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Monthly Archives: February 2014

Decision Time

images-1It’s that wonderful time of the year when college acceptance letters begin arriving in anxious families’ mailboxes. I know this because I see the Facebook posts: “Another Aggie in the house!” and “YAY! Susie got a full ride to Harvard!” (Not really, I made that one up.) It doesn’t seem that long ago that my youngest began hearing from colleges, although she’s on the downhill side of her first year at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. I recall what a happy/nerve-wracking time the spring of a child’s senior year can be; dashing to the mailbox to see if any large envelopes have been delivered. Good news is always delivered in large envelopes, usually emblazoned with, “You’re In!” Or “Congratulations! Or even, “This is The Big Envelope!” Bad news comes in standard size envelopes with the student’s name typed officially in black, containing a single sheet of paper with a paragraph stating, essentially, “We are sorry to inform you that our institution has rejected you because our admission officers don’t feel that you would make it on our campus,” and then they blame it on the extraordinary number of applications they received that fall.  Last year, my daughter, Anne, received a letter from a California institution of higher learning that began, “Dear Juan, we are still considering your application,” and then she never heard another thing from them. After that, we began calling her “Juanita.”

For some students, deciding where to attend college can be difficult. I’ve heard this is true for girls, more so than for boys. My friends who have sons tell me that boys decide at the last minute without much agonizing. Or, if they are agonizing on the inside, they don’t reveal it to their mothers. They just announce their decision and proceed to their chosen school. I had a very different experience with each of my daughters. The oldest felt compelled to visit quite a few college campuses beginning in her junior year of high school. (Or maybe it was I who forced these visits upon her; I can’t recall.) Together we toured several college campuses across Texas and the South. (I am not counting Harvard, which we visited for fun when our family spent a week vacationing in the Boston area one summer. All I remember about it is that a cute, young female student led us on our tour, while wearing a light summery skirt through which her black thong was clearly visible.) Our eldest chose the very first school she’d visited, TCU in Fort Worth, and it was a perfect fit for her, with its exciting Horned Frog football team, solid Psychology department, (her chosen field,) great mentors, and dear friends. My second daughter proclaimed NYU her number one choice during her first two years of high school, and she received quite a few pieces of mail from them. During her junior year, she changed her mind and decided that a little school 60 miles up the road from us, UT, would be the perfect fit for her. She did not feel the need to tour any schools, but reluctantly agreed to sit through “Junior Day” at my alma mater, Southwestern, and, with her sister’s encouragement, she attended TCU’s “Senior Visit Day” with a friend. Driving home, staring straight ahead, she simply stated, “I still want to go to UT.” So, I took her to Austin for an official visit to the university, which scared me to death. Although we’d been to many football games there, I had a hard time picturing my 18 year old attending classes and living on that giant campus amongst all those throngs of people. As we drove home from that visit, my voice quivered as I asked, “Well, what’d you think?”  “I love it! It’s the only school I want to attend,” she excitedly proclaimed. She was somehow lacking the fear and trepidation that I was experiencing. Sure enough, she applied to just one school, UT, and was accepted. It, too, proved a great fit for her with its somewhat exciting football team, fabulous Communications department, fine mentors and good friends. Then, it was down to one. Our youngest visited a few schools and applied to several she’d never visited, including University of the South. Months went by, more college visits were made, and she finally announced her decision to attend Sewanee. (I’ve written about that experience in a prior blog, “Sewanee, Here We Come.”) This, too, has been a good decision. The small campus on top of a mountain overlooking the Cumberland Plateau also has a football team, great academics, excellent mentors, close friends, as well as gorgeous scenery.

So, what advice can I share with other parents who are struggling with their children over such a large decision? The most I can say now is, “Don’t sweat it too much.” Yes, it’s important to spend time with your student thinking about your child’s strengths, interests, and potential field of study, and compare that to the offerings of various colleges, but haven’t you already done that during the application process? If so, most of the colleges that accepted your son or daughter would probably be a fine fit. After all, an admissions officer, supposedly trained to recognize these things, determined your child could succeed on their campus. Additionally, there’s much to be said for the student’s attitude about the college they decide upon. If he or she gave it some thought, made their own choice, received their parents’ approval, they will likely begin to “own” their decision and show more and more enthusiasm for their chosen bastion of higher learning. It’s been my experience that both the child and the university will do everything in their power to make it work. Now, I realize that sometimes it doesn’t, and there are instances when something about the experience isn’t right. In that case, try to give it at least one year then realize there’s no sin in transferring. I’ve known several students who have transferred colleges after a year or two and, usually, they have a happy experience the second time around. Nothing is set in stone.

Finally, good luck to all parents of graduating seniors. May you enjoy these last few months of your child’s residence at home, but not so much that you don’t breathe a sigh of relief when they take off for college!

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Double Nickels

c40c3f038d32d347f576dccc34c1f580There are times when it hits me; I AM FIVE AND A HALF DECADES OLD. Tuesday, I went to the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo and learned it was “Senior Day,” which meant those of us 55 and older were allowed to enter for free. What? No thank you; I will gladly pay full price rather than accept your condescending offer. Most of the time, I feel like I’m about 25, except when I’m trying to participate in an exercise class called “Booty Blast.”  However, the other day my husband and I were trying to remember what life was like before we had instant access to the internet to settle trivia disputes that arise during dinner. Then we tried to recall what we did before cell phones, and he mentioned that his grandmother had a party line. We laughed out loud at how old we sounded, and wondered if our kids would even know what a party line was. It got me thinking about how life has changed since I was a kid.  So, I’ve decided to use this opportunity  to write a letter to my children about what life was like back in the day.

Dear Kids,

When your dad and I were your age, things were very different. For instance, phones were not something we thought about very much. We could not walk around with phones and talk, as they were attached to cords that plugged into a wall, usually located in the center of the home, so everyone in the family could listen in. Your dad remembers visiting his grandmother when he was little. She was on a “party line,” which meant that she shared the same phone line with several neighbors. She knew to pick up when she heard her special ring, two shorts and a long. Growing up, we certainly could not use our phones in the car, although I think LBJ had a special one that worked in his Lincoln Continental. This meant that we had to stay pretty close to home at times, especially when we were hoping to hear from a special someone, say, before a big dance like Homecoming or Prom. And, when we called our friends, we had to speak cordially to whomever answered the phone, usually, the parent of said friend. Oh! And dates came to the front door and rang the doorbell; no texting “I’m here” from the driveway. When I turned 16, my parents gave me a very special gift – my own phone with an outlet in my bedroom. Finally, I could talk to my friends in private; the only risk was that my parents or a sibling would pick up another phone and listen in. Or, my mother would pick up the receiver in the kitchen and immediately start dialing, while I shouted, “MOM! I’M ON THE PHONE.” When your dad and I bought our current house, we knew it was special because there were 16 phone outlets spaced throughout. Wow! That was luxury.

The way we listened to music was different, too. Growing up, we played records on the stereo located in the living room. An artist would release only a single or two and, if we liked it and could afford it, we bought the album on blind faith. There was no way to preview it before purchasing. Eventually, portable record players came on the market, and, one summer I sat with one on my lap, spinning tunes like a 15 year old d.j., all the way to Red River, New Mexico. After that, came the invention of 8-track tape players that were definitely more travel-friendly, and gave us the opportunity to listen to music in any room of the house. I had a bright yellow one that was shaped like a detonator – I pumped down on the top of it to change tracks, so it looked like I was going to set off a bomb. I loved that thing. For awhile, radios came in AM frequency only. Luckily,  I was able to get a top 40 station out of San Antonio although I lived 80 miles away in Cuero. Television channels were limited to four: NBC, ABC, CBS and PBS, and all shows were broadcast in black and white until I turned about 6, I think. Even then, colored sets were considered a luxury. It was a magical thing to go to our neighbors’ and watch “The Wizard of Oz” on their colored t.v. set. There were other differences in the way we lived at home; refrigerators didn’t have ice makers, we had ice cube trays with which to manually create ice. There were no built-in water dispensers either. After removing the ice cubes from the tray and placing it in our glasses, we proceeded to the sink, turned on the faucet, and filled our glasses with water. What was so hard about that? Microwaves? Unheard of; we ate a sandwich with a glass of milk if we got hungry between meals. And, popcorn was popped on top of the stove.

Luckily, I didn’t suffer too long before cars came with air conditioning. Before that, we had to roll the windows up and down with a handle. We also had to manually lock our doors by pushing the locks down, and, although there were seat belts, no one wore them. No one traveled as much as people do now. Flying was considered a luxury so our vacations were always within driving distance of our home. And “study abroad” programs were unheard of. Or, at least, I never heard of them. When we did go on vacation, we used film cameras to record special memories. Upon our return, we would take the film to the drug store and wait a day or two for our pictures to be developed. Then, we carefully placed them in photo albums in order to preserve the photos for all time. Usually, they were viewed only by family members, and perhaps a few close friends, if they happened to ask.

So, as you can see, you are the beneficiaries of many technological developments. Be thankful for your blessings and that you weren’t  born in the ’50’s.

Love, Mom

Well, this has been fun. I now feel like a dinosaur.

Pressure Cooker

PBS has a documentary series called POV, meaning Point of View. Last week’s POV was “American Promise,” a film that followed two young, promising black boys in New York City over thirteen years, while they attended one of the most exclusive private schools in the country. Their parents filmed them for 13 years, from kindergarten through high school graduation, and ask if it was worth it. After watching it, all I could think  was, “Good question. Was it?”  Then, I walked away with a sick feeling in my gut, recalling my girls’ 13 years of school.

The point of the documentary, as stated by PBS was, “Chronicling the boys’ divergent paths from kindergarten through high school graduation, this provocative, intimate documentary presents complicated truths about America’s struggle to come of age on issues of race, class and opportunity.” In other words, its mission was to show how difficult it is for minority students to excel in the privileged setting of private school. But, after watching it, I thought it wasn’t so much about race and privilege as it was about pressure and the need of some parents for their children to excel.

In an early scene, Idris, one of the boys, probably nine years old, is shown after his team has lost a basketball game. He’s clearly distraught, crying, while his mom walks him to the car. His father, a psychiatrist, is waiting for him in the parked car. He tells his son that his team played horribly and “sucked,” while his wife repeatedly asks if they really need to talk about that now. The poor little boy slinks into the back seat, buckles up and looks at the floorboard while his father berates him. Forward to sophomore year of high school when the child makes the junior varsity team, and is crushed not to make varsity. Mom calls it “the summer of basketball,” then reminds her child that French and Math camps are coming up, while he covers his face with his hands and shrieks.

For those of us who didn’t change the channel, the next scene was of the parents doing homework with the kid, yelling, nagging, bribing, persuading, only to learn that the child left a crucial notebook at school. Mom yells, “We’ve worked for two weeks on this. How could you screw this up?” In the next scene, the boy is seen rushing out the door to school. Flashback to the printer freezing up, and he is unable to print the ten pages of notes he planned to study on the train on the way to school. Mother is yelling, while child walks down the steps to the bus, head hung, shoulders slumped.

In yet another scene, several sets of African-American parents confab around a kitchen table. Lots of wine is poured, and the parents bemoan the fact that they can’t motivate their kids to try harder. They all share stories about critical notebooks left at school, tests not studied for, etc, etc. Much more wine is consumed. Eventually, all admit feeling better, now that they know their child isn’t the only one struggling.

I finally had to walk away from the television due to the tension in my neck and back. This was not the story of minority parents of minority students facing unique struggles at an exclusive private school. This was the story of all of today’s children facing the pressures of trying to excel in high school and get accepted into college. It was about AP classes, exams, college applications, class rank, acceptance letters, rejection letters, peer pressure. More than that, it was about us, the parents of these poor students. Why must we adults, white, black, brown, yellow, spotted or striped, who presumably already attended college, feel the need to put such pressure on our children? Why do we feel the need to attend our child’s every sporting event, yelling, cajoling, pressuring, over-reacting? Why do we persist with the math and language tutors, checking on every night’s homework, reviewing papers, and, even completing our children’s college applications? Seriously. What personal needs are we trying to fill by ensuring that our child succeeds, or, better yet, excels?

The two boys profiled in the documentary took different paths. One transferred to public school while the other continued in the exclusive private school all the way to graduation. Both attended college. Neither got into the college of their choice. What was that all about? Was it worth it? I truly can’t say.
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“Idris Brewster was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. In 2012 he graduated from the Dalton School and began his freshman year at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He is an avid skateboarder and enjoys a game of basketball every now and then.” From PBS’ POV.
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“Oluwaseun (Seun) Summers was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, the eldest son of Tony and Stacey Summers. He graduated from Benjamin Banneker Academy in 2012 and began his freshman year at the State University of New York at Fredonia. He is a black belt in karate and enjoys drawing.” From PBS’ POV.

One Year Later

IMG_1036My mother, Rosemary Steele Sheppard, died a year ago last week after suffering from debilitating dementia for two-plus years. This terrible disease caused Mom to morph before my very eyes into someone unrecognizable. I saw things I wish I’d never seen, and never thought I’d forget. But, I’m glad to report that, now, when I think of Mom, I clearly see her younger, vibrant self in my mind’s eye, her bright, sparkling brown eyes, wavy brown hair and wrinkle-free face. Now, one year later, solace is not found at her gravesite. Rather, remembering little things about her, swapping pictures and videos of her with my sister and brother, keep my memory of my vibrant mother alive.

As much as I hate to say it, I’ve come to realize that food plays a major role in my memory of Mom’s life. Entertaining at home, cooking nightly meals for our family, and planning for same, took up a large amount of her daily life. Her go-to dish for company was beef stroganoff with a green salad or shrimp cocktail, while her home-cooked meals for the five of us were all about comfort: cheese manicotti, “gourmet goulash,” (a delicious concoction involving ground beef, ribbon pasta and cream of mushroom soup), and hot chicken salad with crushed potato chips on top. A few months before she died, she spent a weekend in the hospital, and hadn’t spoken much at all in previous weeks. She suddenly sat up in bed, looked at my sister and brother and asked, worriedly, “What am I going to do with all this shrimp? I need to get dinner started.” My brother, trying to console her, said, “Mom, please don’t worry about dinner. We’ll take care of it,” to which she replied, “You are not helping at all.” My sister told me later that she realized then how much of Mom’s life must have been spent planning meals and gatherings, for her subconscious mind to be focused on this quandary. When we were growing up, on typical Friday nights, Dad took over, using Julia Child’s recipe to make cheese soufflés. Mom watched patiently while Dad dirtied every bowl, sauce pan, and whisk in the kitchen, then left them for someone else to clean.  Mom loved visits to San Antonio, and all the city’s fabulous food options, including Earl Abel’s fried chicken, La Fonda’s cheese enchiladas, The Naples’ stuffed artichokes, and L’Etoile’s crab cakes and chocolate soufflés. Her beverage of choice was white wine with a single ice cube. In Mom’s opinion, there was never an unpleasant experience that couldn’t be made better with food. In high school, she frequently drove me to dermatology appointments in Victoria, then cheerfully suggested trips to Baskin Robbins for a pralines ‘n cream ice cream cone or a leche quemada candy and can of Diet Coke from The Monterey House.  I’ll never forget how my Uncle Dick’s annual Christmas offering to his little sister of a box of licorice, and Violet Talk’s fudge bunnies at Easter, delighted her. A package of red Twizzlers delighted her right up to the end.

Enough about food. Let’s talk about everyday life in a small town. Mom was the epitome of a happy housewife. She did most of the cleaning, all of the laundry and ironing, attended PTC meetings at our small Catholic school, organized a church cookbook, and volunteered as a Pink Lady at the hospital. She supported our father completely, and had a very happy marriage. She desperately wanted that for her children, and she could not understood why my sister and I wanted to go to law school or work outside the home, but she was supportive of our choices. She delighted in our successes and fumed at perceived injustices handed us by a teacher or friend. When I was worried about anything, from an 8th grade volleyball tournament to the bar exam, she always reassured, saying, “You’ll be fine, honey. I’ll pray you through it!”

She rarely sat still, so it was a treat being in the room with her when she finally put her feet up and watched one of her favorite t.v. shows, laughing hilariously at The Carol Burnett Show, All in the Family and Mash. She even enjoyed the occasional Sunday afternoon Dallas Cowboys game, lovingly shouting, “Roger Dodger, you old codger!” (I think her love of Roger Staubach was due to his Catholicism, rather than to his able football skills.)

Mom and Dad had ten grandchildren, and we witnessed her utter joy at the births of all of them, her graceful hands reaching out to hold them. After my first baby was born, my mother spent two weeks with me in San Antonio, and the thing I remember most was our laughter. We took the baby to the mall just a few days after her birth. As I tried to juggle baby, bottle, and shopping bags, the bottle fell to the floor, taking several hard bounces across the dirty floor, landing underneath a bench several feet away. We belly-laughed until we cried at the ridiculousness of the situation. What were we thinking trying to shop with a newborn? I cried real tears when she drove away a few days later.

Mom spent the last two decades of her life spoiling her grandchildren, attending their school programs and plays, and showering them with unconditional love. She let them sit on her kitchen floor, and play drums with multiple empty Cool Whip containers. She showered them with gifts of coloring books, stickers, and t-shirts painted with wildflowers. She did something magical with cinnamon toast that is still memorable to all ten of them.

I miss her, of course, but I delight in the happy memories she gave me for over 50 years, and am happy she is no longer suffering. As we celebrate family milestones like graduations and weddings, rather than feel sad, I like to think that she is smiling, watching from heaven, knowing that we are all thinking about her, remembering her, and sharing a funny story about something she did or said, trying hard to keep her memory alive for many more years. My fervent hope is that the memory of her won’t fade anytime soon.