We’re Still Looking for the Helpers


It seems that more and more frequently I have to have one of those conversations with the kids. The kind of conversations that become more and more difficult the older the kids get. It doesn’t help that the senseless shootings and victims of hate crimes affect kids who are close to my own kids’ ages, and sometimes, committed at the hands of those who are supposed to be protecting them.

These conversations are hard because for several years, we were part of the police family. We back the boys in blue, and enjoyed being connected to the fraternity of men and women who risk their lives daily. A lot of events have opened the door for conversations between the kids and my ex-husband, especially when they don’t understand if they should honor the police or be afraid of them.

Terrorism strikes in France. Terrorism strikes in Africa. And Terrorism strikes in Chicago.

I try to raise my kids with a sense of adventure and desire to explore the world, but it’s difficult when they have friends who live overseas and are living in a state of emergency and shelter in place at their home in Belgium.

Because of terrorist threats.

So now the terrorism is close to our hearts. Really close. And we have to have a conversation about it again. One that will begin with a prayer for our friends, the police, and the friends and family members of anyone in danger. And my hometown, Chicago…

So I ask them to pray without ceasing. But honestly I don’t what else I should say.

And the most recent conversation brought me back to a blog post I wrote a couple of years ago after tragedy occurred in our country. Keep reading.


Look for the helpers.

The popular quote from Mr. Rogers still rings loud and true. But after the news events of this week, I can’t help but wonder why we have to keep saying it. Monday’s events at the Boston Marathon and Wednesday’s events in West, TX have put a downer on news watching. It is sad, but to me, what it sadder is the conversation that I had to have with the Three Amigos.

It was a conversation that I wasn’t quite ready for.

Me: “I know said this two days ago, but I need to tell you again. When tragedy strikes and you are in a situation and I am not there, look for the helpers. The police, the firefighters, anyone who can help you.”

Jada: “What about the EPA? I would think they would be helpful in times like these. Especially since you said the explosion in West, TX was caused by a plant. Was it as big as a tree…or small like grass?”

Me: Pausing and being thankful for childhood naivete. “A synonym for a factory is sometimes called a plant, so it was a factory, not a plant like you were thinking about.”

CJ: “Jada, it’s kind of like a Nuclear Power Plant. You know about those right?”

Jada: Rolls eyes.

Tyra: “That plant had fertilizer in it, not weapons. Fertilizer is a compound of minerals and poop that help the soil.”

Jada: “I’m glad you told me about it. I was confused.”

CJ: “Do you want to learn about the Nuclear Plants too? I can tell you about those.”

Me: “Not now. I just want to talk about the helpers. Can we talk about the helpers?”

We arrive at school #1 and Jada says her goodbyes. I’m now alone with the middle schoolers.

Tyra: “Momma, I didn’t want to say this while the Little One was in the car, but I know what happened.”

Me: Thinking to myself, what little one? You are all one year apart. “What do you think happened?”

Tyra: “Terrorists.”

Me: Silently wishing the moment of naivete would come back. “Really?”

Tyra: “Yes. The terrorists did horrible things in Boston and they snuck into that plant in West, Texas. They thought we wouldn’t make the connection, but I did.”

Me: “Tyra, you are using skills to deduce things. That’s good. I’m interested in seeing what’s on the news tonight about the causes. Let’s talk more about it then.”

CJ: “Tyra, you are not the only person who makes connections. The CIA and FBI are already checking this out. I’m telling you this is about nuclear weapons.”

Me: “We will find out more as the day unfolds. You guys have a good day.”

CJ: “I’ll research the nuclear connection, ok?”

Me: Grateful for the desire to research, but still wanting the naivete to return.


And still today,  even though I’m at a loss for words, in addition to praying,  I find myself saying, “Always look for the helpers.”

Fall Family Road Trips: People Over Things

Family Togetherness This Fall With Road Trips

This year my motto has been People Over Things. I’ve wanted to connect with the people I love in new and different ways because frankly, life is just too short.  While the response to my proclamation of love and joy has sometimes caught  friends and family slightly off-guard, it has been well-received.

Even by my children. Even by the mood changes that are guided by the hormones of a 12, 14, and 15-year-old.

Two weeks ago, we set out on the open road (also known as I-20), and headed to Mississippi to spend time with family and friends. The Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) is big in our family, and although I didn’t go to a SWAC school, I do support their teams. And if you didn’t know, there is absolutely nothing in the world that can compare to an HBCU homecoming. Nothing. At. All.

Especially when you do it with family.

This particular homecoming was my cousin’s last year of eligibility to play for the Jackson State University Tigers. When he graduated from high school, I promised myself I would support him throughout his collegiate football career. As it sometimes does, life happened, and I wasn’t able to see him play most of his time in college. I was, however,  determined to see him play this year. In case you don’t know this already, I think my cousins hung the moon — all of them — but we can talk about that on another day.

People Over Things.

As a single mom, road trips have been our preferred method of travel. In 2008 we sought the open road over the course of a summer to help us heal and process the changes that were occurring in our family due to divorce. That 6-week adventure has led the way for smaller trips that allow us the chance to get away, think, talk, and explore. Because the kids alternate between sitting in the front and serving as my navigator with sleeping, I’m able to use driving time to listen to what’s on their hearts and minds. Somehow, the highway opens the door to honesty, trust. and communication.

Am I saying that I only get to talk to my children when we’re traveling? Of course not. What I am saying is that being away from their everyday surrounding sometimes will take them out of the judgement zone that we have all created with rules, schedules, and expectations. Usually after a road trip, I discover that I like them as people, and as the growing adolescents they are.

And it gives us the chance to think, breathe, talk, and listen. Four critical components of People Over Things.

So if spending needed quality time with my children wasn’t enough, we also spent quality time with as many cousins as possible. Because well, they really did hang the moon.

People Over Things, especially when it comes to family.

People Over Things, especially when it comes to family.

Not to soon after our adventure began, I was thrust back into the reality of traveling with three kids. Even if they are older than before. While driving though, I did make a mental note of valuable tips for any family road-tripping with older kids to share.

  1. Working technology is critical to the success of the trip, both in the car and in the hotel. Make sure everyone has their own charger for their device(s). Charger-sharing arguments are the worst to mediate. The worst.
  2. Develop a loose itinerary that includes a mixture of fast food and restaurant options. Vegetables are a must, even on vacation, so fast food can’t be the only place you eat. Tip: Stay at a hotel that offers free continental breakfast or has an option where kids of a certain age eat free. (Several hotels in the IHG chain offer free breakfast, and children under 12 eat free in the full-service restaurant at all Holiday Inns.)
  3. And yes, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. If you are traveling, or sightseeing, or visiting relatives, breakfast sustains your necessary energy levels. A buffet or wide variety is probably best with older kids. Sometimes they are absolutely sure they know what they want, and other days they will ask for your guidance. Since those days are unpredictable, have options.
  4. Free hotel Wifi is a must. At the end of the day, all four of us used devices to share photos, plan activities for the next day, wind down. Spotty wifi will not work. The best and most consistent wifi I’ve discovered throughout my travels have been at IHG properties.
  5. Shopping plus adolescents equals a win. If there’s outlet shopping, that’s even better. My kids had money left over from birthday gifts and truly enjoyed the opportunity to shop on a weekday without large weekend crowds.
  6. Consider the IHG family. IHG has met our needs as a family for the past five years. The rooms are spacious, the beds are comfy, and the food is great. They even have a rewards program that gives you quicker access to benefits and free stay that other hotel companies. This fall, IHG is offering a Bright Nights, City Lights deal across the country with room rates as low as $63/ night.

And as I said to a friend last week, “Jackson, Mississippi does not owe me a thing!”

Does your family take road trips? What do you enjoy most about them?

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Review of the book Fervent by Priscilla Shirer


Be Kind. Always.

bekindalwaysI recently saw a photo floating around Facebook that has the quote “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be Kind. Always.”

I have no idea who coined that phrase or where the meme on social media even came from. But it’s true.

Very true.

I think about my life as an educator,  and I know we have used phrases like that for many years. My most commonly used phrase through the years has been, “meet them where they are.”

This phrase though, meant the most and entered my life at a time when one of my kids was fighting a battle self-worth and depression. And I knew nothing about it. 

You see, tweens and teens have all kinds of drama. Some drama they share, some drama they don’t share, and other drama they will share later — when it’s no longer drama. In my almost-15 years of parenting, I’ve noticed something this summer. They are fighting battles daily that I will know nothing about. It can be about friends, or the lack of friends. It can be about pain that their friends are going through. They can be hurting for a teacher, or the dog, or themselves.

The land of the tween and teen can be filled with disappointment, and broken hearts, and celebrities, and books, and just life stuff that just make our little people have very real feelings of hurt, distrust, anger, and sadness. And many times, they may not tell us.

I don’t know about you, but that, in and of itself, was enough to make this momma cry. One of my pride and joys in parenting is that my children and I communicate. A lot. They know I’m here to listen, to offer sound advice, and I never get too emotional, no matter how shocking. They have been known to wake me up in the middle of the night just to have a “private” conversation that they do not what their siblings to partake in.

But no matter what, there are some things they just don’t want to tell me.

And when I think about my own teen years, and adult years nonetheless, I can understand it. There are some things I don’t tell my parents either.

Is there any way to get them to talk about everything?

Probably not. But as parents, we open the doors of communications and leave them open. Even at 1:00 am. Which can be painful for a sleep-deprived momma, but necessary. We watch for signs of depression, sudden changes in appetite or eating habits, general attitude and demeanor, and be willing to involve professionals if something is not right. We trust that the relationships our children have with their siblings, cousins, and friends are strong enough to not involve parents at every twist and turn, but still offer a gentle ear with sound advice.

And we teach our children that everyone they meet, even those they live with, could be fighting a battle they know nothing about. Be kind. Always.

Cancer Remembered: Breaking the News

This post is part of a month-long series on my cancer experience of 2013. They originally appeared on my blog at http://www.caringbridge.org.

One of the cancer blogs I read regularly is written by a woman with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. She writes a lot about communication — especially on the things someone should and should not say to a person who has been diagnosed with cancer.

Today, I am going to share with you the things I’ve learned that I should say and not say when breaking the news about cancer. Unfortunately, you will probably have to break the news regarding a medical condition to someone in your life (that’s just the way life works), so I am here to help you through the process.
When I was first diagnosed in January, I felt the best way to inform people was to say it matter-of-factly; almost blurting it out. One moment, I would talking about the spring registration schedule, and the next minute I’d say, “I have cancer.” Once I said it, I would scramble to come up with words regarding the good prognosis, the fact that it’s a “good” cancer, anything.Then the conversation would usually end with the listener in tears and me feeling insensitive. “Why is she crying? I’m the one with the cancer.”
But it was my approach. And now, I’ve found myself breaking the news more and more since I returned to work from the non-surgery. (Yes, I’m still a little salty…the date.) I’ve found that a lot of people knew I was out, but some just thought it was coincidence, or I was at a meeting at another campus, etc. And with that comes a wave of me breaking the news all over.
So here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Start talking about the affected area. “Toni I haven’t seen you in a while, how have you been?” “You know, I’ve been off because my thyroid has been acting crazy and giving me a lot a problems.”
This is good because it sets the stage. The listener can decide if they can handle more specific news, or if they are done. Let’s continue, shall we?
“Really, Toni? What’s it doing?” “Well, it bounces back from hyperactive to hypoactive and I have a goiter. It appears that the goiter has an underlying malignancy, which means I have thyroid cancer.”
2. Give them a moment to respond in the way they are comfortable.I usually end up saying something like, “See I told you it was crazy.”
 Now…telling someone you have cancer is 10 percent about you, but 90 percent about them. They will instantly remember their uncle, or cousin or friend who has had the disease and no matter what your prognosis is, their mind will travel.
3. Relate the news to a celebrity. I am very thankful that Brooke Burke-Charvet announced her thyroid cancer when she did. I actually told her this on twitter yesterday. (You know how I feel about pop culture and social media.)
Once I announce my condition, I follow up with, “Did you see the lady from Dancing With the Stars on television? You know she just had thyroid cancer too?”
This helps because our society loves celebrities, and we tend to think they are invincible. But in reality, they get cancer too.
4. Tell them how you will keep them informed. Once people get over the initial shock, they need to know how they will keep up with your progress. Tell them they’ll see you until surgery in June, they can read your blog, whatever. Make sure they know how they can stay updated.
5. Before treatment starts, let them see you “live” with the disease.Some days, I wish I could say,  “I have cancer” so I’m staying in bed all day. But I can’t. There’s middle school drama, teen whispering, and college students who need my fashion advice. Continuing to “live” is just as important for me as it for everyone around me.
*Note: The fashion advice comment was a joke. Well, kind of.


Teachable Moments and Finding Peace

Yesterday one of the older two kids’ favorite teacher announced she was leaving our school and going to another school district. She sent the email to all of the families that she taught. It was a nice email. I was touched. I even replied to the teacher wishing luck and thanking her for the impact she had on our family.

Unfortunately, not all the parents felt the way I did. Well one in particular replied to all and said some pretty negative things.

And this my friends is a teachable moment for the tweens. Yep. So I practiced my whole speech on the way home from work. We needed to talk about the “reply to all” feature of email communication. We needed to talk about using proper grammar in email. We needed to talk about how you respond when you know there was no ill-intent on the part of the original email sender.

So we started talking. And I though they got it. One of them said, “So what you’re saying is, people sound really crazy when they talk ghetto over email and we shouldn’t do that?” Ummm. Ok. Even though I despise the use of the term ghetto the way she said it,  I made a choice to stay focused on the email and address “ghetto talk” later.

A ghetto is a place, not a dialogue.

Sorry, I digressed. Until overnight there were more emails slandering the teacher, the school, the District. And then finally at 3:00 a.m. the last email said, “I’m at peace with it all.”

Are you really at peace if you had to send an email at 3:00 a.m. announcing it?

Probably not. So today’s teachable moment will be about truly finding peace when you need to get over something. Somehow I think this lesson will take longer than a day. Any thoughts?