On Celebrating a Milestone Birthday!

I was born on Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, January 15th. I always figured that, in part gave birth to my strong social conscience. It certainly has been a guiding force in how and why I dedicated my life to teaching and learning with others, all ages, stages, needs and gifts. In particular, teaching scholars-in-waiting is a joy in my life and I am indeed proud of my efforts.

Sitting here on a drizzly Eugene night, in my comfy chair, Soundscapes on, chocolate peanut cluster close by. My old friend Muse silently sneaked up on my shoulder today. Elf is finally off the shelf, but this Muse is pesky. I had no time to write tonight, but I am compelled and once I hit flow state, I simply have to write. I write on my old mac laptop, recently tuned up and upgraded, engine silently roaring, vroom, off we go, Rita! Let’s write!

I was thinking about skipping this birthday, not thrilled with the prospect of being older than dirt, chronologically. Isn’t it strange, at least to me, that little kids can’t wait for the next big birthday? My kids couldn’t wait until thirteen, sixteen, twenty-one, thirty, not so much, five, ok, forty, hmmm, still not catching up with me. All in time, and so it is and should be. Sam is six months older. I often joke about that, saying “You’re always going to be older than me”, and we plan to be at least ninety-nine together, especially if I start riding my new bike down the hall. I promise.

Feeling memories washing over me, all day today, bittersweet, some things lovely as the purest rose, putting a bit of drama, old hurts and neglects by the side tonight as I near a milestone birthday. So grateful to be here, so filled with optimism that this new year, new decade is overflowing already with my #Oneword JOY.

Not saying my age. No way, at least not until the end of my article. But I am admitting there are a lot of candles on that cake. Hard to believe, it just sneaked up on me, pretty much. I was always so darn busy. Too crazy busy. I was always that way. And early years, Mom and Dad kept me busy. Piano lessons and practice, chores, etc. Dad was strict, Mom, not so much. She was the serious reader. But both Mom and Dad read ‘Reader’s Digest’; I still do. We did the vocabulary builders during dinner. I also remember Dad reading me Sunday funny papers and I used silly putty to pick up the colored cartoons. Mom read late into the night, did crossword puzzles, simultaneously watching old Turner Classic movies. I was a sleepwalker and part time insomniac way back, so I frequently couch cozied with her. Lots of library visits. Lots of memories.

We also had a second grade teacher living with us when I was little. Her name was Lee. A widow, like I am, she too was lonely, as I was, so my parents invited her to live with us. Pretty special having a teacher as a nanny, family member. No wonder I became a teacher, starting at six. I was surrounded by teachers. “Each one, teach one.” Those who can, teach”. It is truly a calling. But teachers are everywhere, we are all teachers one way or another, really. And parents or guardians are a child’s first and best teachers, really.

In my life whenever I face insurmountable obstacles, teaching remains steadfast and true, no ups, downs, hither and yons. While I pray in my lifetime schools are fully funded, testing madness ends, (along with scripted programs) and teachers have autonomy, regardless, there is no nobler calling than teaching, and for that I am eternally grateful. I had mentors and models along the way. Everybody needs a mentor, or two.

Dad took me fishing and planted pansies with me. I think I got my love of gardening from him. On weekends sometimes he took me to buy fresh fish from Lake Michigan, and once in  awhile we went fishing together. He taught me how to play tennis, a strict but excellent teacher. I was born and raised, until ten, in Muskegon, Michigan, making me a Michigander. Later we moved to Phoenix. My mother was tutoring adult education, especially reading. I accompanied her, then tutored for Laubach Literacy, Literacy Volunteers of America, etc. before I started college. Although I wanted to be a writer, as I’ve told you before, in those days we were encouraged to be a nurse or teacher, or just pick a “good” husband. Like a ‘Mad Men’ episode, complete with dresses and hair on soup can rollers.

I messed up at University. Year one I was in an amazing Honors Program at (NAU), Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff. Year two I transferred to Arizona State University, (ASU), Tempe, because of the education program, particularly reading and reading clinic. At ASU, I joined a sorority, I was not great at it, not a conformist, not ever. But I swooped in on romance of getting pinned, engaged, and kaboom, married at nineteen (divorced at twenty-one). I waited for love a number of years, until I met William, a new life cycle, couple more generations of love, until his life was over.

But back then, way back then, at nineteen I was just learning what it meant to be a wife, living in a studio apartment while we both worked, went to school and studied. Fun at first, not for long. There were humorous moments, of course, like my cooking, always a subject in my life, despite taking home ec. and rudimentary lessons from my sister.

I really couldn’t cook. I remember inviting my dear late brother to our apartment and made a hmmm. Dinner. I burned the roast. For dessert I made a graham cracker crust pie, chocolate pudding filling. I forgot to bake the crust. Lol now. I was going to school full-time at Arizona State University, as I said, teaching Sunday school, kindergarten. I managed to finish my BA and Teaching Credential in three years. Loved student teaching junior high Reading and English, (excepting the excuse me, gross stuff, including fart jokes). Still in Arizona, I taught another year in a HS Reading Lab, grades 9-12. Nightmare. I would not have been asked back, no books were allowed, I smuggled them out of my desk drawer.for a year. Not successfully. Rebel with a cause.

Next, Colorado, High School English, Speech and Drama. Amazing. I also had great learning experiences coaching speech and debate, sponsoring newspaper and yearbook. Small schools offer lots of opportunities to practice art and craft of teaching. Small schools serving especially needy kiddos, in underserved areas are my favorites. Only way is up, resource limitations real, of course. I know now, I’d trade stuff for autonomy, although I made my life tougher, picking places in most dire need, It also made my life much more rewarding over the long haul. It was a higher calling and I heard.

My whole life has been about teaching. Variations on a theme, as Principal, Curriculum Consultant, Title I Program Evaluator, Keynote Speaker, Seminar Leader, etc. etc. I wouldn’t do anything different. Not one thing. All things technology, however, remain like Leo the Late Bloomer. I am a seriously late bloomer.

At this stage of my life I accept myself as I am, most of the time. I know sometimes I am really hard on myself. I have some OCD tendencies, am empathetic to a fault, disorganized, perpetually behind and catching up. Acknowledging these faults or growth areas, I also know my life of service to others leaves me with nothing to prove, my legacy intact.  In the end, it’s up to us to be satisfied whether we have met our life’s purpose, not as competition with anyone, but ourselves. If our words and actions lift others up through our modeling, what more can there be?

As I reflect on my life, I know experience counts. Adventures to schools in primitive places, teaching Miwok Indian children, sitting with parents under a tree, just talking, making home visits where there were no vacuums, or phones. Making a home visit during a drug bust. Standing up for teachers everywhere. Autonomy. There is no greater reward than service to others. And in real life, just for me, how fortunate I was at Stonehenge, touching the stones before there were fences. So cool. I saw great bands in their heyday. Ravi Shankar playing sitar. Glacier Park when there were glaciers. Frye boots, bell bottoms, long fluff ball hippie hair.

I was the youngest in our family of three kids. A lot of youngest. And then I wasn’t. Where did the years go? In recent months as I regain my health, feel like life is looking up, finding my Sam I am, life looks and feels like a whole lot of joy and unmet possibilities.

Tonight as I sorted through my hatbox of memories,  I feel complete and pretty much at peace. Tomorrow we are taking a couple days to rest at the Oregon Coast. On Saturday night my Eugene kids are hosting a super fun dance party with just us, a little disco ball and maybe bingo. Mellow.

I wish I could tell you transitions are easy, some yes, some not so. For me, transitions in teaching and life are paramount. I haven’t always handled transitions well, while knowing each to be a segue to something better. Patience and tenacity have always alluded me, but I am working on this. I hope to encourage you to never give up, anything is possible. There were jobs I aspired to I did not get, although I was deserving, or so I thought. Life happens. But in each situation, my optimism overcame thought of disappointment or failure. I just took other paths, which then opened new opportunities, however disguised at that time.

Being older today is not a roadblock to relevance, although I admit mastering digital tools remains a constant need. I have a great new tech guy making house calls, no more mac stool at the help desk. On a one-to-one, with no distractions, I am improving. What I lack with technology, I make up I would think in teaching and lifetime stories.

What experience teaches me:

  1. The road not taken likely was my best, but no regrets on detours along the way.
  2. Obstacles are normal, what happens next become defining moments.
  3. Teaching for achieving needs thought and definition, focus on art and craft.
  4. What’s next for our country requires our participation and leadership.
  5. What others consider failures I regard as useful feedback.
  6. When in doubt, pause, reflect, meditate, pray, listen to inner voice for answer.
  7. When feeling overwhelmed, self-care takes priority over everything.
  8. Family first is no joke. I always say I have no regrets, this would be the one.
  9. Modeling everything (ME) guides me. Walk the Talk.

I believe in optimism, although sometimes it eludes me, too. With grace and dignity, I hope, I am turning seventy on January 15th. A lot of candles on that cake, but I’ve earned every one. Thanking you for belief in me and my work. Tonight I shared a little bit more of my story, always eager to read yours.

Leaving footprints on your reading hearts, Rita

My heart to yours, tonight

As always, thanks to BAMRadio Network for support of my writing.

I’d love to hear from you:

Twitter: @RitaWirtz

FB: Rita’s Facebook

Website: RitaWirtz.com

Instagram: @ritamwirtz

Books: Stories From a Teacher’s Heart, Reading Champs



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