Saint Stories

A holiday by any name … or place … or budget

Check here for a Christmas column celebrating the best of the season. 

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Lessons learned in Squirrel School

The neighbor dogs had barked since 9 a.m. when I stepped into the back yard to investigate. I had to squint across slabs of afternoon sun to scan the creaky elm tree that grows on the other side of the fence. Squirrel school, it appeared, was in session.

A determined-looking parent squirrel coaxed two kits along a slender branch that reached toward the roof. As they shrank into cute but uncooperative clumps, the parent crouched, launched, and landed decisively on the shingled slope. The mother — of course I imagined it was the mother — stood at attention, prairie-dog style, and chattered at her offspring. Just try it! I imagined her saying. It’s the shortest, safest route to the even bigger elm tree in the front yard!

Winter is coming! It’s time to stockpile food! This is the most efficient way! (Though I have no evidence, I am pretty sure squirrels end every sentence with an exclamation mark.)

The babies would have none of it. With a visible sigh, the mother dashed out of view, only to reappear in the tree moments later. The demonstration began again. The dog continued his alarm-bark. Saturday class continued until dusk.

With one college instructor and two future school teachers in the family, I hear plenty of human chatter about curriculum planning. Then, too, there’s my own work environment, surrounded by math and science instructors’ offices, students cramming for class outside my workspace, and the many meetings that punctuate academic life, meetings where we tackle tough questions like, “Why won’t our squirrels jump?” and “How many nuts are needed?” and “Have you seen the weather forecast for December?” I couldn’t help but imagine how this squirrel parent developed her own lesson outline.

Demonstration: How to leap from branch to shingle!

Assignment: Do as I do. And as I say … “be fearless, little ones!”

Objective: Master this skill before winter, in order to stockpile the most possible food in the highest possible location inaccessible to other creatures!

Outcome: Defy death at the jaws of the slavering dog below!

Assessment: If there’s no blood, we pass! If there are nuts in the nest, we earn As! Bonus points for any ounces gained by spring!

It’s no exaggeration to point out that the tiny, non-leaping squirrel kits resembled Saints students in more than one way. They were young and skinny and kind of adorable — all energy at the beginning, quick to wilt for nap time when the stress of leaping began to accrue. I’m sure they gobble nuts and seeds like nobody’s business, and have become accustomed to the bounty of summer and a parent’s provisions. Do these squirrels know how to cook or do laundry? They do not.

They were also easily distractible. During what must have been the parent’s 457th attempt to get them to try the leap, they engaged in a game of tag across the non-dog-guarded regions of the tree. I watched incredulously as they sprinted vertically up a desiccated branch that looked far less sturdy than the launch branch their mother had selected for the actual assignment. The 90-degree angle and brittle appearance of the branch bark and bone-white wood beneath seemed to me to represent a far greater possibility of tumbling to an untimely death by dog-jaw. Yet the baby squirrels wanted to play, and play to their strengths. They were stubborn, just like many of our students. They were were a bit cocky, betting on their squirrel tag skills instead of putting in the practice time for a challenging leap. They had no concept of winter, just as many of our students have no concept of the long marathon of debt repayment, or the likelihood of illness or injury and the need for a backup plan. They had no concept of age, because they were still babies, nor did they understand that their carefree days would not last forever. Sound familiar?

I take the parent squirrel’s teaching method to heart. It requires so much patience, time, sweat and determination. The mother did not need to jump on repeat for five hours, but she did. The students did not focus on the lesson, but she did. The need to get those winter preparations complete would drive me to despair, but she just kept at it.

Those darn squirrel kids. They don’t appreciate what they’ve got. Thank goodness someone’s looking out for them while the leaves fall and the dogs gather.

rachel colemanRachel Coleman is a recovering newspaper writer who currently serves as Executive Director of Marketing & P.R., and leads the Inclusiveness & Civility Mover Team at SCCC. To read more of her columns, visit her blog at rachelcoleman.wordpress.com. This opinion column reflects the personal perspective of its author, and is not intended to reflect the official position of Seward County Community College.  

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Clothe yourself in social courage

October, the month when I begin to listen for wild geese migrating, brings an echo of loss. Low grey skies create a sounding bell for the calls of birds fleeing blizzards; they also reflect an inevitable gloom, the descending specter of less sunlight and darker moods.

Autumn is when we feel the steady tick of time passing. Summer is over, winter is on its way, and growing season has come to a close. There’s no tricking a hard freeze.

It’s time to pull on an extra sweater, take a deep breath, and be brave.

Brave, because this time of year is when we reckon with mortality. We can’t avoid it. The trees offer testimony of bare-bones truth. Why would we assume that humans, whose lives are shorter than the average oak, are granted immunity from the forces that erode mountains?

How people handle loss is tied to how we connect with others. It is peculiar and treacherous territory. On the one hand, it’s as ordinary as dirt: everybody carries private grief. Making too much of yours can cloy. When I yearn for the dog I just relinquished to new owners or lament the mostly empty nest at my house, I can almost hear Auntie Sergeant in my head, issuing a crisp corrective: “Some people don’t have homes. Some people don’t have children to send to college! Toughen up, buttercup!” My sensible alter-ego is right — sorrow is nothing special.

But as Tolstoy observed in his novel Anna Karenina (whose title character is the all-time champion of melancholy) while all happy families are pretty much the same, every unhappy family finds its own unique way to explore misery. Can a person whose geriatric parent just died identify with the pain of a 25-year-old whose mother fought cancer and lost? If you say you’re upset about a favorite chair claimed by dry rot, do I trump your tale of woe with a story about termites?

In the face of such quandaries, professionals offer tips. Maybe it’s Seasonal Affective Disorder — the wintertime blues — that has us down. Or perhaps we ought to talk about National Suicide Awareness Month? Be aware, feelings of discouragement are not the same as clinical depression. Instructors at the community college where I work take the halfway mark of the semester as a cue to issue warnings about “staying on top of your studies.” Young adult students, whose brains are still in the final stages of development, might not be sure why they feel downhearted.

The big box stores see the start of autumn as a gold rush: Halloween, hunting season, Thanksgiving, football, and Christmas shopping all provide profits galore. The retailers are not wrong, if what counts is dollars. We all know, however, down in the roots of our being, that money is not what matters when that cold and lonely wind blows.

For me, October is a grab bag of emotion. It is the time of year I met my next-door neighbor, who became my husband 26 years ago. It’s also the time of year when my oldest child died. This year, the month has already brought gain and loss, gold and grit. I want to photograph every bright red leaf I notice turning in the wind. I want to curl up beneath the softest blanket in the house, and go to sleep. I’m pretty sure I am not alone in this back-and-forth response to the arrival of autumn.

At work, the month brings what I think of as “Judgement Day,” our accreditation visit from the Higher Learning Commission. Being evaluated is never comfortable, even when you know you have done your level best. The stress is counterbalanced by the excitement about our new buildings on campus — the Colvin Family Center for Allied Health on the northwest side of Circle Drive, and the Sharp Family Champions Center on the southeast. Both are nearly complete, and the altered silhouette kind of takes my breath away when I approach campus.

That’s the thing about seasons. They change. And even though we might find familiar themes, be those in the form of pumpkins or plaid, no two years are exactly the same.

What memories mark this season for you? What do you savor? When does sadness gust into the corners of your heart, like wind scattering dry leaves?

As SCCC’s inclusiveness & civility mover team launches another year of work, we’re interested in those moments, when loss collides with forward motion, calling for courage and grace. More than the distinctions that divide us, all people share common experiences as we move through life. Let’s keep good company with one another along the way.

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rachel colemanRachel Coleman is a recovering newspaper writer who currently serves as Executive Director of Marketing & P.R., and leads the Inclusiveness & Civility Mover Team at SCCC. To read more of her columns, visit her blog at rachelcoleman.wordpress.com. This opinion column reflects the personal perspective of its author, and is not intended to reflect the official position of Seward County Community College.  

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Going back to where we came from

If you grew up in a small, rural community like I did, the beginning of the school year was something like a family reunion. Every August, the same group of 15 or so kids lined up in the freshly-waxed hallway, back to assume their roles in the social network of best friends, best athletes, smartest students, poorest families, prettiest girls; the roles rarely shifted, having been set in kindergarten stone. Your identity was marked and known.

As a book-loving girl, I clamored for change. “Why can’t you take a church in New York? Or Kansas City? Or … anywhere with a museum?” I demanded of my preacher father.

God, it appeared, was not subject to my geographic whims. We stayed in that town of 800. Internally, I fumed about the limitations of small-town life. Outwardly, I often disconnected or sought to stir up controversy with tools like vote-fixing in the third-grade ballot box, an “underground” newspaper filled with snarky observations, and, in high school, a leopardskin-patterned skirt. Thank God he hadn’t left town, or the adults’ patience would have run out.

Decades later, I’m grateful for my throwback childhood, where neighbors ratted you out for picking flowers from their front yards and teachers exercised autonomy to design independent studies for a restless eighth-grader. These Indian summer afternoons, with their stored heat that radiates from the campus sidewalks, set off nostalgia rather than bitterness. My juvenile complaints, it turns out, were short-sighted.

Here at SCCC, we often experience the same dissatisfactions that marked my Minneola years. We are place-bound and work far away from urban resources and hot new trends. We make the best of aging buildings and standing committees filled with the same group of faces from year to year. We take for granted the advantages that tend to fade with familiarity. Until we don’t.

It’s a well-known trait of human beings — even those of us with a long list of complaints — to resist change. Take, for instance, one elementary-aged girl who hissed to the new kid in class, a smart and confident student whose hand shot up with ready answers, “Go back to Omaha where you came from!”

Why did I resent the arrival of someone who had read all the same books I loved, and brought fresh stories of a life lived elsewhere? Rather than relish the opportunities for friendship with a kindred spirit, I defaulted to animosity. How we navigated that relationship is a story too long for this column, but keep in mind the inertia of small town demographics. In the decades that followed, two classmates who argued during recess found common ground. Now we keep an eye on one another via Facebook. 

Higher ed, of course, is assumed to be far from the grade-school classroom. Even so, we adults often resemble our younger selves. 

When longtime colleagues retire or move on to other jobs, it’s human to mourn the loss; it’s shortsighted to shut out newcomers. When politics or current events frighten us, we need time to process our grief; it’s foolish to let our fears divide us from coworkers and neighbors who see events through a different lens. 

When summer comes to an end, it’s  OK to be sad. July, which is National Ice Cream month and a cause for celebration at my house, is nearly a week behind us. Regular work hours resumed on campus this Monday, and I confess I’m feeling a little cranky about how quickly the summer melted away.

At the same time, I can’t help but feel a surge of excitement about what this year will hold. Our campus has two new buildings, one of which is nearly finished. Vacancies on the SCCC team have been filled with newcomers from other places — though I haven’t seen Omaha on the list — and many folks on campus have switched jobs and moved to new offices.

Just as I could never have predicted how my childhood perspectives on life would shift, I realize there’s no telling what marvels might unfold during this new year. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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Saint Stories is written by Executive Director of PR & Marketing, Rachel Coleman. A Kansas native and lifelong bibliovore, Rachel is affectionately known as the “Book Bully” by her family. She will stop reading for afternoon tea or a walk with the dog so that she can find the beauty in everyday life. Enthusiastic book recommendations are always free to the public. 

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Green is good — until it’s time to mow

At Seward County Community College, we often say, “It’s good to be green!”

This summer, the natural world echoed that emotion with more rain through the season than anyone younger than 90 years of age can recall.

The robins rejoiced — loudly — starting at 3 a.m. daily, and the grackles never let up in their extravagant mating rituals that transform them from black mini-crows to gorgeous scribbles of desire. Gardeners enjoyed our own celebratory moments. The rain compensated for all sorts of horticultural shortcomings, from late plantings of tomato vines to distracted afternoons when watering fell off the “to do” list.

“This is why flowerbeds in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest look so lush,” I said to myself. “They get rain every day and nobody has to worry about drought resistant varieties of anything.” It’s easy to achieve beauty when it is your worries that evaporate, and not the sprinkler’s spray.

Mowing, though — that’s a different story. On campus, I saw our trusty crew mount the machines and make the circuit. And then do it again the next day. And the next. By the time they finished the outer edges of our sizable grounds, it was time to start over. And by the time I imagine they had resigned themselves to their fate, the weather decided to grant us 10 days of triple digits. No matter: the lawns still demanded attention.

SCCC has long touted its green spaces, often referred to by our community as “an oasis” on these arid High Plains. Over the last four years, the oasis has received many upgrades with the help of various granting bodies both public and private. The Sunflower Foundation, the Kansas Department of Parks and Wildlife, the Liberal Area Coalition for Families and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas have all dedicated funding to expand our Connections Trail System.

At the outset, some expressed skepticism about the vision that fueled this project, articulated by then-new SCCC President, Dr. Ken Trzaska. Dr. T would expound on his future-perfect scenario of hundreds of new trees, including an orchard path at some stretch, and families with young children picnicking in the shade. “He’s not from Kansas,” I think the feelings ran. “Clearly, he does not understand how hard it is to get things to grow out here.”

That’s probably true of any transplant, but Dr. T proved he understood more than anybody reckoned when construction began on the Colvin Center for Allied Health — right next to the ancient cottonwood that rules the northwest quadrant of Circle Drive. The cottonwood, in my imagination, had attracted two disciples in the form of Scotch Pines to the north. While it was a given that Coonrod & Associates would never dare to do so much as scratch the Cottonwood, the relatively smaller evergreens were in the way.

“They will have to move the two trees,” Dr. T said when he heard rumors of tree-chopping. “Trees are too hard to grow out here for us to just cut them down.”

He was right. The trees were good trees, sturdy, seemingly impervious to whatever that rusty, tree-balding disease is that has claimed other, less determined members of their species.

I’m not sure what it takes to relocate a tree of the size and age of the Scotch twins. Heavy equipment, for starters. Even then, it has to be a touch-and-go endeavor. Sadly, the first candidate for resettlement succumbed. The second remained, standing sentry as lifters and scrapers and Allied-Health makers — I may know the names of flora and fauna, but not construction machines — rumbled past.

Summer’s timer is ticking as I write, and the verdant glory of SCCC continues. I tip my hat to the groundskeepers, the construction crew, and our president for ensuring the oasis lives up to its name. One more reason to repeat, “it’s good to be green.”

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Saint Stories is written by Executive Director of PR & Marketing, Rachel Coleman. A Kansas native and lifelong bibliovore, Rachel is affectionately known as the “Book Bully” by her family. She will stop reading for afternoon tea or a walk with the dog so that she can find the beauty in everyday life. Enthusiastic book recommendations are always free to the public.