You Are Loved: Ramblings on Healing, Grammar, and Tragedy

I used to spend my summers volunteering at a camp for families facing childhood cancer. During those weeks, counselors would write each other notes of support and encouragement, especially when a counselor went out of hir way to help make a camper’s day. These notes would provide a burst of  confidence, sometimes through an inside joke or a quick expression of gratitude. I have received hundreds of these notes—not necessarily because I’m an extraordinary counselor, but because of the sheer amount of time I spent at camp. And after all these years, there is one that I remember vividly, one that I hold close to my heart; it ended with the simple phrase: “You are so loved.”

Even today, just remembering that sentence floors me. She didn’t say “I love you,” even though she might have felt that way, because the note wasn’t about our friendship. Instead, she was reminding me that I was beloved by the greater camp community, and the hugeness of this love continues to humble me.

Today, as I was reading the horrific news about the shooting in Connecticut, that phrase rushed into my mind. I found myself repeating it in my mind; the pulsing rhythm of repetition was soothing.

I’ve been trying to decide why its such a powerful phrase, at times even more so than I love you. And I think the secret is hidden within the grammar of it all. There’s a funny thing about this phrase; it’s in the passive voice. English teachers are supposed to teach their students to avoid the passive voice at all costs; MS Word will cast its green squiggly line of shame underneath sentences written in the passive voice. Why? Sometimes, it’s an issue of clarity: the subject of the sentence can be muddled in passive voice. The action itself can be buried. Consider the difference:

I rode the bike.

The bike was ridden by me.

Which is clearer? More engaging? Yes, yes, I will concede that the active voice is, more often than not, stronger and more accurate writing. But the phrase You are loved seems to defy that rule.

In the sentence, You are loved, you is both the subject—the one doing the action—of the sentence and the receiver. You is passive, in the sense that you is not doing the loving in this sentence, and yet you is still the subject—the actor. And what is you doing in this sentence? You is deserving of love, earning love, receiving love—a vast love from known, unknown or even a multitudes of givers. You is being showered with love, just for being you. And I believe that the knowledge that we are loved can help us transcend and help us heal.

After I heard the news today, I wanted to tell everyone I care about, “you are loved.” I wanted to tell it to my students, my dog,  my coworkers, my neighbors, and strangers. I wanted to because I think we forget this sometimes. I think we forget that we are loved. By someone, by our community or village, by our friends and our family, by our coworkers, by the people we serve and those who serve us—it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that we are loved. It breaks my heart to think that there are people who don’t know this, who don’t know about humanity’s vast capacity to love not just our closest confidantes, but strangers, just because they are human; after all, just today, millions of people poured their tears, prayers, and hopes over the nation for a group of strangers. We did this out of love.

I welcome the conversations that will come up about guns, education, society, and mental health. Institutional forces must be analyzed, evaluated, and challenged because they shape our realities. I am open to any rational and civil dialogue about how to make our communities safer. And I’ll be ready to do that tomorrow. I really will.

But right now, more than anything, I just want everyone to know that

you are loved. 

You Are Loved: Ramblings on Healing, Grammar, and Tragedy

Mid-Semester Teaching Reflection

It’s almost midway through the semester, so I thought this would be a good time to reflect on some of the experiments I’ve been attempting in the classroom.

1. Teaching Reading

The Experiment: This isn’t so much a new teaching practice as it is a new subject. For the first time, I am teaching reading as a college course. Many people are confused when I say that I teach reading at the college level: “Shouldn’t college students already know how to read?” Well, these students all know how to read. They can read a paragraph aloud, but what they often can’t do is comprehend or remember it. So, what I teach is really academic reading: building vocabulary, assessing understanding, making connections, remembering new information, and creating study guides from dense texts. This is a big shift from writing; even writing instruction that emphasizes the process of writing has a product that is assessed by the instructor. There isn’t really a product for reading– just the process. It’s much trickier to assess a student’s process than a final product.

Result: I think I am getting the hang of it. Basically, my approach is to model different aspects of the reading process– aspects that strong readers often do without realizing it, such as using context clues, making connections, finding the main idea, and organizing content– and then have students develop their own strategies for those aspects. I have found ways to introduce new media, play, and kinesthetic learning into my lesson plans, so I’m starting to feel more at home in the reading classroom. For example, this week, we reviewed different ways to organize the contents of an essay: outlining, summarizing, and mapping, among others. We created a map using the students’ bodies, paper, and some yarn, and then they put the papers on the ground so they could visually see the relationships between the different concepts in the essay they had read in class.

2. Texting with Students

The Experiment: Anyone who teaches at a community college can tell you that many students are uncomfortable using email. In the writing lab, I often have to help students register, sign in, and send an email. In fact, research confirms that many young people of color are not accessing the internet at home; rather, they are accessing it through their smart phones. So, in order to make outside communication more accessible to my students, I signed up for a Google Voice phone number and distributed this to my students. Students are able to text me, and Google Voice forwards their message to my phone. My personal number is still private, and if students ever text anything inappropriate, I can easily turn off the forwarding feature. Furthermore, I told students I only accept text messages, and I gave them hours (7:30am-10pm) when they could text me.

Results: So far, many more students are contacting me outside of the classroom. And strangely enough, their writing is much clearer than it had been through email. This is a writing style they understand, and they seem to appreciate the ease of contacting me after class. I haven’t had a need to turn off forwarding yet, and I believe I won’t need to this semester.

3. Twitter

The Experiment: In my Teaching Writing in the Digital World class, I read this article about Stanford Study of Writing and new literacy. I found it interesting that the researchers found a correlation between writing on social media and a new awareness of both audience and message. Also, it was noted that by limiting the number of characters allowed in a composition, websites like Twitter can actually help students learn to be concise and get to the point quickly. I realized that I could harness these benefits in my reading class. Once a week, I post a reading on Twitter, and students tweet me back either their response or the main idea of the article.

The Results: Loving. It. On a personal note, I have now been officially introduced to Twitter, and I am hooked. On a pedagogical note, my class often discusses how to summarize the main idea of a dense text, and by doing so on Twitter, students are forced to locate the main idea and cut out all of the filler details. Plus, they seem to have fun with it. I was actually surprised to learn how many students already tweet; after all, so few of my former students were familiar with blogging. I also try to maintain privacy, so I have a separate Twitter account specifically for this class, and  I do not follow students (except for the five or so who specifically asked me to; I wasn’t expecting that!). I suggested that students who wanted more privacy could create an alternative Twitter account for class, but no one did.

4. Student-Created Lesson Plans

The Experiment: This is the result of re-reading Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed during the summer: I question whether I am promoting liberatory education or the banking concept of education. Specifically, I was struck by his point about teacher-created syllabi; he believes that it is presumptuous that teachers assign readings they assume will help the students without any feedback from the students. Hence, my lesson plan assignment was born.

In my freshman composition course, students work in small groups. The groups pick the theme of their assigned week, alongside the readings and homework questions. To help guide them, I chose an incredibly broad theme, power, and then encouraged them to choose a specific theme within that. The idea is that students are choosing topics, readings, videos, and questions that they believe are pertinent to their experiences.

The Result: I’m still evaluating this experiment. To give students enough time to create the weekly lesson plans, I supplied the readings and assignments for the first five weeks. The theme was Power in the Classroom, and the students read Friere, hooks, and other authors that critique the handling of authority in traditional classrooms. That helped students understand my motivation for the lesson plan assignment, and they were totally on board.

The first student-ran week was… well… it was okay. The students were overwhelmed; they admitted that they don’t read a lot outside of class, so they weren’t sure where to find readings outside of the textbook. They also admitted to waiting for the last minute, so some of the requirements of the assignment (such as a presentation about why they choose that topic and the readings) slipped by the wayside. The second group seems to have much more enthusiasm for the project. They even did additional work and have been leading activities in the classroom. Each of the students in that group seems to have a personal connection with the theme they chose (the power of the media), and that has motivated them to come up with creative ideas and fun readings.

Also, I’m thrilled by how students interpreted the theme of power. Next week, the group is discussing the power of clothing. Towards the end of the semester, a group has chosen the topic of power and law enforcement. These are concepts I may have never discussed in class, so I feel like I’m learning too.

All in all, I am happy with the way the semester is going. I feel like I have opportunities to try new things, and my students have been given me feedback throughout the semester. I feel like I’m growing as an educator, and I can’t wait to see what the remainder of the semester brings!

Mid-Semester Teaching Reflection

The Politics of Surviving Childhood Cancer

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month, and awesomely, my Facebook news feed has been flooded with pictures, videos, and status updates reminding the world that, yes, children can and do get cancer. I fear that many Americans think that the only children who actually get cancer are the sweet and oddly prophetic bald kids in movies and television shows who exist solely to prompt a healthy character to re-evaluate his or her life priorities. No, childhood cancer is definitely real, and it’s often a much more trying experience than pop culture lets on.

In fact, the cancer itself is typically only one part of the struggle for a family struggling with childhood cancer. In addition to a child being forced to consume poison in hopes of survival, there are the mounting bills, the building tension between parents, the social isolation of a sick child, and the unavoidable neglect of the siblings. You see, the cancer and chemotherapy are not removed from our day-to-day lives; rather, they are planted directly in the middle of the complex web of survival any family tries to weave.

Specifically, with the election around the corner, I can’t help but acknowledge the influence politics has on the experience of childhood cancer. What often goes ignored is how the experience of a family dealing with cancer is shaped by the government policies surrounding health care. So today, I am going to break down three ways that childhood cancer is political, in hopes that you are inspired to advocate for families with childhood cancer on a legislative level.

1. Accessible Health Care 

It’s a no brainer that cancer treatment is expensive, but opponents to health care reform often argue that no child would ever be turned away because of lack of funds. However, while it may be true that many foundations and organizations exist to help families without insurance navigate the exorbitant costs of health care, the cancer treatment is only part of the story.

What folks may not realize is that a cancer diagnosis often occurs because the parents took their child to the doctor for a seemingly benign issue. My brother was diagnosed with leukemia after he had been taken to the doctor because of a stubborn flu.  Other children or young adults are diagnosed when their parents take them into the doctor’s office because of a pesky cold, achy legs, or a sore back. And just like “adult cancer,” early diagnosis can make a world of difference for the prognosis of a child cancer patient. Therefore, parents need to be able to take their children to the doctor for regular check-ups or for that flu that just won’t go away without worrying about the cost of that visit.

2. Discrimination in Health Care

Look, I understand that people from both sides of the spectrum dislike the Affordable Care Act. I realize that the individual mandate is controversial to liberals who see it as just feeding more money to the insurance companies and to the conservatives who think that any mandate is an impediment on their freedom. Still, everyone seems to agree on one thing: discrimination based on pre-existing conditions sucks. What happens after a child has survived cancer? Even when that child grows up, she is still a cancer survivor in the eyes of the insurance companies. And cancer survivors have health care needs well past remission; they have to deal with way more check-ups than the average person, and they often have to cope with long-lasting side effects from the chemo, radiation, and/or surgery. So no matter what happens to the ACA in the future, we need to ensure that discrimination based pre-existing conditions stays far far away from the grubby hands of the insurance companies.

3. Paid Family Leave

When a child is sick in the hospital, who stays with him? His parents. Unfortunately, this level of parental devotion is often implicitly discouraged by the workplace. The Family Medical Leave Act is a start, but a truly pathetic one; it provides up to twelve work weeks of unpaid leave for eligible employees.  Let’s break this down.

First: twelve work weeks. Over the course of a year, my brother was in the hospital for way more than twelve work weeks during his treatment. Twelve work weeks is simply not enough for families in similar situations.

Second: unpaid leave. Families with childhood cancer still have to pay the rent or mortgage, utilities, student loans, credit card bills, car insurance, gas bills, and more. Those things don’t stop as soon as a child is diagnosed with cancer. What are parents to do when they have to choose between preventing eviction or being at the hospital when their child is undergoing surgery? It’s an impossible decision to make, on both a practical and emotional level, yet parents who work have to make this decision all the time.

Third: eligible employees. In order to benefit from the FMLA, a parent has to either work for a government agency or a larger business. In addition, that parent has to have worked there for over twelve months. So, if Dad was just hired at a new job one month before Daughter was diagnosed with cancer? No guaranteed job protection for him. If Mom is an adjunct instructor at a university that pays for her son’s health insurance? This is a true story, and yes, Mom has to continue to teach everyday despite her son’s health because adjuncts have no job security to begin with and he is on her health insurance.

Maybe you think paid family leave is just too good to be true. Well, the majority of industrialized countries would beg to disagree.

Really, these three issues are just scratching the surface. I could go on and on about how defunding special education is hurting childhood cancer survivors who return to school with special needs because of their treatment, but I’ll leave that for another day. The reality is that childhood cancer is about more than just bald heads with radiant smiles—although that is definitely a part of it. The political world impacts a family’s ability to focus on physical and emotional healing, as well as the joy of being a family, and the more we are aware of how laws and policies shape the lives of families with childhood cancer, the more we can advocate for the health and well-being of all children.

The Politics of Surviving Childhood Cancer

The Journey of a Name

I am getting married in less than two months, and like many women today, I knew that I had to decide what to do with my last name. For the past two years, I’ve been torn between the autonomy of keeping my birth name and the collectiveness of sharing a family name. I spent those years reading through the history of marriage, pouring over blog posts about this very topic, and asking the women around me how they made up their mind. And yet, despite all the hours I devoted to this internal debate, ultimately, my mind was made up in a single, unplanned moment.

Politically, I am aligned with Marxist feminism, so I was hyperaware of just how patriarchal marital traditions are. The last name is a nominal symbol of possession and identity, so many feminists have opted to keep their birth name after marriage to symbolize their independence and defiance of misogynistic naming rituals. However, it could be said that the birth name, traditionally given by the father, is just as problematic as a married name. Some say that women go through their lives carrying the surnames of their fathers and then their husbands, always branded as belonging to a man. I soon realized that politics or theory wouldn’t answer my questions about how to handle my last name. After all, I know many strong, independent women who changed their names after getting married, and their fierceness did not falter after the name change. Also, I was made aware that the conversations about “feminist weddings” often reek of white privilege. I had to check my ego and recognize that my last name would not have any material or representational effect on gender roles or social justice.

This is when I decided that my decision to change, keep, or hyphenate my name would not be based on politics. Instead, it would be a personal, emotional decision. This revelation did not make the choice any easier. Conversely, it prompted a year-long meditation on how I viewed my own identity. I had to analyze my own relationship to my name: did I feel like my birth name represented who I was? Did I feel like taking my future husband’s name would help create a feeling of family and cohesion in our household? On top of the deeper questions, I had to face more logistical issues. If I changed my last name to his, would future perspective employers be able to quickly and easily find my accomplishments online from before I was married? If I kept my name, would I get tired of correcting everyone each time I was called “Mrs. Tomberlin”? If I hyphenated my name, would I get sick of writing out a seven-syllable last name? What names would our future children take? Could I merge our last names and create a super name without it sounding ridiculous?

About six months ago, I decided that I would hyphen my name: Ruth Osorio-Tomberlin. I acknowledged that my initials would be ROT, which was less than ideal, but the name seemed to embody everything I wanted: I maintained my pre-marriage identity by holding onto my birth name while also recognizing my changed status by adding his last name to the end. Employers could still be able to google my name and learn more about me, and strangers calling me “Ruth Tomberlin” would still be 50% correct. My full name wouldn’t fit on most forms, but that was a sacrifice I could make, I told myself.

It’s truly amazing how two years of meditation, debate, and research can be thrown away in a single moment.

Last Friday, Ryan and I picked up our marriage license. While filling out the form, I was surprised when I saw a section about name changes. Instantly, I felt short of breath. My eyes welled up; I was overwhelmed by the immediacy of this name change. I asked the woman staffing the desk if this was my last chance to change my name, and she said that it was my last chance to do it easily; after today, she said, I would have to file for a legal name change, and that was a lengthy legal process. I returned to the form, my chest feeling smaller and smaller as my breath fought its way out. The pen hovered over the section of the form. I realized then that, in a way, I was mourning my name, which I considered a huge part of my identity. In my mind, I was seeing “Ruth Osorio-Tomberlin” written on the class schedule, my passport, and my facebook page. The name felt fake, like a political compromise that appeared to represent significant change but was actually empty. Right then, I knew what I wanted; I knew that I wanted to keep my name as it was. As soon as I said my decision aloud, my chest expanded, air re-entered my lungs, and my eyes dried up. I left the section blank and returned the form to the clerk, confirming with her that I was indeed keeping my last name as it was.

Back in the car, I felt a lightness. I repeated my name and corresponding nick name in my head, and it felt good. I held my fiance’s hand and asked him, “Are you okay with this?” He turned to me and said, “All I want to do is marry you. Nothing else matters.” I felt flooded by his love and support, and blissful realizing that I had made the right choice.

So that is why I am keeping my last name. It isn’t because I am cynical about our chances of marital success; rather, that moment when he expressed his support reminded me of how dedicated I am to making our relationship a lifelong partnership. My decision to keep my name wasn’t based on my feminist beliefs, although I am grateful to the feminists who have challenged patriarchal rituals of naming and made it socially acceptable for me to keep my birth name. No, my choice was defined by my emotional connection to my name, the pride I feel as an Osorio, and a childlike enthusiasm about my nickname. It’s been a few days since we filled out those forms, and I have not felt an ounce of regret over my decision; instead, I have felt relief and excitement. Now that my mind and heart are clear, we can focus on the things that really matter: building a loving, caring, and shared life together.

The Journey of a Name

House Hunters Drinking Game

My fiance and I love HGTV’s House Hunters. Even though we know the secret behind the production of House Hunters, we love to turn our brains off and see how couples try to reconcile their image of the dream house with their budget. However, each episode has several eye-roll moments; basically, we hear the same things said over and over again. Despite that, I’m not ready to give up on House Hunters, so instead, let us celebrate its predictability through the art of alcoholic consumption. 

When Watching House Hunters, Take a Shot Every Time…

  • A buyer says the word “entertain.”
  • The phrase “man cave” is spoken.
  • There is a joke made about how the woman needs a large closet.
  • The real estate agent reminds the couple that they could easily repaint over that awful color.
  • The buyer says the phrase “open concept” or “granite counter tops.”
  • The real estate agent complains straight to the camera about the buyers’ unrealistic expectations.
  • The buyers have a ridiculous demand directly related to their pet and/or in-laws.

And if you really want to get drunk, take a double-shot every time the buyers buy their top choice property. 

Disclaimer: Do not attempt this game during a House Hunters marathon (unless you have a liver of steel).

HGTV fanatics, what would you add to this drinking game?

House Hunters Drinking Game

Scattered Thoughts After MPC’s Commencement

This afternoon, my fiance and I attended Monterey Peninsula College’s commencement ceremony. As I watched several of my former students– and hundreds of students I didn’t know– walk across the amphitheater stage and shake the hands of our administration, I couldn’t help but think about the obstacles each student overcame to get there today.

I started teaching at MPC two years ago. Fresh out of graduate school, I knew that I wanted to teach at a community college, but I wasn’t sure why. One of the main motivations was that I had the minimum qualifications to teach at a community college. I liked the idea of teaching at the college-level with just a MA, and I liked the idea of teaching diverse students. I could tell anyone that community colleges serve a variety of students, but I didn’t yet understand the just how diverse and wonderful the community college student population was. Now I do. Today, I watched students who have struggled with alcoholism, poverty, national disasters, discrimination, war, family pressures, and so much more receive their hard-earned diploma. Many of them are going off to universities, an opportunity only available to them because of the hard work they put into their education and the existence of community colleges.

Community colleges have been getting a lot of slack lately. Across the nation, community colleges boast of a seemingly pathetic “success rate” that varies between 25-40%. That statistic has been used to declare community colleges as a failure; however, the institutional definition of success is simply not reflective of the community college student body. One student who graduated today would not be counted as successful because it took her more than five years to obtain an AA. She dropped out of college during her first attempt because of her struggles learning English; she immigrated to the US from Ukraine after Chernobyl. After dropping out of community college, she decided to master English through a variety of jobs. She returned to community college a decade later with more confidence than before. Now, she is transferring to UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, but she is not counted as successful because of the time it took for her to complete her associate degree.

Her story is not unique. Many of our students don’t follow linear paths to success. Some students need multiple attempts before feeling 100% ready for college. Others require years of developmental education and support from disability resource centers before they can begin taking college-level coursework. As I was reminded at a scholarship reception for Supportive Services students (students with disabilities), for many students, mastering life skills is their ultimate goal– not a obtaining degree. And some students can only take a few courses here and there because they are also working full-time and supporting their family. And yet, statistically speaking, these students are considered unsuccessful.

I realized something else as the students walked up to get their certificates. At the ceremony, students had the opportunity to write brief thank you notes that were read aloud by the announcer. Many of the students thanked God, their families, their teachers, and their friends. But far and away, the majority of these students thanked the student services that helped them along the way: TRiO, EOPS, Supportive Services, counseling, the Math Learning Center, and the English and Study Skills Center (represent!). Sadly, these are the services that are often the first to face the ax of budget cuts, and yet, these are the services that help students to realize their goals and achieve success. Student services are just as valuable as academic coursework, and when budget negotiations start up again, I hope that faculty and staff work together to maintain these services, which are so vital to the progress of our students.

Today reminded me why we need to support open admissions and access to higher education. It reminded me of how much I’ve learned from students these past two years– and of how brave and courageous these students are who stare in the face of the darkest of challenges and then rise above them to pursue their goals. These students are something fierce, and right now, we need to fight to make sure our community college students get the support and resources they need and deserve.

Scattered Thoughts After MPC’s Commencement

The Conversation Is All Wrong

For my postsecondary reading course, we listened to this interview about the effectiveness—or lack thereof—of the community college system. In the interview, Chancellor Jack Scott introduces a shocking statistic that I have seen many times before, but it never seems to stun me: 75-80% of students entering community college require a “remedial” course in either English or Math. While the problems facing the community college are many, this fact forced me to realize a huge flaw in our conversation about public education. We seem to analyze primary, secondary, and postsecondary schools as separate entities; however, if that many students are coming to their community college’s footsteps with a lack of basic skills, the problem is occurring much earlier than the postsecondary level. So when do these issues start? Or is it the entire process that requires a revamping?

I recently read about a study about the value of early childhood education; in a Chicago preschool, the students enrolled had greater academic success, less need for remedial coursework, and fewer arrests during young adulthood than students who were not enrolled in any preschool. The statistics clearly demonstrated the relationship between a fully-funded pre-school experience and academic success later in life. Sadly, we all know that higher education isn’t the only budget that is being slashed. Public education at all levels is being sacrificed in our state budget, and the lack of available early education, especially in poor communities, is creating a domino effect of academic struggles. While we need to continue striving to improve institutions of higher education, we also have to recognize our interdependence with other levels of education and other social institutions.

The problems we face are bigger than simply public higher education. As social services get eliminated, poor families are watching their basic needs slip further and further away. We can no longer ignore the connection between basic needs and educational progress. How can a child do well in school if he is hungry? How can a teenager study her English textbook if her family is facing foreclosure? I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I know that the community college serves many students from disadvantaged and marginalized communities; they faced a lack of resources throughout their childhood, and yet we are shocked when they require remedial coursework and extra mentoring. This is why people are occupying. We can no longer afford to look at social injustices as isolated cases. Please note that I am not suggesting we should ignore the problems community colleges face and only focus our energy on a wide-scale revolution instead. The woes of the community college are present and real: we need more full-time instructors and counselors, lower tuition, and more extensive mentor programs in order to help our students reach their goals. However, as soon as we forget the big picture and how our politics affect every stage of human development, we let down our students and our communities.

The Conversation Is All Wrong