking this road with us and has good news to share.  I was comforted by her approach that includes the importance of spiritual rest for the complete healing of the mind and body, and her inclusion of creative rest to bolster the spirit.  My own way of seeking rest has always been through poetry, which are prayerful reflections. They hadn’t always been this way, but they are now.  Poetry helps me connect with people and with God.  It connects me to nature and to myself.  It centers me and comforts me and provides the rest I so deeply desire.

Sacred Rest

Each night, I seek sleep.
Electronic devices are put to bed.
Vivaldi plays softly in the  background,
Chamomile tea steeps in a favorite cup.
I stretch and breathe and stretch,
Brush my teeth, wash my face –
Seek sleep.
Don comfy pajamas and toasty socks,
Sip the tea, inhale its calming aroma,
Snuggle into bed beneath layers of blankets,
Arrange my pillow such so –
Inhale – one… two… three… four…
Exhale – one… two… three… four…
My muscles relax,
My mind seeks peace,
I am drifting in the darkness,
Held by invisible hands.
My mind is empty, my body is still.
I am at rest, asleep but not yet dreaming.
My eye pop open in the darkness.
Two a.m. and all is quiet, but my mind.
I rearrange myself under the covers,
Plump the pillow, consciously breath –
Inhale – one… two… three… four…
Exhale – one… two… three… four…
I let the rhythm take me once again,
Drifting up into the infinite sky,
Rolling in the unfathomable ocean,
Waves take me far out past everything known.
I am held in a dark embrace
Till morning.

The Most Beautiful Thing

Early one morning, I walked into the school library and Deborah, our librarian, handed me a book.  “You will love this one,” she said with certainty. I know that when Deborah tells me that I will love a book, I need to take her seriously.  In the nineteen years I’ve known her, she has never steered me wrong.  She has a unique gift for being able to match books to readers.  Her breadth of knowledge is truly astounding.

I had a bit of time before classes started, so I sat down and began to read The Most Beautiful Thing by Kao Kalia Yang and illustrated by Khoa Le. The colorful paintings immediately pulled me into this tender story about the relationship between a young girl, Kalia, and her grandmother, who survived the Vietnamese War as a child.

Kalia describes how important her grandmother is to the fabric of their family, how she enriches them with stories, and they care for her as she ages.  Kalia and her sisters care for their grandmother by cleaning her clothes, washing her softly wrinkled skin, and clipping her fingernails and toenails.  They share food with her, and when treats are desired, Kalia  shares ice cubes in a cup and peppermint candies.  Grandma’s skin is beautifully brown, worn and wrinkled.  Grandma’s one and only tooth stood up straight and proud in her mouth.  She was truly beautiful.

A mutual, deep respect grows between granddaughter and grandmother. Though poor and small and female, both prove to be tough, strong, and courageous. As Kalia’s grandmother tells a story about being chased by a tiger when she an orphaned child in the forest of Vietnam, Kalia begins to understand the sacrifices that her grandmother has made in her life.

I squeezed her feet in my arms and pulled them close to my heart,

 a hug for the hard road she’s walked to get to me.

And in the end, Kalia realizes that her grandma’s determination, and encouragement has helped her to grow up strong and resolute.  To Kalia, her grandma’s smile is the most beautiful thing in the world.

The Most Beautiful Things

Grandpa’s hands were hands that worked.
As boy he worked on farmstead in Italy,
Digging, pulling up roots, planting seeds.
As a young man, he worked in coal mines,
Cutting, scraping, drilling, and shoveling
tons of Bituminous and Anthracite.
Coal dust under his fingernails and in his lungs.
During World War I, they placed a rifle in his hands,
And he fought hard for America.
As a father, he worked digging ditches for the WPA -
Long hours, hard labor, he kept going,
Raising his two sons on his own - 
In the kitchen, stirring pasta, cutting vegetables, 
kneading bread dough into long loaves.
As a grandpa, his hands held tender care,
He’d let us help in his backyard garden,
Showing us how to dig in the soft dirt,
Pulling up weeds and putting  them in a pile,
Selecting the ripest plum tomatoes ,
and the tender squash blossoms,
We would sit in his kitchen as he cooked up 
A garden of delight.
My grandfather’s spotted, wrinkled hands,
His knobby knuckles, his rough and rugged nails
Were the most beautiful things to me,
They were a testament to a hard life lived well.

Finding my Way

Yesterday morning, I walked down the dim school hallway well before classes were due to begin.  I opened the library door, turned on the light, and set down my belongings.  I set up my place at a table so I would be ready to help any students who came in early in need of academic assistance or who just wanted someone to talk to.  I love this time in the morning when I can connect with students. While I waited, I perused the display of books and one caught my eye – this Way, Charlie by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso.  I don’t know whether it was the bucolic scene on the cover or that Charlie is the name of my maternal grandfather, but I picked the book up and started to read.  At that moment, our school librarian came in and saw what I had in my hand.  “Oh, that’s a sweet one, and it’s loosely based on a true story,”  she said. I love stories that are connected to real life.  I feel like I get two stories for the price of one!  I sat down with my cup of coffee and started to read.

There I was in a springtime field with Jack, the goat and Charlie, the horse.  The farm is for animals that need to be rescued either due to ill treatment or to an injury (the real-life farm is called Wild Heart Ranch). Jack was ill-treated, which left him grumpy and mistrustful.  Charlie is losing his eyesight and stumbles to find his way. Jack reluctantly begins to help Charlie find his way throughout the farm. They have some arguments, some adventures, and some mishaps – becoming in the end very good and trusting friends.

What a wonderful book with which to start the day.  Perhaps, I was first drawn to it because I’m always trying to find my way: finding my way with my writing, finding my way with my art, and  finding just the right way to help my students.  Finding my way rings out true and clear to me. Many wonderful people in my life have shown me the way.  Often ,these people have been children.  They sometimes see things so simply, so clearly that they can tell me with absolutely no hesitation the right way to go.  Maybe that’s because they haven’t yet become mistrustful or uncertain. Maybe their creativity is still intact, and they can imagine a world of endless possibilities.  I’m trying to regain that sense of childlike wonder. Reading picture books in the early morning has shown me the way.

Nurturing Creativity: Sing-a-Song

I was sitting in the hallway of my school trying to get myself organized for the day.  I posted my first Slice of Life entry and was wondering how I was going to write every day in the month of March.  That’s when our art teacher came and sat down beside me.  “I have a story to tell you,” she said.  At first, I was thinking, “I have no time for stories.  I wish I didn’t sit in the hallway. I have so much work to do!”  But here I was, and I knew the art teacher always has such funny stories, so I took a deep breath and made myself present. I turned to the eager art teacher and listened.

Yesterday was the worst day! Everything I had planned had to be changed.  The classes I thought were cancelled, actually came without warning.  I was so disorganized and distracted that I didn’t know how I was going to get through the day.  Then the 2nd grade class came into the room at the end of the day.  They all started to paint, but then someone was singing in a very high voice “la… la… la… LA… la…” over and over again. I didn’t know who was singing, and I thought that high pitch was going to send me over the edge.  However, I didn’t want to stop the singing because it seemed to me that someone was using the tune to help them work.  Later on, I realized it was Madison.  She came up to me after class and said that she had written a song while she painted and proceeded to sing it to me. It was quite a long song and had the same cadence that she had been singing.  I am so glad that I hadn’t stop her singing process.  What started as irritation became a joyful occasion.

We laughed together for a moment, and I vowed to find Madison a have her sing her song to me.  This small moment made it again so clear to me how important it is to honor student’s imagination, to be present to these moments which nurture student growth.  Later that day, Madison sang her song high and sweet and clear.  I held back tears.  She handed me a colorful picture and on the back was part of her song. 

The simple breeze flies through my hair,

The wind is soft like a wind,

Itself the flowers are like a beautiful bloom,

The river flows carrying water.

The trees will swing through the wind.

La… La… La… La… La…

I must add that Madison is an EAL student, and it is even more important to me that we celebrate her use of English.  I wonder what this song would sound like in Mandarin.  I think I will ask her tomorrow.

A Mother’s Perfect Love

My mother, Vivian,  would have been 100 years old this past Friday.  She has been gone almost nine years, almost a decade.  How can that be?  It seems like yesterday.  Her name means “alive” in Latin, and I have worked to keep  her alive every day: saying her name, talking to her, remembering when we laughed and cried together, eating her favorite foods, listening to her favorite songs – anything Sinatra.  All the sweet memories we have, my mother consciously constructed. She knew life is short and that in the end all we have are memories to keep us company.

I can see her smile, hear her laughter, feel her warm embrace.  She was not a perfect person but she loved me perfectly, and I am grateful. She gave me so many of her gifts: the love of the ocean, the love of art and musicals, the love of children, and the deep love of story.  These things live in me today, and they were hers, and she gave them freely.  I look at her handwriting, and even my cursive resembles hers.  Now, when I look in the mirror quickly and see her face, I don’t frown.  I smile and am comforted. There she is.  She is not gone.  She is right there on my face, in the ocean waves, in the painting of the sunrise, and in the little girl trying to read.  Vivian’s right there beside me shining like a jewel, leading the way.

Jewel

My mother,
Smiling at sixteen,
Long, tan legs,
Slim swimsuit,
Jewel of the Atlantic. 

My mother,
Dark hair, dark eyes -
Cinched waist, little black dress,
Bright red lipstick,
Jewel of the Jersey nights.

My mother,
Snipping with silver scissors,
Cutting through fabric,
Stitching with confidence,
Jewel of a dressmaker.

My mother,
Sitting in the middle,
Posing with her students,
Doting on each and every one,
Jewel of a teacher.

My mother,
Velvet February’s gift,
Thoughtful and steadfast,
Never complaining,
Jewel of a mother.

Shining forever
In our hearts.

Bright Encouragement

These many winter months, I have worked diligently to muster enthusiasm and a positive mindset. It has not been an easy process.  I am usually a “half-full” type of person, seeing roadblocks as opportunities rather than obstacles.  This winter has tried my patience and stamina. I’ve had to pull out all of my go-to strategies for presence and preservation. The children I work with have bolstered my resolve but still it has been difficult for me to maintain a sunny outlook.  Thank goodness that this week my colleague, 2nd grade teacher, and good friend reminded me how to get back onto a positive path. Many of her co-workers call her “a ray of sunshine,” and she truly is. Laura always has a smile on her face, sees the positive sides of all situations, and her classroom bustles with excitement.  I frequently peer in to see her smiling face and hear giggles from her students.  They are joyfully learning.  They feel good about themselves.  They are empowered with positivity.  And this is no small feat.  Indeed, I feel that our classrooms have been leaking joy and enthusiasm for a long time.  Much of education has focused on data and rigor, and in the process we have forgotten about imagination and play.  These two things do so much to motivate children.  They are so important. Laura puts imagination and play at the forefront of her teaching.  She models kindness and acceptance, and the children know this and miraculously they thrive and grow.

So, I shouldn’t have been surprised this past week when I saw colorful post-it notes dotting the walls and doors of the school hallways. In child scrawl the messages stated: “You are the best! I like your smile.  You can do hard things.  You’ve got this!” Teachers and students alike stopped to read the tiny notes.  We smiled.  We felt little rays of sunny positivity shine upon us.  We felt better, more hopeful.  We wondered who was creating these messages.  Then, later in the afternoon, Laura emailed all the teachers to say that her students were celebrating Random Acts of Kindness Day and spreading kind notes all over the school.  Of course, they were!  Of course, their wise teacher knew that the whole school community could use bright encouragement.  I smiled when I read Laura’s note.  I vowed to step out from under my dark, threatening rain cloud, put up my pink polka-dot umbrella and yellow rain boots, and get myself back on the positive path, maybe splash in some puddles.

Kindness does indeed matter!  Kindness protects us from gloom.  It brings us all kinds of gifts: empathy, creativity, play, imagination, faith, and hope. I remember some of my most happy memories are times when I’ve been kind to others.  I love paying it forward.  It fills me with joy.  I am, indeed, more enriched by giving to others. Before COVID, I offered Kindness Book Club to our 1st and 2nd graders.  We read a wide variety of books and then engaged in various kindness projects.  I let this activity slip away, but this week, I was reminded that I didn’t have to.  I could find ways to connect to kindness.  How do you connect to kindness?  I’d love to hear your experiences and ideas.

Books About Kindness

  1. All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penhold
  2. A Small Kindness by Stacy McAnulty
  3. Because Amelia Smiled by David Ezra Stein
  4. Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller
  5. Come with Me by Holly McGhee
  6. Counting Kindness by Hollis Kurman
  7. Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
  8. Everybody’s Welcome by Patricia Hegarty
  9. Have You Filled a Bucket Today?
  10. I Walk with Vanessa: A Story About a Simple Act of Kindness by Kearscoet
  11. Kindness Counts: A Story for Teaching Random Acts of Kindness
  12. Kindness is Cooler, Mrs. Ruler by Margery Cuyler
  13. Kindness  to Share – A to Z by Todd & Peggy Snow
  14. Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De la Pena
  15. Listening with my Heart by Gabi Garcia
  16. My Heart by Corinna Luyken
  17. Pass it On by Sophy Henn
  18. Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed by Emily Pearson
  19. Peace is an Offering by Annette LeBox
  20. The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig
  21. The Jelly Donut Difference: Sharing Kindness with the World
  22. The Kindness Quilt by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace
  23. The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade
  24. Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts
  25. Tomorrow I’ll be Kind by Jessica Hische
  26. What Does it Mean to Be Kind? By Rana DiOrio
  27. What is Given From the Heart by Patricia C. McKissack

A Child’s Valentine

February means red and pink hearts, lace, fabric, scissors, glue – a collage of loving kindness.  It is one of the holidays I enjoy the most because I often celebrate it with school children.  They decorate bags and boxes and envelopes in which to store all the valentines they will collect.  They cut out jagged hearts with lots of glue and mounds of glitter and sequins.  They make a joyous mess, and they are so happy and excited that their exuberance becomes contagious.

I am so very grateful that I have dedicated my life to teaching children and learning from them. I have strived over the years to be a positive presence, encouraging and hopeful.  For my efforts, the children have given back to me so much more than I could have ever dreamed. Every day is truly a blessing, even when some of them face difficulties and do not show their best selves, especially then.  It is then when I am most needed. It is then when I summon all the grace within me and find a path forward and hold out a helping hand.

This week, as Valentine’s Day approaches, I reflect on all the blessings children have bestowed upon me.  though I am the teacher, they have showed me so many small, wise things. Their innocent perspective has allowed me to see circumstances in new ways.  Their voices rise and fall with laughter.  They know how to play and invite me along.  I. have to sometimes force myself to peel off the layers of adulthood, the mantras of “I’m too busy!, Not now!, Later on!, Can’t it wait?” I have to move past all of the negative noise in my head and tune into the children.  It always, always pays off and makes me a better human.

Something to Believe In

It is time for winter break: teachers are exhausted, children are restless, and COVID is on the rise.  Everyone is weary except the young children.  They are bright with anticipation for whatever holiday they celebrate – Hanukkah, Kwanza, Christmas. Their sweet voices sing songs of cheer, helping to lift my spirits as I search for something to give me holiday spirit.  I sat down with a table of Kindergarteners this week and asked, “What are you writing?”  They all looked up at me perplexed, and one of them looked down at her paper and answered, “We are writing art!” I chuckled, “Oh, you are drawing!  That’s a good thing to do!”  I am ever-amazed at the new way in which children view the world.  I have sought to keep that fresh, creative  mindset as I age.  Sometimes it is easy to do especially since I am surrounded by young, inquisitive minds, but sometimes I get “imagination block,” and I feel lost and without purpose.  When I feel this way, I know I have to discover new paths to return to my creative source.

A colleague of mine has a ten-year-old daughter who loves Santa Claus and continues to believe.  This has worried some adults who think it’s time for the girl to leave behind childish things.  I, on the other hand, love Cassie’s tenacity to believe in the face of doubters both young and old.  She will not give up her belief in Santa.  I think this is because he represents generosity, hope, and magical thinking.  Why would anyone want to give up that?  Those are qualities that will bolster us as we make our way on this long journey.  There is no need to toss Santa out, instead let’s celebrate him!

To get myself in the spirit of the season, I went to a neighborhood nursery where they sell trees, wreaths, and holiday gifts.  They had an outdoor market with a treat wagon selling hot cocoa, mulled cider, and various kinds of cookies.  Immediately my mood brightened with the smell of apples, pine, and juniper.  I ventured into the gift shop and took my time looking at the ornaments, pottery, candles, and candle holders.  I selected a gift for myself, a small tin candle holder in the shape of a tree.  A smile appeared on my face, and I knew this was the right place to be.  I lingered a little longer watching young children come into the shop to choose their favorite ornament for their tree.  You could tell from their parents’ faces that this was an important moment, that they were building a Christmas tradition, that they were kindling their child’s imagination.  I watched as a two-year-old selected a glass popcorn ornament for her tree.  She clapped as her father picked it up and gave it to the saleslady, her golden curls shaking with glee.  My heart was warm now, and I was ready to venture outside where everyone was awaiting the arrival of Santa.  I stopped to get a cup of mulled cider before leaving.  I breathed in deeply its cranberry, orange, and apple essence.  I walked about the lines of trees and wreaths.  I wasn’t in the market to buy; I just took a leisurely stroll soaking in holiday spirit.

On the way back home, I passed a street I have passed many times since living in this small town for nineteen years.  It looks like every other street in town, except at Christmastime.  The street is named St. Nickolas Way, and at this time of year, the street sign is donned with a Santa hat.  Every time I pass by, I smile.  This time, I decided to stop and take a photo to remind me of holiday hope and Christmas imagination. I headed home, with a warm heart and a mind full of cheer.

Books Celebrating Santa

A Cooke for Santa by Stephanie Shaw

Auntie Claus by Elise Primavera

Dasher: How a Brave Little Doe Changed Christmas Forever by Matt Taveras

Dear Santa by Rod Campbell

Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs

Here Comes Santa Cat by Deborah Underwood

How to Catch Santa by Jean Reagan

How Santa Got His Job by Stephen Krensky

Hurry Santa! by Julie Sykes

Little Red Sleigh by Erin Guendelsberger

Little Santa by Jon Agee

Love, Santa by Martha Brockenbrough

The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore (Illustrated by Holly Hobbie)

Santa Calls by William Joyce

Santa Claus and the Three Bears by Maria Modugno

Santa Duck by David Milgrim

Santa in the City by Tiffany D. Jackson

Santa Mouse by Michael Brown

Santa’s Stuck by Rhonda Golwer Greene

Santa’s Underwear by Marty Fingley

The Animals’ Santa by Jan Brett

The Big Secret: The Whole and Honest Truth About Santa Claus by D.W. Boom

The Real Santa by Nancy Redd

The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold by Maureen Fergus

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

When Santa was a Baby by Linda Bailey