Thursday, September 4, 2008

The last first day

Today was an interesting day. It was, theoretically, the last "first day of school" of my teaching career. Ten years ago, I had my first day in front of my own classroom. Scared absolutely right out of my mind, but confident because I had absolutely no idea what I didn't know.

Today I paid attention to myself. To the rapport I can establish in a few minutes time. The ease with which I joke with kids, welcome them, share information about myself and learn about them. Establish a learning environment. Teach them without them knowing that I'm teaching them. And it's hard....because I'm a very good teacher. I see it in myself now, where I spent years thinking I wasn't.'ll be interesting to see where the year takes me. As of now, it's my last. But, I'm not sure that anyone (maybe me included) truly believes that.

Monday, July 21, 2008

In the wilderness with my map

Sorry I've been absent for so long. Basically I've been suffering through summer classes, alternately loving and loathing biology, chemistry, math and health. I have rediscovered that I love to learn. I love the "click" when I go from total confusion to total understanding. And, I've discovered for the first time that I love science. Love it. I've spent my whole life avoiding science classes and now that I'm older, wiser, and more open to learning, I'm embracing the scientist within me.

Which brings up the question of my future. I have three classes left to take in order to do the prerequisite work for the U of M. I'm taking statistics this fall and then will need to fit in another chem class and another health class. Those two classes are going to be a problem, since neither is offered at a convenient time (read: after 3pm) in the foreseeable future. But, once I get all of those taken care of, I'm set to enter the mortuary science program.

Except these days I'm not so sure.

I've been working at the funeral home--have worked at four different funeral type events so far--and I'm definitely enjoying it. I'm finding that I have definite ideas on how I would run my own funeral home and can, sort of, envision what it would be. Keeping in mind, of course, that I know about 1% of what goes on in the "ownership" of a funeral home. But I feel like I'm wandering through the wilderness and I have a map and I know where I'm going, but I don't know if I grabbed the right map before I left. I don't know if where the map is leading me is where I want to be going.

I'm going to miss working with teenagers. And I'm going to miss teaching. Am I going to miss it enough to say "nope, I want to stay a teacher"? I'm not sure. I don't think so. But, teenagers...I'm not sure I can give them up. My alternative kids, particularly. So, do I make a clean break and completely switch careers? Or is there a way to combine my talent for communicating with teens and another job?

Plus...this year is going to be very hard. There are a lot of people I see every day who genuinely don't believe that I'm going to be done at the end of this school year. I would argue that more people are betting against me leaving than for me. When it all comes down to having to plan the next year without me, that's going to be hard. For everybody. Not that the school can't operate without me, of course, but I've been there nine years. That's a long time.

Basically I have a lot of questions, and every time I try to write about them or think about them, they grow. And I have chemistry to do.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Funeral for a friend

Yesterday was Craig Olson's funeral. Dr. O. I arrived at 8am, when only the funeral director and his assistants were there. I took comfort in this "business end", though I only watched. It's been important to me--to the point that it even decided what funeral home I'd work at--that Craig's funeral be personal, not business at any level. When other teachers who were helping and the musicians arrived, I walked to the pictures set up in the front of the gymnasium and looked at parts of Dr. O I knew and parts that I did not know. I did not notice him, his ashes, in the center of the room--his urn insignificant against the flowers and the large photograph taken of him in Africa while he was in the Peace Corps.

I helped set up and test microphones, and then I helped set up the food. I told Stacy "I'm short on money but not on time", justifying why I hadn't brought anything. She said, "Time is more valuable." We set up the blue and yellow table cloths and napkins and platters of food (a diabetic nightmare and so unbelievably Lutheran I think Dr. O's soul was rolling). At 8:40ish the family arrived to spend their time privately with Dr. O.

At 9am, I walked through the pictures again, and the urn caught my eye. I wished that I had seen it earlier so I could spend some private time with it, even (sorry if this offends) open it up and look inside. I've never seen cremains before, and I knew that of all people Dr. O wouldn't mind. He'd say "Crack it open, check it out." A learning experience is a learning experience. But, of course, I didn't. I did take my semi-private time, though, walking up in front of everyone there, touching the top of the urn and saying a few words to Dr. O.

I saw many former students at the visitation, and I kept waiting for the throngs of people to arrive. Surely someone as influential as Dr. O, as life-changing for so many, would have thousands of people at his funeral. The gym would be packed to overflowing. The police needed for traffic regulation. Parking a nightmare. But as the funeral began at 11am, the chairs numbering 420, were not full. The bleachers, holding 618 to a side, were nearly empty. All in all, a few less than 500 people were there. A perfectly respectable showing, but where were all the people? With between 300-500 people in each graduating class for the last nine years I've taught, there should be at least 50 from each class, surely? He'd worked in PL for twenty-two years. Where were the crowds?

The funeral began with Pastor Ron, the spouse of a teacher and a friend of Dr. O's, who agreed to do a secular service to respect Craig's non-belief in organized religion. The ceremony was musical, with O Fortuna being sung, the school song played by a brass quintet, and the school concert choir performing a lovely song a capella. Letters staff members had written to Dr. O upon learning of his illness were read, and several people delivered eulogies, including Dr. O's best friend Andy, the former superintendent of our district, and a friend of Dr. O's from college. When each finished speaking they stepped away from the podium and hugged Mary, Dr. O's wife.

At the end of the service after we filed out (I'm pretty sure I went out of order. Oops.) and went to the food area. I talked with a few people, but did not speak with the family again. And, at a little after 1pm, I left.

The amazing thing that happened was that Craig came to his own funeral. He was there, and I have never felt the presence of someone deceased as strongly. I've thought that I have, but it's one of those things that when it happens you *really* know it. Craig was there and he was all around us. He will not leave that school--it is his legacy. He is in every classroom, in the hallways, in the auditorium, in the storage closets, in the furniture. He is in the lights, in the bleachers, and in the railings. It sounds trite and the more I try to clarify the more hokey it'll sound, so I won't. But when I was in that gym with Craig's family and friends, in the building that he created and shed blood, sweat, tears and time for, he may as well have been sitting in a chair there. He was not in the urn, he was everywhere.

Monday, May 26, 2008

A death in the family

A few months ago I wrote about my former principal, Craig Olson, and his impending death from ALS. He passed away this weekend. We got the news this morning via calling tree and email, and, while I was questioning a few months ago how I would react, I don't yet have the answer.

My reaction has been largely physical so far, though I haven't cried. When someone dies I always have something of a numbing reaction--things seem foggy and distant. I'm either starving or not hungry at all, either exhausted or I stay awake all night. For Craig, we had such a unique relationship I don't really understand how I should react to his death.

He was my boss, but also a friend. Our friendship was based around work--socially I didn't spend time with him except at events where there were teachers and staff. But, as anyone in education will tell you, teachers form a family with one another. Craig was a part of my family. I feel regret when I think that I didn't get to know him as well as I should have, but I know that I did the best I could, especially once I found out he was sick.

Then, this afternoon the funeral home I'm working at called to see if I could work this Wednesday. I had to say no because the funeral arrangements aren't posted yet and I'm sure there will be something either Wed, Thurs or over the weekend. The balance of the funeral director wannabe in me with the person that I am.....right now it's hard.

I hate being sad. It's such a waste of time to feel crappy. It leaks over into everything. But, my friend Molly says that the Chinese believe emotions can go like the seasons, and that they have different durations. Someone may have a particularly lengthy "winter" but should be assured that "spring" will follow. I want to ask her more about it; it seemed to make a lot of sense when we were speaking of it a few weeks ago. So, for me maybe this is just a temporary winter? A brief darkness?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

One term down, something like 8 to go...

I finished my last final for my first term of "back to college" about an hour ago. I was the most nervous about this final--Death and Dying--but I got a 98% on the test. That means that, with Accounting and Biology, I have my first ever 4.0 gpa. This is a great beginning :-)

I'm celebrating, of course, but my best friend is in a meeting, my other best friend is putting her son to bed, and my parents are in Costa Rica. So, I'm celebrating alone, but that's okay. A lot of this I did on my own. All of my celebrations will come with various friends and family in their due time, but tonight I'm content to celebrate with myself. Gatsby greeted me at the door and we spent a fair amount of time jumping on our hind legs and dancing about. Gatsby did great work too...he spent a damn lot of time alone during this term and didn't so much as tear up one shoe or dig one item out of the trash.

I start up again in two and a half weeks with intermediate algebra and cellular biology. I need to find a way to bottle this feeling, 'cause it's not going to last long. Tonight, though, I will allow it to last forever.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Not as sure...

There are days that I just don't know. Days like today, when I find out that an old friend's young daughter passed away last summer on my birthday. Days when I wonder what experience I have--what gives me the right--to be involved with the grief of strangers.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

How it is

Let me tell you how it is to be somewhat obsessed with funerals.

Yesterday I had my dissection test on Dexter. I got a perfect score because I knew that rat inside and out. I spent more time last week with him than I did with anyone else (besides Gatsby). And, because I tend to form attachments, I was bothered by the Rat Bin. The Rat Bin is the biohazard bucket under the sink in the bio lab, the storage container for Dexter between the lab and his final resting place.

After my test, I had to "throw away my rat." After, mind you, my professor cut off his foot so that no one else used Dexter for his/her test. Regardless of whatever atrocities I had done to my own rat (cutting his heart quite literally in half, for one...I won't mention how I accidentally nearly castrated him), cutting off his foot seemed particularly mean-spirited. This is because I had begun to say goodbye.

I carried Dexter (and his foot) over to the bin and began to wrap him up in paper towels like a burrito. I tucked his foot back in at the top by his little ear (the other one was in the plastic bag under him, he is forever Van Gogh) and laid him in the trash. Yes, I said a few words (in my head).

It would not have been possible for me to just toss him in the trash. And that, more than anything, is telling more than words could about the importance of funerals--no matter how small or unceremonious--they are.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

I'm still here!

I promise...and I have quite a few things to write about, but no time to do so. Finals begin soon, and I'm in the middle of all sorts of craziness. So, stay tuned--I'll be back!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Gainfully employed

I have a job at a funeral home! This is the first major step toward my new career and I'm totally excited about it. The funeral home is relatively close to my house so the commute isn't bad, and, though I had always imagined myself working at the Prior Lake funeral home, I think that the philosophy of my new employer meshes with what I hope to develop as my own practice. It's a family owned funeral home, and this is definitely my preferred working environment since I think I'll get more individual attention here than I would in a corporate run funeral home. I have nothing to base that on, mind you, I'm just more familiar with family owned funeral homes. (Or, as Erica and I discussed a few days ago, funeral parlors, 'cause that's what we small town girls call 'em!)

My job will be part time and will include working at funerals and around the funeral home. There are some limits to what I can do based on licensure and experience, but I know that the knowledge I'll gain from working directly in the field will be invaluable. There's nothing better than spending time in the environment, particularly since I'm still in a position where I can pull out if I find out that it isn't the right career for me. Chris asked me a few days ago what I would do if I hated it--I said, "better to find that out now, yeah?". Making a career error at this point in my life could cost me upwards of about 70,000, and since I'm still not independently wealthy, taking opportunities like this are absolutely worth their weight.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


Death anniversaries are hard. Today is one for me, and also one for a good friend of mine for a loved one of hers.
Last year a student of mine who I cared for deeply was killed because he made a mistake that we all make. His death blew everyone away because he was vibrant and youthful and healthy and, well, alive. I wrote about it when it happened and I still mean every word I said. It doesn't get any easier...for his family, for his friends, for anyone who knew him.

Today was a constant reflection on the last year. All of the things I've done. All of the growth and the experiences I've had that people who have passed away in the last year didn't have. Life is such a gift. Every moment that we are given to experience--the good and the bad--is a precious moment. It's heartbreaking to know that some people have those moments cut short and taken away through no fault of their own, or by going through certain rites of passage that our society instills in us as important parts of growing up.

It snowed yesterday, hard. I believe with all my heart that Kyle sent that snow. He was an avid snowmobiler and I know that he would have considered snow in April a gift. I don't know if anyone got out there, or if the snow was too wet or if it was even enough to count for anything, but I know that Kyle reached out and tried to give his loved ones a moment to enjoy and to remember.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The funeral home visit

Tonight for Psychology of Death and Dying we visited a funeral home and spent about two hours talking with a funeral director and getting a tour of the building. The funeral director who talked with us was awesome--very honest and open about everything and with a good sense of humor. I was really surprised by how some of my classmates guy was texting while we were in the embalming room. Another girl showed up in her pajamas. I mean, even though we were there for class and not for a funeral, isn't there some sort of protocol for showing up at someone's place of business? Even though all of the bodies were hidden away, there's still a level of respect that I think should be upheld by people when they enter a place where the dead are.

Okay, the embalming room.

I've been to more funerals than I can count (the last time I did it was upward of 30), and I've been given a tour of a funeral home by Mark, the mortician who handled my grandma's funeral, but I have never stood inside the embalming room. I had to breathe pretty deeply. It was a lot more difficult than I thought: seeing and putting in concrete form all of the ideas that I have worked out in my head. Wally, the funeral director, said that he believes that funeral directors should be as open as possible, and I think that part of my nerves came from the fact that embalming has always been shrouded in such high levels of secrecy. It's the "back room" and morticians "do their work" there, and that's all we know.

When I left I had the same headache that I had for three days when my grandma died. I need to remember that it's perfectly okay for me to be nervous, upset, stressed, etc. when I confront the various aspects of death and dying that are foreign to me. I remember that I was scared out of my mind the first time I stood in front of a classroom, too. Fear and anxiety do not mean that I can't do the job; it just means that I need to get the training I need, occupationally, mentally and emotionally, to do the job. Wally told me that "working with the dead" is a relatively small part of the job--the funeral director primarily works with the living. It was really helpful to talk with him and to hear his ideas and philosophy on why he does what he does.

My headache, by the way, is gone.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A calmer, gentler day

Started out the day with Erica hanging at the outlet mall and doing some well needed retail therapy, which helped me recover from yesterday's "episode." Then I headed to Normandale to talk to one of the academic counselors there and see what deals I could shake down.

Apparently, I am not a deal maker. I'm taking Survey of Chemistry. BUT, I'm taking it this summer, so it will be as painless as possible. I'm also taking an anthropology class called Magic, Witchcraft & Religion, which I'm super excited about. During the second summer term I'm taking Intermediate Algebra and Health Professions Terminology. That leaves me with quite an icky schedule for fall classes, but I'll make it work. Maybe.

At any rate, I'm scheduled for classes and it's spring break and I'm c-a-l-m.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The meltdown

Call it a flash in the pan or a major malfunction, a stress buildup or a psychotic break...whatever it is, it happened to me today. The culmination of three months of stress and anxiety and overload simmering in a pressure cooker called "Kelly's body" finally flew out today and the result was, very nearly, a broken patio glass door.

Registration for summer classes is upon me, so after sitting in biology for awhile and talking to a counselor about classes I need and want and can have, I logged on and tried to work my magic. Long story short, there was no magic to be worked, and I found out I need to take a class called "survey to chemistry" which is a lower level class than my high school class and, it goes without saying, a lower level than my college chemistry class. I balked at that a bit, but not as much as the impending realization that the addition of even one more class will cause me to stay in teaching for another year and push off my plans. This freaked me right out, on a cellular level.

Then, I couldn't find my wallet. This was where I dumped the contents of my purse onto my dining room table and, not finding the wallet there, decided it would be a good idea to fling my purse at the patio door. Fortunately, my frontal lobe was engaged and quickly calculated the cost-benefit analysis of this action and told my hand to knock it the fuck off. I found the wallet ten feet away.

There is a third component to my stresses that I'm keeping totally to myself. Erica knows, and my mom, but that's it. It's nothing bad, don't worry. In fact, it will either be neutral or totally kick ass--no chance of badness. But, it's still causing potential stress because anything "unknown" right now is causing me total angst.

So, it's happened. Everyone has been saying, and I've been agreeing, that at some point I would have a complete and total freakout. I'm glad that it happened over spring break in the privacy of my own home, and that it's done now so I can go about my business.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Tomorrow our school is hosting a Peace Site dedication ceremony to honor our school's inclusion as a peace site. Our principal, Dr. O, is supposed to be in attendance because he was the main figure behind getting the process rolling. This was before he was diagnosed with ALS, before his body began to fail, before his body stopped being able to breathe or swallow on its own, and before we were told that he had days, weeks, or months left to live.

The senior class is the last class that has really known Dr. O as our leader. This is the same class that was forever changed by two suicides within a month of each other and a fatal car accident all during their freshman year. This class is woefully unprepared for what they are going to see tomorrow.

How do you prepare someone to see the dying? The kids know that he isn't well; they know that ALS is a terminal disease. But in their minds, they see him as they've always seen him. They don't see the wheelchair-bound, 110 lb, oxygen dependent man that will be in front of them tomorrow.

I'm really glad that this dedication ceremony is taking place and that Dr. O will be (hopefully) able to attend. What angers me is the utter lack of concern being shown for the feelings of this senior class. They need to be prepared for what they're going to see before they have to see it with their own eyes. Tomorrow's ceremony will be emotional enough without having the additional shock and trauma of seeing how different Dr. O appears from when we last saw him. I will do my best to prepare the handful of students I see in a day. That's the most I can do, I guess.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The thing is...

We're all in a constant state of loss.

Driving home tonight from a late night outing with friends, a few moments combined to remind me of past times--a past where I was really happy and life was a lot simpler than it is now.

And then I thought about a few days ago, driving to work when I came up the hill and saw the horizon and the sunrise, and I could actually see the curve of the earth, and it took my breath away. The smallness of what we are, the minuscule role we play in a universe that is a great collection of minuscules trying to be bigger than they are. It made me sad.

And I'm sad tonight. I'm sad because I'm looking forward to a life full of death. Every loss is magnified for me now: the loss of friends (physically or conceptually), the loss of time, loss of age, even potential loss like looking at my darling Gatsby and knowing that one of us will eventually have to live without the other.

I'm questioning everything I feel--both physically and mentally. My stress is manifesting itself in pretty significant physical ways, and I feel like I'm not being honest with it--trying to make it something that it's not. People are trying to help me but I'm not giving them all of the facts. I wonder if it's in my head....and I know it isn't. I wonder if I'm being a big baby...and I know that pain is pain and it's individual.

And the more I think about it, the more I wonder if I can handle a life of death. I want to--the desire is not a question. But, how can I deal with death in a professional way, help others deal with it, when I can't even manage my own feelings?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Some first hand experience coming up

A good friend of mine, my former boss, was diagnosed about a year and a half ago with ALS. We got word today that he has been placed on 100% oxygen and is having trouble swallowing. His wife had to suction out his throat roughly every five minutes for an entire night. He said that it's his goal to be able to be at an event coming up on March 20.

I don't know how my friend's death will be for me. It'll be the first death of a terminal illness that I've experienced. I went to visit him in October and spent the afternoon. He played the piano for me and we looked at pictures from his trip to China and my trip to Belize. It was a really good day, and I decided that if I didn't get the chance to go back and visit that I was okay with how I last saw him. But, we've been invited to visit him anytime now, rather than the sign up sheet that had been available, for fifteen minute visits. I think I should go see him again.

His death will be the first that I've gone through since I made the decision to become a funeral director. It'll be interesting to see how I handle it.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Dead vs. dying and the balance.

I had no idea when I began this process of learning about death and dying that the "dying" would be so painful. I was worried about dead bodies, about smells and fluids, and about making the bodies look nice for families. I now realize that I'm nowhere near that stage yet. Before the dead arrive, they have to die. The process of dying is where the core of my fear is.
I used to think that I feared "death." Now I know that it's dying that I'm afraid of and the more I learn about "dying" the more I find my fears are completely rational and founded in reality. Dying is, nine times out of ten, icky. Even if a person dies "comfortably in his home," it's still icky for someone.

Last night in class we talked about Jamie Butcher and the horrible decision his parents, Pattie and Jim, had to make to remove his feeding tube after caring for him for seventeen years. Yes, seventeen years. He was seventeen when he was injured in a car accident and they decided to pull his feeding tube when he was thirty-four. I cannot imagine my parents having to make that decision...I can't imagine having to make that decision myself for someone that I love. But, everyone always thinks that they'll never need to make that kind of a decision---lots of people find out that they're wrong.

I absolutely need to find ways to begin to desensitize myself. I cry in every class, and that needs to stop. I internalize everything--when I looked at Pattie Butcher I saw my mom. I can't allow that to happen or I'll never make it into the business. I'll break. The writer in me wants to fall into these feelings and swim in them, cover myself in them and write them out into beautiful scenes and verses. I need to find the balance.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The bubble

Took that stressful histology quiz a 20/20. I missed two questions (confused "ground substance" for "matrix" and completely forgot what collagen fibers were) but answered the 2 point bonus question (transitional epithelium) so I evened out.

Let me tell you about the bubble. The A bubble. Lots of people know about this, probably, but I'm just finding out about it now, since I used to be a B/C student. The A bubble is a delicate balloon of perfection that starts out innocently enough but snowballs into a tightrope of pressure and stress.

In the A bubble, I have all As. The number of points I've lost in all three of my classes can be counted on one hand. I love that. I kind of wish I'd done it sometime before my thirties. But, here's the thing: the harder and longer I work to keep my A, the more stressful it becomes. If I keep an A until now and then blow it on one test, what then? The chances of my getting it back are slim to none, because the trick to the bubble is: once it pops, there's no repairing it. Whereas if I was a perfectly happy B student, all the pressure is off.

Is this making sense? I'm delirious I think.

Anyway, I love being smart. I've always been smart, but I've never been that big of a fan of utilizing my brains. It's kind of a cool thing and, whether or not I actually end up in funeral directing (more on that later), it's been totally worth going back to school just to do it right the second time around.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

"And damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!' "

My mind and my body are currently waging war against each other.

Mind: Babydoll, you've got a ton of stuff to do and time is flying by. Get to work. Quit being so dumb.

Body: Dude, please. I'm tired. I'm sick. I want to be horizontal rather than sitting at this damn table for the rest of my life. We can do the work later, can't we?

Mind: Absolutely not. We've got papers to grade, accounting to do, histology to study, and bone anatomy to memorize. I need you on top of your game!

Body: But we've got As in everything. Can't we maybe just, I don't know, stop studying histology? You'll do fine on the test.

Mind: We haven't started studying histology! You think we have because you look at it all the time, but we haven't been studying. I've been reminding you to study it but you haven't because you've been so lazy.

Body: Not lazy--TIRED! I'm exhausted! My phalanges hurt from writing comments on a billion essays and my eyes hurt from reading, reading, always with the reading......

You see how it's going. So, we'll see who wins. Either my mind will give in or my body will. Either way, there's not a prayer in the world that I can keep pushing myself full force without a break.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Tough transition in the making

Since I've been more vocal about my plans (what with having to brag about my unbelievable grades and how smart I am), there have been some unanticipated side effects: mainly, talking about quitting teaching is damn scary.

I had no idea how much of my identity was wrapped up in the word "teacher." It is me. When I'm in school. At home. On dates. On the street. I am a teacher, not as a profession, but as myself. When I give up teaching, I will be giving up a huge part of who I am. I'll fill that space, eventually, with something else, but it will never be the same and there's a strong feeling of loss there.

Next week is the last week of the trimester, and I'd be lying if I said that carrying twelve credits and teaching six classes and trying to keep up with grading and working with a student teacher (and training for a half-marathon, and...I could go on and on) wasn't totally kicking my ass. I am one hundred percent beaten down right now. And though I am being careful to take time for myself, it comes at a cost that eventually has to be paid up.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

From English teacher, part 2

Last Saturday I went out for lunch with a former student, Zach. I first met Zach during his senior year in the winter of 2004, just a few short months after his younger brother had been killed in a car accident. One of our first conversations was about his brother because the first class assignment is on The Scarlet Ibis, a story about a boy and his brother's death. I remember that I wanted to give him the option to do an alternative assignment, but when I was talking to him I couldn't look him in the eye.

Zach became one of my favorite students. Teachers try not to have favorites, but the fact is it's just like any other type of job where you get along with some people really well, just click with them. Zach and I have a lot in common, and the strength he showed after his brother's death taught me a lot. He turned in an 'assignment' to me once, an essay about his brothers (there are five boys in all) and it still today is the most moving piece of writing I've ever read by a student. He became my student aide, and we've kept in touch since his graduation in 2005.

When we were chatting over lunch, he told me that I had impacted him and that I was one of the best teachers he had ever had. Let me tell you...that means something. I know I can't change every life I encounter--I teach almost 500 kids a year--but to know that I did change a life, for the better, gives me pause.

There is an honor in the title "teacher." I have always identified myself as a teacher, and I hope that even in my capacity as a funeral director I will be able to "teach"--to help people look at something in a new way, to guide them, to give them the tools and knowledge they need in order to become something more than what they were before I met them. But, there's a huge difference between spending a year with someone and cultivating that level of trust and admiration required for real teaching to take place. Can I do it with someone who is in crisis? In a few days? I don't know. And if I can't, it's the number one thing I'll miss about teaching. Hands down.

Friday, February 15, 2008

From English teacher

I have a student teacher for the next few months. It's an interesting position to be in: to be leaving the profession while trying to guide someone into getting into it. He knows that I'm not much longer for the teaching world.

Yesterday he had a total meltdown. Epic variety. The same meltdown that every teacher has had at least once: where he wondered if he was meant to teach and thought about quitting but couldn't quite manage to quit because of that pesky work ethic. Been there, done that. He came back today and had a much better day, which is typically what happens in the teaching world.

The struggle for me is to convince him that teaching is a fantastic profession; that it is noble and valuable and rewarding and that if you are a good teacher you absolutely should be in the classroom..........without convincing myself of it. Trust me, I'm quite a persuasive person. And when I talk to him I think "I'm right. Teaching IS fantastic." And then I wonder why I'm leaving. And I mean really why I'm leaving...because I don't think I'm completely being honest with myself about that. I think a part of me wants out because if I stay in teaching much longer then it means that I'm really getting older. I don't know. There's something there, for sure. But when I tell him that I love to teach, I'm not lying. All of the things I say about teaching--the good things--are true. So why am I leaving?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

90 Day Jane a hoax

Of course it was.

She says:
"My closeness to this project must have made art seem like reality to many people. That is not a reaction that I expected nor can I morally justify. This is why my project, 90DayJane, will be taken down in the next few hours. 90DayJane was meant to mirror the tragic figure, Christine Chubbuck. Newscaster Christine Chubbuck committed suicide in 1974 by shooting herself in the head live on air. She was very vocal about her depression to those around her and gave every indication of her exact intentions leading up to the event. Sadly, no one reacted or helped Christine and those left behind could only ask “why”. Her story both inspired and terrified me because I can truly empathize with her rage and even her isolation. I wondered how Christine’s life and subsequent suicide would play out in our time. Would the internet be yet another place of isolation to her or an escape?"

I'm less angry with her than I was yesterday. I don't know why I was angry with her in the first place, but I obviously was. Her explanation, though, gives her at least a little credit. I'm familiar with Christine Chubbuck (sorry, the only place that actually gives info in a concise way is Wikipedia) and her story is insanely tragic....though I'm not sure of the purpose of "imitating" it.

Whatever. Onto the next thing, I guess.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Very interesting...

This doesn't deal so much with my experience as with death in general, but it's on my mind, so you get to read it.

Jodi posted a link to a site called "90 Day Jane" on her blog. "90 Day Jane" is a countdown to suicide. A ninety day countdown. "Jane" believes that life is pointless that she needs to spend 90 days preparing for her death and telling the entire internet about it. Uh huh.

I've been thinking about Jane...some people buy it, some don't. I don't really care if she does it or not, but I have to say that there are some things that should be kept private and suicide is one of them. Not only does this site totally glorify the concept of "the countdown" that some people go through when they attempt suicide, but it takes suicide and makes a joke out of it. If she truly doesn't care, then she should shut up and do it. If she truly has such little respect for life, then do it, but don't bother the internet with it. There's enough crap out there.

I have friends who have lost family and people they love to suicide. I've lost a friend to suicide. Suicide is not a joke, it's an act of ultimate desperation. And while there are few things I can think of that are more selfish in this life than suicide, bragging about it all over the internet has to be toward the top of the list. I can't judge anyone who has committed suicide, it's just not fair. It's disrespectful to their families and to their loved ones to do so. Who I do judge, though, are people who use suicide or the threat of it as some sort of a stunt. Surely the meaning of life has not disintegrated to the level where even the breath that flows in your own lungs is no longer sacred? Learning all of the things I have been--the biological processes in place--life is intentional. And if a person truly sees no way out, then I pity him. If a person plays with suicide as some sort of joke, then shame on her. Shame on you, "90 Day Jane."

Monday, February 11, 2008

Death Dreams: Part 2

Death Dreams Part 1 happened about two months ago. I wasn't surprised that it happened again--I'm kind of surprised that I don't have them every night.

In this dream I was on the job in the coroner's office in the morgue, but it was my first day. Doc. Robbins from CSI was there and he was leading me into the room. I had my eyes covered up and he kept asking me if I was going to be okay and I kept saying "I don't know." I was trying to sniff the air because I figured the place would smell terrible, but it didn't. I finally open my eyes and I'm standing in front of about ten bodies on gurneys...that are all sitting up. They're all dead; some are peaceful looking, like they fell asleep and died, while others have terrified looks on their faces.

I begin working on a girl who is 23 years old. I was supposed to remove her jeans and her socks. Her jeans were my same Banana Republic skinny jeans (I wore them on Friday). I took care of them, folded them up, then decided to snoop around the place. I started looking in drawers and cabinets and I came across the test score cards of the two women I was working with--both of them had gotten a 68 out of 100 on the Official Mortician Exam. I remember thinking "I can do way better than a 68."

So, this dream combined my a) fascination yet fear of the dead, b) my financial concerns--the jeans represent that, and c) my obsessive-compulsiveness about getting good grades. It's nice of my dreams to work triple-time for me. I expect that my death dreams will become crazier as I get further into my studies and my brain continues to process everything that's happening to me. I will, of course, post them.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Oh yeah, I've got time for this...

Panic attacks have set in. Tonight I've had three of them in as many hours. The first happened when I walked back into my death/dying classroom after a lovely discussion on organ donation, DNRs, and how to figure out if someone is really dead to get my purse. That was the worst because it's the first one I've had in a few years and I totally wasn't expecting it. The last two haven't been quite as bad--have been able to breathe through them.

Panic attacks are so ridiculous. But they are, unfortunately, a sign of impending doom. They mean that I have to chill things out a bit. Sadly, with the way things are, that's not possible at this time. So, I need to suck it up. I know that sounds a little harsh, but the fact is that I've already cut out everything that's cutoutable. I'm not going out, I'm not seeing anyone, I'm going to work, school, home, the chiropractor and yoga. And the lab.

And yet---I'm loving school, I really am. I love taking notes, love walking from class to class with my books, love learning new stuff. So, at the end of the day, is it worth it? Absolutely. And this is short term stress--brought on because I'm not as dumb as I was when I was eighteen. The end of this process is definitely worth the short term pain that comes along the way. Nothing worthwhile comes completely easily, right?

Monday, February 4, 2008


I mooched The Death of Ivan Illyich because it was mentioned as "required reading" by a doctor specializing in Palliative Care on a video I watched last week in Death/Dying. I'm really surprised I haven't heard of it. Quite excited to begin it--possibly tonight but I've got a ton of biology to do and instead of studying I spent an hour yapping on the phone with Erica.

All is well in the academic world...still trying to find my groove. I think I had it in the beginning but it slipped a bit when Jessie came to visit. Now I need to refocus and redouble my efforts. If that's possible.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Living for dying

One of the biggest things I've noticed in the last few weeks is that a whole lot more of my time than normal is being focused on death and dying. I'm not desensitized to it yet, so all of the focus is really taking a toll on me emotionally. I'm still crying during videos in Death and Dying class, and I'm finding myself being particularly sensitive in other aspects of my life too as death and dying carry over.

This will be the hardest part, I think. I'm not trained yet in how to handle the emotional parts of the death process. And, I really believe that I have not yet come to terms with my own death yet. A few weeks ago I began to touch on this realization on I Am What I Am, but that was just the start. I find myself imagining it sometimes, thinking about my own death or that of someone close to me, and I need to stop myself. It's unhealthy for me at this point to spend so much time contemplating my own death. Of course, I always remind myself too that I could die on the way to work tomorrow, or tonight in my sleep, or three seconds from now. Or now.

Andrew Olmsted is dead. He's a guy I never met or knew, but he gave a message to a friend to post to his blog in the event of his death---and then he went and died.

He writes:

I write this in part, admittedly, because I would like to think that there's at least a little something out there to remember me by. Granted, this site will eventually vanish, being ephemeral in a very real sense of the word, but at least for a time it can serve as a tiny record of my contributions to the world. But on a larger scale, for those who knew me well enough to be saddened by my death, especially for those who haven't known anyone else lost to this war, perhaps my death can serve as a small reminder of the costs of war. Regardless of the merits of this war, or of any war, I think that many of us in America have forgotten that war means death and suffering in wholesale lots. A decision that for most of us in America was academic, whether or not to go to war in Iraq, had very real consequences for hundreds of thousands of people. Yet I was as guilty as anyone of minimizing those very real consequences in lieu of a cold discussion of theoretical merits of war and peace. Now I'm facing some very real consequences of that decision; who says life doesn't have a sense of humor?

In his formatting, the phrase "very real consequences" appears at the beginning of three successive lines and it almost reads like poetry. Whether or not that was intentional I have no idea, but it works really well.

So, dying. It's going to become my life. My livelihood. I will get paid and live because people die. I will profit from the loss of someone's mother, sister, child, father, husband. Until I desensitize to that fact (at least in theory--I don't ever want to become desensitized to death *really*), this is going to be a long road.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Back in the habit

Between the big test on Thursday night and company in town over the weekend, I haven't studied since, well, Wednesday. I should be back into it by now, seeing as how my company left about five hours ago. And I have another bio test on Wednesday that's worth 20 points so it's almost as big of a deal as the lab test. I should be studying my ass off. And yet...

It seems that getting out of the habit of studying around the clock has served as an off-switch for studying entirely. I'm going to give myself another two hours, and then I'm getting back to the books. I have to. If I get an F on Wednesday's test (on material I'm familiar with and have had the opportunity to study for the last two weeks), I will freak right the fuck out.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


I got an A on my biology test!!!!! Actually I got 32/30, so I got MORE than an A. I would have gotten 34/30 but I missed one of my 15 parts--the brachial artery--that I will never forget ever, ever again. Brachial artery and I are like BFF now. I was so nervous I was shaking, and I told Dr. Adams that and he said "yes, you should be shaking!" He was kidding--he's quite funny--but I didn't stop shaking for almost an hour afterward.

Now I can take a break--for a day. I have another quiz next Wednesday and I really want to get a perfect score so I can keep my "over 100%" grade. But Jessie and Brian are coming into town on Saturday so I'm going to relax for the rest of tonight and then take Saturday "off" from studying. There will be plenty of time to study tomorrow and again beginning Sunday.

Imagine--me with an A in a biology class. Insane. I expect to be waking up any time now.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger's death at age 28 is shocking. The deaths of celebrities always hit me a little funny--in part because I'm such a star-fucker that I feel like I personally know them. The sensitive part of me wants to feel pain and be sad, but the logic part of me says "hey, stupid, you didn't even know the guy." I mean, ultimately it's sad, but does it impact my life? Only because I thought he was a cool actor and I'll miss seeing him in movies.

But, on a grander scale, I think it's the suddenness of the death that bothers me. He was here this morning, and now he's not. I can't adjust to that with anyone, celebrity or not. It's a reminder of how quickly life can cease, and that no one is immune. Every year we each live the day that will eventually be our deathday and then the anniversary of our death. And we do it without knowing. I feel like it's a day that should be figured out and celebrated, just as a birthday would. Imagine how different our society would be if death was revered as much as birth. Of course the idea that today may be the day that I die one, five, or fifty years from now, is unnerving. But I've passed that day either 30 or 31 times already in my lifetime.

In Psychology of Death and Dying we talked last week about 'appropriate death' and how that might be defined. Everyone had different variations on the same theme: older is better. Dying in cardiac arrest at age 28 surrounded by sleeping pills just is not okay, and it's so....beneath him. I'm not saying "beneath him" suggesting he killed himself, but beneath him in that he should have lived to be an old man. There are certain celebrities that we may be able to do without in this world of ours; Heath Ledger wasn't anywhere near that list.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Balancing teaching and studying

One of the most important aspects of transitioning from one career to another is the time management of maintenance and learning. I need to, essentially, balance two careers for at least another few years.

I've taken and scheduled to take several days off from teaching in order to complete my obligations to my second career: school. What that means is that even if I'm not feeling well, or if I might have taken a day off in the past, I need to weigh my current "need" of a day off against the potential future need (that may be greater). Hopefully that makes sense.

Today was a day I stayed at home. Students had the day off, so the teachers had an inservice. I decided that my time would be better served by finishing chapter 2 in accounting, reading chapter 2 in Death/Dying, and running through my anatomy flash cards one more time (or more) before I hit the lab tomorrow for a few hours.

I'm pretty surprised with my level of studying, to be perfectly honest. If I had put forth this amount of effort the first time around, I'd be a much different person. Crazy how one's priorities change as one gets older.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Where it all began...

In order to avoid complaining about my classes and how hard college seems to have become since the last time I was there, I'll share with you where the connection of English teacher/Funeral Director really first began.

December 17, 1992, I stood in the hallway after school with friends. It was late but I didn't have to work until 5:00 (at Hardees) so we were just shooting the shit by our lockers. Brad was there, and Kale, I'm sure, and a few others though I don't remember exactly. Naomi Lindscheid was in Mr. Eckhoff's room. Eugene Eckhoff was my speech coach and pretty much the coolest teacher in our school. Everyone loved and respected him. He was one of those toiling, brilliant teachers that gives tirelessly to his students until he retires, then he still stays involved because he still loves kids. Right? Except that Naomi came running out of Mr. Eckhoff's room that day, which was a Tuesday I think, saying that he had collapsed.

I ran into the room. He was on the floor behind his desk not moving. Naomi and I got him laid out flat on the floor, I moved his legs, and she began CPR because she was a swimmer and knew how. When our assistant principal got to his room (in record time) he did mouth-to-mouth.

And I watched my English teacher die.

I won't say that I'm an English teacher because of Mr. Eckhoff. There were other teachers who followed him, including his replacement, Raymond Philippot, who had a far greater impact on me because they were there. But, there's no question in my mind that seeing death and teaching English became permanently linked together in my mind on that day in December, when I stood by and watched--not because I could help, but because I couldn't turn away.

Monday, January 14, 2008

School days, school days, dear old golden rule days...

The whole night can be summed up in one piece of information: I had to leave biology in order to go throw up.

Sometime around 9:00 this morning, I began to have "stomach issues." I thought it was nerves, and began to realize that I may have underestimated the massiveness of the changes I'm putting myself through. Later it became painfully clear that nerves weren't all what was happening. It should be said, though, that I have always manifested "nerves" through physical ways: I get sick, throw up, get headaches, etc. This appears to be just the flu.

Aside from the puking, my first trip back into a college classroom in ten years proved to be enlightening. I'm still not sure quite what to make of it. There are eighty people signed up for the class. My biggest class at St. Olaf was my monday night psychology seminar with sixty people. Other than that, I didn't have a class over 40.

Other differences:
--> The last time I was in college, the internet was new and used mostly for....well, I don't know what. I think academics, actually.

--> The last time I was in college, the only person who had a "cell phone" was Donald Trump. And it was the size of his head.

--> The last time I was in college I was 21 and my highest priorities were: getting drunk, getting laid, and passing that order.

I don't know how all of this will pan out. The class is going to be hard. Extremely hard. I'm not afraid of hard work, but I am scared to paralysis to fail. Hopefully Wednesday I'll feel better--I teach from 7 to 3 and have class from 4-9. Hell day.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

First Day of School

I've always loved the night before the first day of school. I'm excited, can't sleep, and I feel like I want to jump right into my studies and get ahead in all of my subjects.

I'm a teacher instead of a Nobel Prize winning physicist because that feeling doesn't last beyond the night before the first day of school.

Tomorrow I officially begin on the path to becoming a funeral director. The classes aren't that exciting yet, but they're the ones that will build the foundation on which everything else will be built: accounting, psychology of death and dying, and human biology.

I don't know how much I'll sleep tonight--it's 11pm and I'm thinking that I might make some popcorn--but when I'm going on the "night before the first day of school" energy, life is all good.

Friday, January 11, 2008

No need to wait for 4pm Monday

Remember yesterday? How I was talking about how smart I was and feeling all smug about my 100% on my syllabus quiz and pretty sure I was going to turn the world on with my smile at least until Biology on Monday?

Today I spent two and a half hours on accounting...on a five point set of problems. So far I've earned four points, but I've got the distinct feeling that last point is going to remain out of reach (I've got one last chance to enter the correct numbers for Mr. Johnson's owner's equity statement and I'll be dipped in shit if I can figure out how much his "drawing" is).

Truth is, I love accounting. I love balancing and I adore numbers as long as they don't get too complicated. One of my favorite classes in high school was Mr. Dixon's Accounting class where we would sit for entire class periods listening to Air Supply and entering numbers onto the computer. I love accounting so much I almost chose it as a career. The only reason I didn't was because St. Olaf didn't have an accounting major/program and I would have had to major in Economics.

Accounting is quite important for funeral directors. They are, I think, more business people than anything else. And yes, sales too. But most funeral directors own their own businesses so they need to know what's up with the numbers.

So I'll keep working for two hours to earn four points, not for the points themselves but for the knowledge that I know I'll use this stuff in the future.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

One quiz down and some early lessons about my new environment

I passed my first quiz in accounting tonight with 100%. It was a quiz on the syllabus, which has apparently become required in colleges so that the instructor can insure that the students actually read the thing. I haven't even set foot back on campus and I can already tell from my accounting textbook and this "syllabus quiz" concept that college is a lot different than it was the last time I was there. My accounting book, in the middle of a section, suggested that if I was getting confused I should step away from the book and take a 10-15 minute break to clear my head. Back when I was in college the first time, the textbooks were filled with new information that would show up on a test, not common sense study tips. We were supposed to know those already.

I guess with No Child Left Behind, though, books need to be written to the lowest common denominator. In the past, you figured out how to study in high school or you didn't do so well in college (I was in the latter group). Now, though, so far it appears that the publishers assume that you have only two brain cells to rub together and have responded accordingly.

Did I mention that the class average grade on the quiz is 93%? On the SYLLABUS.

Of course, this false sense of security I'm indulging in will likely be kicked right out of me at 4pm on Monday when I stroll into Biology and all of the knowledge I've ever had in my head will be zapped out as I cross the threshold.

Fortunately, I hear they have a textbook for people like me.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Five days to liftoff...

In five days I will set foot in the classroom as a student for the first time in ten years. I have equal levels of excitement and trepidation, just never at the same time. The first step in this process is to complete my prerequisites, classes that will get me to the level I need to be in order to compete at the University of Minnesota. Mortuary Science is a four year degree, and since I already have my college degree, I'll need to just do the prerequisites and then one year of the "official" mortuary science classes. The plan is to be ready to enter the U of M in the fall of 2009.

I am excited because the day I walk into the classroom my dreams turns from an "I'm going to" into an "I am." I'm nervous because this time around I know how much work college is--that they're serious about that 2-3 hours of studying per class hour. Excited to learn new things. Nervous that I might get a B. Excited to show off how smart I am. Nervous that I might think I'm smarter than I actually am.

Either way, at the end of the day it's the classes that will help lead me closer to my goal. If it's not meant to be, I'll find that out and I'll be better for the experience. If it is meant to be, and I believe it is, I'll succeed and my hard work will pay off.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

An Introduction

Welcome to 'Death Becomes Her,' my blog that will capture all of the ups and downs of my journey to change careers from a high school English teacher to a funeral director. Going back to school at age 31 on the other side of the classroom and working in math/science/business areas rather than literary subjects promises to be very interesting.

The first question most everyone has asked as I've "come out" with my decision to become a funeral director is "WHY?"

My answer:
I've always been fascinated with death and feared it on a higher level than most people. I didn't go to a funeral until I was 24 years old. Once I started, though, I suddenly found myself going to a lot of them. Former students, current students, grandparents, friends of the family, parents of students...all told at the current time I've been to nearly 30 funerals in the last seven years.

Death, at least the idea of it, kept creeping into my fiction writing. Finally, when my grandma died in January of '05, I bit the bullet and asked the funeral director, Mark, to give me a tour of the place. I told him (and I believed this myself) that I was researching a story. I now realize that I was actually researching a career.

I put it out of my head until late 2006 when several events pulled together to push me in the direction of funeral directing:

1. I applied for the MFA program at the University of Minnesota and did not get in.

2. On a staff development day, we had to fill out a questionaire that asked the question "if you didn't teach, what other job would you want to have?" My answer: funeral director.

3. Pressure to get into a master's program finally reached a boiling point when I didn't get into the U of M. I looked at several schools and nothing seemed to fit right. Everything was a struggle.

4. A friend of my grandma died in the summer of 2007 and I went to her wake. Mark, the aforementioned funeral director, gave me some literature on the University of Minnesota's mortuary science program.

Once I made the decision to explore mortuary science, everything seemed to fall into place. The program is possible, affordable, and, after a few pre-requisite classes that I can take at Normandale Community College, totally doable.

That's the basic story of how I decided to go into mortuary science. There are, of course, a lot of feelings that I have on the subject of death care and funerals that aren't covered above, but I'll get into those.