A Life Well Lived: Eulogy for Karlene Paxton, First Grade Teacher

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“All Things Bright and Beautiful”. We gather together on this bright sunny day to celebrate the life and love surrounding our friend, Karlene Paxton.

Karlene was certainly bright and beautiful, her golden yellow white hair, the happy, bright colors she wore and the way she sort of shuffle-hop-step-glided into a room full of young children. This wonderful lady, this human creature, made great by both her small and large work.

Karlene knew children. She knew ants were glorious creatures of intrigue, mystery and wonder. She knew an entire class could be halted in its tracks by SNOW! She knew attaching your mittens together by a piece of yarn and threading them through a coat so-you-don’t-lose-them was a good idea- even for grown-ups. She knew how to keep little children wide eyed and fascinated as she told them stories from the Bible.

For over 30 years, Mrs Paxton was a First Grade teacher. During her tenure, Karlene hand wrote- hand wrote- notes to each parent each week about their daughter. She always had a clunky piano in her room, a big, comfy couch and hats lining the walls. I think there was a hamster on the loose every year for about 10 years in Karlene Paxton’s First Grade class. It was legendary. And right before the end of each day, she’d turn off the lights, light a candle and choose just the right hat to go with just the right book. There’s nothing quite as delicious as a really. good. story.

Karlene could make anything with pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks and glue. Ronnie O’Connor, her longtime teaching partner, made sure I knew how she made her famous macaroni angels. How do you make a macaroni angel, you ask? A sturdy rigotoni body, bowtie for wings, elbow pasta for arms, one brown bead for a head and of course golden wire for the halo. Spray paint it all gold. Glitter was not optional.

Want to do a lesson on how to fix the kitchen sink? Karlene will be digging through your cabinets looking for just the right material for the students to make a simulated under the sink system. Not only will there be a cut and paste project for the budding plumbers, but she will have a song and a story ready to go. When Karlene came in to teach her lessons, you could always depend on the room being a complete tangle of yarn and glue and all of the children deliciously happy and satisfied with themselves and their deep learning. Karlene was always a creative, dynamic, fun force with a constantly fresh and evolving approach to teaching Young Children.

“All Creatures Great and Small.” Each Life contains a lesson. A tree, a bird, a bee. (Did you see the baby bunny outside the church today as we walked in?) The wonderings of children delighted her, “Are there dinosaurs in heaven?” Karlene Paxton had a keen ear for the teachings of blossoms, pea pods, cats and creatures and spent her life teaching children to “Stay Awake! (clap, clap) Keep Ready!” for those lessons to become visible amid our human blindness.

She loved animals. One Stuart colleague, Tica, described her as “a more colorful and bundled up St Francis of Assisi.” She knew all living things had a lesson to teach us: honeysuckle, hummingbirds, bees. Speaking of bees, she certainly worked like one. She died on the last day of school, seeing through her work of over 40 years until the very end.

On that Friday morning as I was driving to work, I must have seen 9 or 10 monarch butterflies- maybe it wasn’t that exact amount but it was enough for me to have wondered, “What is up with all of these monarch butterflies this morning?” They were floating in front of my car on my way to work, zipping all around the road as I drove. Later that day we were told the news of her passing. I suddenly knew “what was up” with all of those monarchs. 😀 Karlene.

“All Things Wise and Wonderful.” Karlene knew the critical importance of play, both in spirit and work and had a gift for seeing into the world of a child. She could reach in and pull out the best in them. She loved the loveable, haphazard “goofballs”, those kids just SO EXCITED by life they just couldn’t sit still, the odd ducks among us, and thus had a deep and rich understanding of not only the way of a child, but ultimately the way of each one of us.

She loved going to Englishtown as often as she could. It seemed she had a garlic man, a seafood man and a sock man. Based on her array of colorful jewelry, she probably had a man for that too. Karlene was always busy weaving the characters of community together- Father Hugh and this wonderful church community, her colleagues at Stuart, her dear family, her beloved neighbors, Florence and Jim, her friends at Englishtown and we can’t leave out her little dog Tessa. Throughout the years we’ve all heard the stories of the wonderful webs of community she formed.

I loved when she would tell about her summer theatre adventures with Jack in the New Jersey neighborhood barn. Karlene was always renewing herself and her learning. She often talked of the lectures she attended or the latest news report and always added a newspaper clipping or two to the mix of information. Her active mind kept her youthful, fresh and fun.

“The Lord God Made Them All”  The last lesson Kalene taught my class was the Legend of the Dogwood. Here is the story:

Once upon a time,

“Many years ago, a dogwood tree grew on a hill outside Jerusalem. In those days, the dogwood tree was as tall and mighty as an oak, and this tree was the tallest of all the dogwoods, and extremely proud of its strength.

“Something wonderful is going to happen to me,” it said to anyone who would listen. “I’ll probably become the mast that holds the big sail on a grand ship, or the main timber supporting a great house.”

Unfortunately, the huge old dogwood was cut down to become the cross to which Jesus was nailed. The tree was horrified. All its dreams of glory were smashed, and it groaned in agony as two boards from its trunk were nailed together.

Jesus took pity on the tree, even as he carried it to Calvary. “You will never be put to such use again,” He told it. “From this day on, your shape will change, even as will the world. You will become slender and sway easily with the breeze. And instead of acorns, you will bear flowers in the shape of a cross… with two long and two short petals. In the center of the outer edge of each petal, there will be nail prints… brown with rust and red with blood stains to show the world how you have suffered.”

“Last of all, the center of your flowers will be marked as though with a crown of thorns to remind people forevermore, that you and I spent our last moments together.” And so it was. And so it is.” (looking for the citation of this story)

I didn’t realize until recently that Karlene’s daughter- Cindy’s memorial tree was a dogwood.

It suddenly became clear why she pushed herself to tell that story to the children on that last day. Now I understood why she told that story. She had experienced the deep groan of the dogwood in her own life. Yet she was here to tell, each year, the story of the crown of thorns and the forgiveness in those sweet white spring blossoms.

Karlene would not want us to cry or want all the fuss. We knew she probably wouldn’t even come to her retirement dinner, so in the last few days of school, the children started stitching her a quilt. When we found out she was in the hospital, we stitched a little harder.

“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” Matthew Chapter 5: Verse 8. To her family, Jack, Kristen and Eddie, Brian, Grace, Maryn, Molly and Sophie, we offer these humble words, stories and memories of your wife, mother, grandmother and friend.

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Quilt for Karlene
Quilt for Mrs Paxton, sewn by Kindergarten-5th Grade students

Presents and Presence

Well, do you put the update at the beginning or the end? It always feels like the last post or the last presence is the final one and yet it all mangages to keep going. I think last year I said, “this is my last year of making presents” and I know for sure I was uttering that while trying not to say swear words in Kindergarten while making this next one….

2014
I didn’t update this last year. It’s January 2015 now and I’m still on vacation. I guess now’s as good as time as any to remember last year. Here’s the photo of what the kids made for Jane Hirshfield:
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I thought she seemed kind of fuzzy and cozy so I thought yarn was good to use. Like her hair. It seems pretty good now that I’m writing it all up, but just before I wrote this I was thinking, “this is stupid”. People probably don’t even want this stuff. I got my brother’s family a giant solar system mobile for Christmas. I could tell he didn’t like it. They are trying to get rid of stuff and they don’t have much room.

It was still the same one as the last year. We weren’t talking then, just like now.

2013

Seems I’m on my fifth year of presence and presents. This one was for Edwidge Danticat and the Good Lord knows I did not know what to make. I was wracking my brain to think of something.

Several days before: “Have to dream up scalable secret project today for a famous writer. Still no ideas other than it has to be done in secret w a hint of danger.

“Something w hems BC hems are secret…. Words sewn into the hems of something…can’t do shawl…a belt? Something softer…”

“I still don’t know what to make. Will only have 2 or 3 days. Hems, graffiti, danger. What can I make?!”

Finally, the morning I was supposed to start it just came to me “A tote bag kind of thing. Sewn. With secret hems inside it. Appliquéd. Will dye the fabric. There’s going to be story treasure boxes inside the bag in case she ever gets writers block these will unblock her.”

The kids secretly passed the cloth from kid to kid on the playground to sign it. No one told the teachers. Kids from 6 miles around, it felt, all snuck into the Kindergarten to help, exhilarated by this simple danger. This is what it looked like all finished:

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Kric Krac Ric Rak Treasure Box

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Somehow I can’t yet post the picture of the whole assembled Treasure Box. I feel like its supposed to be kept private so the magic can work its magic.

I wonder why I talk to these famous authors through these gifts. I try to climb inside their writing, though I rarely read their books. I get grouchy. I get emotional. I can’t think of much else. I have glue and dye on my hands for days. But then the gift is given and there is this relief and elation, this wonderful feeling of accomplishment that something is created new and especially for them.

I think about his nose and for some reason french toast. I remember that time our eyes and smiles met. “We were together, I forget the rest.” Well, I guess that freaks some people out! Oh well! I’m happy to have had the fun.

Create dangerously folks, there’s only one life to live!

Love,

Heidi

2012: 

Well, I’ve been making presents. Two within two weeks of school, (more on this later) which is a lot considering carrying the full workload in addition. Anyway, this isn’t about that vs a place where I can keep both the record and the memory.

The first one was in 2009 for Paul Muldoon the poet. I had the Kindergarten illustrate some of his haikus. They turned out great. I am not sure if I have a photo of any of them, I will have to look and dig up.

I was living in the hovel at the time. I remember having a really great Christmas that year. Snow and being in my own space for the first time really ever in some ways. I sat and talked to Mary on myspace a lot that year. Changed my myspace Christmas song like everyday. And followed Santa on twitter. It was fun. I had a porch and long grass in the backyard because the landlord was an awful slumlord.  It was a disaster of a place in so many ways, but I liked it. I was still playing w the camera a lot then. I took photos of one of his books. It’s a poem about a triangle. Here’s the photo:

The next was for Jonathan Safran Foer. This time I scaled it for Kindergarten, First and Second grades because Paul Muldoon had liked the illustrations so much and I felt the kids should have something to give these great authors. Aren’t little kids always supposed to make things for people? Anyway, we did. This time a giant map of the five boroughs of New York City. It was huge. And since it was a girl’s school, somehow the American Girl Doll Museum ended up being as prominently displayed as the Empire State Building.

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I had just broken up with an insurance guy who lived in New York City. More like, he had just broken up with me. I’m still not sure why to this day except he lost his job and poof! he just disappeared. I never put the two together until way later. I’m not even sure they go together, but there, its a memory now.

The next one was for Jhumpa Lahiri. I knew it was to be a piece of jewelry. She was our first woman author and I just felt jewelry. A necklace of names.  It turned out really beautifully. She was wearing a black dress and the water colored bits of paper just popped when she put it on. Her whole being just changed. A little gasp came from the audience when she put it on, it was all such a stunning picture. I will never forget that. There are no photos.

I was dating the drummer and I needed to wear something I could make things in. I remember he looked twice at my choice of a dowdy long green sweater and whatever else. I told him, “I have to wear this because I am making something today.” He never knew about the necklace.

The last author gift was for Naomi Shihab Nye. We gave it just a week ago. You know, its quite a thing to make something and give it away. I mean, of course you want to give it, that is your entire intention behind the making of it. I bet parents know what I am saying. You know, you put your heart and soul into something. To make it out of air and release it. It’s quite a thing. Anyway, for her I knew weaving right away. This time I made it from Kindergarten all the way through 5th grade. Wounds and weaving, binding, healing, ribbons, imperfections, the poems of children, I don’t know all that’s in there. Here it is:

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She loved it. I must say, she really did. She even emailed me a note. I could barely mumble back a reply!

It’s where I am now so it’s the hardest to know. Buoyed by so many successes but still reaching. Alone and yet incredibly connected. It’s a strange place to be! Excited but still shy. I know. People say., “Shy? You Heidi?” Yes! Shy me! 😀 Maybe it will be better to update it later and see what memory I have then.

I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to create things for people. Especially writers. Presents and presence. I’m glad each one needs the other.

Much Love to All,

Heidi

Team Mary

Team Mary

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I just have to post these pictures of my friend and teaching partner Mary Ramsey. This is how I think of her, this is who she was, singing with her sisters. Wow- what a woman. She sure packed a punch in her tiny frame. She was my teaching partner. Goofy, fun, funny, witty- all the things you could want in a teaching partner and a friend. There was and is so much love in her family. Pretty amazing how simple life is.

What a woman and what a life she led. Passionate to the end. She lived it. She loved it. Every minute.

We used to joke about the song “Last Christmas” by Wham!

We’d just randomly bust into it while tooling around the classroom. Yes, in August when we were setting up. 😀 We taught Kindergarten! Christmas is fair game everyday!

I’m remembering her and crying and thinking of how magical life is. Why do we all run around so silly all the time worried about the worlds smallest things when LOVE is the biggest thing in the world. That’s all we need to worry about. “Love as you love, Be a friend to all.” Two goals of my school and goals she lived.

She sang and played guitar for hundreds of children. Simple, sweet songs.

She was a runner and fierce competitor. She faced her cancer diagnosis like no one I had quite ever seen before. The ALS, well, that broke all our hearts. Truly after three years its still like a dream and I can’t quite make the meanings out yet if there even are any.

And Please, if you are a Pray-er, pray for her loving husband. Wow, that man- 24 round the clock care for this woman who he loved so dearly. They were quite a pair- he at well over 6 feet and tiny she- wait here’s a picture:

   

That’s all for now. But put more love in the world and then put some more.  I mean it. Do big things for people who will never know. Help people. Make eye contact with the homeless. Don’t frack. Save the whales. Be someone’s rainbow. And look for this angel- she’s out there!

Remembering one of my mentors: #Kinderblog Q2

So I sort of lamed out on my last attempt to answer the kinderblog question2  This post is from three years ago. Not sure if I should share it or not. Maybe I will delete it later, I don’t know! But this is about one of my mentors and people who affected the way I think about teaching and education:

Repost from November 22, 2008

I just came from a viewing and tomorrow morning, the funeral. I am drinking beer in a cozy basement pub. They have the internets here and I am still without. But I ran over here to write about her so I wouldn’t forget the swirls of thoughts that bounced into my head for the short time I was there.

Oh, what a woman. She was my mentor and my friend. Her family had all of these pictures of her in the many crazy birthday hats we made while she taught in Pre School. She was my head for several years when I taught in the Pre School.

The hardest thing to give you here is a picture of what it’s like to be a teacher of young children. Although it’s a people job, it is a very isolated life. I mean, you are lucky to have another adult in the room teeming with three and four year old energy and even luckier to have one who “gets it” and can laugh when it’s time to throw in the towel and laugh. And there’s zero glory. Even elementary school teachers are sometimes “remembered” by whomever, but how many people can remember back to when you were three years old.!? Nobody! You may do amazing things worthy of Academy Awards, but no one sees you. MAybe- MAYbe your teaching partner sees if you are lucky, or you get to see them, but those moments are quick and soon forgotten because all the while Johnny is picking his nose. So much so that’s it’s not even a big deal anymore, you actually don’t even notice.

We would have been called “nursery school teachers” back in the day, but Pre School has taken over or the new term “JK”. Anyway, forget all that, I am trying to paint the picture.

In true Pre School fashion, I would now literally paint. Maybe with sponges or big brushes, little brushes, toothbrushes, my hands. She knew all of this stuff intimately and was a serious pro in dealing with kids, curriculum and parents. She knew her child development and never strayed or tried to replace “Jack Be Nimble” with something more flashy or popular at the time.

She wore beautiful, elegant clothes and yet never minded getting down on the floor to teach a lesson or tie a shoe. I still sing her sweet, simple, silly songs to the kids and they still eat them up. One of my favorite pictures the family displayed showed the three-year-old class photo from 1981. The kids were all standing in front of twenty-two witch paintings with a poster behind them saying, “Wanda, the Wonderful, Wacky, Weird, Witty, Wicked Witch” and she sat next to them, her face just glowing with a playful, joyous energy. It was “w” week.

Her face always glowed- in every picture she was always just lit from within somewhere. And her life was by no means easy. She lost a sibling at a very young age- he fell through the ice as she watched. She fought cancer and won. Years later, she lost a grown son. Two weeks after that, the cancer came back. She was on chemotherapy for the last four years, but you’d never know it. She glowed throughout.

But I want to remember the young children part more. Because that’s an essential part of who this woman was and what she meant to me. She really just loved children. And this is the part I guess I never really thought of before in the grand scheme of things.

Here she was, this beautiful, glowing, elegant woman surrounded by all of these children. And that was her job. How amazing. Look at what her life represented. Simplicity, joy, laughter- it’s really beautiful to see a life in such a clear focus like that.

You always run the risk, at parties and such, when the big guns are out and everyone asks what you do for a living and you say, “Kindergarten teacher or Pre School teacher” that you get a pat on the head, and a “cute” or “how nice” or the dreaded “you must have a lot of patience” response. It’s none of those. Really, you are just a sucker for a good time and you can do a lot with pipe cleaners. : )

It’s a job just so sweetly simple. I really never thought about it before.

She makes me think of the best in this life- the sweetness and the fun and the joy that’s all around us.

That’s all. I hope I didn’t share too much, but I just want to remember somewhere I can look back to no matter where I am and think of everything.

I’m getting shy now and I’m going to get another beer.
Love,
Heidi

November 22, 2008