Teacher Appreciation

If you were to ask me who the most influential people in my life have been, outside of family, I wouldn’t even have to think about it before I started listing names. Ms. Halpin. Sister Pauline. Mrs. Schlotmann. Ms. Dickman. Mrs. Spencer. Mrs. Timmerding. Mr. Roflow. Mrs. Lewis. Mr. Webb. Sister Francine.

That’s just a small sampling, and I’m sure a lot have you have already guessed what these people had in common: they are, or were, teachers. And the names I listed only go through high school. The list could go on for quite a while. All of these people had a profound effect on the person I grew up to be. And this is just a small sample of the ones I liked. There’s a whole separate list of teachers who had a profound impact that I only fully appreciated years later because at the time I was so focused on how tough they were and how hard they made me work. It was only with distance and perspective that I was able to see how much I learned from them (and that not all of it had to do with the subject being taught). Of course, this is not to say that every teacher I had was good; there were definitely a few bad apples in the bunch. But I was, overall, extremely lucky to have been taught by passionate, gifted teachers who genuinely cared about their students. I’ve even run into a few who still remembered me by name, as many as 15 years after they’d last seen me.

I could tell stories about each of them, and the different ways they engaged me in learning and cheered me on and supported me: how Ms. Halpin encouraged my love of reading and writing, Ms. Dickman’s compassionate support when my grandfather was dying during my junior year of high school, Mrs. Timmerding’s “you go, girl!” answering machine message, left after I’d had a letter to the editor published in the local newspaper, and the way Mr. Webb (who moonlighted, if I recall correctly, as a stand-up comedian) made chemistry the most fun class of the day despite how I struggled to even get C’s in the subject.

But one of the teachers on that list stands out, partly because of her memorable personality, but also because I was well into my thirties before I truly understood what she was trying to teach.

I had Sister Pauline for math and spelling in fifth and sixth grade. At the age of 10, I was already taller than her, but her short stature did not make her any less intimidating. She was four feet eight inches of fiercely opinionated iron will. The first time I ever failed a test was in her math class, in fifth grade – a devastating turn of events for an overachiever like me. But despite my struggles with math, Sister Pauline never gave up on me, and by god, I learned. But that wasn’t even what made her so influential.

Sister Pauline was a staunch feminist who led our Catholic school classes in praying the Our Mother instead of the Our Father, and she was vocally and passionately pro-choice. Something that, looking back, I’m kind of surprised she got away with in our highly conservative community and diocese. Given that probably 95% of my classmates’ parents were solidly Republican, and many were probably actively involved in the Right to Life movement, I can’t believe there weren’t complaints to the principal, if not to the bishop. But, then, like I said, Sister Pauline was surprisingly imposing for someone so small. Perhaps the parents and the principal and the bishop were all intimidated by her, too.

Every so often, when we went in to math class, Sister Pauline would be standing in front of the room with a hard scowl on her face, her lips pressed together in a thin line, and we would know immediately that we weren’t going to be learning any math that day. Instead, she would lead the class into a spirited debate on abortion, or capital punishment, or allowing women to be priests, or any other variety of controversial subjects.

I loved those days. I would have loved them on the basis of getting out of math class alone, but it was also on those days that I learned to love intellectual debate, persuasive argument. I was already a minority among my peers, in that I was being raised by liberal Democrats among a sea of conservative Republicans. I was already pro-choice and pro-women and anti-death penalty. I was one of the few who actually agreed with Sister Pauline from the start, and I learned a lot during those debates about how to defend my arguments and counter others’ arguments. I don’t know if she convinced anyone else in her classes that abortion needs to be legal, or that women should be priests, or that God is actually a woman.

But it didn’t occur to me until literal decades later that convincing us was never the point.

The point was to teach us to think. To teach us not to accept what we were told at face value, but instead to view everything critically, and examine the evidence from all sides, and to question everything: authority, rules and laws and traditions, and even our own perceptions and assumptions.

And here’s the miraculous thing: I learned to do all of that from her. Years before I even realized that that’s what she taught me. I was guided and coached by other teachers in further honing my critical thinking skills, but without a doubt, Sister Pauline planted one of the earliest seeds of one of the most crucial skills I would need in life. Sure, she taught me long division and fractions, too, but guess which of those skills has served me best in my life.

Of course, it’s not something that could be easily captured on a standardized test.

In the age of No Child Left Behind and Common Core and school ratings and funding being tied to test scores, it’s easy to lose sight of all the myriad ways that teachers impact the lives of their students that cannot be quantitatively measured. But they’re equally as important, if not sometimes more important.

Who are the teachers who taught you more than you realized at the time?


I envy those who still can believe, sometimes

Like I did so long ago,

When the world was vast and its mysteries wondrous

Jesus loved me, this I knew, and Santa

Left gifts under the tree every year.

Decades later the world is smaller with

Fewer mysteries unexplained – not all of them

Answered kindly.

And I am no Job, asking why

You have forsaken me

When I was left broken and bloodied, my pleas

For mercy

Met with silence.

A girl can only take so much rejection, you know.

At least Santa usually brought me what I wanted

The Ghost of Lucy, Who May Never Be

Most days, I don’t think about it anymore.

In fact, I didn’t intend to write about it here at all, ever. I meant to leave it in the past, and focus on the present and future.

But some days, for whatever reason, it grabs hold of me and won’t let go. On these days, it sits in my stomach like a lump of lead, and tightens my chest so it’s hard to breathe, and clouds my vision with tears, and I have to actively work to unclench my muscles. It’s half grief over opportunites lost and half panic that they may never come again.

I do the math on those days. Days like today.

Lucy would have turned 5 this year if she had ever been more than just a dream.

Of course, even if I had been able to follow that path, if my world hadn’t come crashing down around me before I even had a chance to try, I had no way of knowing whether I would have conceived a boy or a girl. Or even if I would have conceived at all. But it was always a little girl I saw when I imagined it, back when the path seemed so clear and I felt so sure it would work out. It’s possible that, now, that’s what hurts the most: how sure I was. It’s definitely why I have felt ever since, on some level, like the way things actually happened was some kind of punishment, either for my hubris and sanguinity that what I wanted would happen, or for some crime I don’t remember committing.

It’s a little odd to me, still, that I pictured a girl back then, because before that summer, I had always been sure for some reason that my first child would be a boy, and, for that matter, sure of the idea that I would have a first child. But once I made the decision to try to get pregnant, Lucy was all I could see.

Lucy had my blue eyes, in my mind, and hair a few shades lighter brown than mine. She had curls, but they were loose baby curls, sure to fall out and start growing in straight after her first haircut. I saw us dancing in my living room, heard her giggling as we spun around and I sang along to the music to her. I felt her in my lap; the weight of her head against my shoulder as we read stories together on the couch. I saw us at the park together on sunny days, heard her delighted squeals as I pushed her in the swing.

I’ve done these things with my nieces, but it’s not the same.

The darkest part of these days is that I actually envy those who have miscarried, just a little bit. I don’t mean to be disrespectful to people who have gone through that loss. It’s not because it’s a loss I ever want to experience, obviously – in fact, it’s one of my greatest fears that if I ever do get pregnant, I won’t be able to carry it to term – but because they have something tangible to mourn. Their children existed. They were real.

All I have is the ghost of a dream that never was and might never be. It is formless and vast. Despair in limbo.

The dream’s name was Lucy, and she would have turned 5 this year.

Coming of Age Over the Course of Three Movies

(Spoilers for the Before Sunrise trilogy throughout. Also, spoilers about Santa.)

When I was 7 or 8, I started, on occasion, asking my parents if Santa was real. Or the Easter Bunny. Or the Tooth Fairy. Both of my parents, without exception, always answered with a question of their own: “Do you really want to know?” And I would hesitate a moment, and then, without exception, I would always reply: “No.”

Looking back now, I can’t really remember what was going through my mind when I would ask the question, and then refuse the answer. My parents’ motivations, for some reason, are a little clearer to me. I can easily imagine what was going through their minds – they wanted, if possible, to preserve my innocence a little longer. That return question, having worked once to delay the inevitable, became the standard response. If I had ever once answered that yes, I did really want to know, I have no doubt that they would have answered honestly. I can actually imagine, with perfect clarity, how those conversations would have gone – their sympathetic eyes and gentle, chagrined voices telling me that they were the ones who really put the presents under the tree (or the dollar under my pillow, or the hard boiled eggs in random hiding places around the house), but it was the spirit of it that mattered. My mom would probably have cried a little. My dad, in the right mood, might have even teared up.

Surely, though, I must have realized on some level that if Santa were actually real, they would have just said yes. And in fact I wouldn’t have asked at all if I hadn’t already realized that the logic didn’t wash. That magic couldn’t explain everything.

But I still wasn’t ready to let the magic go. And so I said no, I didn’t really want to know, until one day at school when I was 9 years old, several of my classmates had a matter-of-fact, grown-up discussion about when they used believe in Santa, and I knew it was time to face the reality I’d already known deep down for some time. I told my mom when I got home that afternoon that I knew “the truth about Santa” (as if it were an after-school special or something). She did choke up a bit, and so did I. I couldn’t have put it into words that day, but I knew I was leaving something behind; something I could never get back.

The past few years of my life, I think, have been the adult version of that loss, best summarized by a trilogy of movies that spanned over a couple decades.

Before Sunrise came out when I was still in high school. I knew I wanted to see it based solely on the adorableness of Ethan Hawke in the trailers. My best friend and I, at the time, had a weekend habit of going to the local Blockbuster on Friday or Saturday evenings and then stocking up on candy and soda at the Walgreens next door before holing up in one of our houses to watch the movie we’d picked, and that was how I was first introduced to Jesse and Celine.

I was immediately caught up in the magic of it. I fell in love with these characters, with Vienna, with the promise held in that movie. It was a fairytale for a teenage girl who scoffed at Cinderella’s inherent sexism but still wanted to believe in happily ever after – the same way I’d still wanted to believe in Santa ten years earlier. Despite the obvious handicap of not being French, I wanted to be Celine – a worldly, confident woman who was unafraid to voice her opinions and show her intelligence, even at the risk of putting off men who might be threatened by her strength and intellect (still admirable in my book), but also willing to be vulnerable about her desire for love.

And as for Jesse? He became (undeniably to my detriment) the embodiment of my ideal man – a scruffy, adorable, unironically pretentious Salinger wannabe. I was completely taken in by his boyish charm and reflective, if at times pseudo-intellectual, musings on life. He was my idea of perfection, and no actual man I ever met measured up to the magic of Jesse.

It took me literal decades to learn that such a man did not exist in reality, because even the character did not actually exist as I perceived him.

That the movie ended ambiguously was not a problem for me – it simply allowed me to imagine the ending I wanted. Of course Celine and Jesse met up at the train station six months later. And then they got married and had babies and every night they had spirited, fascinating conversations about topics small and large for the rest of their happily-ever-after lives.

So imagine my resentment, then, in my 20s, when Before Sunset was released.

I actually watched the movie shortly before traveling to Vienna myself (my choice of destination inspired in no small part by Before Sunrise – the fact that I was riding the Prater and strolling through Viennese streets with my grandmother instead of my own version of Ethan Hawke was only a minor disappointment, compared to my love for the city).

It was not just finding out that Celine and Jesse had not met up at the train station that deflated me. There probably wouldn’t have been much of a movie if they had. Nor was it even that Jesse had married and had a child with someone else.

The real problem I had with the movie was how it cracked the surface of my image of Jesse. Here he was, married with a child, and blowing off his flight to have an affair. And my image of Celine, too – even putting aside any concern for the wife, what kind of feminist allows herself to be the woman on the side? Have some pride, woman!

Where Before Sunrise was a teenage fairytale for me, all about the promise of youth and love, Before Sunset brought in unwanted glimpses of the realities of adulthood. And I rejected it. I was still young enough to reject it. I hated that movie. To this day, I’ve never watched it again. Where the movie asked, “Do you really want to know?” I didn’t even have to hesitate before responding with a completely unambiguous “No.”

Then my 30s happened.

I am still in the midst of them, creeping inexorably closer to the end. I resisted turning 30 for a couple years, claiming to be 29 for the second or third time. Maybe there was some subconscious intuition of what havoc this decade was going to bring. Or maybe not. Regardless, it was only after I accepted my age for what it was that everything I’d spent my adulthood to that point building up crumbled into ruins around me.

I won’t go into details about it. I’ve hashed that all out already and have no desire to revisit it. Suffice it to say that when the destruction was complete and I was left with no choice but to try my best to pick up the pieces and reassemble what I could, the question of whether I really wanted to know was no longer relevant. I had no choice but to know.

No more fairytales for me.

But maybe just a glimpse of something better.

Because in the midst of rebuilding came the gift that was Before Midnight.

It was the only one of the three that I actually saw in the theater. I walked in with my popcorn (and, in a rare moment of symmetry, with the best friend who had watched Before Sunrise with me on the floor of my living room almost 20 years earlier) thinking that this installment would give me the magic back. I knew from the trailers that Jesse and Celine were still together, and had twin daughters. That, in my mind, was promising.

And the first part of the movie seemed live up to the promise: an idyllic family vacation in Greece, the child from a previous relationship leaving after an extended visit – not perfect, but workable – and witty, interesting conversation over a meal while beautiful children played happily in the yard in the background. Celine was as beautiful as she’d been in the first movie, and Jesse was aged and grizzled in a way that, unfairly, only made him more attractive.

But that wasn’t the gift.

No, the gift was when Jesse and Celine were sent off to a romantic hotel room alone, and the image of them didn’t just crack, it shattered into irreparable bits.

Through foreplay and conversations and arguments, in various states of dress, the history of Celine and Jesse’s relationship slowly comes out. And it isn’t pretty. Turns out, as Celine has suspected, Jesse had affairs on his book tour while she was stuck at home alone with their baby daughters. (Should she have been surprised? He had an affair with her while he was still married – and on a book tour, no less – after all.) Turns out, even though she loves her children, Celine sometimes resents being tied down to a family and would prefer to focus on her career. Turns out, they may not love each other anymore.

(How is this a gift, you wonder? I hear you. I’m getting there.)

The ending is, again, ambiguous, but hopeful. Celine actually says that their messy reality could never live up to their fantasies. Still, in what is, to me, Jesse’s shining moment of redemption, he persists in trying to reaffirm their relationship, insisting that when they’re old they’ll remember this night as one of the happiest of their lives. And she gives in, as do I, once again to his charm. But the lingering knowledge of reality is still hanging there, undeniable. There’s hope, there’s charm, and there’s love, and it’s messy and sometimes unrelentingly awful and far, far away from perfect.

And it’s enough.

I’m not going to lie, I still wish for the fairytale. I still watch Before Sunrise and want the alternate ending I imagined 20 years ago. I still feel a little sad that I fall asleep easily on Christmas Eve, not kept excitedly awake with feverish fantasies of what Santa might bring. I still feel a lot sad that my life has not followed the path I imagined it would back when I rewound the scene where Celine pulled Jesse’s hand over her head so his arm wrapped around her shoulders to watch that moment again and again. I try not to imagine my own alternate ending, because it hurts too much to think about what I lost.

But I know I will never get it back now.

And the gift of Jesse and Celine’s story is that reality under the facade of that first part of the movie. And the facade isn’t fake. It’s just as real as the rest of it – the Greek countryside, the beautiful children, the good food, the endless flow of conversation and laughter. It’s just that it’s not the whole story. Where there is hope in this is that neither is the ugliness under the facade the whole story.

I’ve learned that I can’t have one without the other. And that’s okay. I’d rather have the whole story, than none at all.

An Explanation of the Name

First off, a warm welcome to my mom and the 5 or 6 other Facebook friends who might read this!

Any of you who are not in my immediate family might be wondering about the title. You’ve probably deduced that I am Aunt Coco, and you might be wondering why I’m going by that name. Or maybe you’re not. It doesn’t really matter, though, because I’m going to explain it regardless of whether you want to know or not.

I have two nieces, ages 11 and 3. Aside from the fact that that’s the reason for the “Aunt” part of the title, it’s probably best to be up front about that, because I talk about them a lot. No, seriously. I mean, a lot. They are the smartest, sweetest, most beautiful girls in the entire world, and I am not biased in saying that at all.

When the 11-year-old was born, several members of my family picked non-traditional titles for her to call them. For example, my grandmother became GG (for great-grandma) and my grandfather, whom my siblings and cousin and I had always called Boppy, became G-Bop (for, you guessed it, great-Boppy). As my niece learned to talk, she developed some of her own nicknames for other members of the family, but I never got one. I was always just Aunt Natalie. Then one day, when she was about 3 or 4 years old, out of the blue, just because it struck her as funny, she called me Aunt Coco. Despite my wildly inconsistent encouragement, it never caught on as a permanent thing, but she will still sometimes refer to me as Aunt Coco and encourage her younger sister to do the same. So Aunt Coco I am to them, and Aunt Coco I will be to the world.

And as for the loco part? I’m pretty sure both of the girls would tell you it’s true, and I’m also pretty sure that you’ll have ample evidence to draw the same conclusion yourself if you continue to visit here whenever I sporadically decide to write something.

Enjoy, and thanks for stopping by!