Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The journey is different than expected, but I'm thankful

From Saturday's Briefing:

I am mom to two children, but I claim an additional 146. Those extra represent three years’ worth of teaching, which isn’t exactly the same as parenting but includes similar guiding and worrying, nurturing and redirecting.
I can’t imagine my life without those 146 and the families, stories, challenges and success stories they represent.
It’s the same with a group of volunteers I’ve become attached to over the years. They coordinate the North Texas Head for the Cure 5K, an annual event that raises money for brain cancer research.
I teach because I am passionate about literacy and quality education, because my heart swells every time I read a story aloud or conference with a young writer. I also teach because I need a job that affords a schedule that allows me to care for my own two children as a single mom.
I participate in Head for the Cure because I look forward to a day when a brain cancer diagnosis doesn’t include the words “inoperable” or “incurable.” It’s too late to save my Steve — and a whole host of angels, like Melinda and Maureen and Madison. But there’s a whole army of folks out there — my volunteer-turned-friends included — who haven’t given up hope for future patients and their families.
Early in the grieving process for Steve, while he was still alive and undergoing brutal treatment, I learned to let go of “what if” scenarios, the fantasy world in which cancer hadn’t invaded our lives. No amount of hoping, crying or pleading would change his diagnosis.
Instead, he and I learned to celebrate silver linings. We would have traded almost anything to get rid of that tumor, but that wasn’t an option. So we relished easier- than-expected appointments. We embraced new relationships. We marveled at help received from friends and strangers.
All that was good training for life without a husband and dad at home — a life I never wanted but happened anyway. I’m constantly reminded that our reactions and attitudes define us more than our circumstances.
Last weekend, more than 2,000 people gathered at a park in Plano to walk or run for Head for the Cure. My family has participated the past six years, and it’s a privilege to stand beside volunteers like Shari and Leslie and Gerryl. They are women who make my life richer by modeling selflessness and purpose, and our paths may have not crossed without a shared, albeit tragic, connection.
I prefer to focus on the blessings of our friendships.
It’s the same with those 146 children.
The path that led me to the classroom was bumpy. It’s not the route I asked for or would wish on anyone else, but I’m thankful for the destination.
I have stories about each of those 146 — sometimes dozens of stories about just one child. I’ve listened to tales from the football field and volleyball court. I’ve entertained memories from the Galapagos, from Hawaii, from multiple Disney getaways.
I’ve watched some children endure separation or divorce and others welcome new siblings or kittens.
These children have taught me how to be more patient, how to listen better, how to pay closer attention to details. They have gathered on the carpet to listen to some of my favorite stories, and together we have discovered new favorites.
The past three years have been layered with hugs and high-fives, tearful confessions and jubilant celebrations. I never expected to be here, to be counting 146 kids and looking forward to a few dozen more come August.
This isn’t exactly the journey I anticipated, but I am thankful for every gift — and every single relationship — along the way.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Welcome, May, you bittersweet month

From Saturday's Briefing:

Dear May,

Welcome! I totally mean it. Mostly.

Every year, I both relish and dread your visit. Every year, I vow to prepare for you, to not let you bring me down. Every year, I survive you, but, let’s be honest, sometimes it’s a rough go.

Let’s peek ahead at what you have in store for us this time around: Open House, band banquet, STAAR and AP exams, solo and ensemble contest, 5K, two Boy Scout camping trips, marching band workshops, storybook parade, class presentations, Field Day and end-of-year parties.

That’s just what you’ve revealed so far. You have a reputation for being surreptitious, adding last-minute celebrations, sneaking in overlapping appointments. You seem determined to test every ounce of my logistical skills, to assess my problem-solving savvy.

Today I have big plans for make-ahead meals, guaranteed to get nutritious, well-balanced weeknight dinners on the table. Check back in a couple of weeks, though, and you may find a menu of grilled cheese sandwiches and sliced apples.

Sweet May, you offer ample opportunities to reflect and to cheer. You also present moments guaranteed to make me weep.

This year, you pack a wallop. It’s the final chapter of elementary school for our family.
For a full decade now, you’ve delivered us Field Day. This time, May, we will bid farewell to beanbag races, water relays and tire rolls. Adieu, three-legged race and Hippity-Hops.

For the final time, my Katie will show off a stack of assembled schoolwork — poetry, clay pot, science brochure — held back for one special night. We’ll take one last Open House photo with her elementary teachers. (Alas, it’s no longer necessary for her teachers to stoop down for the camera.)
She will finish up with recess and Friday morning assemblies, safety patrol and jogging club.

May, you and I have spent a lot of days together. You know that I know that my babies are supposed to grow up, to reach milestones, to move on to the next stage of life. Yet you also know I can be a sentimental, messy mess. That’s why, darling month, I’m relying on you to offer some levity. How about some moments of pure joy, not mingled with bittersweet tears of a momma who irrationally wants time to freeze?

I’ve got my eye on the band banquet for guaranteed, tear-free happiness; It’s a semi-formal affair for students and parents, hosted in the school cafeteria, with catered meal and a dance. There will be no weepy farewells. Plus, I rarely pass up the opportunity to observe teens in their habitat.

When there’s a sliver of break in your plans, how about we fit in the first swim of the season, a visit to the Snow Cone Lady, a neighborhood stroll? Let’s have a movie night at home and a morning to sleep in.

These stolen moments are key, May, to our surviving friendship. I need to bank these spirit-filling memories. Because, let’s face it, this go-round is nothing compared with what you’ve got in store in 2019, the year my first baby will graduate high school.

Oh, dear May, sit a spell. Stay a while. You’re welcome as long as you’d like.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Don't shy from the big picture

From Saturday's Briefing:

Parenting requires the uncanny ability to function in the tension between the present and the future.
There’s the survival, often reactionary, mode side of parenting, in which everything hinges on food, clothing, shelter and logistics. Then there’s the squishy future world that requires methodical planning and predicting for who-knows-what variables to come.
Survival mode includes untold hours devoted to nutrition: Learning to nurse a newborn, coercing a toddler to eat vegetables, packing lunches for school, delivering team snacks to ballgames, attempting to keep the cupboards stocked for your ravenous teen.
Same with clothing: Do we have enough onesies? How did this child grow out of all her shoes already? Where did all the socks go? Where did you leave your jacket? How did you get holes in those brand-new jeans? Why on earth did the coach select white shorts for outdoor soccer? You need which shirt clean in 15 minutes? The one at the bottom of the hamper?
Ditto for logistics, a tricky formula with increasing difficulty based on the number of children, activities, divergent campuses and available driving adults.
This right-now sort of parenting occasionally garners praise from the young people. Bake a fabulous batch of cookies or rescue a child from walking home in the rain, and you’re likely to hear “thank you.” You might even receive a giant hug.
Hang on to those accolades. You’ll want to revel in them later, when some of your other decisions are less popular. Because in the middle of providing for basic (and sometimes frivolous) needs, you can’t lose sight of the bigger goal: guiding that tiny person into responsible adulthood.
That focus on the big picture requires the kind of work that sometimes goes unappreciated in the moment. Indeed, it may be openly scorned.
That’s OK. Parenting also requires a thick skin, a kind of hard-earned callus that deflects eye rolls and shrugged shoulders and sarcastic barbs.
Keeping tabs on the future means that you don’t always rescue your child. If your son forgets his clarinet at home, you let it stay at home. You let him earn a 70 for participation in band class that day because it’s not a life-or-death crisis and perhaps, if he suffers the consequences, he’ll never forget it again.
When your child loses a very specific pair of socks, you agree to buy a second pair. Mistakes happen, yes? But when that second pair goes missing, you insist that the child pay for the third pair, because how else is that child going to learn how to care for things?
Parenting with the future in mind means a healthy share of household chores — not just because of present needs but because you want your children to become adults who are able to prepare their own meals, wash dishes and laundry, clean floors and toilets.
In our house, it also means pushing a child out of his comfort zone.
If you’re old enough to handle an email address, I believe you’re old enough to handle your own correspondence. For about four years now, I’ve required Cooper to email the adults in his life to solve problems. If he has a question about schoolwork, he emails his teacher. If he needs to sign off merit badge requirements with a Boy Scout leader, he emails the leader.
He finds addresses on his own. He types in complete sentences. He rereads his requests before sending.
“Thank you for making me write my own emails,” he told me recently. “I feel confident in doing it now, and it’s a good skill to have.”
And just like that, the future seems like it’s already here.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, April 04, 2016

Shared pastimes keep treasured memories fresh

From Saturday's Briefing:

Around the same time I gave birth to our first baby, my husband started running. And, in typical Steve fashion, he wasn’t content to run a little: He started training for a marathon.
At the time, I found it slightly inconvenient. I was a brand-new momma, home all day with this tiny person who needed constant attention. Brand-new dad would come home from work, trade his suits for shorts and his Allen Edmonds for Asics, and sprint back out the door.
The more Steve ran, the more I realized that he needed to run. He needed time and space to think through problems — or think of nothing at all. He needed an identity separate from the office, separate from home. He needed to set a goal and accomplish it.
Cooper and I were his biggest fans. We’d wait for him on the front lawn, ice water in hand. We watched him finish many races — a whole bunch of 5Ks, a couple of half marathons, a full marathon.
A few years later, when Steve was no longer able to run, I started running instead.
I didn’t love it as much as Steve did, but every time I laced up my shoes, I felt a little closer to him. I understood his passion for the sport a little better. And I regretted that I had waited too long to actually run with him. I didn’t start until after his cancer diagnosis, after his body was too unstable for sustained walking, much less a 3-mile run.
Steve watched me finish a couple of 5Ks and a half marathon before he died.
More important, he watched his Cooper finish a 5K.
Cooper’s first race was in January 2009. He was 7. He ran some of the course, walked the rest. He finished strong, with swift feet and a huge smile despite a biting wind.
We’ve lost count of how many races he’s run since. A whole bunch of 5Ks. Couple of triathlons. Cross-country meets. Track meets.
He gets a little faster every time.
Back in the fall, my 14-year-old set a goal to run a half marathon. So we looked at calendars and local races and registered for the Rock ’n’ Roll Half in Dallas.
For the past three months, he’s added half-marathon training to his already-full plate of freshman classes, band, track, Boy Scouts and chores at home. He would wake at 5:50 a.m. some days to fit in a long run before school. Other days he’d bike home from school, trade his blue jeans for shorts and his sneakers for trainers, and sprint back out the door.
Two weeks ago, on a brisk Sunday morning, we woke long before dawn to drive downtown and join thousands of others prepared to run 13.1 miles — or cheer from the sidewalks.
I hollered, “Go, Cooper!” when the race began. I walked a few blocks over to cheer again at mile 4. I obsessively checked the Find iPhone app to watch his progress as I meandered to the finish line.
I wiggled my way to the front row of spectators and craned my neck, watching for Cooper to turn the corner and sprint toward the finish.
Cooper, March 20, after 13.1 miles
When I finally spotted him, I was speechless. Literally, I could eke out no words of encouragement or congratulations. One word from me and I would have been a blubbering mess. There’s no feeling like watching your child accomplish a lofty goal.
I thought of his daddy’s first race and his final race. I remembered Cooper’s first 5K and the small crowd of friends and family who had gathered to cheer for him. I recalled him training for weeks despite fatigue or cold weather.
Cooper finished strong, with swift feet, a huge smile and a strong time — like he was born to run.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Sunday, March 27, 2016

After Easter sunrise service this morning

Some notes from this morning:

I woke at 4:45 a.m. to get us ready for sunrise service.

We went to sunrise because Cooper was asked to read the part of Jesus in the service. He's the oldest active youth group member at our church right now.

Cooper is also the tallest youth member. And he was the tallest congregant at the service, so when there was trouble with the cross, he stepped up to help.

We traditionally remove a black sash from the cross in the beginning of the service. At the end, we drape a white sash and add a wreath of fresh flowers. The white cloth was placed but was lopsided -- severely enough that there was risk of it blowing away.

Cooper leaped in the air to try to grab the short end to pull down. He almost made it. Bill, our youth minister, told Cooper to stand on his knee. So, Cooper stood on Bill's knee, scaled the wooden cross, and pulled down the white sash.

We all applauded.

He is risen!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Learning valuable lessons in the Big Easy

From Saturday's Briefing:

Our family was on spring break last week, free from bell schedules and formative assessments, but we didn’t stop learning.

We traveled to New Orleans for a few days of art, food, music and new sights, and we returned with full bellies, sweet memories and valuable lessons.

Katie splashed in puddles all over New Orleans.
Don’t let rain spoil your fun: New Orleans averages 119 days of precipitation each year, so it’s not surprising that one whole day of vacation was marked by relentless rain.

We didn’t travel to sit on a sofa and complain about the weather, so we pulled on rain boots and rain jackets, tucked umbrellas in our bag and marched on.

We learned to walk under awnings as much as possible and to take care when navigating crowded sidewalks with multiple open umbrellas.

Katie skipped between raindrops and pounced in puddles.

She and I hopped on a streetcar bound for New Orleans City Park. We discovered that no one else goes to the park in the rain, so we had the whole place to ourselves. We admired giant live oaks and swampy ponds, grand sculptures and dozens of kinds of birds — all of which we would have missed had we let the rain scare us away.

Stingray touch tank in New Orleans
Have a backup plan: For months, we had planned to visit Mardi Gras World, with the promise of touring a warehouse where parade floats are created. We would go Friday, according to my itinerary.
I called Friday morning to arrange transportation and learned that the whole operation was closed for a special event. It wouldn’t reopen until after we’d crossed back into Texas. (This is something my research should have uncovered. I learned to do better research next time.)

What else could we do for a couple of hours? I relied on my mental list of backups, gathered because I’ve learned that travel plans — like all plans in life — are merely suggestion. We changed course and walked to the aquarium, where we watched sea otters somersault and stingrays devour fresh broccoli. We studied a tiny seahorse and an elegant green sea turtle — unexpected treasures thanks to a change of plans.

Cooper, C. Johnny Difatta, and Katie
Slow down: We also spent a few hours at the National WWII Museum. Cooper could have stayed all day, but Katie had reached that restless, overloaded stage, in which every display starts to look the same and all you can really think about are finding snacks and perusing the gift shop.

On our way out, we stopped in the lobby to check out a Higgins boat (the small craft that would carry men and equipment from a ship to open beach) and lucked into a conversation with a WWII veteran, C. Johnny Difatta.

He spoke with native-son pride about those boats, designed and manufactured right there in New Orleans.

Difatta told us about enlisting the day he turned 17 and his momma signing his paperwork and his training in San Diego. He showed us maps of the Pacific Theater and described life on Treasury Island. He let us admire a photo from a special night, after the war, on furlough in San Francisco, handsomely dressed in Navy blues, surrounded by buddies and a coterie of beautiful women.
He allowed me to take his photo, a 90-year-old hero, sandwiched between my two children born in the 21st century.

There aren’t many World War II vets left to tell their stories — about 800,000 in all, with about 492 dying each day. I’m thankful that we slowed down long enough to notice Difatta, to listen to his stories and to thank him for his service.

No matter our age, location or stage in life, we’re standing in a wide-open classroom, with teachers all around.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Saturday, March 05, 2016

'Yet' blunts our unfinished tasks

From today's Briefing:
Tiny, unassuming “yet” wields all kinds of power.
I’ve been using the word more often the past couple of years, as I’ve become acquainted with the concept of a growth mind-set vs. a fixed mind-set, via the writings of Stanford professor and psychologist Carol Dweck.
Dweck relies on research to show the benefits of praising effort, not intelligence. She extols the value of making mistakes. And she writes and speaks persuasively about the power of “yet.”
“Just the words ‘yet’ or ‘not yet,’ we’re finding, give kids greater confidence, give them a path into the future that creates greater persistence,” Dweck says in a TED Talk watched more than 3.9 million times on YouTube.
Dweck’s ideas have influenced the way I teach my fourth-graders.
“We don’t all know how to identify the theme of a story yet,” I might say, “but we will keep working together until we all do.”
The word lets my students know that it’s OK to ask questions, that it’s OK if some peers have mastered a skill while others are still working, that mistakes are essential to the learning process.
The idea of a growth mind-set — that we can work to improve and develop abilities — has also influenced the way I raise my two children.
When a child is struggling with a task — conquering a piece of tough music, completing a challenging homework assignment — my encouragement relies on “yet.”
“It’s OK if you haven’t met your goal yet,” I might say. “Keep working, and you’ll get there.”
The word has given them freedom, signaling that perfection isn’t expected or even normal, and that hard work matters.
Now, I’ve got to start applying “yet” to myself.
I walk around with a long mental list of things I haven’t done as a parent. The self-imposed infractions include:
Lack of a baby book for either child
Inadequate personal finance lessons
Incomplete exposure to quality music and classic movies
An unfulfilled promise to help switch up bedrooms
I carry the guilt of these big-ticket items along with the everyday guilt associated with rushed mornings, forgotten permission slips, distracted conversations, clipped responses.
Lately, I’ve been practicing by adding “yet” to the end of my regrets.
I haven’t helped Katie study for her spelling test this week … yet.
I haven’t listened to Cooper’s clarinet solo … yet.
At the same time, I’m working on becoming more aware of what is going well.
This school year, Katie has taken control of her afternoon schedule, plotting homework and studying without prompting. She rarely forgets to complete or turn in an assignment — a huge step in independence and responsibility compared with previous years.
One evening this week, she declared, stood in the kitchen, hands on hips, eyes on the microwave clock and declared, “I need to plan the rest of the night.” She then ticked off every task still undone and an estimate of time needed for each. I may not have modeled for her a household budget (yet), but she’s grasping the concept of matching resources to tasks.
Each day when Cooper arrives home from school (or band practice or track practice), he does two things.
He asks how my day was, and he tells me about his day.
We started this ritual years ago, when I would walk to pick him up at our neighborhood elementary school. I taught him that it was polite to greet someone with, “How are you?” rather than, “Hey, I’m hungry. Where’s my snack?”
I also convinced him at a young age that it was his responsibility to fill me in on the details of the day. I didn’t allow one-word responses or “I don’t know” or noncommittal shrugs.
So now, all these years later, it’s his instinctive habit to ask about others and then to walk me through his day, with a recap of lessons, lunch and teenage dialogue. I may not have a baby book for him (yet), but we communicate every day.
I don’t expect I’ll ever have every task checked off my mom list. New action items wiggle their way on all the time. The key is to add a tiny, powerful “yet” to every line.
 Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, February 22, 2016

There's more to life than the race

From Saturday's Briefing:
Baby Noah
The most blissful five minutes of this whole week happened in the middle of a crowded barbecue restaurant.
I got to snuggle a tiny, 2-month-old boy. I admired his sleepy smile. I rubbed his fuzzy head. I inhaled his pure baby scent. Then I reluctantly returned Noah to his momma, a friend and colleague, while offering to quit my job and stay home to take care of him forever.
Oh, babies, you melt me. You start out so itty-bitty and lumpy, with elastic expressions and adorable cries and pure hearts.
And then you grow up so fast, like you’re in some kind of race. 
Can we call timeout? Or at least slow the pace a little bit?
My own babies are no longer babies to anyone but me. This week we’re signing a schedule card for sophomore year of high school for one child, and next week we’re approving middle school courses for the other. Elementary school days are numbered (less than 70!) in this house. 
My babies have been racing for years, long before I totally recognized the track. 
They compete in a race created by adults, who talk about balance and the joy of learning while maintaining paradigms that encourage fierce competition and value high scores over evidence of individual progress.
When I was cuddling little Noah this week, I wasn’t thinking about which pre-AP classes he’ll take in middle school or his high school degree plan or his potential class rank. 
I marveled at how much he is already loved unconditionally by his mom and dad, his two big sisters, his grandparents. He isn’t encumbered by expectations, unreasonable or otherwise. His existence alone garners him love beyond measure.
At what point in a child’s life do we shift from complete wonderment and adoration to high expectations? It varies from family to family, but by kindergarten in Texas schools, there’s little room for anything else. 
According to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards, kindergarten students are expected to discuss the theme of a well-known fairytale or folktale, identify techniques used in media, identify three-dimensional solids in the real world, identify ways to earn income, and explain how authority figures make and enforce rules. (These are only a handful among hundreds of expected skills spelled out in a 28-page document available online.)
Once we get them started on the race, we don’t seem to be able to pull them off the track. Instead, we increase the rigor. We set the standards higher. We keep them awake a little later each school year to finish homework. (At this rate, by senior year, my children may get no sleep at all.)
We tell them that they are unique individuals who should try their best, yet we create lists that number them, with infinitesimal decimal places separating them. We praise them for besting other children — or criticize them for being beat.
What do we value when we hold a newborn baby? 
Hope. Potential. New beginnings. Light. Love.
What do we teach them we value as they grow up?
Not near enough of hope or potential or new beginnings or light or love. 
The good news: It’s never too late to have your heart melted by your babies — no matter how old they may be. They’re no longer teeny-tiny, they express their own opinions, they make mistakes big and small. And they deserve love and adoration merely because they exist.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at