I know that someday you'll find better things.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Surprise, I'm a College Drop-out

I don’t like surprises, and I will go to great lengths to avoid them.

This past fall when I decided to re-enroll in college for the radiological sciences degree, I was a diligent scholar of that thirty-page program explanation. I analyzed the course requirements and cross-referenced them with the previous year’s course schedules to determine an estimate of what an average week’s schedule would look like for each of the six semesters of the program.

I hand-delivered the transcripts from all five of my undergraduate colleges and the one from grad school.

I set my alarm for 4:30 am the day of course registration to secure my spot in the limited and desirable Introduction to Radiology course—the key to prerequisite completion and the confirmation that this would be the appropriate career for my future.

In January, less than two weeks before the start of the semester, I received an email from the program. Surprise! 

Our prerequisites have changed, and we've added Radiological Physics to the courses required before candidates can be considered for admission.

Oh, man. Just going back to college was going to be an adjustment. I hadn’t taken a course in over ten years. Three courses at a time seemed like a nice way to ease back into it, especially since one was my old friend Algebra.

Now I would need to take Radiological Physics in order to be considered for admission, and let me tell you—not everything is offered every fall and every spring. This might be my only shot before the fall program application date.

Could I rise to the occasion? Conquer math and three other courses with a 4.0 to qualify for this program? I hoped so.

I registered, paid, and located the textbook, which (of course) was more expensive than the darn course itself.

Ten minutes into the first day of class, SURPRISE! The teacher informed us of another change to the program. Public Speaking was no longer a requirement. This was annoying for several reasons.

1. I’d already registered and paid.
2. I’d already rented the textbook from Amazon.
3. In my enthusiasm for getting a headstart on this new four-course semester, I’d already read the majority of the textbook-- which smelled like a cat, might I add--located the syllabus for the course, and prepared all four speeches that would be required throughout the semester.

Because, as you know, I don’t like surprises.

Later that day after Physics class, I withdrew from Public Speaking—which had not yet met—and mailed the textbook back to Amazon. (The college will graciously reimburse me 70% of the tuition in 4-6 weeks.)

I’ll skip over the surprises from Wednesday’s College Algebra experience, because you won’t be surprised to learn that we started on page 167, and I cried twice.

Fast-forward to Thursday and Introduction to Radiology. 
You guessed it! More surprises!

There won’t be a fall admission to the program this year. The next one will be May of 2015. Since I’m in College Algebra and you’re probably not, I will do the math for you. That is almost 17 months from now.

Seventeen months is a long time to wait to (maybe) be admitted to a program which takes 24 rigorous months to complete. Then, there’s the additional coursework and certification necessary for specialization.

My word.
That’s four years.

They gnawed at me, all these surprises with their sharp surprise-teeth.

Three sections of Introduction to Radiology are being offered right now… then one in the summer… three next fall (presumably) and three next spring… If each class had a capacity for 30 people (and they do hit capacity-- there’s a waiting list every time) that’s 300 potential applicants for 30 spots. 

I believe that's a 1:10 ratio. Or is it 10:1?
One out of every ten applicants will be accepted.

I looked around the room as this realization sank in. Only three people in here, mathematically, would be admitted seventeen months from now.

Would I be one of them?
Could I be one of them?

I’d analyzed the program’s point system for selection several times. (Of course, surely there’d be some sort of surprise between now and when I hoped to get in.)

Out of the potential 43 points, I knew I could secure many—but not all. I couldn’t get the two points for being a veteran, nor would I receive five points for having applied the previous year without being selected.

Again, my mind raced. There were four veterans in my Intro course. I wondered how many would be in the other sections.

And how many previous applicants would there be?

The following Tuesday in Physics, I found out there were more than I could have imagined. I was flanked by previous applicants, and there were a few behind me, too. Who knows how many more were in there?

After class, I thought and thought as I made my way across campus in the bitter, bitter cold and wind (I’m not exaggerating, either—it was 22 degrees!) to purchase scan-trons. The experience felt new. I don't remember ever purchasing scan-trons. It seems just obscure enough to be memorable, and yet: nothing.

But apparently for this course, we needed scan-trons.

Small ones, 15 answer bubbles, supposedly, that would be used for quizzes. Scan-tron quizzes in lieu of attendance.

Not one but TWO signs on the doors of the bookstore announced that scan-trons could be purchased from the vending machine in the testing corridor, whatever and wherever that was.

I found it. It was next to a girl having a very loud conversation on her cell phone. Not particularly conducive to the concept of testing, but controlling details like this are no longer my problem.

I put the dollar into what definitely used to be a candy machine and chose the six pack of stupid scan-trons since I’d need one each week.

For attendance and all.

The machine made some noise, but the dang package didn’t drop. It was stuck to the scan-tron six-pack behind it. I jammed another dollar in and tried again, because if the class was 16 weeks, I’d probably need more anyway.

The same thing happened.

I turned to the loud girl on the phone and said, “I’m very sorry,” and then I whacked that stupid machine with all my might.

Twice.
(Anything more would have caused a scene.)

Whoever puts in the next dollar will feel like a winner.

I went BACK to the bookstore, where it turns out they DO sell scan-trons, and for 40 cents cheaper. I purchased a fist-full of the small ones and some big 100-question ones, too, for good measure.

Then, I went home and withdrew from that college altogether.

By this time I was on auto-pilot, so when a big voice outside of me said, “You’re not listening. Take the hint already. This is not where you are supposed to be.”


just
went
to the computer
and
withdrew.

And then I felt very, very sorry for myself.

Because I could have done an excellent job.
And because it was really, really fascinating.
And because I wanted to feel important again.

But the pity party was cut short by the other responsibilities of the day. Dinner wasn’t going to make itself. There was homework to be checked and chores to be supervised, bedtime stories to be read and things to clean.

***

There were moments—at least early on—when I thought maybe these "surprises" were a test of how badly I wanted this career, but eventually, I listened to a voice of reason outside of my desire.

While I am still deeply, deeply disappointed by the way things worked out, I’m relieved that the surprises are behind me. I don’t think I would have been comfortable dedicating my effort and compromising other areas of my life (namely my family) to a program that had so quickly become so capricious.

And that is how I dropped out of college.*

*College Algebra notwithstanding. Different college, for one thing. Also, it has been on my list of things to do, and I am going to overcome that beast once and for all.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Gone, but Not Forgotten

The students made a semi-circle around the still-faintly-white wedge-shaped print on the carpet near the front of the classroom.

"What happened here?" and "What do you think it is?" they murmured.


"To your seats, please. It's almost time to begin class," I directed.


"But won't you tell us what happened? There's no way that we'll be able to concentrate until we know."


Those little rascals knew how to get me every time.


"Fine, fine. But then it's time to work."


It was a tragic tale, really. The sorrow in my heart was still so fresh, but they were so stubbornly insistent, I knew their argument was valid: nothing would get done until they had their information.


The lovely and generous PTA had provided a Christmas luncheon for the teachers with entrees out the wazoo and an assortment of desserts that spanned two-and-a-half tables.


Because I am an incredibly picky particular eater and not particularly social, I'd carefully made my selections and brought them back to my classroom for a working lunch. Unable to resist the temptation of the dessert I'd chosen, I'd paused in the hallway to have a bite of the pie. 


Something must have shifted balance during that stealth-nibble, because unfortunately, between the door and the desk, the plate and I lost our coordination and the slice of pie slid right off.


It landed face-down on the carpet.


It could not be saved, which was a shame because it was quite possibly the finest pie I'd ever tasted.


"Mystery solved. Let's begin," I said.


A hand went up. "Yes?"


"Was the pie the kind with a creamy top layer?"


It was.


"Did it have a lemony base-layer to it?"


It did.


"Would you say the lemony base-layer was somewhat creamier than a typical lemon meringue pie?"


Indeed.


Grief for the fallen pie was beginning to consume me, but like grief so often does, it manifested itself in irritation.


"I thought we agreed that if I told you guys the story, we could more forward with our lessons. Why are you so interested in this pie?"


"I think it was the one my mom made for the PTA luncheon today."


"Well, then. Please give her my compliments and my thanks. And my apologies," I added. And with that, we proceeded with the day's lessons.



***

On the final day of school that year, the student presented me with my very own pie. I was touched that she'd remembered. 


It was so delicious, I had a difficult time sharing with the family.


***

The following year--my first year as a stay-at-home mom--Russ brought home several Christmas cards from some of my former students. 


"Wait," he said, "there's something extra-special out in the truck. I didn't want to drop it, so I figured I'd make two trips." 


He came back in the house carefully carrying the special lemony pie, which was accompanied by a Pentatonix concert ticket autographed by ALL the members. 


I couldn't believe it!


***


As you can imagine, that pie didn't last long, but I framed that Pentatonix ticket (which the always-thoughtful student had even laminated!)


The frame sits atop my dresser, and it is one of the first things I see each morning. It makes my spirit smile to know that even though I'm not teaching anymore, someone remembers and is still going out of her way to honor the time we shared together.


***

The transition to being a stay-at-home mom has not been easy, and the positive feedback from a folded stack of laundry is not the same as the spark of understanding in a student's eyes.

I am not proud to admit this, but there have been times when I've thought does this matter? Does anyone even notice or care that there's not a speck of dust on the ceiling fans and that there are no fingerprints on the storm door?

Worse still, doubts have crept in. I've thought did I really make a difference in all those years of teaching? Has anyone grown and changed for the better because of my influence?

I was feeling that way this past December, exhausted from Christmas preparations and discouraged by cleaning tasks undone, and most of all, overwhelmed by this whole impeding challenge of returning to college.

And that very afternoon, Russ walked in with that magical soul-restoring pie, and just like that, I mattered again.


(I censored the note to protect her privacy!)


I think I've composed a zillion thank you notes in my mind for this student, but there just don't seem to be words to express the magnitude of gratitude I feel toward her (and her family!) 

With this pie comes the restoration of self-confidence and self-worth. 

I don't think Hallmark makes thank you notes large enough or grand enough for that kind of gift.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Science Fair

The science fair tri-fold boards are on display at the elementary school, and they look great-- they really do. Many of the topics the kids have chosen are fascinating and far-out. Even the "close to home" ones are pretty cool. Although I only saw them in passing, a project studying methods to yield the biggest soap bubble and something involving popcorn popping temperature were two of my favorites.

Later that afternoon as I went out to turn off the hose to the pool, I had an idea for a "close to home" science fair project called Does Our Pool Have a Leak?

The explanation of the problem practically writes itself!

My mom is convinced that our pool has a leak. She says that nobody should have to run the hose water into the pool for three hours every week (even in the winter!) and that we probably have a major problem. My dad says evaporation is a normal part of the water cycle. He says it is really expensive to get a pool repair company involved, and he thinks we should wait until we are absolutely certain there is a problem before we hire professional help.

Wouldn't that be awesome? We could use a school assignment for something practical and immediately useful in real life. Two for the price of one.

I smiled all afternoon just thinking about it.


***

When I picked up the kids from school, the first thing Mia said was, "Mom! I've been thinking about ideas for the science fair for next year."

"That's so weird. I have, too!" I said. "How would you like to find out if our pool has a leak? Wouldn't that be fantastic?"

"I guess so, but I was thinking more about space. Maybe we could do an experiment to discover how many oxygen molecules there are in our solar system."

"I, um, I'm not really sure about that one. Uh. Hmmm. Well..." How long could I stammer before she'd put an end to my misery?

"That's okay, I already have a back-up plan. What if we studied the electrical wiring of our house and how the electricity gets transpor-tated from room to room? We could draw a big map of all the circuits and connections-- WAIT! Even better, we could build a model of our house and use actual circuits to show everyone how it works..."

She kept talking about it for at least another five full minutes, with that passionate enthusiasm that only seven-year-olds and caffeine addicts can muster.

I tried to hide my disappointment as best I could, but I was really bummed out about abandoning the pool plan. 

Oh, we'll still conduct an experiment to get to the bottom of the leak.

But now it appears we'll be doing some construction and circuitry work next winter, too.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

More Math Problems

Greetings from Textbook Hell.

There's a scene from the show The Middle where the mom wistfully dreams of a "Quirk Alert" bracelet (similar to the medical alert ones) so that people have a bit of forewarning about her eccentric son. If such a thing existed, it would have made today's events go much more smoothly.

The manager at the used bookstore would have observed my "Quirk Alert" bracelet. "Oh, I see you are a panicky perfectionist," he would have said.

"Yes, and it appears you are a sarcastic and possibly mean-spirited chump," I would have replied.

And then we could have respectfully and mindfully continued with our transaction.

But that is not the way it happened.


***

I was already a little self-conscious as I approached the college. I was not wearing Ugg boots, and the tips of my hair were not pink. I did not have ear-bud wires dangling on each side of my head or a cell phone in my front of my face.

I stood out like a sore thumb.

It was only while opening the door to the main atrium that I realized I'd feasibly have former students as my current classmates.

People who used to respect me were going to find out my dirty little math secret.

I kept my head down and hastened toward the bookstore. I'd zip in, take care of my business, and zip out again, back to the safety of not there.

The campus bookstore-- which as it turns out is seldom open-- was a hotbed of activity. Upon closer observation, it appeared there were as many employees as there were customers, which seemed like would be a good thing.

It was not.

I had three helpers all to myself, and I could hardly understand a word they were saying.

"Could you please help me to understand the 'Connect Plus' access cards?" I asked, cordial as ever.
"It comes with the book. Here, if you bend the book like so," she said, as she flopped it around, "you can feel it inside." 

I flopped it around like so and didn't feel anything, but I nodded as if I did. It seemed like the quicker way.

My attempt at communicating with them hadn't yielded any information of value, but I hadn't been particularly clear in my question, so I tried again.

"Great, thank you. Now what about this 'Connect Plus 52 Weeks Access Card'? That's just the card, right? Probably for people who already own the book and just need the online component?" I held out my printout of the course materials list, hoping that might help. I did not tell them about the craigslist deal I'd arranged. A girl in McKinney was going to sell me her book. I'd bargained her asking price down to $25!

"Oh, the cards are behind the counter at the register," said another helper.
"Yes, at the counter," repeated the other two supportively. From the corner of my eye, I noticed a fourth helper making his way toward us. 

Sheesh. I was starting to feel like a security threat.
I took a deep breath and tried again.

"Now, it says here there are used access cards for $70, and new ones for $93.35. Are they both available at the counter?"

"Oh, there are no used ones."
"Nope, no used ones," agreed Minion Two.
"It's not allowed," said Minion Three.

Why would it be listed if it wasn't allowed? Clearly these folks wouldn't know. It looked like I was stuck with the expensive book-card combo, at least for now. 


Seriously, am I the problem?


During the checkout process, the clerk took an inordinate amount of time comparing my driver's license to my debit card.

If I was going to steal someone's identity, I don't think I'd go on a one-book shopping spree at a college bookstore.

"You have 15 days to return this," he said, "but remember, as soon as you remove the shrink-wrap packaging from the exterior of the book, we cannot accept the return."

Great. 


***

After driving to McKinney to purchase what turned out to be not the book I needed, I decided to stop at a used bookstore on the way home, just in case. While the book I needed wasn't in stock, the one I'd almost just purchased for $25 was there--several copies-- for $7.99. Whew! Close call!

Once home, I decided to contact different local used bookstores.

The closest one did not have it.
A medium-distance one did, for the low, low price of $126.65, which is exactly what it costs brand new.
I tried yet another store. After a suspiciously long time on hold, the clerk reported that they had it in stock for $49.99 and could put it on hold for me at the purchase counter.

Elated, I hopped in the car and drove across town. There at the counter, as promised, was the book. Just to be safe, I quickly compared it to my other (still very much shrink-wrapped) book to make sure it was identical, which seemed to confuse the clerk.

On my way out the door, I started wondering about that other book-- the $7.99 one. Sure the authors were different, but maybe it was a trick. After all, both books were 'special edition' tailored-to-my-college-and-this-specific-course. 

What if I had just cheerfully paid six times more than necessary? (See what I did there? Math!)

Convinced I'd just snagged the last available used copy in town, I used my phone's camera to take a few pictures of the book-- nothing too obsessive. The table of contents, the first lesson page, etc.

Then I went back into the store.

It turns out there were several copies of both books on the shelf. A side-by-side comparison revealed they were distinctly different, which justified the cost.

BUT.

Several copies of the version I'd just purchased were in much nicer condition than the one presently sitting in the car.

I chose the very nicest one and approached the counter. After explaining that I'd like to swap it out with the one I'd just purchased, I headed toward the exit.

"Manager to the front for a return," my clerk announced over the loudspeaker.

Shoot. So this was going to be a thing. 
Fine. 
It would be worth it.

I grabbed the book and the receipt and went back inside, where the manager was waiting for me at one of the registers.

"What's wrong with the book?" he grumbled.
"Nothing," I replied casually.
"Then why do you want to exchange it?"
"Oh! Well, I'd called ahead about it, and the lady offered to put it on hold--which I really appreciate, by the way-- but it turns out that the one she chose is a little squished around the edges, and there are some germs along the side there..."  I trailed off, hoping I'd said enough but knowing I'd said too much. 

So of course, I said more. "I'm getting this for my tutor, and I really want to make a nice first impression, and this one is just nicer."

"O-kay," he said, but he said it like this: OH-kaaaaay.

I hate that.

"Well, I'll need to void the transaction, and you'll need to purchase this second nicer one," he said.

"I am so sorry to inconvenience you. I am very, very sorry. I thought we could just swap them out," I said. "I only purchased it nine minutes ago. I truly didn't realize it would be so complicated."

"Oh, I could make this much more complicated," he said.

"Please, please don't," I said meekly. 

And then, in case he didn't hear me, in case the giant poufy beard he was sporting was somehow covering his ears, I said it again a little louder, "Please don't make it more complicated." 

"I already said I was sorry," I added.

So he rang up the nicer one and asked me to run my debit card through the payment machine, and I had to sign the exact same way I had for the first one. 

"Here you go," he said, and possibly, "Bye."

After all that hullabaloo, there was no traditional "return" type paperwork or anything special to sign. The process felt incomplete. Had I simply been charged twice?

"So, that's it? I'm all set?" I asked.

"I'm not sure what you mean by all set," he said. Uh-oh. And then he started speaking even more slowly. "See, I voided your first transaction, then I charged you for your nicer book--"

There was that tone again. 

I had to interrupt. 
I had to get out of there.

"Sounds like I'm ready to go then. Thank you very much, sir."


***

Math class hasn't even started yet, and the darn thing has already been giving me problems.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

O Christmas Tree

So, we'd go over the river and through the woods.
Let me assure you, there was very little (if any) "laughing all the way".


As a child, going out to the tree farm to hunt for the perfect tree (and if you know my mother, there are tight parameters on "perfect" when it comes to Christmas trees) was part of the New England holiday tradition.

We'd bundle up, drive forever, and tromp around in sub-freezing temperatures inspecting every tree from every hill, valley, and plateau. Was it the tall enough? Was it conservatively narrow? Were the branches evenly distributed? Were the needles satisfactorily dense? Was it the right shade of green?

Is this one more proportionate than the one we saw ten minutes ago? Maybe we should compare them. Where was that one again?

Tromp, tromp, tromp.

Hours later when a decision had been made, my father would hack it down with an ax. Then we'd drag the thing to the wrap-it-up barn where they'd send it through the machine that would compress it, and it would emerge, swirled with twine and ready to be strapped to the top of our car.

Once home, there was the ceremonial wrangling it through the doorway and weaving it through the rooms before we could even get to the stringing of the lights, hanging of the ornaments, and frosting of the branch tips with the soap-flake paste.

From that point on, it was non-stop maintenance-- watering it, cleaning up the shedding needles, and the biggest job of all: corralling the cat.

I don't think my dad really enjoyed the tree-trek, either, because I have a memory of him starting a personal-sized tree farm at my childhood home in East Putnam. We moved when the blasted things were oh, two feet tall. Maybe less.

There's a second even more elusive memory of him starting a personal-sized tree farm at the new house. I'm not sure if anyone else remembers. I'm not sure anyone--even he, maybe especially he-- even remembers where he planted them, if indeed this happened at all.

Tromp, tromp, tromp.

***

It should not surprise you that my first holiday purchase as an independent adult was a fake tree, much to my mother's horror.

It was tall enough, conservatively narrow, evenly distributed, satisfactorily dense, and precisely green from base-to-tip. 

The very best part? It was pre-lit.

I probably would have gone faux anyway, but the decision was practically determined for me due to location, location, location.

Live trees didn't seem like a viable option as fir forests are something of a rarity in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

So, each year, I'd cheerfully dig out the old falsie, stack the three levels, locate and attach the plugs, and then fluff, fluff, fluff for that pseudo-realistic touch.

I have to tell you, my Christmas tree enthusiasm each year is a little less cheerful than the year before. Those fake trees still shed, and by the time I get done with the fluffing phase, my arms and face look like I've battled ten wet cats.

It's possibly my least-favorite task of the holiday season. I've started trying to not think about Christmas until Thanksgiving, but a pre-Halloween trip to the pumpkin patch this year thwarted my plan.

I overheard a conversation about how a local pumpkin patch is also a tree farm after Thanksgiving. I remember looking around in surprise. There were no trees in the field. How could this be?

Apparently they bring them in and line them up in rows.

I never went back to confirm this. It was just too mind-boggling. Were the trees already compressed in twine? How would you even know what you were getting until you got home and popped it open?

What if it was lopsided?
What if it was unevenly distributed or unsatisfactorily dense?

I may be sick and tired of the fake trees, but I don't think I could handle a surprise tree.

Worse still, while on our way to our New Year's Eve dinner reservation, I saw at least two roadside tents with giant signs announcing

CHRISTMAS TREES, 50% OFF!

The situation was puzzling and wasteful, and the stack of unchosen trees was just heartbreaking.

I had to look away.

The following day it was finally time to take down our two Christmas trees, and fortunately I remembered to wear long sleeves to minimize the scratches. It was still a pain, though, and still a mess.

Surely there must be a better way.
Amazon, ho!

I located the perfect replacement tree and ordered it without consulting Russ-- in this case, a justified impulse purchase.

It arrived!

Wait until you see the pictures before you pass judgment.

This box is about 24" x 24" x 6"

Not just pre-lit. Pre-ornamented, too!

Here's the stand and 1/2 the pole.

Next, you just slide it on like a big wreath.

Then, you put on the second pole, yank it up, and plug it in. POOF.

Purple and silver was not my first choice, but clearance-tree buyers cannot be picky.

The kids decided it looked better in the front room.

It takes less than sixty seconds to disassemble this thing.

If my mother hated our other trees, she is going to loathe this one! I, on the other hand, am thrilled.

As far as I'm concerned, it's a Christmas miracle.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Tunnel Vision

I stared at the license plate of the vehicle in front of me at the stoplight.

ISLHMZ

No numbers, just letters.
Did it spell something?

ISLah means something in Arabic, I thought, but I couldn't remember what.
ISLam. Maybe it had something to do with Islam.
Maybe the z was being used to pluralize. Not proper, but if the "s" was already taken, it could work in a pinch.

Plano is a very diverse community, with a plethora of religions and houses of worship throughout the city. In fact, the Islamic association for our whole county was located only one block away from that very intersection.

Still, it seemed like a bold move to make a proclamation of one's religion on the license plate. What if he or she drove into a less supportive town? I was appropriately impressed by the courage of the car owner and hoped that nothing negative would come to him or her.

As I lifted my gaze to verify the stop light status (still red) I noticed that the entire back windshield of the SUV was covered with an image of a woman's face.

She definitely didn't look like what I'd expected for such a proud member of the Muslim faith.

Of course, that's the beauty of diversity, I reminded myself, and shame on you for even making that kind of an evaluation based on appearance.

But who would want her face plastered on the back of her vehicle, anyway?

I inched closer to read the significantly smaller words beside the giant portrait.

Oh!
She's a real estate agent.
I-SeLl-HoMeZ!

How very misleading.