Sunday, July 9, 2017

Crumminess, perspective and blessings

The past week has been pretty crummy.

Sunday night, as Katie and I were leaving a party, our minivan stalled. (Cooper was at Boy Scout camp in Bastrop.) We were crossing a busy, six-lane road. Traffic was mercifully light at the time. I was able to pull into a parking lot, where the van died.

Monday afternoon, someone gained access to my online bank accounts, changed my passcode, transferred money from a savings account to checking and then started transferring money out. I was on hold with the bank for 90 minutes, waiting to report the problem, as I continued to receive email after email about money leaving my account. I couldn't stop it, as I didn't know the new passcode set by the criminal.

Tuesday morning, my MacBook Pro, a valuable tool in my freelance business, refused to start.

I spent much of Tuesday in bed, exhausted from all the phone calls and decisions and worry and logistics from the previous days. I spent some of that time feeling sorry for myself, some of that time angry at myself. (I should have noticed signs of a dying alternator on the van. I should have had a secure passcode for phone calls on my bank account, preventing the theft that had occurred. I should have backed up my Mac more frequently.)

Sure, these kinds of problems happen to everyone. But why must mine strike all at once? And, good gracious, sometimes I'm tired of being the sole decision-maker in the house. Sometimes I'm tired from so many side jobs. Sometimes I don't want to be the problem-solver. And how long will I continue to rely on others to help?

Wednesday I worked on repairing my attitude.

When the minivan died, I called our friends the Wheeleys, who were at the same party. They arrived quickly and kept us company while we waited for a tow truck. They drove us safely home. They offered to help however they could.

The dead alternator was under warranty, as it was replaced last July. (Everyone keeps telling me that it's unusual for alternators to die so quickly.) I had some expenses related to diagnosing the problem, but it was much less expensive than a brand-new alternator.

Many people offered their cars when the dealership was short on loaner cars. I declined all the kind offers, as there was nowhere we really had to go Tuesday, but the Hammonds cheerfully ignored me and delivered their convertible sports car to my driveway.

The stolen money will eventually be restored. There are some other logistics to take care of, but eventually everything will be smooth and secure.

My hard drive had failed, but all the data was recovered. The replacement and recovery was not inexpensive, but I've been working lots of side jobs this summer, so I was able to pay the bill without too much worry. I picked up the laptop from the repair shop just in time to meet a deadline on a freelance project.

Eight years ago right now, Steve was in steep decline. He struggled to move, to talk, to eat, sometimes to breathe.

Good gracious, my problems are tiny in comparison.

I am thankful for the people who surround us, who rescue us, who check in on us, who make our lives easier. I am thankful that all of this mess happened in the summer, when I don't have to take days off from teaching to piece everything back to together. I am thankful for the families who allow me tutor their children and the companies that allow me to write and edit.

I am thankful for my health and my children, who have incredible opportunities to travel and serve others this summer.

I am thankful for grace on the days when I feel sorry for myself, and I am thankful that there are many, many more days when such thoughts never cross my mind.

Katie, Tyra and Cooper, Saturday, just after Cooper returned from Scout camp and a day before he left for mission trip

Thursday, June 1, 2017

New journey

Steve loved this story:

In the middle of second grade, my mom, sister and I moved from Dallas to Belton. I sat in a second-grade classroom for a week, then the principal called a meeting and suggested that I move to third grade.

So I finished that school year at Leon Heights Elementary as a third-grader.

We returned to Dallas, to the same house that hadn't sold, and my mom tried to enroll me in fourth grade. The Dallas principal was incredulous and sent me back to third grade.

I sat in a third-grade class for the first week, mostly getting scolded for writing in cursive. (Brand-new third-graders weren't supposed to know how.)

My dad found out and insisted that I be moved to fourth grade. The principal imposed a test with a ridiculously high passing rate. I passed.

So, I went to fourth grade at Burnet Elementary.

While there, I noticed that some of my new friends were in a class that involved creative group projects and logic puzzles. It seemed like the class for me. I would ask my classroom teachers and my mom about it, but no one really listened.

Finally, at the end of fourth grade, I sidled up to Mrs. LaPrade in the hallway and told her that I thought I should be in her Talented and Gifted class.

She arranged the testing, and I passed.

For a few glorious months of fifth grade, I was in Mrs. LaPrade's TAG class. We solved problems and talked about Bloom's Taxonomy and worked on a big projects.

Then, in the middle of fifth grade, we moved. This time, though, I was prepared. I didn't want to wait another year to get into the class that I knew was meant for me. I asked Mrs. LaPrade for a letter that I could give to my new teacher in Austin, to speed up the TAG application process.

I held on to that letter for a couple of weeks, until I found the teacher I could trust the most at Gullett Elementary. I chose the music teacher, who was the most welcoming.

She read the letter (or maybe just skimmed it) and arranged for a test. The next afternoon, I listened to music notes and was supposed to choose the next note. Good gracious, I had no idea what to do and had no understanding of how this test would help me get back into TAG.

I failed that test miserably, and the music teacher told me that I wouldn't be in the advanced choir.

I never asked for Mrs. LaPrade's letter back.

We moved again in fifth grade, this time back to Belton. Mrs. LaPrade's letter was gone. So was my confidence. I worked hard and hoped that one day I'd get back in TAG.

I breezed through sixth grade. Toward the end of that year, my reading teacher, Mrs. Creek, called me up to her desk and told me I didn't belong in her class. She thought I needed to be in the TAG language arts class. I'm certain that I cried.

From that point forward, I remained in the program in Belton and then Carrollton-Farmers Branch. My friends from TAG at Newman Smith High School remain some of my closest friends today.


Those TAG teachers understood how to work with our quirkiness. They figured out how to motivate us, how to challenge us, how to nurture our unusual qualities. (Being identified as a gifted learner isn't always a bed of roses. There are all kinds of side effects, such as asynchronous development, emotional intensity and extreme sensitivity.)

In an incredible stroke of luck, I get to try to be one of those teachers.

Tomorrow is my final day as a fourth-grade teacher at Hosp Elementary, the school that I helped open three years ago. I have loved my years at Hosp -- working with amazing children and their families, becoming more confident as a teacher, collaborating with incredible colleagues. Yet I couldn't pass up the opportunity to try middle school.

Beginning this August, I will teach integrated language arts to sixth- and seventh-grade gifted and talented students at Pearson Middle School. The campus is close enough for me to walk to work (Katie does it every day). I'll be teaching many of the same children I've taught at Hosp. My mentor teacher will be Cooper's GT teacher from seventh and eighth grade. Katie and I will have the same schedule again. (The logistics this year, with three of us on different campuses with different schedules, have been workable but tricky.)

I'll be weepy tomorrow as I say goodbye to my Hosp babies and finish packing my classroom, but I'll also be giddy as I move furniture and boxes into my new Pearson room in anticipation of the new year and my new opportunity.

I think Steve would love this part of the story, too.

My homeroom class this year

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

One-woman show

A truth that's dawned on me the past few weeks:

When you're a single parent in the way that I am, you are often the whole show, for better or worse.

When there's disappointing news to share, it's always in your voice. When someone needs (but perhaps doesn't necessarily want) a pep talk at 6 a.m. or 11 p.m., it's always in your voice. When someone needs a reminder of the importance of a growth mindset or respect or obedience, it's always in your voice.

At the same time, when there's a celebration to share, when there's progress to note, when there's recognition of an obstacle overcome, the joy somehow feels magnified.

Of course, Cooper, Katie and I aren't in this alone. We have support, advice and cheerleaders all around.

Still, there are moments that are reserved for the parents in the house or, in my case, the parent in the house. I'm realizing it's important for me to acknowledge both the heavy burden and the immeasurable joy borne from my role.

I'm also aware -- and thankful -- that there are more mountaintop moments than valleys.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Our memories don't need our mementos

From today's Briefing:

Katie cleaned out her closet last week, creating a giant stack of clothes to pass along to younger friends.
This isn’t unusual. Children outgrow their clothes quicker than they outwear them, and we’re surrounded by families who appreciate a pile of hand-me-downs.
What was unusual was the little dress I placed on top of Katie’s discards: a charmingly mismatched floral number that I’ve held on to for seven years, a dress that Katie outgrew before she entered kindergarten.
She loved this particular dress for its twirling qualities. She wore it to church and preschool parties. And she wore it for our final family photo with her daddy.
 I’ve struggled to let it go for too long, allowing my sentimental tendencies to overpower my practical side. I was finally able to pass on the tiny dress, perfect for a spunky 4-year-old we know, because of music.
Way back in the summer of 2000, in our time before children, Steve and I attended a performance of Parade, an award-winning yet commercially dismal musical. We fell in love with the story and songs, despite the tragic themes and ending.
Parade is obscure, as far as musicals go. It tells the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man living in Atlanta who was accused of murdering a girl in the pencil factory he managed. Though the murder and subsequent trial take place almost 50 years after the end of the Civil War, the South is still struggling with anger toward the North and changes in the economy and social structure.
It’s heavy stuff, for sure, providing plenty of material to debate and process.
In the decade that followed, we would discuss the story and sing the songs together. Our favorite was “The Picture Show,” a playful duet between Frankie and Mary, but we’d perform them all, sometimes in the car or in the kitchen while washing up after dinner.
When Steve died in 2009, I didn’t stop listening, and I didn’t stop singing, but I lost a little gusto. Those songs, plus a whole library of others that matter, bridged a connection between life with Steve and life without.
Cooper and Katie have grown up with Parade in the background – along with U2, Jack Johnson, ZZ Top, Wicked, Aaron Copland, Rent, the Beatles, the Dixie Chicks and the Cure. Those tunes are a nod to the daddy they love, a man whose days were too short.
Because Parade is underappreciated, I expected to listen to the same recording over and over for the rest of my days. But a local theater brought the story to life for one night only last weekend – and I couldn’t pass up the chance to enjoy it live again.
Cooper, Katie and I attended the special production at the WaterTower Theatre, and I used all of my willpower to not sing aloud. I had no willpower to stop my tears.
The lyrics filled my soul again, and this time I was seated not next to Steve but surrounded by our two children. Sometimes I would close my eyes and just listen – and ponder the power of music that endures years, that sweeps us back in time and propels us forward.
I can’t possibly hold on to every scrap of clothing, every memento that ties us to Steve – or to any of my loved ones who have passed away. And I don’t need to. My heart swells with snippets of conversation, with scents that evoke joy, with lines of poetry set to lovely melodies.
Listening to the music again helped me to remember that there are forces more powerful than things.
Little Phoebe will twirl in Katie’s dress, then one day she’ll share it with sister Ingrid. They’ll create their own memories. My sweet memories of the dress are stored up and nestled in with songs and laughter and a few tears.


Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at 

Saturday, March 11, 2017


Why do I love this photo? Because ...
  • Cooper's laugh is pure joy. 
  • We were both a little giddy with his first-ever driving lesson.
  • He's driving my minivan in the parking lot of Bledsoe Elementary, his home for six years. On the other side of the Odyssey is the playground that hosted every recess from kindergarten to fifth grade.
  • When this child was born, I never imagined I would be his first driving instructor. Steve was in charge of all things car-related. Yet, here we are, and Cooper and I are figuring it out together.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Kitchen sink

I am the proud owner of a new kitchen sink, faucet and garbage disposal.

The sink is a sleek 33-inch-by-22-inch, drop-in, single-basin, enamel-coated cast-iron number. The faucet is a single-handle, spot-resist, pull-down stainless steel with optional spray plus an in-sink soap dispenser. The powerful-yet-not-too-noisy disposal features auto-reverse and a removable cover.

1. I feel like a genuine adult with these purchases.
2. I am thankful for friends who help me make these kinds of decisions -- Melissa and Julie, who both offer invaluable home advice.
3. I am thankful for plumbers who can install all of this stuff.
4. I am thankful that plumbers work on Presidents' Day, a day that teachers have off.
5. I am thankful for side jobs that allow me to save extra money to help fund these purchases and services.

I can't tell you how many nights Steve stood at the sink -- the old sink -- and washed dishes. He was often found walking around the house with a dish towel slung over his shoulder. He liked that washing dishes offered a daily chance to begin and finish a task. He would usually sing and dance a little while he worked. He continued the chore after he was diagnosed, for as long as he could.

When he became too unsteady to stand for long or just too worn out for anything extra, he relented. But he'd sit nearby and visit with whomever took over -- sometimes me, often Aunt Ami or Sharon or Jackie or Allie or Liz or Julie or Betty -- one of the heroes who helped us get through those really rough days.

Over time, the old sink became chipped in three or four spots, the victim of a heavy Le Creuset pan. No matter how often or hard I scrubbed, there were a couple of spots that just wouldn't come clean. In the past few weeks, the faucet started to leak. I've repaired the disposal on my own (thank you, Layne and Jenny and YouTube) about half a dozen times.

It was time for new. Steve would have agreed. (Though he probably would have chosen a more modern fixture. He was always edgier than I am.)

There are moments -- many, many moments -- when I'm hard on myself. I should be more organized, I should clean more, I should answer emails and texts faster, I should go to sleep earlier, I should exercise more, I should be more patient, I should be less reliant on others.

Tonight I'm pausing for a moment to remind myself that this single-mom business is tough, yes, but overall I'm doing OK. I'll celebrate later tonight, as I wash dishes in that brand-new sink -- singing and dancing a little as I go.

Isn't it lovely?