The Deeper Well of Memory by Christine Cleary

Listen to this essay here.

I believe that memory is never lost, even when it seems to be, because it has more to do with the heart than the mind.

At the same time my 44-year-old husband, Ed, was losing his life, my mother was losing her ability to remember. As Ed’s lungs filled with cancer, Mom’s brain was becoming tangled in plaque. She forgot how to start the car, whether or not she had eaten and which family members had died — including my father.

I became afraid that one day I, too, would be unable to recall my husband, not because of Alzheimer’s, but simply because my memory of him might fade. So from the day of Ed’s diagnosis until his death a year later, I set out to memorize him: his crooked smile and vigorous embrace, his woodsy smell and the way he cleared his throat when he reached the top of the stairs. I knew I’d always be able to recite his qualities — kind, gentle, smart, funny — but I wanted to be able to conjure up the physical man in my mind, as fully as possible, when he was gone.

Back then, I thought memory was a deliberate, cognitive process, like remembering multiplication tables or lyrics or where the keys were. Unable to rescue Ed from cancer, I was determined to save him from the only thing worse than dying: being forgotten.

Later I learned that memory has a will of its own. You can’t control it any more that you can influence the weather. When it springs up, a person loved and lost is found, if only for a few seconds.

Recently when I was driving, I had a deep and sudden sense of Ed and the way it felt to have him next to me in the car. My body softened as it used to when we were together seven years ago, living a shared life. I wasn’t remembering his face or the way he walked; the careful details I had stored had nothing to do with this moment in the car. Looking in the rearview mirror, I recognized in my own face the same look I once saw on my mother’s face in the nursing home. I had asked her a question about my father, and she became confused about his identity. Yet, as she sat there, dressed in a shapeless polyester outfit, she briefly appeared young and radiant, her face filled with love and her eyes misty. Her brain couldn’t label the man correctly, but that was not important. It was clear to me that her husband was vivid in her heart, a memory even Alzheimer’s could not crush.

I believe there is a difference between memory and remembering. Remembering has to do with turning the oven off before leaving the house, but memory is nurtured by emotion. It springs from a deeper well, safe from dementia and the passage of time.

To Thine Own Self Be True by Judith Jamison

Listen to this essay here.

To Thine Own Self Be True

I believe that there is sanctity in the fact that we are only on this earth for a short period of time. And I believe that with that time we better be doing something good. That was the last thing my father said before he died: “Be good.” That was it.

In my life and work, I’ve found that honesty comes with goodness. My mother used to say, and she was quoting Shakespeare, “This above all, to thine own self be true.” In the rehearsal studio, I strive to be as true to myself as I possibly can. For me, the studio is hallowed ground, where the realities of self and spirit are revealed. There is a sense that I am breathing rarified air, special and pure, like on Mount Everest. And in the studio, on this higher ground, we are unified in purpose. Everyone in the room is vulnerable.

I’ve been a dancer. I’ve been a choreographer. I know what it’s like on both sides. The dancer surrenders to the choreographer, and the choreographer to the dancer. We shed layers of needless emotions. The camouflage disappears to reveal the innocence and honesty of the child within us all. And, in each others’ arms, when the dancer and choreographer surrender together, anything is possible.

A dancer can have all the right physical moves, but that doesn’t mean they’ll knock your socks off. They have to find their truth in what they want to say and show us who they are as a person. Once I had a dancer who was a beautiful dancer with a gorgeous body. But I couldn’t get him to express himself. He had to go further. He had to tell me his journey, his emotional center, but he wouldn’t. One time we were in rehearsal. He had a five-minute solo. He did it once. He was breathing hard. I said, “Do it again.” The second time he was so exhausted he had no choice: He had to go deeper. He was honest. He arrived. It was exquisite.

As dancers, we need to bring our life experiences to the stage. We don’t just want to thrill an audience with how many turns we can do or how high we can jump or raise our legs. Plenty of people can do that with practice. We need to share our truth. When a performance stands out, it’s not just the arms and legs that stay in your mind. What you remember is the feeling you get from the performance, and that feeling comes from the dancer’s expression of self.

A good performance on stage should take the audience on a journey where they learn something about themselves. It’s about all of us. It’s about reaching for perfection and, most of all, it’s about honesty.

I believe that to ”be good,” as my father instructed, we must be true to ourselves.

Education by Jiancheng

Education is the Basis of Life

I believe in education. Education provides knowledge for building up conscience in life, and education provides skills for life.

I grew up during the turmoil period of the Great Cultural Revolution in China. I saw many people’s money, furniture, jewelry, collections, and houses were confiscated by the young radicals. Some of these people committed suicide because they could not tolerate the harshness. At that time, my parents told me that everything outside one’s body has the potential of lost but one’s internalized knowledge and skill can never be confiscated. One of my uncles said those youngsters without conscience because of their ignorance. During that period, Mao’s Little Red Book became the center of the education in schools.

My parents were concerned of my education. They searched materials which schools did not offered at the time and encouraged me to learn. They told me that some day, after the radical revolution was over, skills would be called on. They said that skills and knowledge are the only things that truly belong to me regardless what social conditions I am within. I knew that this was also their own experience because they saw their families’ fortunes lost from wars and the communist revolution in the later 1930s’ to the early 1950s’.

Under their encouragement, I kept learning and gained my education mainly from my family. After the Great Cultural Revolution was over and the conventional education system was resumed, I applied for medical schools because I wanted to be a physician to help people. I was admitted into a medical school, after I passed in the national examination; even, at that time, I never received any certificate or diploma from elementary, middle, or high schools.

I came from China to the US for graduate study, when I found that public health is effective in addressing challenges to community and population health issues. After I finished my degree, I worked in vision science, clinical research, research administration, and immunization. I love my job because I am using my skills to help people and because I feel fulfilled by working in public health to help more people.

My personal life is the testimony of the importance of education in life. Education provides me with a compass that sets my goal in helping people. Education provides me with a boat that allows me navigate from one country to the other, and from one field to another.

Inclusion by Craig

I believe in inclusion.

I have been told that people with physical disabilities want it both ways. We want to be treated equally, but complain when we do not receive special accommodations for our disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires public facilities to provide special seating, parking spots, ramps, and other accommodations to allow access by the physically disabled. On the surface, that example can make it seem like we want special treatment. What we really want is to be equally included in society.

Without accommodations for my disability, I would not be able to work a full time job. I want and need to be a part of America’s workforce. Working gives me a sense of equality. I experience the same things my co-workers do at my job. I deal with the same grievances and experience a sense of accomplishment for a job well done as everyone else. I am an integral part of a staff that succeeds in completing a task, and receive the same financial rewards.

The money I make from my job allows me to live as a part of society, instead of depending on the government to provide for me, or force me to live in an institution. I am able to provide for my own basic living expenses and entertainment.

Employment gives me a sense of social inclusion as well. Simply being invited out to lunch or happy hour allows me to have a drink, eat a meal, and be a part of a social circle.

But, I know I am not totally included. Many times during a concert or sporting event people will stand up, blocking my view. It’s a natural reaction for people to stand up during the final, exciting moments of a game, or to stand and dance during a great rock concert. But when that happens, I am not included in the enjoyment of those moments. I may be there, but I’m looking at the back of another fan instead of experiencing the focal point of the moment. Complaining to the management of the facility may get me some sympathy, but never a real solution to the problem. Though most commonly, I receive no response at all.

Even some small restaurants and stores still have steps in front of them. Even just one step excludes me from buying their goods or enjoying a meal like everyone else. I remember a time my wife and I were walking down a street. We passed a restaurant and my wife commented that she heard the food was really good there. I looked at the entrance and there were at least five steps to enter. I replied, (It may be, but I will never know.) I remember how nice the brick steps looked, but how they mocked me. Basically telling me I can’t come in like everyone else.

A woman once told me about an experience she had shopping at a large bookstore that literally had over a thousand magazines on display for sale. There were magazines for different ethnicities and life styles. Even magazines devoted to traveling for homosexuals. But, there was not a single magazine for people with a disability. What does it say that a store will carry a magazine for pretty much every minority except for people living the disabled lifestyle?

I just want to be included in the diversity that is the American culture.

Empathy by Christine

My life has been guided by the lessons learned from what I now call ”The Story of My Two Cousins.” From a very young age, I felt the impact of their journeys on my being. The lessons from their stories have guided me into becoming an educator, and believing in empathy. My quest to teach with this vital belief has been the foundation of my existence. It is this ability that can create a “butterfly effect” and touch the lives of others…so they can believe in themselves. When you put yourself in the shoes of another, you can help validate who they are. When this is done…a caterpillar can turn into that glorious butterfly. I dedicate this essay to all of the hundreds of unique students in my charge over the years.
It was on a cold crisp day in February that I discovered my 18 year old paternal cousin Frankie was dying. At the tender age of 14, I felt extreme pain from the loss and was overwhelmed with the emotions and questions. Such a beautiful and giving soul…What could have happened! I have never met a kinder child. Frankie came from a world in which he was loved, but not really seen or felt. There was too much dysfunction, adult human beings struggling, and not really “feeling” the existence of this beautiful boy. He got involved with heroin, and soon died from hepatitis. His death left a tragic void, but also shown a light on my future path.
Now there is the uplifting story of my maternal cousin John. He is considered one of the most talented thespians of his era. Often described as a member of a great acting family, he has inspired many of us in his gene pool. I paid attention to John’s life, got to see him perform as he started down his chosen path. And even more profound for me, witnessed his mother’s love for him. She had enormous empathy for her son. Even with her own trials and tribulations, Kitty was guided by her empathetic heart. She nurtured John, and seemed to feel all that he felt. She was his angel. It was imperative to her that he followed his bliss.
When I go into my classroom each September, I am so privileged to get to touch the lives of my children. My “munchkins” as I have been known to call my students affectionately. I am told I have a “gift” as a teacher. My students and their parents tell me this. Where does it come from? It is my belief in empathy. Valuing uniqueness, and figuring out what each and every individual child needs to continue the metamorphosis…this has been my quest. I watch as beautiful butterflies flutter around my classroom. Life can be so exquisite when we look into each others eyes and really see…and truly feel…I believe in empathy.

Respect for Diversity by Joshua

What if everyone in the world was exactly alike? What if everyone talked the same, acted the same, listened to the same music, and watched the same T.V. programs?

The world would be extremely dull! I believe it’s important to accept people for who they are.

Differences are important and they should be respected. For example, many important people throughout history were considered different, such as Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Harriet Tubman, Peter Tchaikovsky, and Abraham Lincoln. They did great things, but some people thought they were weird, because they had strong feelings about something. I can relate to these people, because I’ve been in that situation before, many times.

It all started in elementary school when I realized that I wasn’t like everyone else. My mom says that I have a tendency of obsessing on certain subjects. Unfortunately, these subjects don’t interest other kids my age and they really don’t interest my teachers. In fact, my kindergarten teacher said she would scream if I mentioned snakes or lizards one more time, while she was teaching the days of the week. I would get in trouble for not paying attention, and the teasing began.

In third grade, my teacher informed me that I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and I said, “So what? Do you know that Godzilla’s suit weighs 188 lbs.?:

Later, I asked my mom, “What is Asperger’s Syndrome? Am I gonna die?” She said that it’s like having blinders on, and that I can only see one thing at a time, and that it’s hard to focus on other things. Like, I would tell anyone and everyone that would listen about Godzilla, because my big obsession was, and still is, Godzilla–not a real popular subject with the middle school crowd, and so the teasing continues.

I might be different, because I have different interests than other teenagers, but that doesn’t give them the right to be so mean and cruel to me. Kids at Oak Valley make fun of me for liking what I like the most.

People also make fun of me for knowing facts about volcanoes, whales, tornadoes, and many other scientific things. My mom says that she has been able to answer many questions on Jeopardy just by listening to what I have to say, but I’ve even been ridiculed for being smart.

Maybe someday, I’ll become a gene engineer and create the real Godzilla. I can dream, can’t I?

Sometimes I wish I were like everyone else…but not really. Because I believe people should be respected for being different. Because we’re all different in our own ways.

The Power of Prayer by George

I believe that God and I spoke that evening. Bent over my daughter’s bed I insisted that she was going to survive and be fine. I insisted not because that’s what I wanted, although it clearly was, but because she had important things to give the world yet and she was not finished. Hunched over her poorly responsive visage I believed I was right.

Hours earlier a phone call from her interrupted a presentation I was giving. She had a severe headache and she was scared. Something in her voice alerted her mother that something was wrong and, I believe remembering the death of my mother several years earlier from an aneurysm, she told Gillian to go to the ER. She had to be driven to the ER blocks away because she was unable to concentrate.

We arrived at the ER and they told me Gillian was in CT. The weight of a million moments laid across my shoulders as I approached her gurney to find her unconscious and the ER doctor telling me she had had a seizure. Her boyfriend was pasted against the wall in a state of shock. As I examined her I realized that things were seriously wrong. I helped load her onto the CT scanner table and moved to the console room to see the scan results.

Blood. Everywhere. Down to my knees I felt the life drain from me like air from a balloon. You must understand, the death rate from this is high and the severe damage leaves most others minimally functional. It was all over and our lives would be forever ruined. Families are destroyed by these events. My perfect baby girl. Telling myself I needed to get to work I stood and went to her. A neurosurgeon, a breathing tube to help her brain swelling, medicines to decrease swelling. There were so many things that had to happen.

The hardest moment of my life to date came meeting my wife at the door of the ER. “It’s what happened to Bee.” We sobbed together and went to see our daughter.

What followed were hours of holding Gillian’s hand and asking God to remember her positive and infectious spirit, her caring and supportive nature, and her earnest desire to help those around her. She was a person the world would need badly in the years to come.

I believe in prayer. Not because two years later my precious daughter is a sophomore at George Washington U and her plans to help the world will occur. Not because the AVM that threatened to take her life appears to have closed after treatment. Not because I can email her every day and she isn’t impaired. Because I needed to say those things to someone whose limitlessness could encompass all that was and is and will happen and tell me not to worry. I believe prayer is a gift to those who pray. A gift of limitless strength when we have not enough in the moment.

Why I Became a Teacher by Betsy

I never wanted to be a teacher. In fact, I distinctly remember sitting in my high school English class wondering how Mrs. Ransenberg could tolerate discussing the same novel year after year with different students. What could be more tedious than deciphering Faulkner’s prose for teenagers? How many times could one person lecture about passive voice? At what point do all words start sounding onomatopoeic and all food start tasting like cafeteria-style Johnny Marzetti? I thought that on the spectrum of enlightening and fulfilling jobs, teacher fell somewhere near bookkeeper and only slightly ahead of librarian.

Yet years later, I find myself teaching high school English. Although I consider my job to be one of the most important aspects of my life, I still willingly confess that I do not teach for the love of teaching. I am a teacher because I love to learn, and I’ve come to realize one abiding truth: The best way to learn is to teach.

As an undergraduate and graduate student, I thrived on thought, and gobbled up literature and writing courses. I admired my professors and believed that their Jeopardy-like knowledge of historical allusion and literary technique represented a banquet of intellectualism I could feast on forever. If financially I could have remained a student for life, I very well may have.

When reality hit home, however, I recognized that, like most people, making my own way in this world required a steady job and a paycheck. I obtained a teaching certificate because it seemed logical, because my mother had been a teacher, and because I had several good friends who were teachers. It was a safe decision. Nothing noble or predestined, nothing extraordinary. That would come later.

After seven years of teaching, I’ve learned more about literature and writing than I did in 20 years of studying the subjects. Perhaps it’s the responsibility factor. When you are put in charge of 25 students for 50 minutes a day, you feel compelled to give them the best you can, to prepare for their onslaught of questions, and to relate their lives to your lesson. It could, however, be the repetition. Re-reading The Great Gatsby every year has allowed me to understand and appreciate the sentimental nuances of language in meticulous detail. Word by word. Of course, I recognize that ultimately the students, with their fresh, unadulterated perspectives, play the largest role in my continued learning. It’s a wonderful truth that of all relationships, the one between teacher and the student is truly symbiotic. On a daily basis, I learn as much from my students as I try to impart to them, and this is why I continue to teach. My motivations are selfish, and so be it. It’s still a tandem ride, this learning and teaching, and on any given day I find myself leading and following, following and leading.

Lunch “Lady” by Douglas

When I tell people I have the best job in the world I really mean it. I feed school kids in Burlington, Vermont. It’s my job and I couldn’t be prouder. Almost everyone has some memory of school lunches – “lunch ladies” in hairnets, dishing out mashed potatoes. We have always been an important part of the lives of the children in our schools, often the first person they meet in the morning, the person who feeds them when they are hungry.

I remember having lunch with a group of 3rd graders. As lunch ended I noticed a few of them had not eaten their lunch and threw it away. I asked why they didn’t bring something from home. They looked at me and said “there is no food at home”. Clearly, our school wasn’t doing its job—these kids were hungry but we weren’t nourishing them. That moment changed the way I do my job, raise my kids and live my life.

I know hunger is real. Yet, I see children getting fatter and I ask, how can the same families struggling to feed their kids also be making them fat? It’s many things; sedentary lifestyles, reductions in physical education, lack of nutrition education, and our fast food culture among others. This crisis could contribute to a generation of children becoming the first to have a shorter life span than their parents. In an effort to reverse this trend, I along with other dedicated child nutrition professionals am using our positions to shape their eating habits and the habits of our next generation.

I grew up on a family farm where we raised much of the food we ate. When I entered the field of child nutrition, I became part of the problem, falling into a trap that catches many food service directors. Financial pressures caused me to purchase food based mainly on price alone. It was not until the last couple of years that I realized I could buy fresh and local products effectively. I joined with a passionate group of people who taught me and learned from me. Together we brought about a positive change in our school nutrition program. We were able to create a link between our nutrition program, the community, and the educational system. But just because I can buy something, doesn’t mean that I can get children to eat it, especially someone else’s children. We enlisted more help: we brought the farmers that grew the food into the schools. We brought the children to the farms. They watched the vegetables grow. They made connections with the farmers and shared that excitement with their parents. They learned to love pizza with pesto and Vermont minestrone soup. Lunchtime is valuable and exciting and our children are engaged.

It is amazing to live in a state that pools its resources and works to solve a crisis that seems overwhelming. I believe that a handful of good people can make amazing things happen.

The Power of Laughter by Kelly

I believe in laughter, especially when you can laugh at yourself. And, I’m not talking about a little chuckle or giggle. I am talking about the laughter that makes tears stream down your face, makes your abs feel like you just did 1000 sit-ups, and makes your smiling cheeks burn. My entire life I have been a complete klutz. If there is a ditch, I will turn my ankle in it. If there is a sign, I will walk into it. If there is something in front of me, I am bound to stub my toe on it.
After many episodes of stumbling and tripping throughout elementary school, I always wished for the day my klutziness would go away. I would turn a bright shade of red and hide anywhere I could. However, one day back in 8th grade, it all changed. I received a science award at an assembly and had to walk on stage to receive it. It was my ultimate nightmare – my entire junior high had reason to analysis and stare at my every move. I climbed the steps, picked up the award, and started to make my way down the steps back to my seat. And…I fell. Or rather, crashed. My body went flaring as I semi-circled down the flight of steps right onto the floor. The auditorium was silent. There was nowhere to hide. And then it happened – I started to laugh…uncontrollably. I basically have not stopped since.
Many people feel that klutziness is something you grow out of with age. Well, I am still waiting for that to happen. But while I’m waiting, I think I’ll embrace it. My uncanny ability to make a fool of myself happens at least three times a day. People pay money to have someone else make them laugh, while I get to entertain myself for free. In addition, I am pretty sure my close friends and family get quite the entertainment from me, especially because they “aren’t laughing at me, but with me.”
To me, the ability to laugh at yourself is a great gift. And nothing is better than having a gift be contagious. So the next time you do something embarrassing…just laugh. Trust me, it will work.