Sunday, October 27, 2013

Before church this morning

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Let's be more giddy about giving

In Friday's Briefing:

The children are stooped in a hallway under a staircase, surrounded by giant bags stuffed with monster trucks, storybooks and baby dolls.
These children are giddy — wiggly, giggly, we-can’t-wait-to-get-moving happy.
One by one, they heave a bag up, barely lifting it off the floor, and stagger out the door.
Half an hour later, the kids have reassembled not far from downtown Dallas. They can’t keep their hands out of the bags. They gingerly press buttons, gently turn pages, exclaim over yet another superhero.
And then, finally, the moment they have been waiting for: It’s time to give the toys away.
For four years, my church congregation has spent one October Sunday not in our modest sanctuary but out in the community. We call it Don’t Go to Church, Be the Church.
There are about a dozen hands-on projects each year.
The first year, my family helped to deliver a meal — the equivalent of three or four meals, really — to a nearby fire station.
Our group had just placed the final casserole dish on a crowded table when the alarm sounded. The men we were serving raced away. Lunch would have to wait.
The next year, we joined a graffiti- fighting crew. We gathered on a scraggly field and fanned out, facing a brick wall covered in illicit words. We spent a couple of hours with paint, brushes and rollers in an effort to obliterate the graffiti and brighten a corner of a blighted neighborhood.
Last year, we chose to spend our Sunday morning at an assisted living center. Our group conducted a worship service with Scripture readings, songs and prayers for elderly residents.
This year, we joined the group delivering toys to Children’s Medical Center.
Many had hoped to personally place those new toys in the hands of patients. But that, understandably, wasn’t part of the plan. You can’t have random — albeit well-meaning — folks walking in and out of patient rooms.
Our toys were shelved, waiting for sorting and distributing by staff members who know which patients need what.
No worries. Not a single soul was dispirited by anonymous giving.
We were allowed to peek into a special playroom, designed to address the emotional and spiritual needs of young patients. We were invited to participate in the weekly chaplain service, held in a small chapel and broadcast live across the hospital.
We were giving a little and receiving abundantly.
As I sat on the floor of the chapel, I thought of my two healthy children. I thought of nurses, doctors and support staff who care for injured and ill kids.
I thought of all the families who have sought healing at the hospital, of dreams delayed and even abandoned.
I got lost for a moment, thinking of the heavy needs around us — hunger, poverty, violence and addiction. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you acknowledge our challenges.
At the same time, I found comfort in that chapel, crowded with children who were antsy to share, who were eager to give to others they would never even meet.
I thought of all the families I know who donate time, money and emotion to animal shelters, food banks, libraries, hospitals, schools and clothes closets.
The needs are staggering, but our hearts are bigger. Just imagine if all of us were so giddy about sharing. What if we all were wiggly, giggly, we-can’t-wait-to-get-moving happy about improving our communities?
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, October 18, 2013

It's a delight to watch Cooper's world grow

My son is almost halfway finished with middle school, and there are still moments I lament the good ol’ elementary school days.
I miss receiving a class roster with a tidy list of 22 or 23 students, most of whom we already knew from the neighborhood or previous grades.
I miss knowing most of the parents, too — even if some conversations took place only at pickup, assemblies and classroom parties.
I miss less exhausting homework loads.
Middle school requires giving up a lot of control. It requires trust in your child’s ability to make decisions, to choose friends, to implement a whole list of life lessons you’ve been doling out for more than a decade.
Cooper was ready for the transition just in time, even if I was dragging my feet.
Ever since, I’ve been trying to let go of wishing it were different — a task made easier with Cooper fully embracing the experience.
Sometimes, though not as often as in elementary school, I get glimpses of middle- school Cooper in his environment. Last week I helped chaperone the annual costume party sponsored by our middle school’s music department.
It’s a busy season for middle school band students. They perform at some football games and pep rallies. They meet before or after school for sectional practice. They are prepping for contests.
The day of the costume party, Cooper didn’t come home from school, instead staying after to practice for all-region tryouts. I arrived in the band hall minutes before my volunteer shift, to hand off his costume.
The cavernous rooms hosted a gaggle of laughing adolescents. They were milling about, shelving instruments, gobbling pizza.
The joy was palpable. Contagious.
I couldn’t spy Cooper at first, so I asked a similarly lanky fellow, who pointed me in the right direction.
There was my son, smiling, joking, chatting with fellow clarinetists.
He looked like he belonged.
I left him and his scarecrow costume with his people and reported to my assigned station: the Monster Walk. For the next two hours, I helped run the game, like a traditional cakewalk but with trinkets instead of pastry.
I recognized some students under their makeup and masks — kids from elementary school, our neighborhood or previous band events. Most, though, were strangers. Polite, but strangers nonetheless.
I’d occasionally see Cooper walking by with a clump of friends, some of them also unknown to me. He’d smile and wave and keep moving.
I was an outsider, an observer, a foreigner. And yet I felt completely at ease.
No, I don’t know the name of every student in seventh grade or even every student in Cooper’s classes. But I know my son well enough to know that he gravitates toward peers who are kind, responsible and respectful (at least as consistently as seventh-graders can manage).
I find comfort in the middle school band, his chosen school family. It’s a group of kids who, in general, are studious, quick-witted and fun without being outrageous. They are learning how to work as a team as well as improve individual skills in a healthy, competitive environment.
It’s a group of friends found through common interest and values — much like my adult friends.
My son is more than halfway to adulthood himself. It’s no doubt time for him to create relationships outside the safe cocoon of our home and neighborhood. It’s developmentally appropriate for him to form friendships independent of the family, to rely upon those friends for emotional support (and sometimes for help with homework).
The days of rosters and me knowing every peer by name are long gone, swallowed up by my son’s growing world. It’s a world I’m delighted to be a part of — even when I’m on the periphery.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at
Cooper and Katie after his first band performance at a football game

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The past few days

I should take/make more time to blog, but right now time is especially precious. So, how about a few photos?
Cooper joined his middle school band last Tuesday night to play in the end zone while eighth-grade boys played football on the field. Katie and I dutifully watched most of two games -- B team, then A team -- and listened for Coop's clarinet.
Katie has been practicing for months to perform in the Lone Star Storytelling Festival. Her big concert is this Saturday. Here she is in front of a promotional poster at the Frisco Public Library. (We were there so Cooper could attend a public meeting in the same building for a Boy Scout requirement.)
Coop has been waiting a year for this book. It arrived last Tuesday. He finished Sunday. Now he waits another year for the next in the series. 
Cooper dressed as a scarecrow for this year's music department costume contest. The raffia was sewn on by good friend Jenny. The shirt came from the Frisco Family Services Resale Shop. $4 plus tax. Coop won the award for "Most Basic Costume." It was a compliment, we think.
We spent Saturday morning at the Dallas Arboretum. Jackie and Sydney met us there, too, which made the day even better. We spent some time in the lab in the new children's garden. The kids were able to extract DNA from a strawberry. Katie's experiment is pictured -- the white web stuff on top is DNA.
Cooper and Katie in Peter's House at the Arboretum
Katie created this pastel drawing for our church auction. She titled it "Beauty of Life." 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Parenting trials only seem like crises without end

From Friday's Briefing:

There are trials that no parents escape. Teething. Potty training. Meltdowns.
Then there are trials reserved for a few. Rotavirus. Broken bones. Night terrors.
While in the midst of any one of these trials, you might feel certain that these moments will never, ever cease.
You might imagine your baby will be cranky until age 18, constantly gnawing, drooling and sobbing with unrelenting pain caused by erupting teeth.
You can’t even begin to fathom a day during which you aren’t on guard for accidents, when you’re not carrying a full change of toddler clothes, and when you’re not constantly monitoring your child’s facial expressions and wiggly-ness for signs of bathroom urgency.
In the throes of a stomach virus, you’re absolutely certain that no one in the house will ever eat solid food again, which is ideal because you’ve spent all your grocery money on laundry detergent and disinfectant.
And then, suddenly, you emerge from whatever childhood-induced haze kept you prisoner, and typical life resumes.
We at the Damm house have just stepped out of one of the lousiest of hazes. We have escaped from the dreaded clutches of lice.
The whole experience makes me even more thankful for the first 12, lice-free years of my parenting life. Because living with them is truly miserable.
First, there’s the treatment, which includes dousing your child’s head with a bottle of lice-killing shampoo, otherwise known as pesticide. This is no easy pill to swallow when you’ve devoted much of your parenting career to shielding your children from harmful chemicals.
As your traumatized child — who can’t bear the thought of God’s living creatures dying on her head — sits perched on the edge of the bathtub, you watch the clock, waiting for 10 minutes exactly (and no longer) to pass.
When the bugs are close to dead, it’s time to rinse the shampoo.
What emerges is a tangly mess o’ hair that must be meticulously combed with a fine-toothed, metal comb — every single strand, from scalp to end — in a futile effort to remove eggs.
The work, though, is far from over.
You vacuum like a mad woman. You toss hairbrushes and combs.
You strip the beds and wash everything in hot water. You bag up every pillow and stuffed animal, sentencing them to a minimum two weeks of solitary confinement.
You stop occasionally to administer hugs and offer reassuring phrases such as, “Lice actually prefer clean hair” and “It’s no more shameful than catching a cold.”
You constantly resist the urge to scratch your own head, which, though cleared by the school nurse, is suspiciously itchy all the time now.
You wash more towels and sheets than you’ve washed since the Great Rotavirus Attack of 2002. You give up actually folding, instead creating the largest laundry mountain in your family’s history.
When a child needs yet another clean towel or pillowcase, you direct that child to Laundry Mountain. You pray for no avalanches.
Two or three times a day, possibly every day for the rest of your life, you inspect scalps for eggs. You have a metal comb for each child, and after every use, you soak it in boiling water for at least 10 minutes.
Some of those eggs are resistant to the metal comb, so you also investigate by hand. Every single strand.
And then, seven to 10 days after the initial chemical dousing, you re-treat in an effort to keep the lice at bay.
By this time, your children are veterans with all the manhandling of their hair. They sit patiently. They anticipate your movements. They find humor in the experience.
You spy no eggs.
You put away the metal combs. You’re on the verge of setting pillows and stuffed animals free.
You realize that the Infamous Lice Incident of 2013 won’t endure forever.
You celebrate by taking the tiniest nap — just before conquering Laundry Mountain.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Saturday, October 05, 2013


When I worked at Prestonwood, I would often pack lunch. But if I didn't have time/make time, I didn't worry. The campus includes Main Street, a cafe with plenty of inexpensive options. For a real treat, I might escape to one of the nearby restaurants.

My goal at Bledsoe is to not buy cafeteria food. It's inexpensive, yes, but it's not my favorite kind of food. Plus, my 30-minute lunch break is really about 22 minutes, when you include time walking students to the cafeteria, stopping by the office to check my mailbox and any other quick trips that I can squeeze in. So, I need something healthy and ready to go -- no standing in line, no heating required.

My strategy so far: Make a giant salad on Sunday nights that will last through Friday. So far it's worked. And I've made a different salad each week, which means now my goal is to make a different salad each week for 36 total school weeks.

Recipes so far:

Cuscan-Style Couscous Salad (from Jeanne Lemlin's Vegetarian Classics)

Penne with Greek-Style Vegetable Marinade (from Jeanne Lemlin's Main Course Vegetarian Pleasures)

Colorful Orzo Salad with Shiitake Mushrooms (from Jeanne Lemlin's Vegetarian Classics)

Farfalle e Fagiolo Salad (from Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special)

Mediterranean Rice Salad (I added tuna. I need to sneak more protein into my daily diet.)

(Professional photo of rice salad by Dan Goldberg)
Can I keep this up until early June? I'll keep you posted.

(And if you have a favorite salad recipe, please share!)

Friday, October 04, 2013

This new teacher's goal: Strive to be memorable

From today's Briefing:

I was a fifth-grade nomad. My family moved twice that school year, so I attended three different schools in three different Texas cities.
More than 30 years later, I get a do-over.
I am a brand-new fifth-grade teacher, and I fully plan to finish the year on the same campus where I began six weeks ago.
There’s no doubt that these six weeks have been some of the most exhausting and challenging of my professional life. They have also been some of the most rewarding and soul-satisfying.
In this new career — one that I considered for many years before launching — I am responsible for 47 students.
Each weekday, twice a day, I offer instruction and guidance on reading, writing, grammar, spelling and U.S. history. Plus Internet safety, time management, study skills, conflict resolution, problem solving, hallway etiquette and so much more.
Together we are reading Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell and discussing themes such as loneliness, friendship, courage and fear.
We are analyzing poetry. Memorizing state capitals. Identifying subjects and predicates. Reciting the introduction to the Declaration of Independence. Using multiple sources for research and reporting. Crafting journal entries.
It’s a dreamy world for the likes of me.
On top of all that academic work that feeds my passions for literature and civics, I get to spend time with 47 unique children.
I’m discovering their strengths and celebrating their victories. (I realized last week that I was holding my breath as I graded papers, eager for each child to reveal mastery.)
I’m learning about their passions — cheerleading and hockey, sloths and unicorns, Dr. Who and One Direction.
I’m starting to piece together what motivates and what challenges each child.
I love that fifth-graders have no filter, that they are willing to be goofy, and that they appreciate quirks of others — including me.
My fifth-graders find humor in my awkward dance moves and sketchy singing voice. They are forgiving of my mistakes. They are relentless in asking that I identify them by name in the newspaper and call them “the best class ever.”
Both of my classes are the best classes ever. And yet some evenings I’m still worn out. In those moments, I find motivation by thinking of my original fifth-grade year.
At each of the three schools, there was at least one teacher on whom I could depend.
In Dallas, it was the language arts teacher. She pushed me to think critically, gather, analyze and evaluate.
In Austin, it was the music teacher. She opened her classroom for indoor recess for students like me who couldn’t always face the playground jungle.
In Belton, it was the homeroom teacher. She read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with dramatic, memorable flair.
Each teacher offered stability and flexibility. They expected success while anticipating missteps. They reflected genuine joy.
They stand among a small crowd of my role-model teachers. It’s a crowd that I like to imagine is cheering for me as I follow their footsteps — just as I’m now cheering daily for 47 young people.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at