Tag Archives: neighbors

ms. york

pre-2009 i was not a violin virtuoso, so the damage my stroke did to my control of my left hand is an inconvenience and even a source of amusement at times.

i had not been training for a marathon when i was diagnosed with my brain tumor, so losing my ability to run didn’t force me to re-examine my identity.

i never was much of a fan of the circus, so my constant vertigo doesn’t deny me my dreams of life on a tightrope.

my double-vision hasn’t robbed me of a gold medal in the olympic biathlon.

but you know what i was before the medical drama of 2009? i was a good teacher. i was ms. york, and that meant something.

2nd grade

the last day of my last class at loleta elementary

to finance the second year of my master’s degree, i applied for a position as a graduate teaching assistant in the speech communication department at osu. i was relieved when i was hired, but even though my friends and family were enthusiastic nearly to the point of giddiness about my return to teaching, i wasn’t. now, after the end of fall term, i can see why. i was scared. scared that i wouldn’t still “have it.” scared that i’d have to figure out how to be a person who used to be a really good teacher. because i don’t know that i could have survived that blow to my identity.

lately i’ve spent a lot of time thinking about teaching and classrooms and identity and authenticity. i’ve been “percolating” this post for months, but i haven’t been able to get it right. so i’ll take my own advice and get it down without worrying about getting it right.

several months ago, one of the professors on my thesis committee told me that i should read a hidden wholeness by parker palmer. i tracked it down and read it on the train to seattle a week later. dr. anderson was right – it was exactly the book i needed to read on that exact train ride. it got me thinking about when in my life i’d felt the most authentic. to me authenticity is that place where the circles that make up the venn diagram of my life overlap, and trying to expand that overlap is how i define living a more authentic life. as i read palmer’s book i kept hearing the phrase “room five” in my head. room 5 was the multiage classroom in jefferson, oregon, where i taught for the best part of my teaching career. life in room five wasn’t all fun, but while i taught there i got to spend the majority of my waking hours being myself. and sharing space with other people who were being themselves.

room 5 didn’t spring to life fully-formed like an elementary athena. it was actually part of a chain of things that continues to be created today. my parents have played a big part – sure, their logic and consistency haven’t always made my day, but they made for a childhood where i felt safe and capable. as i’ve gotten older i’ve realized how fortunate i was to feel safe and capable as a young person. i aspire to do what i can to give those feelings to my students.

feeling safe and capable - thank, mom and dad!

feeling safe and capable – thanks, mom and dad!

my childhood neighbors, the charnows, did this amazing job of treating me as a friend without making me need to be more mature (or themselves less mature). it’s hard to describe, but it’s been the way i have built relationships with young people starting with the 3 charnow children, who were born when i was in elementary school.

living across the street from these fine people made such a difference in my life.

living across the street from these fine people made an enormous difference in my life.

when i was an undergrad, i worked at an infant/toddler center. my bosses were merilee and janet. they taught me a lot about child development and communication with parents and families, and also recognized that my instincts with kids were pretty good. their confidence in me helped me increase it in myself. as leaders they worked from the strengths of their employees – i didn’t realize that they were doing that until much later in my work experiences. i started babysitting for janet’s daughter, zari, and in the process became great friends with both of them. my life would be a very different place without the infant center.

merilee left notes like this around the infant center.

merilee left notes like this around the infant center.

and the lives of the people in my classes would also be very different if it wasn’t for my parents, the charnows, and the infant center. I built up some habits and instincts which have influenced the way i approach teaching and classrooms and work.

i started my elementary school teaching experience in a little rural school in kneeland, california. i student-taught in a K-3 multiage classroom, under the guidance of susan adams and her classroom assistant, jim cress. their classroom was a community, and i was fortunate to have it as a model early in my teaching career. i walked in the door every day and knew that would get to laugh and think and be seen. the mrs. adams and jim that those students knew were who they were in their whole lives – those were not invented school personas. they set a tone of appreciation in that classroom, and i am so grateful to have been a part of things. it changed me.


my first teaching position was as the only 4th grade teacher at a small rural school in humboldt county, california. i started teaching as soon as i graduated from college – i was 24 or 25 (about the age that my first students are now – so cool). it was a pretty hard-luck school in a hard-luck community – there were a lot of families living in poverty, a meth problem before very many folks knew what that was, and a lot of parents who hadn’t felt successful in their own school experiences and weren’t sure how to interact with the school system to support their children. of course these didn’t apply to all families, but i found myself drawn to the families and students who most needed my help. i realized that we all wanted to feel safe and capable, and that i could find things to like and respect about anyone who crossed my path. when i modeled that, my students did the same thing. it was awesome. i loved that school and even though i was excited to move to oregon, i was so sad to leave loleta. 

i doubt it

then kegan demant friended me on facebook. it hadn’t occurred to me that facebook would end up bringing the loletians back into my life. when i saw kegan’s name and realized that i was going to have a way to know those former students as adults, i was thrilled. most friend requests started with something like, “you probably don’t remember me, but i was in your 4th grade class.” don’t remember you? i’ve never once been friended by a former student i didn’t remember. i think that comes from the charnows – paying attention is the way to make your world meaningful. there’s always something important going on if you’re paying attention. and from the infant center i learned to focus the majority my attentions on assets not deficits. and susan and jim’s big contribution was that everything was improved if kriste and ms. york were really different names for the same person.

egg drop

when i start communicating with a former student, they inevitably ask me what they should call me. my answer is that they can call me kriste or ms. york – i answer to both. i still call my beloved high school english teacher “mr. pickering.” and he makes fun of me about it.

lately i’ve had an incredible surge in the ms. york department – yesterday a woman i work with pointed this out and wondered if the universe is trying to tell me something.


this summer i finally got around to asking a young woman from loleta about her younger brother, who kept me on my toes (this is a compliment) when he was a 4th grader. turns out that he’s an inmate at san quentin – not exactly what i wanted to hear, but i got his address and wrote him a letter. he wrote back right away, and getting an unprompted letter from his 4th grade teacher blew his mind. his letter was great – i could certainly still see that spark in him that i loved when he was a kid. we’ve written about a dozen letters since then, and he’s gradually painted a picture for me of his teen years and prison and the people who have impacted his life. i really am enjoying getting to know him again, and i’m aware that as ms. york i have a huge amount of credibility with him. i’m not trying to save him or convince him of anything – i’m really just enjoying the give and take of our correspondence. and maybe i remind him how it was to feel safe and capable – he hasn’t had much of that in his life.

a few months ago i got a friend request from a person with a last name i didn’t recognize. i looked at a few of her pictures and realized that it was one of those holy grail people i’ve always wondered about. i get choked up just thinking about it. then i found out that not only did i get to have her in my life again, but she was temporarily living with her brother and sisters about an hour away from me. so a week later i was sitting in a pizza parlor with the family. and the resilience of these people – they had terrible trauma happen in their lives, and have somehow remained absolutely delightful people. i even got to go trick-or-treating with this young woman and her two children.


loleta – the next generation

i left loleta to move closer to my parents into corvallis, oregon. i got my dream job teaching a primary multiage class (grades 1/2/3) in jefferson, a community that needed good teachers. my classroom was room 5, and it meant something to be from room 5. a new principal came to the school my fifth year teaching there, and when he announced that over the summer he would dismantle the multiage program, i knew that i needed to leave. i couldn’t stick around to see the culture of our classroom taken apart. i am still sad (and a little angry) that i couldn’t stay. i took a job in corvallis, which ended up being a blessing because when my trauma hit that next summer i had a support network where i lived which was critical to my recovery, and to my quality of life.

that year teaching in corvallis also gave me an important analogy for what i was doing in my classroom. a co-worker once accused me of “really encouraging” a student who was a first grader and the embodiment of delight. yes, i encouraged him. i encourage all of them. i think of my classroom as one of those cool rock tumblers that seemed to be running at the back of every classroom in the early-eighties. my job isn’t to make someone into someone they’re not. it’s to smooth some of the rough edges and polish them up. i was able to do some of that with the 3/4/5 class i taught that one year, and i really enjoyed spending the day with the characters who ended up sharing space with me there.

this represents how i feel about room 5.

this represents how i feel about room 5.

but man i have missed jefferson. this summer i started driving again, which meant that the 30 minute trip back there was something i could do. so i invited my sidekick mrs. (redding) schmidt to meet me at the mexican restaurant for lunch. we talked about authenticity, and she also felt like room 5 was the place in her life where she was her most authentic self. while we were chatting, a young woman brought us a basket of chips. it was katia! she was in the first group of students i’d had in room 5 for all three years. from facebook it looked like her teen years were going pretty smoothly. and then there she was, in the flesh. her younger brother, who was also a room 5 kid, came to meet her there when she got off work. which meant that this happened:

room 5 reunion

i guess that this post has taken me so long because i have a lot to say.

back to the present. now i’m teaching a recitation section of intro to public speaking. once a week a few hundred students, mainly freshmen, go to a mass lecture on theory taught by a professor. she supervises a group of GTAs and adjuncts who teach classes of 20 students twice a week. we get to do the practical stuff, and my class somehow synthesizes all of my interests and skills. i love it. i loved the way my students came together as a group in the fall. thinking about how that happened last term and in the dozen years of teaching before that helped me to be able to label my expectations for myself and my new class that met for the first time yesterday:

111 rules

during one lecture session last term, the GTAs gave short speeches to model the use of visual aids. i told the story about the only toy a student ever got back out of my epic toy collection. i brought the toy jesie swapped for it – next time i’m bringing jesie, who is now a high school student in corvallis. i asked my students to give me feedback about my speech. here’s one i loved:


during one of our last sessions, i pointed out that i have pictures of each of my classes and asked if i could take one of them. they humored me.

111 f13

in the last few weeks i’ve reconnected with one of the room 5 kids. tyson. as my friend deb told him, he’s a legend. i bet i’ve said his name hundreds of times since i left jefferson. we became friends on facebook a year or so ago, and it seemed clear to me that he was having some turmoil in his life. at the end of november i sent him a happy birthday message (he turned 18!) and we started messaging back and forth about our lives, until i did the math and realized that i could just drive to jefferson and eat a meal with him. so we made plans. it was fantastic to be able to sit at a table with him –  i was his captain of his fan club when he was 8 and i still am.

on her wall my grandma florence had the Y page from a room 5 alphabet book we made way back when – “tyson is yelling at ms. york.” here’s the illustration:


tyson liked the idea that we update it. my grandma would have loved it.

this time he wasn't actually yelling at me - maturity.

this time he wasn’t actually yelling at me – maturity.

we’ve gotten together every week since then. it has been fantastic to have time to talk about the future and the past and the present – i think that it’s meant a lot to both of us. yesterday he headed to job corps in estacada, which i think will be a great thing for him. i’m looking forward to being a part of it, and glad for the time we had before he left.

then yesterday while i was waiting for a class i was looking through the contacts on my phone and saw a name and wondered if it was my former student noah’s mom. noah spent a lot of time with me when he was a first grader in room 5, and after i stopped teaching in jefferson. then i dropped off the face of the earth. i didn’t tell him what was going on because the plan was that i’d be back up and running within a month or two after my surgery. when that didn’t happen, i disappeared from his life and i’ve always felt bad about it. i wanted to explain that i hadn’t forgotten about him. and i missed him – i really enjoyed his company. we had gotten into a pretty great routine. so i texted this number in my phone and it was his mom! she said that they’re still nearby, that noah is doing great, and that he’s 13 and the oldest of 5 siblings. i asked her if we could get together this weekend. and then like magic i was talking to noah on the phone. i told him a little about what had happened and, empathetic and kind person that he is, he asked me what i’m studying at osu. i suggested that we catch up over lunch this weekend. i said that i’d take them all out, and he asked if it could just be me and him this time and the rest of them can come next time.

so good

kriste and noah circa 2009

so it’s a pretty cool time to be kriste. or ms. york. i answer to both.


my trip to southern california has me thinking about community.

it’s been a while since my last big train trip, so when the opportunity presented itself (more on that in a bit), i used my 15% discount as a person with a disability and got myself a ticket to head down south. my mom took me to the train station the next town over.

i spent a good part of the trip in the lounge car, enjoying the views and reading the book (“awol on the appalachian trail” by david miller) that my skype book group decided to read this month.

my itinerary was packed. it centered around the forum on acquired disability that the national council on disability was holding at UCLA on june 8th. since it costs the same, i added about a week in the LA area before the forum and about a week in the san diego area after.

this trip has me thinking a lot about community – the communities to which i belong, how a sense of community is created, how community helps recovery. those kinds of things.

community by skype

i was picked up at union station is los angeles by molly and her boyfriend dan. molly and i went to high school together for about two years. we were friendly back then, but i wouldn’t say that we were friends. we reconnected via facebook, and when she suggested that we start a skype book group, i jumped at the idea. she brought in her friend theresa, and i brought in my friends susannah and kristin. kristin and i went to elementary school together. susannah and i went to middle school together. but molly, kristin, and susannah had never met. our book group (the conejo grade literary society) really started picking up steam at our meeting last month when we discussed “wild” by cheryl strayed. the author was a storyteller at an event in portland soon after that meeting, and theresa and i went to the festival together – it was the first time we’d met in person, although we both live in oregon. the other ladies all live in southern california, and we decided to get together for a meal and some drinks when i was in the area. when we did, it was so fun for me to see these ladies at the same table with me, and i was honestly amazed by how much they really knew each other through our skype meetings and the interactions that go on in facebookland.

the conejitas (minus theresa)

each of the women in my book group welcomed me into her home at some point during my stay. these women have become my treasured friends, and i’m glad to be able to build connections with them even though we live far away from each other.

community by facebook, texting, and blogging

almost exactly a year ago, i got a message from laura morris, a woman i’d gone to high school with and who knew about my medical drama because of facebook. she said that her cousin, angelica, had just had a stroke (she was in her thirties), and asked if i would get in touch with her. she also said that she’d passed along the address of my blog, and when i connected with angelica it was clear that she’d read it. in the last year angelica and i have celebrated our accomplishments, shared our fears, read each others blogs (angelica started blogging while she was still in her hospital bed) – generally were there for each other. it took a year until we were there for each other in the same physical space, and when we finally met in person last week it was almost anticlimactic.

anticlimactic in the raddest possible way.

community by geography

i’m writing this at the home of my beloved childhood neighbors, the charnows. they’re responsible for this leg of the kriste relay. they lived across the street from me when i was in elementary school. madalaine and michael are the elders of the family. jesse, their oldest son, was born when we were neighbors. he’s 30 now – which doesn’t seem mathematically possible. daughter erin was also born when we were neighbors. she and her husband sam live here at the charnow compound, along with their toddler daughter, thyme. son noah was born after they moved to encinitas – he’s in art school in san francisco. matriarch madalaine flew to phoenix to help my mom drive back to oregon when i was released from my nursing home. michael has always been “mikey-dad” to me.

these folks set the neighbor bar pretty damn high. they’ve had one really memorable set of neighbors since our time together on henrietta avenue. while i’ve been here i’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about how great my current neighbors are, reminding myself how fortunate i am to be in my current living situation.

having the charnows as neighbors changed the course of my life. every single person in the family has had an impact on me. i think that having them across the street at such an impressionable age really made me believe that the universe is friendly and on my side. it encouraged me to reach out and look to build community around me – in my neighborhood, in the classrooms and schools where i taught, in my living room watching the bachelor with friends.

me and thyme, the littlest member of the charnow clan

community by chance

about a month ago, i had a call from the vice-chair of the national council on disability (the council advises the president on disability-related issues). the NCD was holding a forum on acquired disability, and the vice-chair wanted to know if i’d be on a panel at the forum. this was the first time since i became disabled almost 3 years ago that i ever really stopped to think about the elements of my disability which are different from someone who was born with their disability. and the first time that i ever noticed that i have similarities with veterans – vets make up the majority of adults who become disabled.

my role on the panel was to address the issue of how an adult can come to terms with his or her new life after acquiring a disability. i can see why my friend sara (a member of the NCD) suggested me for the panel – i feel like i’ve successfully, and happily, moved my life forward after becoming disabled. this is something that i think about – how did that happen? the members of the panel had a conference call and we emailed in the weeks before the forum to make sure that we were on the same page when it came to the desired outcomes of our panel. i did a lot of thinking about what was the most valuable information that i could share with that group of people – lots of folks from various agencies serving adults with disabilities. by the time the day of the forum arrived, i knew what i wanted to say.

each person on the panel was given a few minutes to speak. i was first, and i told this story – when i got back to corvallis after 2 months in the hospital and nursing home, a friend kept saying, “we can’t wait to have the old kriste back.” it was making me really mad, but i couldn’t put my finger on why. i told my friend noah, twentysomething year-old charnow, and he said the sentence that would change my life. “you’re not the old kriste, you’re kriste 2.0.” aha! i still had many of the qualities of the old kriste, but now i had some brand-new features. that really seemed to resonate with the forum attendees. in fact, it was referenced a time or two at other points during the forum.

there was some talk about how to find newly disabled folks to include them in a supportive community. i brought up facebook – these veterans who are becoming disabled are most likely very familiar and comfortable with facebook. i’m a member of a facebook support group for stroke survivors, as well as one for people dealing with the specific kind of tumor i have – in both groups i get to see myself within a range as opposed to being the outlier among the people i spend time with day-to-day. i also said that because of facebook, i think that my little virtual corner of the world has greater empathy for people who are disabled. i’m very “out” as a disabled person and i have a really diverse group of friends (including teachers of mine from high school, people i went to high school with, and 4th graders i taught who are now young adults) who now pay attention to curb cuts and other accessibility issues.

towards the end of the forum, i was stopped by i. king jordan, who was on a panel after mine. he became deaf in an accident in his early twenties, and went on to become the first deaf president of gallaudet university, a college specifically designed for students who are deaf and hard of hearing. he’s also famous for saying, “deaf people can do anything but hear.” he told me that he admired what i said in my panel, and that he would use the idea of 2.0 from then on. i wanted the forum to go on and on – i loved listening to the stories and mulling over things i’d never thought about before. i look forward to the next opportunity to interact with folks from the acquired disabilities community – they made me proud to call myself a member.

kriste 4.0 at the getty the day before the forum

merriam-webster defines community as, “a unified body of individuals.” when i taught elementary school, i came to see that community is also created by shared experiences – this trip has reminded me of the many different ways that experiences can be shared. i spend a fair amount of time feeling grateful for the individuals in my life who are on the roster of “team kriste” – these folks make a huge difference in my life. but my time in southern california has really caused me to notice the many communities to which i belong. before my medical drama, i referred to myself as the little red hen. but now i see myself at the center of a venn diagram where circles of communities overlap. and 3 years out from the events of the summer of 2009, i’m still surprised to find other circles i hadn’t realized were there.

all this talk about community has placed that word at the top of my list of theme words for year 4.