A Light Shines in Charlottesville: an Ode to Joe

Let me tell you about one of my favorite humans, Joe Beard.

I’m unfortunately one of those teachers who has difficulty with work/life balance.  When other more healthy teachers jet off to gyms, happy hour plans, or children, I’m usually in my slippers slippin’ around my classroom hoping to make enough noise to keep the nocturnal mice away.  I’ve gotten much, much better than my first few years when I was known to leave school at the same time some people were leaving bars.  Once, a former division head described me as someone who “burns a candle at both ends.”  

Even though I’ve upped my social life and have reluctantly allowed some of my extracurricular school activities to be pried from my stone cold fists, I still have my occasional late nights.  And they aren’t awful thanks to the night security guard Joe Beard.

You see, after my 8th period students shuffle or sashay out of my classroom, Joe will usually pop his head in to see how my day was and if I was staying late.  If I was staying late, Joe would find ways to brighten my evening through frequent check ins, grabbing a seat in one of my big blue chairs, and telling jokes or making fun of me (with love of course).  He’d keep me company while I graded quizzes or made lesson plans.

Sometimes Joe doesn’t catch me before I leave my classroom to do my usual 15-25 minute “hallway roam,” where I aimlessly walk the hallways talking to kids or waving at teacher friends in their classrooms.  I’m a bit like one of those puppies who spins around and around before she finally feels comfortable and settles down.  On those days, I’d often find Joe outside my classroom upon my return scolding me for not locking my door and having students sneak in my room to hang out.  He was always worried about my valuables getting stolen, and he was always concerned with my safety and happiness.  He did the same for the students who sought respite in my classroom.

If we are lucky, we will all have a Joe in our lives, a person who goes out of his or her way to be a constant flicker of light on not just our thunderstorm days, but also on those days where the added sunshine makes our beautiful days even more technicolor.  And sometimes, if you are like me, you’ll take that light for granted, and you won’t realize how much energy you were getting from it until something snuffs out the light.

Joe suddenly passed away peacefully in his sleep on July 3rd, 2017.  I found out from a former student, and the clouds rolled in and scrubbed the sheen from my summer.  During his funeral, I sat next to one of my former students, and as life amateurs, neither of us had tissues.  After a while, we gave up trying to stop our mascara from making black diamond ski trails down our cheeks until finally someone rescued us with some toilet paper.  I spent the rest of the summer dreading returning to school as I’ve not felt ready to feel the emptiness of Joe’s absence.

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Pictures of Joe from the cover of his memorial program.

I felt cloudy until this weekend when I prepared for students to start school on Tuesday. I started reflecting on the fact that Joe had given me an incredible gift.  And so, in his honor this year, my mantra will be to be more like Joe.  Instead of being that quasi-selfish “burning the candle at both ends” person, I want to be the light that brightens other people’s days.  I’d like to think that Joe would love that, that I’m honoring him in that way by checking on people after school, making them laugh, and reminding them each and every day that they are important, that they matter. For that is what Joe gave to me.  Because of him, I’ve never felt alone in a world that can be lonely.

So in this turbulent time where the heat of hate is radiating from marches in Charlottesville and around the country, I will make sure that love blazes brighter.  In this way, I’ll make sure that Joseph Kenneth Beard will shine on.

I hope you will do the same in honor of the Joe in your life as well. In the thick of these whitewashed storms funneling in, we will all need the light in the darkness.

Let’s all buckle down and get our flashlights out, as our lights aren’t going anywhere.  We will radiate love, respect, and empathy. Come what may, we must remember that Hope Dies Last.

To Joe.

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Ms. Stovall 313’s Next Big Adventure!

I’m smiling so big that that I might crack open my face because of my recent good news.  I have received an NEH grant!

As you may know, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)  is a government agency that funds amazing humanities programs nationwide.  One of their many grants is for school teachers and university professors to take summer institute courses on a wide variety of humanities topics.  The summer institutes range from one to five weeks, and NEH fully funds the programs so teachers can study and collaborate with teachers for all over the US.

There are 46 different institutes this summer ranging from “Cultures of Independence: Perspectives on Independence Hall and the Meaning of Freedom” in Philadelphia to “Political and Constitutional Theory for Citizens” in LA.  Whether you are at teacher that wants to study history, politics, literature, culture, music, Religion, art, or language, there is a summer institute that will titillate your brain.

So guess where am I going to spend this summer?

Picture of Jess holding up a sign of Mexico

YAY!

I’m heading to Oaxaca, Mexico!

 A bit of backstory here: The Fulbright to New Zealand was a very spiritual experience for me.  The indigenous Māori have a deep connection to their whakapaka, their ancestry, the heart and soul of who they are and where they come from.  When I would hear their stories of their land and of their people, I think about the black and white starkness of my own genealogy, where we can amazingly trace my white mother’s side back to Captain Jonathan Sparrow (maybe a cousin of the famous pirate made famous by Walt Disney?), born 1630 in England and came to the United States on a ship soon after the Mayflower.  But on my Black father’s side, all that remains when looking just 150 years in the past is this single black and white photograph of a man and woman.  Little is known about these two individuals; however, it is understood that this couple is the last of the traceable family members on my dad’s side, for the rest of the family tree is of course lost to slavery. There are many reflections and implications that arise from looking at the first two people in your family to possess freedom, and yet have no idea of their identities. They are the legacy of my blackness, but I do not even know their names or what brought them great joy.

Picture of Jess's ancestors.

The picture of the first free ancestors on my dad’s side.

 

Picture outside of waitomo caves

Regina and I getting ready to enter the caves!

One example of my spiritual journey to connect to my heritage in New Zealand came  when I went to the glowworm caves in Waitomo with my dear friend Regina when she visited me for two weeks. After walking through 250 meters of cave and seeing amazing displays of stalactites and stalagmites, our guide told us to be utterly silent as the group approached a river flowing  40 meters under the earth.  We climbed without speaking into a little rowboat we found there, and our guide pulled us using ropes attached to the top of the cave into utter darkness.  And then, as we entered a cathedral of the cave, I looked up and saw millions of glowworms stuck like stars in the night sky.  This sight rivals some of the most beautiful displays of nature I’ve gazed upon in my life so far, such as the sun rising over the ocean in Jamaica, or setting over the Charles Bridge in Prague.

 

Picture of the glowworm cave.

The glow worm cave.
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Picture of inside of the cave.

Some more wonders of the cave.

And I just… lost it.  There I was in a boat with 15 other people in a river under the earth gazing at something that can only be described as miraculous, and I just started weeping like an old woman reunited with a long lost love.  There was something so undefined and special about looking up at those glowworms.  I started thinking about all of the heartache, all of the freedoms stolen, all of the  moments of struggle and perseverance that lead to that very moment of getting me into this boat to experience this miracle. Everything from slavery, to disease, to even my own amazing parents having to withstand racial bigotry to create their loving family, I know that I have not gotten here alone.  And there I was standing on very tall shoulders having an encounter that my ancestors probably could not even imagine one of their descendants experiencing. I felt my ancestors sparkle their joy and pride for me through the lights of the glowing insects.

Now, mind you, it is incredibly difficult to prevent one’s neighbors from knowing you’re sobbing your eyes out when every slight creation of sound ricochets off of the water and sides of the caves, amplifying it a million times.  But I’m only slightly ashamed that I got emotional, even if it made my boatmates fidget uncomfortably in their benches.  I’m happy that I got to have that spiritual experience of feeling so incredibly connected to my past and to my heritage.

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The Imprint of Leaving New Zealand on both my Heart and my Foot

Jess makes a snow angel

So much snow in Chicago!

Disclaimer: this is a personal website. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

My car sits in a blanket of snow.  We’ve just had the 5th largest snowfall in Chicago history after Monday’s blizzard, and I know that soon I’ll be on my way to Michelle Obama arms after I manage to shovel my Pontiac from its white cocoon.  It’s hard to think that just a few weeks ago, I was sitting in the blazing warmth of a sunny Sydney summer, and now I am checking my cupboards to make sure I have enough hot cocoa to help defrost my fingers later this afternoon.

Side by side comparison of Sydney and Wisconsin

Left Sydney, right Wisconsin. The only thing they have in common is that I love them both.

The end of my official Fulbright experience was a wonderful blur.  Sometimes, it’s not until we say goodbye to a place that we realize how much that place has impacted us.  As I gave my final hugs and my final gazes at places that have become security blankets, I realized just how grateful I was to have this experience.

Maurice and Jess

Remember Maurice, the neighbor who helped me get through a New Zealand winter? Well, here he is. I miss him!

When I arrived home from the Milford track, I only had three days in Wellington before I left the country, as Fulbright granted me the dream opportunity to spend two days in Sydney, Australia (blog post to come).  It was a crazy three days attempting to sardine in all of the suitcase packing and goodbye hugs that I wanted to do.  And on top of it all, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Minister of Education read this very blog you are reading now and called me in for a meeting to gain my perspective on New Zealand partnership schools (again, blog post to come).  These events all led to a very exciting homestretch of my Fulbright experience.

But it wasn’t without an interesting finish.

One of my goals while I was living in my beautiful apartment on Oriental Parade was to walk out of my apartment one sunny morning, cross the quiet street, walk across the golden sand, and run out into the sea, arms outstretched to embrace the watery soul of the earth.  But then it never got quite warm enough for me to want to venture into the ocean. If I’m honest, I barely dipped my toes in. It felt so much more beautiful (and comfortable!) to look the ocean from the warmth of my apartment.

Picture of farewell dinner

The farewell dinner with my Fulbright friends: Tricia, Max, and Sarah.

After a wonderful farewell dinner, a couple of my Fulbright buddies decided to come back to my apartment, partly because I didn’t want to say goodbye, but mostly because I needed people to sit on my suitcases so I could get them shut.  As we chatted in my living room, I started to feel some pangs of regret.  How is it that I lived on the ocean for over four months and never swam in it?  What kind of adventurer am I?

So, while my friends continued their chatter, I slipped into my bedroom to sneak on a bathing suit.  When I came out in a towel, my friend Sarah exclaimed, “You’re doing it?!”  And I was.

Sarah and Max braved the rain and wind–Wellington’s retaliation of my departure was to withhold drops of sunshine in my final days–to witness my venture into the sea.

They thought I was just going to prance around in the water and run right back inside.  But oh no, if I was going to run into the sea, I was going to run. into. the. sea.  And it was pretty much how I always anticipated.  There I was, running out into the ocean, arms outstretched, traveling deep enough to submerge myself, and then…

OUCH!  BLOODY HECK! WHAT WAS THAT?

A sharp pain shot up my left leg.  Thinking I stepped on a sharp rock, I paused for another second in the water to complete one more pseudo-doggie paddle, and then I turned around to limp back to shore.

As I high knee-d in, shivering and smiling, Sarah and Max wore impressed expressions on their faces.  I felt proud that I had accomplished a personal goal, but I was worried about my left foot.  As we walked back up the four flights of stairs to my apartment, I favored my left leg, not wanting to look to see if there was blood.  I really, really don’t do well at the sight of blood.  I hopped immediately into the shower to wash the sticky salt and sand from me, giving me a clear picture of what happened to my foot during my dip in the ocean.

Uh oh.

There was definitely blood, enough that I had to slump against the glass side of the shower to collect myself.  And it was more than just a scrape or a cut– inside my foot were about 15 puncture wounds with little brown tips sticking out of them.  It could only be one thing: a sea urchin.

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Thanksgiving on Cuba Street

A Gratitude Journal

My carpool picks me up at 7:10 a.m. each morning at the top of Cuba Street.  If I can convince myself to crawl out of my warm bed and into the frigid air of my apartment before six a.m., I can make the 6:30 a.m. bus that will take me to the bottom of Cuba Street, and then it’s just a quick 10-minute jaunt to the top.  If I wake up after 6 a.m., I will miss the bus, and then I must run/jog/shuffle/skip the two miles to my meeting point. (School starts at 9 a.m. here, but I have a hike to get to my placement).

Even though I get exercise if I don’t catch the bus, I love making it because I get to stop for coffee.  Now 98% of coffee shops open after 7 a.m., which means I’m mostly out of luck because there is a coffee shop desert around my carpool pick up point.  However, Roberto at Palomino coffee on Cuba Street opens up just a little bit early so that I can get my coffee and still make it to my pick up point on time.  He’s pretty much the greatest man alive, and I look forward to stopping there on the mornings that I can.

Jessie with free cookie

My day is so much better because I got a free cookie. Thanks Roberto!

Today, I missed the bus by 47 seconds.  I had a loooong day yesterday that didn’t get me home until 10:45 p.m., and I knew I would be just as late tonight.  Even though it was 7:08 and I was huffing and sweating, I still decided to stop in to get a cup of coffee from Roberto. He inquired after my tardiness, and I gave him a brief synopsis of my past and future 24 hours, stressing that I really needed a cup of his coffee.  As he handed me my dreamboat-in-a-cup Flat White, he added a decadent chocolate cookie to the top of my coffee cup before handing it to me.  “For you,” he said in his Cuban accent, “to help with your day.”

It’s a few hours later, and I feel like I wish I could unplug after my iPad got completely wiped, and I lost– thankfully not all–of my research over the last month (I know, cue lecture about backing up files).  As I was about to sob into the D, O, and H keys on my keyboard, I noticed the cookie sticking out of my backpack.  It made me stop and remember that even though this is a tough loss, I am able to reflect, rethink, and rewrite.  Roberto’s gesture was a reminder to me that there is heartbreakingly beautiful kindness in the world. And for that I am grateful.

Note of gratitude

Someone at school put my name in the gratitude/commandments drawing, and I won! Thank you random stranger, now I get to draw an awesome prize on Monday!

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It is super cool being “from the future,” as I am 18 hours ahead of Chicago, but it makes communication difficult.  There is a small window of time right before I go to bed or right when I wake up that I can catch people in the States to talk to them.  I can’t talk during my day because I have to have wifi to Skype or Facetime, and I don’t get home from school in time to talk to people before they tuck in for the night.  So during the weekdays, I feel pretty isolated from my friends and family in the U.S., and I suck every last bit of comfort from the imessages and Whatsapp texts I get during the day.  It’s weird to think that most of my communication with home is through short conversations sprinkled throughout my cupcakes of days.

You can imagine, therefore, how meaningful mail has been to me.  I haven’t given out my mailing address to anyone but my parents, and they sent me a wonderful welcome care package the first week I arrived.  I realized quickly that one has to sell one’s car just to be able to pay to ship a package in New Zealand, so I didn’t send on my mailing address to anyone else.

Package from Joy

The AMAZING package from Joy.

But somehow, mail has found a way.  Our close (and oldest) family friends Kate and Michael sent me a lovely card.  And the biggest hug to a soul is that my lovely friend and fellow book club member Joy sent THE most incredible care package ever.   I had written a blog post about how miserably cold I’d been in Wellington, and she secretly Facebook messaged my mom asking for my address.  She sent me a giant package that has kept me literally and figuratively warm for two weeks now: a blanket, gloves, hand warmers, Nutella, fancy chocolate, and stuff for Halloween and Thanksgiving–the two holidays I will miss while I’m here.  I would win a Pulitzer if I was able to able to adequately express how grateful I feel.  I guess it makes sense that Joy would bring me so much joy.  (PS: Joy, check your mailbox in 6-8 days!)

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A Lesson in Warmth

It’s cold in Wellington.

Now, I know this shouldn’t come as a surprise to me; I mean, it is winter in New Zealand after all.  I thought I had packed well– I had your basic warm fleece, rainproof shell, plenty of long sleeve shirts.  I mean, I’m from northwest Wis-con-sin.  I know cold.

Nope.  I spent the first three days whimpering like a little wet pup.  You see, I had looked at the temperature on my iPhone when I was sitting in 87 degree heat in Chicago thinking, “Ah, 45 degrees isn’t bad.  Pssht.  That’s nothing!”   But there are two keys details I didn’t take into account:

  • New Zealanders care about the wind. I mean, to this Wisconsinite transplant to the “windy city” of Chicago, wind is wind is wind. Wellington, nicknamed “Windy Welly,” is exposed to all directions of winds because its location on the Cook Straight.  But as my new friend Ben described to me, here, the direction of the wind really matters.   For example, you don’t want the dreaded “Southerly” wind, as that wind is coming straight-at-cha from Antarctica (which really isn’t too far away if you look at a map).  *shudder.*  And it is this artic wind that first chilled my bones when I stepped foot in New Zealand.  In fact, after I dropped my luggage down in my new beautiful apartment, and I stepped out onto my balcony overlooking the sea to have a “behold! I have arrived!” moment, I was suddenly bombarded by a weird snow/hail/sleet mixture. I scrambled back inside as quickly as possible. Nice to meet you too Wellington!
  • New Zealanders don’t heat their houses. Now, I knew this technically before I moved here, but I didn’t know what it meant until I actually arrived. No heat basically means that after coming inside after being cold and chilled to the core by the wind, and you just want to go inside to your nice apartment and put your feet up and read–you can’t.  Because it’s just as cold in your apartment–if not colder–than it is outside.  So if you’re cold, you stay cold, and if you’re damp, you stay damp (and so mold is a big problem here, but a different issue altogether).  So even though it’s not nearly as cold as it is in Wisconsin, the main difference is being able to walk into a warm home or staying chilly while indoors.

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