High School

My last two years of high school I attended Bethel Regional High School in Bethel, Alaska. It’s a bush town out on the tundra. The only way to get there is by plane, boat, or in winter, via snowmachine or the ice road. When I was living there the population was somewhere around six thousand. I moved from tropical Haiti to frozen Alaska and it was quite a shock to the system. I walked around in a heavy coat the first summer, but eventually I got used to it. It was the first time in my life that I did not have any tan lines. I’m sure my skin appreciated the break. 

I remember my senior year a girl I knew called me and asked me if I would be willing to tutor her in geometry. I was surprised and a little confused. Umm. I’ve never tutored before, I’m not sure how helpful I would be. Then the girl assured me that our math teacher, Mr. Guffin, had been the one who told her to call me. Oh. Ok. (Mr. Guffin thinks I can tutor someone??) Well, sure, I guess I could tutor you. 

The tutoring went well, she was able to get her grade where it needed to be, and the next semester another girl called and asked me to tutor her for Alegebra 2, also saying Mr Guffin had suggested she call me. I tutored her as well and she was able to pass her class too. 

I would have never thought that I could tutor someone in math. I would never have volunteered to do it. I would have never thought myself qualified to do it. But my teacher saw that I could, pushed me in that direction, and my confidence grew and I learned how to tutor math. 

I ended up writing for the school newspaper. Another thing I had no previous interest in and didn’t really think of it as something I would be capable of doing. A teacher pushed me in that direction and I ended up learning how to conduct interviews, and do layout on a computer. 

My gym teacher declared that everyone in his class would do calisthenics and running and become competent in a long list of sports. I did not think these were things I could do. But, it was required so I did it. And learned that I was actually capable of these things and could even semi-enjoy them. (Ok, maybe I didn’t quite become competent in all the sports, but I definitely made improvements!) 

I was not signed up for band class because I did not play any band instruments. But the band teacher learned very early on that I could play piano. He volunteered (voluntold) me to be the band accompanist. I accompanied several ensembles for their competitions and performances and I ended up accompanying every single student who performed a solo for band competition. And one time, when they were short somebody, I played the timpani. All things I did not think I could do. But the teacher said yes, you can do this, here’s the music, get busy. 

My best friend pushed me to be a class officer. Did I want to do this? No. Did I do it anyway? Yes. Did I learn a lot in the process? Yes. 

When I look back, I think of these last two years of high school as the golden years. I was learning who I was and what I was capable of doing. I made some great friends. My teachers were supportive and involved. My classmates were friendly enough. I was good friends with some, acquaintances with others, slightly nodding recognition with a handful. But no bullies. No kids that I felt the need to avoid at all costs. 

This is what I want for my own children. I want school to be a place where they are pushed to try new things, pushed to excel. Pushed to be more, do more. A safe environment with at least a handful of friends. 

We are looking at making some changes for next school year when we have a junior and freshman in high school. While our local high school was a great experience for our oldest daughter, a reasonable experience for our son and a decent experience for our other daughter, we’ve reached a place where it is not meeting the needs of our fourth daughter and we have concerns for our upcoming freshman. And while I struggle because I want to support our neighborhood school and I believe in their vision and I applaud the efforts of many of their staff, I can’t help wanting my kids to have the same thing I did. And right now it looks like we will have to branch out to find it. 

I’ll write more about this later. 

A Story Behind Every Cookie

I just made chocolate chip cookies with my eight year old. After the cookies went into the oven to bake, she ran off to play, and I was the one who carefully watched the timer and made sure the cookies came out at the exact right time, quickly sliding them off the cooking sheet onto a cooling rack so they wouldn’t overcook on the sheet. And it suddenly brought back memories. 

My friend Alyssa taught me how to make chocolate chip cookies. My mom was not a cookie maker. No one can beat my mom’s raisin cinnamon rolls or her brownies, but cookies were not her thing. So, I moved to Bethel, Alaska just before my 16th birthday without the great life skill of knowing how to make good cookies. 

Alyssa and I met pretty soon after I moved to Bethel, and our friendship quickly grew into Best-Friend-dom. We were in the same grade at school. Being a Christian was important to both of us. And that’s about all we had in common. Well, we both got good grades in school. She was on all the sports teams, President of the Student Body, involved in every single leadership thing there was and graduated Valedictorian. I practiced piano all the time, loved to read, had a quirky sense of humor, and did not hold any positions of leadership. I ended up being Class Secretary senior year because of her interference. She also would make crazy suggestions like, Let’s Go Running! What??? But, we adapted. I went running, she watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail with me. I like to think that we were good for each other. 

But let’s get back to cookies. Alyssa’s family had the secret “Mrs Field’s Chocolate Chip Cookies” recipe (which Alyssa copied into a recipe book and gave to me for a wedding present and which I have passed down to all my children). One time I checked, very carefully, and was able to see that yes, there were some slight variations from her recipe and the recipe that comes on the chocolate chip bag.. But, I honestly think that the Key to her amazing cookies was knowing the exact amount of time to cook them. It’s a science. It’s taken me many years to figure it out perfectly, but Alyssa, you will be glad to know, I am now a master too! 

Alyssa’s house was the perfect tundra-living house. It was two stories, but all the living areas and kitchen were on the 2nd story. That way, you had a breathtaking view of snow and lights, sky, stars, going on for miles and miles. I remember long winter evenings at her house. We would bake cookies while munching on chips and salsa (also something Alyssa introduced me to). We would make the perfect cookies, play games, talk. Sometimes I’d play their piano and we would all sing together. Or we would go out and play in the snow. Alyssa and her family introduced me to the “STEAM” which is a far-north tradition. Small wooden building full of hot steam, so hot that you end up walking outside in Alaska winter in your swimsuit and it doens’t affect you. Her family also introduced me to Lefse (Norwegian potato pancakes), snowmobiling, and all the thrills of having a Dad who worked for Fish and Wildlife and was a trapper on the side. 

I get up from writing and go in the kitchen to grab a cookie. They sure are good. It’s funny how layered our lives are. We bake some cookies, but oh, all the stories and history behind that simple cookie. It’s good to take the time to remember every once in a while. 

P.S. My husband is back at work, mostly recovered from his covid, thank you for all your prayers!

Fat Fridays: Memories

I’m going to tell you a story about my high school PE teacher (physical education). When I was fifteen years old, my family moved from the island country of Haiti to the tiny bush town of Bethel, Alaska, up in the freezing artic. I enrolled in the local high school as a junior. My previous two years of high school had been done through correspondence courses and a couple classes taught through a little mission school in the North of Haiti. I had not done well with correspondence courses and was significantly behind when I got to Bethel. Because of this, I had to enroll in a lot of freshman classes. Classes like Freshman World Geography, an Environmental science class, and PE. I had not taken any PE classes in years and for some reason, the counselor who made my schedule decided to just get it all over with. So, my first semester at a real high school I was enrolled in PE/health and in Teamsports. Because of the way they did the schedule, this meant that on Mondays I had two PE classes in one day, and the rest of the week I had PE every day one week, and then next week I would have PE alternating with health every day. This meant I was in the gym every day, under the mercy of Mr. Power. Yes. That was his name.

Mr. Power was one of those legendary teachers that everyone was a little afraid of and everyone behaved for. I don’t know if he was ex-military, but he LOOKED like he was ex-military and he ACTED like he was ex-military. Every PE class we did calisthenics, all of us in our assigned spots on the gym floor. Then we did running. Then we would learn, in great detail, how to play a certain sport, and then we would play. Very competitively. He graded on a winners/losers scale. When we did running tests, first place would get an A, second place got an A-, third place B+, etc. I ranked somewhere in the C- range. It was not easy to get a good grade in this class. It also didn’t help that half the girls basketball team happened to be in my Teamsports class, all of them very accomplished athletes. I was the one who was always picked last for teams, and occasionally, Mr Power would pull me aside and send me into the hallway with the top girl athlete from the class so she could give me extra practice on how to swing a bat or catch a ball. (I was not athletic, I was coordinately-challenged, and stuck out in the classes like a sore thumb). The only good thing about Mr. Power’s level of discipline in the class was that at least no one out-right mocked me or made fun of my extreme lack of skills. He didn’t tolerate that kind of behavior. 

Teamsports was a one-semester class and I ended up with a C in the class. Yikes. I was an A student. This was not good. I still had one more semester of PE/Health to get through, and my PE grade in that class was also a C. Finally, I found out about Mr. Power’s extra-credit program. If you stayed after school every day for two weeks and ran two miles every day, he would raise your grade an entire letter. But you had to run the full two miles. No walking. If he caught you walking then you had to start all over again at day one. (Ask me how I know this.) 

Frankly, it sounded too hard. Not feasible. But, I had a friend who was running to get her grade up and somehow I got roped in to running with her. (Thank you Terry Murphy!) 

Let me stop and explain for a minute. We were in Bush Alaska, on the tundra, in winter. We ran inside the school building, through the halls. This was acceptable. We knew how many laps we had to make to get our two miles. We were not the only ones running. The wrestling team would be running through the halls, other sports teams, kids who just wanted to run to keep in shape, other kids trying to get their extra credit as well. The high school was a pseudo-community center. Kids stayed late for clubs and tutoring and a bunch of other reasons. I think when I was a senior I never left the high school before five pm every day. 

So, I ran for two weeks. Got my grade up to a B. I needed an A. I ran another two weeks, but somewhere around day seven or eight, Mr Power caught me walking for a second. So, then I had to start all over again and run another two weeks. And then, my friends were still running after school, and I ended up running more. One day, in the spring, I happened to be in the gym, getting ready to run (just for fun) and Mr. Power walked in and saw me. “Esther Picazo! Are you running? Just because?” and then he smirked at me and walked off in a very self-satisfied manner. And I was mad, cause I still didn’t like him or his teaching methods, and it was embarrassing to admit that he had caused me to take up a healthy habit. But he had. The only reason I started running was because he basically forced me to. 

I continued to run after high school. I took a running class in college where I had to run three miles a day. I was never a star athlete or competitive at any level, but it was a form of exercise I had learned that I could do, and I enjoyed it. 

Looking back, years later, I have had an off-and-on relationship with exercise. But, there was always that knowledge in the back of my head that I COULD exercise, and once upon a time, I had enjoyed it. And I have to admit that I owe that completely to Mr. Power, the teacher that made me run. And I am grudgingly happy that I was able to have him as a teacher. 

You Don’t Belong Here

You don’t belong here. 

This has long been a theme in my life. As a white American child growing up in Haiti, I felt it, You don’t belong here. Even in Haiti among the different missionary groups, each group keeping to themselves, You don’t belong here. 

Living in Eastern Kentucky, attending a small country school with the name Esther Picazo. Every time my name was called to take roll, it was there, as the teacher stumbled over how to pronounce Picazo, You don’t belong here. 

Maybe the only time in my childhood that I didn’t feel that singling out was when we lived in Bush Alaska, in a town that was about half Y’upik Eskimo and half white Americans. Somehow, the culture of that little town made me feel welcome, even if it was only for a couple years. 

But then college, as I walked past a group of tall, tanned, blond girls, all talking about fashion and their latest dates, I felt it radiating out to me, You don’t belong here. 

My time in Chile was more of the same, as I struggled to communicate in my very poor Spanish, a look of surprise and then, Oh, You don’t belong here! 

Moving to our little city here in Eastern Tennessee, everywhere you go, there are pre-existing groups of friends. Polite, but still holding up the invisible sign, You don’t belong here. 

And over time, you learn how to make your own groups of friends, you carve out your own little niche. Create your own little cliques. A fortress where you can stand and say, This is where I belong! Though sometimes the walls of that fortress are a little shaky. Sometimes they don’t withstand time. Sometimes those friend groups dissolve. Sometimes the cliques reform and suddenly you are not on the inside, but are left out in the cold, You don’t belong here. 

And sometimes I forget. I think it’s just me. I’m the only one that feels this way. Everyone else belongs. I’m the only outsider. 

Except. If you listen to enough people. Really listen. You find out. Most people feel this way at some time or another. 

Many years ago, during a worship service at our church, God gave me a vision. I was standing in heaven, before the throne of God and my knees were shaking and I was overawed. And God spoke in this thundering voice and he said, What right do you have to be standing here? And I almost panicked. Surely this was the end. I had no right to be here. I was so sinful and imperfect. But then, I looked at myself, and I realized that I was entirely covered, head-to-toe in a white gown, all my imperfections were hidden underneath this gown. And I spoke boldly. I said, I can be here because I’m covered. I’m covered with Jesus’ righteousness. And I showed off the gown. And God smiled his approval. And my fear went away. I knew everything was ok. I could be there. I was welcomed. I belonged. 

The last verse to the hymn Solid Rock has been going through my head.

When he shall come with trumpet sound,

O may I then in him be found,

dressed in his righteousness alone,

faultless to stand before the throne. 

And maybe that’s just another reason I love Jesus so much. He claimed me. He paid the price for my sin. He opened up a way for me to be with him and he stands with open arms and says, Come, this is where you belong. With me. 

Going Home

There’s a quote that goes something like, “You can never go home again”, which I’m guessing to mean that once you leave home, things will never be the same again if you try to return. I left home when I was nineteen, just before I turned twenty. Yeah, I had gone away two years before that for college, but I always came back for Christmas and summer breaks. Coming home back then meant coming back to our little upstairs apartment in Bethel, Alaska. It was small, but very cozy. My mom had bright colorful pictures all over the walls, and house plants on every available surface. I had my little spinet piano, and my bedroom had all my memorabilia displayed on my bookshelves.

I finished two years of college, but now I was dropping out and going to Haiti for an open-ended visit. I remember getting on the plane to leave, saying goodbye to my mom, fighting off a panic attack. My mom asked me what I was most worried about and I remember my answer was, “I don’t know when I’m coming home.”  As it turned out, I never did. Not really. I went to Haiti for four months and then went to Chile for five months, came back to the States and got married shortly after in the Lower ‘48 without ever making it back up to Alaska.

The next time I walked into my parents’ little upstairs apartment in Alaska, I had a husband and a ten-day-old daughter in tow. In many ways it felt just like coming home from a term at college, and in other ways it was completely foreign. My husband had graduated from the University of Tennessee and we had stuck around Tennessee until I could give birth to our firstborn, then we had planned to go straight to Alaska. The idea was to stay with my parents until my husband could get a job and we could save up enough to get our own place. My mom had reorganized my old bedroom so there was now room for my new little family. It felt like home in that my mom was in full-blown mother-mode. I had just gone through the stress of giving birth and moving from Tennessee to Alaska with a newborn. Some mothering was exactly what I needed. It was foreign because I was now heading off at bedtime to my old bedroom with two extra people, and these people were now my first priority.

We stayed in Bethel for a year and half. During that time my parents’ apartment was a place of rest. We would go over and hang out on Sunday afternoons, eating lunch, taking naps. I enjoyed those brief moments when I could relapse to just being a daughter again and take a short break from the new “mom” role I was in. Then we moved, and later my parents moved out of that apartment into a different house. A later visit to Alaska had us staying at my parent’s new house and it did not feel like my home at all. It was where my parents lived. It was inviting, but I had no childhood memories there, and my role had solidified as mother to my own children. I never really relaxed back into the daughter role. My parents stayed in Alaska and we settled in Tennessee and for the next eighteen years (aside from two visits to Alaska) we only saw each other when my parents flew down for their yearly visit.

About a year and half ago my parents retired and moved down to Tennessee, about an hour away from us. We have really enjoyed having them closer. The kids love going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house and we try to get out there as often as possible. It’s a wonderful house, but again, I have no childhood memories there, and my role, when I visit, is mom to my kids, keeping them out of trouble. It simply where my parents live.

This week is my kids’ spring break from school. I was trying to think of fun things we could do on the break so I called my mom to see if we could come out and spend the night and a day with them. She said yes and we made our plans. Since they’re only an hour away, spending the night is not necessary, but the kids love it. It makes it feel like they’ve gone on a holiday somewhere. I’m not so keen on spending the night, only because my youngest doesn’t sleep well in new surroundings which means I don’t get to sleep well. But, a visit to my parents sounded really nice and who knew, maybe the little boy would sleep better this time.

Well, he didn’t. I didn’t get him to sleep till closer to midnight and then he slept fitfully all night and kept me up. In the morning my mom looked at me with concern. Are you feeling ok? No. I was tired and on top of that I had a bad cold. I had actually wondered if I should go see my parents with this cold hanging on me, but when your children have been counting down the days before they can go to Grandma’s, there is no way you want to change your plans. Also, being sick at Grandma’s sounded like a good idea. I had this vague notion that maybe my mom would help me feel better. Sure enough, Mom pulled out the cough syrup, urging me on as I choked down the vile liquid. My dad brought me a cup of some kind of fizzy drink that was supposed to boost my immune system. Then my mom told me to go back to bed whenever I wanted, the kids would be fine. I finally took her up on it and crawled back into bed for several hours. When I woke up around noon the house was silent, they had all gone outside apparently. I browsed through my mom’s cupboards, looking for lunch. My parents are vegans and so their house was fully equipped to handle my new diet which just entails fruits and vegetables. I found a can of lentil soup and then threw in some frozen vegetables. More exploration in the cupboard found some plantain chips. Perfect. I sat in the silence and ate my lunch, feeling rested and relaxed. And at home.

Something shifted. Something inside of me. I think I allowed myself to just be a daughter again. Mom, I’m sick, take care of me. And that felt like coming home. It’s not a place I can stay. I’m a mom myself now, I’ve got my own house full of children who look to me to hold their lives together. It’s a heavy responsibility, a full-time job. But, it was really nice to just go home for a short break. Feel like a kid again. Thanks Mom. Thanks Dad.

Car Trips, Broken Ice, and Laughter

Today we drove about an hour north to go visit my parents. My youngest daughter had a birthday and we were going to celebrate with Grandma and Grandpa. We had seven kids in the car, our oldest three off living their own lives. We were traveling on a small country highway and I was looking outside enjoying the view: farmland, creeks and rivers, pretty little towns. We were driving along and I noticed a pasture covered in puddles which had then frozen over. I suddenly had a memory of living on my grandparents farm in Eastern Kentucky, maybe ten years old, stomping around on a cold winter day. I was wearing my old light blue tennis shoes, full of holes but wonderfully comfortable, my old worn out blue jeans, hand-me-downs from my older brother, my pink puffy jacket with decorative flaps on the front and secret inside pockets, an old knit hat and a worn out pair of gloves. I remember stomping through my aunt’s pasture where her ponies lived. The ground was covered in muddy indentations from the ponies’ hooves and each indentation had filled with water from the earlier rains and now had frozen over. I remember the sensation of the thin ice cracking under my feet, my foot bending with the frozen ridges in the ground. Stumbling along as I tried to find more ice to break under my feet. I remembered all this and then felt a pang. My children would not have those country-living memories. They were city kids. And I felt this overwhelming longing to just uproot my family and move to a farm so my kids could know the joy of running through fields in winter, breaking ice under their feet.

We spent the day with my parents and then loaded up the van to drive home again. I love car trips. I love just looking out the window and thinking about whatever random topics pop into my head. I love looking at the houses that we pass, wondering about the people who live there. Watching the sky turn colors until it’s just the stars making tiny dots of light. Seeing the dark hulk of hills looming in the distance. As we drove tonight I thought about all the roads I had traveled on in my life. I remembered driving home from Cap Haitien, Haiti to our little house on the mountainside. Laying on a bench in the back of our truck, watching the moon chase us down the road, marveling that we could never outrun the moonlight. I remember driving on sandy, gravelly roads in the bush town of Bethel, Alaska, looking out from the road into pure darkness, no lights to interrupt the horizon, only our little island of a town, floating on the tundra. I remembered driving the Alaska Highway, the vast forests of never-ending trees. And all the other roads, highways in Chile, cross-country road trips out West. I felt melancholy. I couldn’t share these things with my children. I couldn’t give them these experiences.

As we drove along I started tuning in to what was happening in the car. In the very back seat my eleven and nine year old boys had made up their own little game. The eleven year old was singing favorite Disney songs, but he would stop at key words, MadLib style, and then the nine year old would fill in a random word. In the next row up were my two little girls, seven and six. They were giggling and laughing their heads off at the antics of their brothers, sometimes offering a suggestion of a word here and there. Lots of singing. Lots of laughing. In the next row up my four year old and two year old were strapped into their carseats, the thirteen year old sitting next to them, trying to ignore them. The four year old was holding up different shells from a little container of shells that his grandma had given him. He was explaining that if you held up the shell to your ear,  you could hear the ocean. Then he held up a different shell and said, “In this shell you can hear a crab playing rock and roll on his guitar.” He studied the shell thoughtfully for a minute and then pulled out another shell. “In this shell you can hear a turtle biting a fish.” And on it went, each shell with it’s own story. The two year old was fussing and wanted to hold my hand, but his carseat was a bit too far back and so in order to hold his hand I had to bend my body backwards, stretching as far as I could. It was a position I could only maintain for a couple minutes. I would finally feel something snapping in my back and I would pull my hand back and he would instantly start fussing again. My husband started making up a lullaby with silly words for him in an attempt to distract him. And it occurred to me. My kids have these memories. These are good memories. They are worth having. Memories of outings with the family. Memories of singing and laughter. Memories of talking to Mom and Dad about your shells. Memories of being loved.

I am so happy that I don’t have to replicate my own childhood for my children in order for them to have happy, fulfilling memories. They’re writing their own stories, and those stories are good.