Saturday, December 9, 2017

The day you realize God's work is actually just human work

Photo courtesy of Annika Leigh/Flickr
Artwork by Emma, who has Down Syndrome.

I have a story to share (don't I always?). 

It's about a moment I'm not proud of. Actually, looking back, I'm kind of mortified by it.

I was a senior in high school. My friends and I had just spent the perfect day in D.C. wandering the mall admiring cherry blossoms. On the train ride home I was in an especially goofy mood. Sitting with my friends, I started talking to a water bottle I was carrying. Why did I start talking to a water bottle? I don't know, it was 18 years ago. I've always been a strange person. 

As I recall, one of my friends dared me to continue talking to my water bottle for the whole ride home. They all got up and moved a few rows back so I was sitting by myself.

Well, I suppose, not myself. I had the company of the aforementioned water bottle. Which I continued talking to, even as strangers sat by me (then promptly got up and moved). I vaguely remember the dialogue involved me planning a wedding for myself to the water bottle.

I know, I know.

Here's where it gets uncomfortable.

My friends were sitting behind me, whispering among themselves and laughing. Periodically they'd throw bits of paper at me. 

There was a woman nearby who glared at my friends. 

She looked at me and asked, "Do you know those girls?"

I lied and said no.

She told me not to worry about the girls. That they were being mean and that I was special.

"My teachers tell me that, too," I told her. 

I know. I know. Asshole. I was an asshole. One of the biggest kinds of assholes. 

The woman chatted with me for a bit then moved on. My friends stopped throwing whatever it was they were throwing at me. 

I kept praying that the woman would get off the train so that I could go back to being ... myself. But she rode all the way back to Vienna, which was our stop too. I waited on the train as she and my friends left. Then I got off and kept my distance until I was sure the woman was out of sight. At that point I reunited with my friends. They couldn't believe I'd taken the joke so far. I couldn't believe it got out of hand.

And what was the joke even? Looking back, I'm not sure. A seemingly normal teenager pretending to be someone with special needs, someone who could've been construed as mentally ill or mentally disabled isn't much of a joke. It's not all that funny. I know this now. I knew it at the time, too. The situation unraveled in front of me and I didn't have the courage to back up and own my own assholery.

I'm sharing this story today because so often when I tell people I sub a lot in special ed, I often get this look from people. Like they're impressed. Sometimes they'll say something along the lines of, "I could never do that." One person commented to me that special ed teachers were doing "God's work." There's this sense that there are people who are "called for special ed" and then the rest of the world. That the people who teach special ed or who work with people with special needs were somehow born with more patience and more compassion than everyone else.

With all due respect to the wonderful special ed teachers I've worked with, this is kind of bullshit. For evidence, I will refer you to my opening anecdote. Clearly, I wasn't someone born with some natural affinity for helping the mentally disabled. I wasn't born with endless reserves of compassion, kindness or sensitivity to other people's feelings.   

I'm just the same old bumbling human we all are. 

I know I'm just a substitute teacher. That's different than pursuing a career in special education. But even the special ed teachers I've worked say they sort of fell into their careers by chance. One started out as a sub like I did. Another studied psychology in college and decided to try out teaching after a stint working in a psychiatric care facility. An adaptive PE teacher I was talking to recently said she'd studied nutrition but decided to teach after a stint working with Special Olympians.

The common factor for all these teachers is just exposure. As in, at some point in their lives or careers they happened to have spent time with individuals with special needs (whether by choice or by accident). 

I'm not sure I would've said, "yes" to subbing in special ed if it weren't for the fact that for seven years, I happened to live across the street from someone who was born with multiple intellectual disabilities.

Christie, one of my neighbors in York, has a big smile and an infectious laugh. She always loved seeing Snacks and has a standing date with Pat Sajak to watch "The Wheel" every night at 7. Her nails are usually painted and she likes to accessorize with bracelets or a Minnie Mouse watch. 

When the girls were little, I used to spend hours on slow summer afternoons chatting about life with Christie's mom, Georgia. We'd bond over the isolation of stay-at-home motherhood- though my dependent children were just babies and her dependent child was just a couple years younger than me. 

I was so touched by Georgia's relationship with Christie– she once told me, "Sometimes I don't know where she ends and I begin"– but I could also see how much Chritie's future weighed on Georgia's mind. She and her husband, Scott are in their 60s. Georgia has had various health problems in the past several years. I know she loses sleep over the question of what would happen to Christie when they were unable to care for her anymore. 

To be honest, it took a long time for me to feel comfortable around Christie. Maybe comfortable isn't the right word. I think I just didn't know how to interact with her. I didn't know what she'd understand and I was fearful of making her nervous. I didn't want to do or say the wrong thing. So, for a long time, I just didn't do or say anything.  

But over time I began to realize you interact with Christie the same way you interact with any person, you know? You say, "Hello." You ask about her day. You find your commonalities. I just learned to talk louder (because she was hard of hearing). I learned to listen harder (to make sure I understood her). And I learned that even a short conversation could be a meaningful conversation. 

Christie is a busy lady– she goes bowling, goes out to eat, she goes to a day program where she learns life skills and does art and has "club" in the evening where she meets up with friends. And, of course, she had "The Wheel." When we became friends, she'd greet me with a smile and a hug, but if she had some place she'd rather be or something she'd rather be doing, she didn't waste time chatting.  

It was enough for her just to be seen, to be acknowledged, to be appreciated. And these are skills we're born with as humans, right? Our instincts are toward companionship, toward community. 

We're born to seek connections with other people. 

The thing is. when someone seems so drastically different than us, we get caught up in this idea that we won't know how to connect with them. But what Christie has taught me– and the kids at school have taught me– is that you don't need special training, you don't need divine powers, you just need to be human and you need to see them as human and then you go from there. You meet them where they are.

It doesn't take a saint to help a student with Downs Syndrome count by fives or help a student with Autism learn how to have a basic conversation. It just takes a willingness to see humanity in all its amazing beautiful shapes and forms.

And the ability to take a deep breath and maintain a sense of humor and a sense of groundedness when you're around someone who might randomly grab your arm, or who periodically jumps out of his chair and runs down the hallway, or who'd much rather spend an entire day discussing dragon mythology than learning basic social skills. Or someone who doesn't speak a whole lot, except to repeat the lyrics to "Hey Jude" or "Yesterday" or "We Can Work it Out" over and over. Or someone who bounces up to you and tell you he's going to eat your brains. Or someone who can't stop herself from swearing loudly in the middle of their English class. 

I see bits and pieces of myself and people I love in all of these students. So I can't help but like them, even as they baffle me and sometimes annoy me even. Because they're human and I'm human and none of us are perfect.

A couple years ago I co-wrote a story with my friend Ashley for the York Daily Record about how adults with special needs in Pennsylvania and their families are often left in limbo waiting for critical services. The parents I interviewed were in their 60s and 70s (one was in her 80s). They'd been caring for their special needs children for decades and just wanted to ensure they would be in good hands when they could no longer provide for their children. In Pennsylvania, and I imagine in most states, the resources devoted to individuals with physical and/or intellectual disabilities are stretched thin. The burden of caring for people who cannot care for themselves often rests on the shoulders of willing family members, paid caregivers, overwhelmed state agencies and nonprofit organizations. 

The Philadelphia Inquirer is running an in-depth series related to the story Ashley and I wrote title "Falling Off the Cliff." This excerpt caught my eye:


"Parents of adults with I/DD followed Christina's case closely, and they called to share their own horror stories about caregiver abuse and agency incompetence. About political and public indifference to the needs of those with I/DD. About the lack of compassion and resources for elderly parents who have become too old and frail to care for their aging, impaired children. About the sudden elimination of educational options when a disabled child turns 21, a descent so dramatic and universal that parents call it "falling off the cliff." 
Their stories could fill a book. But each would only nick the surface of a crisis that is barreling toward us like a tsunami: We will soon have more intellectually and developmentally disabled adults living in this country than at any other time in our history. 
Advances in medical care have allowed kids born with Down syndrome, for example, to live twice as long as they did just 20 years ago. And the explosion in the number of  children with autism -- one in 68 children are now diagnosed -- means we'll soon have a vast population of adults in need of services like those Christina's family had hoped would keep her safe. 
Add these numbers to those of children born with the two other most common roots of intellectual disability -- Fragile X syndrome and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder -- and we have a looming social, economic, and moral crisis. What will we do about, with, and for these vulnerable adults and the families who struggle to care for them? And how much are we willing to pay for it?"

That adaptive gym teacher I mentioned earlier told me she was out the other night talking with some guys at a bar. One of them asked what she did and when she told him, his response that was like the garbage collector of teachers– just working with all the rejects. The teacher swiftly corrected him without the use of expletives or physical violence, which I think, under the circumstances, was pretty admirable. Because really? REALLY?! Comparing a whole person to trash? Comparing somebody's child to refuse? How is this still the world we live in?

I wanted to write about this today because the story of people who are often overlooked and marginalized is our story. It's a story we all need to take ownership of. It's a story we all have to play a role in. Not just the parents of these children. Not just their overworked teachers and instructional assistants and therapists and caseworkers. Not just the nonprofits who are gracious enough to extend services. No, all of us. We all need to be willing to look past our obvious differences and search for our obvious commonalities. 

That's not to say that everyone needs to pursue a career in special education or occupational therapy or social work. I think we can start to make a difference just by acknowledging these families in our communities and being friendly. I get the sense that having a child or a sibling in this population can feel so isolating. So help them feel less isolated, you know. Say hi. Start a conversation. Get to know them. Just offer your time. Then go from there. 

You'll grow as a person. You'll find grace and gratitude. You'll deepen your wells of compassion and empathy. You will form relationships with people who will make you laugh and invite you to see the world from a new perspective and who will love you despite your many flaws.

You will learn that despite what might initially seem like massive differences, that there are still universal truths we all hold. 

The middle schoolers I hang out with have taught me so many useful things. Like:

  • Mondays are always tough no matter who you ever.
  • It's never not a good time to dance.
  • Beatles forever!
  • If you're having a rough day, sometimes all it takes is looking at a picture of Shawn Mendes (look him up, I had to) to cheer you up. You could sub out Shawn Mendes with your celebrity crush. But I know at least one student who would think that is unwise.
  • Making farting noises on your arm is never not funny if you're the one making the farting noise. If you're the rest of the class, it's the worst.
  • The best moment of the week might just be sitting in your teacher's pickup truck at the end of the day.
  • When learning about invertebrates, SpongeBob SquarePants is a surprisingly useful reference (Patrick the starfish! Gary the snail! Mr. Krabs! Squidward!)
  • It doesn't matter whether they're a seventh grader in a contained classroom (kids who need additional learning supports) or a seventh grader in mainstream classroom (kids who don't) they're all generally spazzy, obnoxious, prone to inappropriate outbursts, excitable and kind of ridiculous in the best ways possible. 
We're all just muddling through here. The best we can. Hoping to find small joys where we can.

My point in all this mess is that you don't have to wait for some sign from the universe or some call from the great beyond to start seeing people as people. I doubt the parents of these special needs kids felt they were suited for the job of raising their child with Down Syndrome or Autism or other intellectual developmental disorders when their kids were born. They were probably terrified, as any of us would be, in the face of the unknown. But it's not as if they have a choice. So they adapt. They educate themselves. They open their hearts wider than they thought they could go.

I think we can all do the same. We're always at our best when we serve those on the fringes. Those who are marginalized. And maybe serve isn't the right word– because that somehow implies a one-sided transaction. It's not. To coin a phrase from Stewie, we are all "richer for the experience."

Just go out and be kind. Even if you were the person who 18 years ago impersonated a person with intellectual disabilities on a Metro, for instance. Be like the woman on the train who stood up for the asshole (even though she didn't know that person was an asshole). 

We're all called to love. So go forth and love.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

It's time to catch up

Photo courtesy of Prof.Bizzarro/Flickr
Wednesday, I was subbing in special ed. The students were playing this game that was supposed to help refresh them on different conversational skills. They played in pairs - one partner would hold a card up on their head that said something like "eye contact" or "ask a question" or "body language" – and they'd have to guess what their card said based on clues given by the other person.

During the second round of the game, one of the students – a girl– got increasingly frustrated when she failed to figure out the words on the card. The other student was trying (the best she could) to use different ways of describing them but the girl just could not get the answers. I figured the game would be tough for her. These social skills she was working on were ones she in particular had to work really hard on and the abstract thinking needed for the game added an extra layer of challenge. 

She eventually stood up and shouted that she was stupid. Slammed her chair into her desk and began pacing the room. She kept repeating that she was crazy. 

I tried calming her down. I told her it was just a game and that I knew it was hard and it was OK that she didn't get the words. None of that had any affect. She kept pacing and yelling. Started punching a metal filing cabinet. I looked her in the eyes. I asked her to try to take deep breaths with me. She tried, but then would get upset again.

I was calling the front office for help when she told me she would stop. That she could calm down before her next class. And she did. Thank goodness.

But I understood her frustration. And I felt frustrated for her. I know she knows she is different. Like she realizes that she doesn't quite fit into this world the same way as most of her peers seem to. When she was saying she was crazy, I think that's what she meant. Not that she's crazy, but that her perspective, her experience in this world is just so, so different from the rest of ours. I wish the world could offer her a softer place to land. Like we could offer a place for her to be herself among us.

I know that feeling of not being able to properly express what it is that makes you so angry. That's driving you to pace and yell and punch. Because there are so many times I want to do all three, but I've managed to adapt to life as a grownup who just swallows it all down. That frustration though, it can still live right underneath your skin. Even when it can't be named.

And when it is named, your brain starts churning. 

Have you ever had someone says something that speaks some visceral truth you didn't even realize was hiding in you? Like, it wakes you up. It's your subconscious grabbing you by the shoulders, shaking you and saying "Pay attention. This! THIS is what I've been trying to tell you."

Last week, while walking the dog, I was listening to an interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates (author of the new excellent "Between the World and Me" and "We Were Eight Years in Power") during which he discusses Malcolm X and how the human rights activist offered him the closest thing to hope Coates had experienced in his life. 

And I had this moment. I had to stop walking (both to listen better and to wipe the snot and tears that unexpectedly started pouring out of my face holes). 

Here's the excerpt from the interview (it's long, I'm sorry):

"So for Malcolm — to me, it was: I can speak about the world in a way that is reflective of my life and my community. I can do that. I don’t have to calibrate my speech. I don’t have to calibrate how I look. I don’t have to calibrate how I walk to make other people feel a certain way. I have that right.

And so that was big for me, as a writer. When I started writing, there was a school of writing that says: Given that the audience is obviously — when you reach to any size, is not gonna be majority-black — that you have to hold people’s hands. You have to explain to them. And the Malcolm influence on me said: No, you don’t. Write as you hear it. Write as you hear it.

And in fact, I don’t even think that’s a particular black thing, because if you’re black in this world, and you are gonna become educated on the — what is considered mainstream art in this world, mainstream traditions — nobody slows down for you. Nobody is gonna hold your hand [laughs] and explain 'The Brady Bunch' to you. Nobody’s gonna do that. Catch up.

Catch up. Some people live like this. I know it’s not what’s around you, but some people live like that. Catch up. [indistinct] And that’s just how it is. You gotta be bilingual. You gotta figure it out. So if they have the right to talk and write like that, I have the right to write about Wu-Tang like that...

I can do that. I can say, 'Catch up. Catch up.'

You know what I mean? I can do that, and that’s a kind of freedom."

Did you get all that?

"I don't have to calibrate how I look. I don't have to calibrate how I walk to make other people feel a certain way. I have that right."

And see, I feel kind of guilty for identifying with this so much. Because I'm not a black person. And I have not endured the generations of trauma that black people in our country have endured. And I hope I'm not somehow appropriating an idea that is not mine to have here. 

But even now as I'm re-reading what he says, I'm tearing up. Not as a black person, but as a woman.

As a woman this speaks to me. This sings to me. This shouts at me. This rages in me. 

As a woman who feels my voice is valued at just 80 percent of a man's voice. As a woman who often feels only 80 percent ownership of her person (the rest belongs to my children, my spouse, elected officials who make laws legislating what I can do with my body and the world at large that judges my person or whistles at it or comments on it or forces it to be smaller in public spaces). 

I feel as if I'm perpetually calibrating myself based on the space I'm in and the people I'm with. That I've always deferred to men or yielded to men or been preemptively and overly apologetic to men. 

And I understand this might be surprising from someone who apparently has so much to say. Who is always sharing and opining about whatever it is she fancies. Who assumes the world needs to hear any of it. 

The truth is, I'm always dismissing what I think. Always apologizing for it. I've always felt that because it is coming from me, it's probably kind of quaint and obvious and worth less than the thing the next person says.

I'm a terrible feminist. But then, I wonder, how else am I supposed to feel in this world? 

The other day while subbing, I was doing puzzles with a student. We'd completed a map of the world puzzle and a map of the United States puzzle. The only one left was a puzzle of all the U.S. presidents. We got it out, spread all the pieces around and just sort of stared at it. So many white men. Forty-three white men. And one black man. 

The student looked a bit overwhelmed by all the pieces. I just felt depressed. After five minutes of half-heartedly shuffling pieces around,I asked the student if he wanted to play a game instead. He nodded. We cleaned up the puzzle. I Shoved all my frustration and sadness right back in that box.

And I guess I'm supposed to feel empowered, now right? Like with our Pussy Hats and #MeToo hashtags and the ongoing takedown of all these influential men women are having their moment. 

But I don't know. I'm just kind of sad. I'm kind of over it, too.

Like, it's pretty damn awful that there are so many men who have been allowed to be so abusive for so long. But it's also not that surprising is it? I mean, none of us are really shocked to find out that major Hollywood producers, directors and actors have used their positions to take advantage of women are we? Or even that any person in any role of influence might have felt empowered or even entitled to making inappropriate advances on women solely because of who they are in their industry? 

Why do we continue to be shocked and dismayed when people in prestigious positions, abuse those prestigious positions? History hasn't exactly shown us that becoming wealthy and powerful inclines people to be benevolent do-gooders. 

I was really bummed out to hear about Louis C.K. I love his comedy and always thought his perspective on how we should treat each other as human beings was spot on. I was going to invite him on my celebrity cruise even! And I hate what he did. Ugh. It grosses me out so much. It angers me. 

I wanted better from him. But I mean, should I really have expected better from him? Why should he be immune to siren call of male privilege? Where in society and when in history has there ever been a time when men stopped themselves before taking off their bathrobes or asking for back rubs or grabbing breasts and asses and pussies (and I hate that word, but hey, if it's good enough for our president ...)? 

I'm not saying all men, obviously. I don't like blanket statements. I don't believe all men are serial abusers or harassers. I don't hate men (for real ... though boys did use to accuse me of that in high school. In their defense, it probably had to do with me saying that I thought their penises should be taken away from them until they'd demonstrated that they were capable of making rational decisions using an alternative organ. Or that they were capable of going more than five minutes without making comments about or related to sex. In my defense, if you've been around high school boys and their raging hormones, I feel like you might understand where I'm coming from. Right? Anyone? Anyone? Am I alone on this one? Touche). 

I am mostly speaking of the type of men who are written about in history books or who achieve some level of prominence or prestige in their field– whether it's entertainment, politics or business. Though it's not just those men. Anyone, who, for whatever reason, feels "untouchable" in their work or their position– whether as the owner of a small company or a high school coach or a manager at the local big box store. Really, I guess it can be anyone. But not really everyone.

At one of my last jobs there was an older man who routinely stopped by my female boss's desk before he left work each day and rubbed her shoulders (something she neither requested nor consented to). She took to hiding out in a conference room when she knew he was leaving in order to avoid the encounters. He once commented on the fact that I had a bra strap sticking out from under a shirt I was wearing and reached to put it back in place- before I quickly spun out of his reach. "It used to be that women didn't have their bra straps out," he lectured me. Not realizing it was a camisole top and it was none of his damned business to begin with. The man was in upper management, he'd been with the company for decades. The fact that he behaved the way he did in the middle of the office with no disregard to who was watching, suggests to me that it never occurred to him that his behavior was inappropriate. Which then suggests to me that there had been a certain level of acceptance of it. Or at least no outward disapproval. Like, in his mind, it was part of the culture.

And maybe that's the case for so many of these people. Maybe they just thought it was how things were done. "It's cool, right? Wait. What? Oh? You're saying we're not allowed to just grab at the ladies anymore? Really? Because, I thought that was going to be allowed from now until forever. So that's a hard 'no' on that?"

Why am I all the sudden looking up clips from "Anchorman"?

I hate that every day there are more headlines about this. And I hate that there are so many victims. And I hate that I'm not surprised that there are so many victims. Because I know so many victims of sexual assault, abuse, harassment, etc. that are just regular people. Friends. People I love. I hate that this is our culture. 

I also kind of hate that when it comes to these moments of exposing these mass, serial abusers, we're kind of likened to an angry mob with torches and pitchforks. Woody Allen warned against there being a witch hunt after the news of Harvey Weinstein came out. As if the women who've been victims of this culture are witch hunters. As if the abusers are like those women and men accused of witchcraft in Salem in 1692. Victims of hysteria. 

Hysteria. 

"Behavior exhibiting overwhelming or unmanageable fear or emotional excess." (Merriam-Webster.com)

"Originally defined as a neurotic condition peculiar to women and thought to be caused by a dysfunction of the uterus." (etyomline.com)

You want to know why women are angry? Why women are furious? It is this. The language of women, the language rooted in women always suggesting that we are somehow unsound. Somehow unbalanced. Somehow not to be trusted. 

The language assigned to us as a way of discrediting us somehow magically, absurdly being used to defend our abusers. 

"Stop explaining yourself to the world. Stop calibrating yourself to fit other people's expectations about who you should be, how you should live, what you should write."

Let's set one thing straight. Women do not go on witch hunts. Women know better. Women know those who are called witches are most often the people who are the most misunderstood. The outliers. The oddballs. The people more in tune with Earth than with society. And women know well what it's like to be misunderstood. 

These men are not witches. This is not a witch hunt. 

These men are rational human beings who wanted something and took it without consent and without regard for the person or people they stole from. 

Their victims are not asking for their abusers to be burned at stake or hung in gallows or crushed under stones.

They want the abuse to stop. They want their voices to be heard. They want to take their power back.

And I think taking our power back is deeper than these headlines. Deeper than all the hashtags. Deeper than the hats and women's marches. It's about reclaiming our agency. Allowing ourselves to take up more space in this world. It's about not worrying about calibrating ourselves to fit to a society that's failed to make room for us. It's about all these intangible things we're still figuring out. Those things we still don't have names for.

This world has not been a soft place to land for women. 

We're tired of trying to explain why the hell we're so angry. Why we're so damn hysterical all the time. You can't see it? 

Catch up.

----

P.S. I know I kind of took a winding road here. And that maybe my conclusion wasn't wrapped up all pretty in a box. It's so much more satisfying when the end is like that, isn't it? I've been writing for hours though. Brad wants to talk about the Christmas budget. It's 10:15 p.m.. I have to move on for now. Brad's cousin sent me the kindest note this week- which I really needed. I've been feeling drought-like conditions in the writing department recently. She thanked me for, "For showing the process of thinking out loud and trying to figure something out, rather than just taking a stance." This week, I took that as permission to write freely.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

On being better

Photo courtesy of Edna Winti/Flickr

Ever have a week when you're feeling a bit– stretched? 

Like you try to land on a thought for a minute but immediately feel tugged to the next thing and the next thing before the first thing was ever completed? Your brain a whirring assembly line racing to build a rush order of poorly made whatevers. And that's just what's happening in the gray matter. 

Simultaneously, there's external input. The dog barking. The incoming work assignments. The questions about what's for dinner. The subsequent complaints about what's for dinner. The dishes piling up in the sink. The laundry piling up in the baskets. The requests for chocolate milk, for playdates, for a visit to the book fair, for help putting on socks, for helping tying shoes. The fighting about hair brushing and tidying up and who got to pick the last TV show. 

This is, of course, how life always is. It's always like this. The difference this week is me, I think. You know, my ability to deal with it all. That and maybe the weather. After the most mild fall ever this week it finally turned. It's overcast and rainy and cold. I can't get warm. 

Last night, after the kids went to bed, I'd planned to write. But instead, I sat down on the couch, wrapped a blanket around me and sat bundled in the silence. The assembly line shut itself down. Sometimes our brains override our own best intentions.

So here I am today instead. Still trying to land on just one thought. But coming up with a billion.

Brad and I started watching "This is Us" last year, hoping it could be a substitute for our beloved "Parenthood." We don't watch a ton of TV, but once a week we like to veg on the couch together watching something we can both agree on. It's no "Parenthood," though. I mean, we watch it every week and all and it's fine. It has its moments. But it's just not the same. Brad says the only character he really likes is Jack. He says Kevin belongs with Caillou and Map from "Dora the Explorer" on a list of TV's most annoying characters. I don't totally agree, but I know what he means.

People write all the time about needing entire boxes of tissues to get through an episode of "This is Us," but except for the episode where William and Randall took a road trip to Memphis, I really haven't teared up. Even without saying anything, William's gentle presence always has a way of warming a scene.

I kind of get annoyed that every episode seems to be a compilation of well-written monologues– the characters constantly sharing platitudes about life to anyone who will listen– unborn babies, the guy selling ceiling fans at the hardware store, strangers at a coffee shop or an urn of ashes. I joke with Brad that every week the director must assemble the cast shouting out, "You get a speech! And you get a speech! And you get a speech!" Like Oprah giving away cars.

These characters are all flawed and damaged in their own way, sure. But you wouldn't know that to hear them speak. They're constantly figuring out life for our benefit. The way they speak just glows. All the time. They seem to have wisdom the rest of us don't have. So I feel removed from them. 

In journalism we're trained to show, not tell. To find ways to illustrate what is happening in the story using words without explicitly spelling it out for the reader. Instead of saying a kid was being obnoxious, for instance, write about how they ran into your room at 5:45 a.m., jumped on your bed and demanded Honey Combs. RIGHTNOW!!! And then proceeded to shove their face in yours and lick your nose while meowing like a cat until you got up. It puts readers in the action. Makes the story richer, more relatable.

Anyway, sometimes I feel "This is Us" does more telling than showing. And I find myself wishing the characters were a bit more human. I miss William– who said so much just with his eyes. I miss the Bravermans from "Parenthood" or the Taylor's from "Friday Night Lights." They always managed to convey a deep well of emotion without having to say much of anything. 

But I was pleasantly surprised this week when we sat down to watch "This is Us." 

In the episode, Randall took his foster daughter to visit her mother in prison, only the mother refuses to see her daughter. With this as the premise, I immediately rolled my eyes– assuming the story was going to be about how lucky their foster daughter is that she landed with Randall's beautiful, well-heeled family. How terrible the girl's mother was. I mean, it's not hard to create conflict and shape heroes when you have the black of white scenario of prisoner versus foster parent. Good guy vs. bad mom.

These days I find myself struggling with these roles we create in society. This whole good vs. evil dichotomy just isn't serving us. And we see it so often in entertainment. And it's so tempting to organize our worldviews along these lines. 

I see this playing out in school, too.

Earlier this week I was in the library at the middle school with a class full of kids with learning disabilities and/or emotional needs. There were a couple students in the class who stuck out more than the others because of their quirky ways of speaking and behaving. One of the boys in the class–one who by outward appearances seemed more "normal"– was picking on one of these students, another boy. He'd mock the way the boy spoke or get into his personal space trying to provoke him. 

Generally, just being your typical seventh grade asshole. 

The kid who was being picked up got fed up and told the other boy to "fuck off." I had to take him aside and tell him that language wasn't appropriate. He told me that one of the ways he dealt with frustration was swearing. And while I totally related, I also maintained that profanity was not allowed in school (except, I thought to myself, for maybe in the teacher's lounge or in an empty classroom where teachers on their lunch break lament unfinished stacks of paperwork or when you have to ask a kid for the 20th time to put their shoes back on and to stop blowing on their classmates).

I also took the other boy aside and told him to back off. I asked him if he'd ever been picked on. He said, "no." But I didn't believe him. Not for a second. He was posturing. I told him I knew he wasn't a bad person and that I expected him to be better than the person he was being. That I knew he had a good heart. He didn't seem convinced. In fact, I wasn't entirely convinced either. 

The previous time I'd been an instructional assistant in a class with him he'd spent the entire period rolling around the room on the teacher's chair, periodically tapping the Smartboard to mess with the PowerPoint presentation that was on. He'd already talked to an administrator once that class– since the other students didn't seem particularly fazed by his behavior, the teacher and I let it go. I know this probably sounds crazy. But you have to understand, just about every kid in the class has behavioral issues. We're often in survival mode. There's a lot we roll with. Literally.

He is not an easy kid to teach. But my job as a substitute teacher is to teach him. And while it would be easy and probably justifiable and probably really satisfying to tell this kid (who I know nothing about outside of his behavior in this one class) about himself– what purpose would it serve? I don't know that his having one more person calling him a bully would make him want to be any less of a bully. Labels are really hard to escape. Especially the labels we get when we're 12 or 13. I don't think he needed to hear that he was a jerk. It think he needed to be reminded that it was never too late to be kind.

At the end of class that day in the library, he yelled an apology across the room to the other boy. It wasn't entirely sincere– but it was a step in the right direction. I made sure he knew I'd heard him, and that I appreciated the gesture. 

Watching "This is Us" I was relieved when Randall returned to the prison to talk to his foster daughter's mother. And while he started out with a kind of self-righteous, "I'm on this side of the glass" speech, the girl's mother– the one on the wrong side of the glass– got to have her say, too. She made sure he knew that life was messier and more complicated than he knew and that she loved her daughter and would fight for her. 

That's right, she got a speech, too.

I loved, too, that they returned to William. Sharing the story of his drug arrest and how he went in front of a judge and told the man he had nothing left to live for and that he was the most disappointed man in the world. Seeing the broken person in front of him, the judge opts to give him a second chance. 

Somehow these things– "This is Us" and the kids at school– somehow they go together. In my head anyway. 

We just can't give up on people. If we give up on the possibility of goodness in others, assuming they're just inherently bad, then what are we even doing here? Why are we bothering? 

Each of us is one poor decision from being the person on the wrong side of the glass either literally or metaphorically. And each of us has to potential to be better. Every day we do.

I'm working on a story for the United Way of York County about New Hope Christian Ministries, an organization that provides aide to people with all varieties of need in York, Pa. 

I just got off the phone with the ministry's executive director. I asked him what inspired his work. And the good Christian he is, he shared the story of the Good Samaritan, which is probably obvious and maybe cliche. But we all need a go-to story for being a better neighbor.

Why did he think his work is important to the community?


"I don’t know that there’s a better answer than just trying to be a good," he said.

I don't know that there's a better answer either. We just need to try to be good. Even if we bumble along at it.

As I'm sorting through the remaining detritus on the factory floor of my brain this week, I keep tripping over this incident from yesterday.

I was at the middle school (because it seems I'm always at the middle school). I was running an errand as an office aide when one of the special ed teachers, muttering something about Lady Godiva, nabbed me in the hallway and asked me to come with her.

One of her students had experienced some gastro-intestinal distress in his pants during gym class. He'd responded by stripping down in class and running through the hall. She asked if I'd go to the resource center to get him some clean cloths and deliver them to another instructional assistant waiting by the boy's locker room.

While delivering the clothes, I passed by the school's crisis resource teacher, whose job is, as far as I can tell, to race from one student meltdown after another. All. Day. Long. 

The teacher told me he had to deliver a student to a class but would be right behind me with some wipes.

When he arrived at the locker room door, wipes in hand, he asked who was going to clean up the student (while he was technically in seventh grade this particular student was developmentally much younger– just so you can understand why a 12-year-old boy might need assistance cleaning up after himself). 

The IA and I looked at each other and shrugged.

"Me," the resource teacher said. "I guess the answer is me."

He sighed, bowed his head and walked into the locker room.

While he hardly used any words, this teacher said so much. 

He told me what compassion looks like. 

He told me that it commands us to do the things we'd rather not have to do. It gives us a primer for how to be good. 

Life is complicated and messy. 

We are complicated and messy and imperfect, too.

We're stretched thin and it's noisy and everyone is whining. We're tired and annoyed and definitely don't want to be the person called on to clean up after the next disaster. But we do it anyway. And when we do– when we do we become better than we were before. 

That's the beauty of being human.

That's who we are.

This is us.