Monday, March 19, 2018

I'm traveling lighter as kids get older, but it's a bittersweet celebration

Cooper and Katie, Wrightsville Beach, March 2018
From Saturday's Briefing:

Rain was falling. The sky was darkening. I had 25 minutes to pick up disparate items across a giant Target store before it was time to pick up Katie from youth group.
Another mom in the parking lot looked rushed, too, but her burden was heavier. She had a tiny infant in a stroller and a spirited 2-year-old (is there any other kind?) pulling on an arm.
I kept a socially acceptable distance, nodded hello and asked, "Do you need any help?"
The mom laughed and said no, that she just needed to pick up one item — one item only — for her daughter's eczema. No one else was at home just then to watch the baby or the toddler, so she had no choice but to bring them with her in the chilly rain.
"I remember those days," I told her as we navigated puddles to the automatic doors. "They can be tough."
She asked how old mine were.
"Sixteen and 12. I'm sure you've heard it before, but time goes so quickly when you're a mom."
I grabbed a cart — not a single one dry — and wished the mom good luck as she steered her babies toward the pharmacy.
I zigzagged from section to section, easily grabbing what I needed, no one asking for something to eat or a spin through the Star Wars toy aisle. It's the freedom that moms of young children dream of. It's the reward of raising children who become independent — one at church, the other at home toiling on a 5,000-word research paper on the implications of small nuclear reactors in a community setting. It's also bittersweet, like so much of this parenting journey.
Cooper, Katie and I traveled to North Carolina over spring break, fitting in another college visit and a couple of days at the beach. We've been traveling as a trio for almost a decade now, and both children have matured into self-sufficient and helpful partners.
I no longer look over my shoulder constantly, making sure that we're all together. We stick together by instinct. I no longer lug more than my portion. We each carry our own bags and jackets and boarding passes. There's no squabbling over who gets the window seat. Cooper and Katie keep track. I'm no longer a one-stop entertainment shop with books, notebooks, stickers, crayons, stuffed animals and snacks. We each pack our own carry-on bag.
The journey here wasn't always smooth. We've endured lost items and meltdowns and miscommunication. You don't stop being a parent when you're on vacation, and sometimes the role is heightened, on high alert for different kinds of choices — and dangers — than at home.
I've placed a priority on our little jaunts because there's so much of the world we haven't seen, because we create special memories when we're away from home and because I'm trying to prepare my people for life on their own.
As we walked the campus of North Carolina State University, I tried to imagine Cooper there without me. Could he navigate from one building to another without my guidance? Could he solve problems on his own? Could he find help if he needed it? 
He's got a few more weeks of junior year, one more year of high school, then he'll be forging adventures without me, wherever he lands. It's what we've been working toward his whole childhood.
This is cause for celebration, of course, and the root of a tiny heartache that feels more profound when I see babies in strollers and toddlers hanging on their mommas. I remember those days, rough in the moment yet sacred for what they represent — the foundation of lives to be launched, much faster than you ever expected.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at
Cooper and Katie, Wrightsville Beach, March 2018

Monday, March 05, 2018

I'm a teacher, not a police officer, and I won't carry a gun in class

My column from Saturday's Briefing:

The list of what I will do for my students — what most every teacher will do for her students — is long.
That list includes but is not limited to:
1. Repeat instructions as many times as necessary.
2. Explain one concept in three, four, five different ways.
3. Perform an impromptu interpretive dance of short prairie grass to illustrate a cause of the Dust Bowl.
4. Write a recommendation letter for private school admission.
5. Check forehead for possible fever.
6. Email mom with an important message that absolutely cannot wait until after school.
7. Help look for a retainer in the trashcan.
8. Open a locker that is impossibly jammed.
9. Cover an oozy wound with a bandage.
10. Read stories aloud with silly voices.
11. Methodically search a backpack for an essential item that is inexplicably missing.
12. Stay up late grading essays.
13. Stay up late double-checking plans for a new lesson.
14. Stay up late reading a student's favorite novel for a promised book talk.
15. Stay up late watching a student's favorite TV show because he relates all life experiences to that series.
16. Try to understand the demands of competitive cheer, dance, gymnastics, martial arts, hockey, wrestling and lacrosse.
17. Listen without speaking.
18. Offer hugs and high fives freely.
19. Walk a child to counselor's office while diverting attention so peers don't witness a breakdown in progress.
20. Workshop how to tell parents potentially disappointing news.
21. Model conflict management.
22. Make up a story about quotation marks protecting commas from birds of prey because students keep forgetting to place punctuation marks in the correct order.
23. Brainstorm ways to study for a quiz when every other way isn't working.
24. Research books and authors to find a title for the most reluctant of readers.
25. Reassure every child during an emergency drill that it's just practice in case of the unlikely event of fire, tornado or an intruder.
What I will never do: Carry a gun into my classroom.
I do not believe that the answer to gun violence is more guns.
I do not believe that my students will be safer if I am in possession of a firearm.
I do not believe that part of my professional development should be how to operate a firearm.
I chose teaching as my second profession because I am passionate about literacy, children and the health of my community. I'm finishing my fifth year now — far from a veteran — and have no regrets about my decision.
Yet there's no denying that teaching is emotionally exhausting work that never gets left behind. We worry about our current students and the babies from previous years. We consider how to reach each one individually, how to motivate them, how to offer effective feedback, how to push them without being too pushy, how to help them set goals and then reach them.
I'm 100 percent on board with that job description.
In the event that an intruder with bad intentions entered our sacred hallways, I would do everything possible to protect my students and all the students in the building. I would hide them, shush them, shield them. I would stand between any threat and those children.
I will not sacrifice my values — the same values that serve as a foundation for the culture of my classroom — and take up arms against another human.
We are right to hold teachers to a high standard. We are wrong to expect teachers — even a small portion of them — to become law enforcement officials as well.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

God is too big to be left out

I've noticed this week an increase in the number of social media posts that bemoan the absence of God in public schools. I think that we are all trying to make sense of the continued violence that plagues our country, especially in the sacred hallways and classrooms of our nation's schools.

Yet God could never be left out of our schools.

Our schools are populated by the children of God. Every child and adult is a beloved soul. We carry God's light with us and within us. When students and teachers walk through the doors, they don't leave behind that light.

Our libraries are filled with beautiful prose and poetry, a reflection of gifts from God. Our hallways are filled with student-created art. Surely God is present in those places.

I understand that there are people who believe that our country began to disintegrate when the Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that school-sponsored prayer violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Yet no court decision dictates when an individual can petition God. Nothing gets in the way of a silent prayer between a human and God.

My classroom is filled with children from multiple faith traditions -- and in some cases, none at all. I never want a single child in my room to feel belittled or maligned because of their family's religious or spiritual beliefs. Why do we think that forcing a specific religion on a spiritually diverse population is going to solve a single problem? 

During our daily moment of silence, I have no idea what's on their hearts and minds. I know what's on mine. Sometimes it's, "I need to record third-period attendance now, before I forget." Sometimes it's, "I'm proud of these sixth-graders for standing silently."

Sometimes I take a small moment to thank God that a student has returned after suffering from the flu or that a student who has been struggling is showing signs of improvement or that Cooper drove safely to high school that morning.

Sometimes I seek specific favor, asking for patience with a child or clarity with a problem or wisdom before sending an email.

Sometimes I ask forgiveness for an edge in my voice or a conversation that lacked sufficient grace.

Sometimes I ask for safety for those children in my room and all the students on our campus and all the adults who take seriously the job of protecting them.

God may not be reflected exactly the way some would prefer in our schools, but there is no doubt that God is present wherever humans are gathered. God is too big to be left out.

He said, "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest."
-- Exodus 33:14

Monday, February 19, 2018

Parenting is preparing children for their real lives right now, not just adulthood

My column from Saturday's Briefing:

Parenting often feels like a tenuous balance between coordinating daily events and preparing these children for their adult future.
Right now: It's time to get up. Your alarm went off 20 minutes ago. You have to be ready to leave in half an hour.
Future: You need to figure out how to wake up reliably because one day you'll be on your own, and I won't be there to see if you hit snooze too many times.
Right now: Make sure you have all your clothes laid out for tomorrow. You need running clothes, school clothes and your concert uniform.
Future: When you're in college, you might not have time to do laundry every other day. You'll need to plan ahead to make sure you have what you need for at least a week.
Right now: Where is your agenda for the week? What assignments are due tomorrow? How many hours do you need to set aside to study for that test?
Future: You need to find a system that works for you to help you organize deadlines independently.
Parenting is also preparing these children for their real lives right now — not just the logistical gymnastics but the moments that sharpen and reveal character.

We adults tend to divide a lifetime into two easy segments: childhood and adulthood. We sometimes forget that children are fully engaged right now, listening to what we say, mimicking what we do. Their lives don't magically launch when they graduate high school or college. They're entrenched in the real world today.
My 12-year-old is in the middle of seventh grade, learning how to calculate the area of a circle, how to write a short-answer response with embedded quotations and how to play increasingly difficult melodies on the oboe. She's picked up a few other skills, too.
This week she was in a small group of young people. A boy began to make racist comments.
"You have to stop," Katie told him. "That's not OK, whatsoever."
He insulted her. She didn't back down. He insulted her again. She held her ground.

yesterday after church
She summoned courage and relied on strong conviction to speak truth. She moved beyond self-advocacy, a skill we've been working on for years, to advocate for others.
Katie isn't practicing for real life. She's in the middle of it.
We talk through all kinds of scenarios at home. What would you do if you see someone being bullied? What would you do if someone offers you drugs? What would you do if someone texts you, asking for a nude photo? What would you do if you're at a party and you're not comfortable with what's going on around you?
I think in some ways I've considered these conversations sort of good luck charms. If we talk about the possibilities enough and prepare for them, they won't actually ever happen.
Instead, I'm realizing, there's no way to anticipate every possible conversation. Because I've never once asked my children, "What would you do if someone starts maligning an entire group of people based solely on race or gender or religion?"
We can't provide our children a script for every possible encounter or event. We can't inoculate them from trouble. We can't expect that they'll behave with grace or common sense every single time, either. That's not because they're children — but because they're human.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at

Thursday, February 15, 2018

We have a problem.

We have a problem, Americans.

There is absolutely nothing normal about human beings being murdered in classrooms or in hallways or on sidewalks.

Or in churches.

Or at outdoor concerts.

Or in airports.

Or at dance clubs.

What puzzles me about it all is that we Americans are, by nature, problem-solvers. Solving problems is part of our heritage.

This problem, though -- we can't even seem have a conversation about this problem.

There's a lot of shouting and pandering and name-calling. It's not the guns. It's mental health. It's education. It's poor parenting. We're over-medicated. It's lack of a collective backbone in Congress. It's deregulation. Laws would only punish law-abiding citizens. We have the right, guaranteed by the Second Amendment, to bear arms. More people are killed by (fill in the blank) than by guns. The NRA controls Congress. The NRA is an innocent rights-advocacy group. This could never happen here. This could happen anywhere. It's too soon to talk about solutions. Thoughts and prayers are empty gestures. We can't allow gun rights to erode. We need stronger gun legislation. Look at Chicago -- gun laws have done nothing there. Americans have the right to defend ourselves.

I've hesitated for years to express in public an opinion on the gun violence problem in our country. I don't want to insult my friends who are pro-gun rights, and I don't fully understand every aspect of the issue.

I'm no longer comfortable remaining silent.

I don't know how many more school shootings our collective hearts can bear.

I don't know how many more stories we can read about teachers who shield their students, who are willing to die to protect those babies from bullets sprayed from an assault rifle.

This is a heavy burden to bear, friends. We are responsible because we refuse to collaborate and compromise. We refuse to acknowledge that rights must be placed in priority, that not everyone can "win," but a whole host of people are losing while we do absolutely nothing.

God did not create us to hunt one another down. God did not create us to sit idle, to allow evil in whatever forms it presents itself to rule over our hearts and cloud our judgment.

God created us to live in community. God created us to care for one another.

God created us to love -- to love God and to love one another.

We're doing a really awful job. This is not heaven on earth. This is not even close.

We deserve better. Our children deserve better. We have a problem, but, glory be, we can solve problems. It's way past time that we unite to name this problem and then step by step work toward solving it.

Monday, February 05, 2018

We need to fix a common parent problem: Showing our kids we're proud even when they fail

From Saturday's Briefing:

When I received word that my beloved grandmother died 13 years ago, I was on deadline in the middle of the newsroom. One of my editors, a dear friend, was by my side immediately.

I'm certain that Sharon shared a deep well of comforting words, but the only ones I remember are those that helped to sustain me through the next few hours: Your grandmother was proud of you.

I've returned to that phrase countless times since.

I was thankful in the moment for someone who recognized my profound loss and offered words that I didn't even realize I needed to hear.

As a mom, I've thought many times since of how my grandmother's love never wavered, despite actions and words that surely disappointed her.

When I'm struggling with a creative endeavor, I think of Gramma's belief in me. She was a poet and a dreamer and a problem-solver, and though I can't hear her Alabama-bred voice anymore, I stored up enough of her musings and snippets of verse to last a lifetime.

When I see one of my students struggling with self-confidence, I wonder who whispers words of pride to that child at home.

When one of my own children makes a poor choice, I wonder if I've shared "I'm proud of you" often enough.

Maybe all those children — yours and mine — aren't always listening. Or perhaps we adults aren't always skilled at expressing love and pride while at the same time correcting and guiding.

My love for Cooper and Katie doesn't change based on a test score or report card, a solo performance or a 5K time. And though I'm proud of them when they work hard and proud of them when they perform better than the last time, my pride doesn't falter when they have a bad day or a bad week.

I cherish and value these children entrusted in my care, and I want them to believe in themselves as much as I do.

Yet there are moments when I question every parenting decision I've ever made, when I wonder, "Who are these creatures and what have they done with my actual children?"

In those moments, they may not be aware of the full depth of my pride.

One of my goals this year is to be more deliberate about expressing my unabashed pride and devotion, even in the middle of one of the inevitable lectures necessary in the raising of young people.

I have a similar goal with my students, that each of them know I'm one of their biggest fans — even when they turn in assignments late or forget to study for a quiz or spend more time talking than working.

Imagine a world in which every single child knows without question that a whole crowd believes in them, cherishes them, loves them — even in the middle of apathy or poor judgment or turmoil.

It's the kind of world I dream about, a legacy from that poetic grandmother of mine.

Some days, for no discernible reason, a couple of lines will pop into my head. They're from a poem Gramma Kathryn wrote about me when I was tiny:

A package full of dynamite,
A bundle full of charm,
It takes a lot of dousing
For a fire that's five-alarm

That's how she saw me — spunky, engaging, determined. Those words, penned in the 1970s, have shored my confidence on rough days ever since.

Each of us has the same power, to offer words that echo warmth and comfort and love, long after we're gone. It's a gift we should lavish with abandon.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at

Monday, January 22, 2018

Why I can't wait to stop procrastinating on my taxes

From Saturday's Briefing:

February goal: Gather 2017 tax documents
As January wanes, mailboxes will begin to fill with all kinds of documents for the 2017 tax season. I will dutifully place each important document in my special tax pile and vow to make this year different.
This will be the year I file taxes on time.
Now, I'm not a scofflaw. Every year that I file late, I'm within federal parameters. The extension is filed. Estimated taxes owed, if any, are paid. I always meet the final Oct. 15 deadline.
And I'm always exasperated with myself. Why did I put off what could have been done earlier? Why can't I sort through that pile of documents in February or March like most Americans?
Some tasks feel so dreadful that we procrastinate until the last moment, and then, when we actually finish, we wonder: What was I so afraid of?
I take solace that I'm not alone.
I see similar behavior with some of my middle-school students, the ones who struggle to meet interim deadlines, who stay up late the night before a project is due, who struggle to learn their lesson from the previous project.
I recognize the panic in their eyes as a due date nears — and I celebrate when they reach their goal. Procrastination is a heavy burden to carry, and there's blessed relief when that burden is set down.
We need a reminder during the process — and especially before — that we can do hard things.
Those students who struggle with major project deadlines turn in most assignments on time. They offer creative solutions to problems. They read multiple genres with passion and curiosity.
They've got all the potential in place to tackle an overwhelming project, manage their time and turn it in on time, without losing sleep.
Me, too.
There are many tasks I accomplish that are much more difficult than gathering paperwork and totaling expenses in time for April 15 (or a few weeks earlier, to give my long-suffering accountant ample time).
I meet deadlines every day, both in the classroom and at home. I've learned to troubleshoot and repair all kinds of problems — broken garbage disposal, misbehaving wireless router, jammed photocopier. When I want to learn something new or understand an issue better or just find solace, I seek articles or books (or YouTube videos) written by experts.
My role as a single working mom has pushed me to limits I never expected. I make mistakes all over the place, but I also wrestle challenges every day of the week.
This week alone, I juggled a full-time job, some smaller jobs on the side, a child with flu and multiple phone calls and appointments. I have no excuse for late taxes.
Last October, after I arrived home from my final accountant meeting of the year, I told Cooper and Katie that I was weary of my late filing ways. I explained that the year after Daddy's death, there was just too much to take care of by myself to get taxes filed on time. That single year of filing an extension somehow turned into eight.
"It's not difficult, though, and I feel so accomplished when it's finished," I told my children. I asked for their help for this year.
"Remind me, starting in January, that making the April deadline won't be that difficult."
Maybe as I fix my errant ways, my children will also learn what to do — and not do — when their time comes.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at

Monday, January 08, 2018

Having awkward talks could prevent trouble down the road

From Saturday's Briefing:

A parent's résumé is ever evolving, and there's absolutely no way to contain it to a single page.

Basic duties include and are certainly not limited to: carrying, shepherding, cooking, cleaning, driving, purchasing, managing, demanding, negotiating, delivering, teaching, guiding, reading, corralling, worrying, rejoicing, clarifying, listening, speaking, convincing, cajoling and deciding.
Speaking subtopics are added as time continues and circumstances change:
  • Modeling basic language skills.
  • Repeating "I love you" multiple times daily.
  • Saying "no" with varying degrees of intensity.
  • Establishing critical rules about safety.
  • Offering advice for social scenarios.
  • Repeating cautionary tales.
  • Explaining current events.
  • Discussing uncomfortable yet crucial topics.

I'm thankful for the natural progression of humans from infant to teen, which allows us parents time to practice before we get to the really tough conversations. We get to smooth out our technique with discussions about taking turns and sharing, giving us confidence and courage to tackle the heavy stuff.
All that practice — more than 16 years of parenting so far — convinces me that difficult conversations become less difficult the more often you have them.
So this week, when I stumbled on a study out of Northwestern University about girls being overwhelmed by sexting requests, I had no qualms about broaching the subject with my two children.
They've heard it all before.
Don't ask anyone, ever, to send you a nude photo via smartphone.
If anyone asks you to send a photo, report it to a trusted adult immediately.
If anyone sends you an unsolicited nude photo, report it to a trusted adult immediately.
If one of your friends confides in you that they have sent a nude photo, do not gossip about it. Find a way to help your friend talk to an adult.
If you make a mistake when navigating all of this, please let me know so we can work through it together.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Why I'm taking it easy this Christmas (and eating store-bought cookies)

From today's Briefing:

My Katie is spending half of Christmas Eve at church.

It's entirely appropriate, of course, and I'm thankful that she's eager to share her talent and time with our community.
I will also be spending half of Sunday at church, though in a less participatory manner. I'll be in the pews for every one of her three dramatic portrayals of a shepherd who's journeyed from the fields to the manger in Bethlehem. I'll settle in again late that night, when she joins the youth choir to sing at the final candlelight service.

Our day will be different than most other Christmas Eves, when we cheerfully fit in dinner and stockings at the grandparents' house. It's a lovely tradition that we started two decades ago and has been broken only by severe illness or inclement weather (I'm looking at you, 2009).

But the grandparents are singing at two services (alas, different ones than Katie's four), and there was no way to schedule one more event and maintain some semblance of peace on earth.

Christmas, of all the holidays, has the greatest potential for high expectations and, sometimes, deep disappointments.
We're fraught with the memories of Christmases past and the potential of Christmases future. We want the food to be special, the gifts to be appreciated and traditions to be continued. We want snow, but not so much that it impedes our travel. We want photos that reflect the magic and joy and meaning of the day. We want all the buildup, from Thanksgiving until Dec. 25, to be worth the effort.

We are often so focused on making every single moment as special as possible that we sometimes forget to leave space for unexpected surprises. Sometimes, we even forget to reflect on what makes the moments special.

Our church's family worship services will include manger scenes re-created by children in simple costumes. There's bound to be a wayward wise man or a Joseph who flees the scene. (A child's service that goes off without a hitch just feels inauthentic.)

Katie's role is to tell the birth story from the point of view of one of the shepherds mentioned in the Book of Luke. To write her monologue, she read and reread the verses. Then we imagined what life was like for a shepherd at night, how familiar he would be with the constellations, how he would immediately notice a new star, how frightened he would be in the presence of angels.

When Katie speaks in front of members of our congregation, she's going to express how torn one of those shepherds might feel after finally reaching Bethlehem, finding the baby in the manger and being told to leave to spread the good news.

All that work to reach a destination, to witness a miracle and then turn around and go home?

It's easy to feel the same way about our modern Christmas experience.

I'm constantly seeking balance, trying to prune some of the work out of the journey while trying to enjoy the experience a little longer.

This year that means no Christmas cookies baked in the Damm kitchen (store-bought have been sustaining us this season). That means packages under the tree are wrapped but not elaborately decorated. That means that we will spend Christmas Day with the grandparents, focusing not on the time we missed the night before but the time we have right now.

And as I sit in four worship services Sunday, I'll be focused on the destination, not anxious to rush off to the next event, instead eager to bask in the majesty of the story and the truth in the music and the mild chaos in the manger.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at

Monday, December 11, 2017

The up-and-down emotions of having a new teen driver

From Saturday's Briefing:

Way back in 2001, when one of the delivery room nurses placed my firstborn child in my arms, I felt the sense of relief and joy and love that overwhelms new mommas.
I cried a little because I was in pain and because I was slightly scared and because I was holding in my arms a tiny human who would totally depend on me and his daddy for every possible need.
Tears returned as we journeyed home, Steve driving north on Interstate 35E and me in the backseat, alternating my gaze between infant Cooper and the traffic that surrounded us.
Our little trio was out in the world for the first time, and I instantly understood the ubiquitous "Baby on Board" signs mocked by many. In that moment, I would have welcomed flashing yellow lights and a giant billboard atop the Passat, proclaiming "Brand-New Human on Board."
Parenting ever since has been an unpredictable journey marked by relief, joy, love, pain and fear, usually all at once.
This week brought one of the biggest milestones in the path so far. Cooper is now a licensed driver, with a used car that offers him newfound freedom. I'm happy for him and proud of him, of course, and I kind of want to drape his sensible four-door sedan in flashing yellow lights, topped with a giant billboard proclaiming "Brand-New Driver on Board."
As usual, many of my parenting worries aren't actually related to my children's choices. Instead, I'm concerned about the people around them.
I've got no control over the people who drive too fast on our street, when little ones are on scooters or drawing with sidewalk chalk or playing hide-and-seek on the block.
I can't force drivers at the four-way stop look up and pay attention to children walking across the busy intersection that separates our neighborhood from our schools.
I can do nothing about the folks out there who switch lanes without signaling or speed up when they should slow down or turn right on red without really looking.
So I'm facing this milestone like all the others. I'm praying that all the preparation plus all of his common sense will help guide him through tricky situations. I'm hoping that he keeps his cellphone in the glove box, that he chooses reason over risk, that he remembers no class schedule or appointment is worth skating through a yellow light.
With time, and a whole lot of deep calming breaths, I expect that I'll start to enjoy a little freedom, too. Cooper can now get himself to pre-dawn practices for band and cross country. He can drive to and from Sunday afternoon Boy Scout meetings and Wednesday night youth group.
I reserve the right, though, to chauffeur every now and then. I enjoy his stories from the classroom and his perspective on current events. I want to hear about the younger Scouts who act silly and the most recent lesson at church.
Those moments between destinations are often the most meaningful of the journey.
We're just a year and a half from another big milestone — high school graduation followed by college plans — and I'm starting to hoard the moments we have left. Because the thought sending my 6-foot-4 baby out into the world, far from home, overwhelms me with relief, joy, love, pain and fear, all at once.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at