You have died of dysentery – and other thoughts on progress

You have died of dysentery and other thoughts on progress - an essay about a childhood game and how technology changes words remain powerfulIt will no doubt stun my children to realize that their, oh, so young looking mother lived at a time when the majority of households lacked a personal computer.  I mean, personal computers existed, but they were the size of a microwave oven (or larger) and the cost more than a few car payments. As a result, the most exposure most kids received was in the computer lab at school. Considering the laws of supply and demand, the lack of household market also limited the number of available programs, especially those designed for young people.  However, our school system managed to find one that both educated and entertained (it helped it came bundled with the operating system). It was called – Oregon Trail.

Modern day adaptation. Image courtesy of

The premise was this – you started out in Missouri in the 1800s as an intrepid settler determined journey to Oregon’s Williamette Valley, a mere 2,170-mile / 3,490 km jaunt to the Western side of the USA, via covered wagon with only your family, a bit of cash, and what you could carry. Along the way you had to deal with challenges such as broken axles, fording streams, and a little thing called death going by the names of typhoid, dysentery, drowning, starvation, and/or snake bite.

It’s good old-fashioned fun for the whole family!

Imagine my delight, then, to find the powers that be, hoping to tap into the current nostalgia trend as evidenced by recent remakes or reunions of movies and shows from my youth, produced the analog remastered Oregon Trail – The Card Game. I couldn’t hand over my money fast enough, buying it for a friend.

We laid out the cards. We attempted to read through the rules. I may have drunk too much wine. Somehow, before we had called it a night, we managed to play two games and my character hadn’t died once. It was a feat I’d rarely managed in the computer version and the game, a fun reminder of how far society, as well as our technology, has come.

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My sons, on the other hand, have never known life before computers small enough to carry in your pocket and it has become easier to manage the list of names of families lacking a smartphone than those who have one. As a result, this little device has gone from a luxury item to a tool more necessary for the smooth functioning of my household as well as my community than the mailbox outside our door.

For example, Kiddo’s school required me to download not one but three apps just to handle daily communication. There is Remind – an app used for school-wide memos such as upcoming teacher work-days, class photos, and past due library book notices, Shutterfly Sites – a program containing his class list of contacts and volunteer / school supply sign-ups, and his teacher’s personal favorite, Class Dojo, which allows here to post pictures of their educational day, highlight individual student performance, and save on paper in the form of printed weekly newsletters. As a result, the majority of my phone’s notifications are school-based, not that I’m complaining.

I didn’t think anything of it then, to receive a message from Kiddo’s teacher indicating that an attached letter would be coming home in Kiddo’s school bag. However, opening the attachment, I realized this was not just another noticed about a school fundraiser or upcoming assignment. Oh no, nothing fun like that at all. Lice had been found in Kiddo’s classroom.

The rest of the letter went through the basics – how the very real version of cooties can make their homes on the scalps of adults and children alike regardless of cleanliness or personal care and what to do if you see their nits in your child’s hair. We verified that Kiddo hadn’t been colonized as soon as he came home, then again the next morning, and later the following day. And yet, even though I knew he hadn’t brought uninvited guests home, my scalp started itching just thinking about the words on that page.

Admit it. You are considering scratching your head now too after reading this.

Thus proving that while trends come and go and methods of communication evolve, the words we use to do so, will remain ever powerful – so use yours well.

And always be on the lookout for snakes.

Contemplating success at the corner bus stop

contemplating success at the corner bus stop - www.alliepottswrites.comIt was my morning with the kids and their cousins. My morning to supervise them as they pulled out every toy I had so painstakingly put away just days before. My morning to ensure they reached the bus stop with backpacks and lunch sacks intact.

Some mornings those tasks are easier than others.

I informed the crew that it was time to clean up. My youngest, LT, pouted. “Now, honey,” I started. He pouted some more. “Five-year-olds are big enough to pick up their own mess.” He grumbled and whined, but I was satisfied to see the toy go back into its spot.

Now typically on my morning, I drop LT off with the wonderful woman who watches him while I work before taking the rest of the kids to their destination. But this morning, one of the kids asked if LT might come to the bus stop with them instead. Another chimed in – they wanted to race. I looked at the clock. We’d have to wait outside longer than normal, were they sure?

Spring has come early to my neck of the woods this year. We’ve spent the last two weekends with the kids outside and the windows open. Already the trees and flowers are budding and small pink petals dot the streets. My concern about a few minutes extra exposure to the great outdoors fell on deaf ears.

Fine. I’d be democratic about it – this time.

I altered our course and soon we were at the stop. The children dumped their bags at the corner by my feet and congregated a few yards away – close enough for me to keep an eye on them, but far enough that they might whisper among themselves unheard. The next thing I knew they were running down the sidewalk back toward me.

Or more specifically, LT ran. Kiddo, my eldest, and my nephew, Casimir, took turns moving in what can only be described as spastic hop, yet tiny tip-toe sized step that might have only impressed a snail with progress. LT, passing them with ease, ran around me, grinning from ear to ear. As LT returned to their starting point/finish line both Kiddo and Casimir tried to one-up each other in exaggerated groans about how fast their youngest competitor now was. It was a far cry from the fits and tantrums we used to experience about ‘unfair’ contests and proof of how mature the boys had become.

Before long other children began to arrive, filling up the sidewalk and preventing further races. One child shouted “Bus,” like a whaler of old spotting a blowhole out at sea as the big yellow vehicle appeared from around the corner. The kids scrambled to pick up their backpacks and gathered in a line as LT returned to my side.

Picking him up, we waved at the faces grinning at us from the other side of the windows. “That’s going to be you soon,” I told my youngest as the bus pulled away. “Are you ready?”

He smiled and nodded, undoubtedly thinking that the coming school year would be filled with fun and games like the time he’d just had.

Recalling the display at being asked to put toys away, I decided to make this a teachable moment. “You know, when you are in school, you are going to have to listen to your teacher when he or she tells you to do things.”

LT looked at me and cocked his head to one side. “Why?”

“Because you don’t want to go to the principal’s office or get bad grades.”

The look of confusion on LT’s face only deepened. He repeated, “Why?”

“Because they will call mommy then or give mommy a bad report. You don’t want that.”

He chewed on my answer for a moment or two. “Okay mommy, I’ll listen to my teacher.” I smiled and patted his head. Then, so softly, I almost missed it, LT muttered, “sometimes.”

LT might think he is ready for school, but I now have to wonder if his school will be ready for him.

Later, our conversation made me think of my own plans for the future and some of the stumbling blocks I’ve already encountered. Often, I complain about how long these plans are taking as patience is not my best virtue. The morning then became a good reminder that while I might achieve the measures by which I currently judge my success, there will always be challenges I have yet to envision.

Therefore, I cannot, will not let those unforeseen bumps discourage me completely. I have to remind myself of those that traveled a similar path before me, of those who didn’t know then what they know now, and how they matured along the way. Every day, as I take another step down that path, I tell myself, I am closer now than ever before, even if I am forced to retrace a few steps or take the occasional detour.

Because that is what I do. That is what I’ve done.

Though it sometimes seems I still have a long way yet to go, I know that when (not if) I finally do reach the future of my dreams, the bigger question is now will my dreams be ready for me?

An unexpected lesson on never giving up

An Unexpected Lesson on Never Giving Up -
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I elected to take AP English in my final year of high school. For those not as familiar with the American, specifically, North Carolinian education system, at least during the [decade redacted], an AP class was an advanced course you could take leading up to an exam at the end of the year which could translate into university credits depending on scores. I say ‘elected’ because while all students must pass senior English in order to graduate, no one said you had to do so at the AP level. What can I say? Peer pressure.

I knew from the very first second I stepped into that classroom that this course was not going to be like the ones I’d previously taken. The cinderblock walls that made up the main buildings of my school’s campus, were painted in a mural of literary characters. It was bright and glaring and took a while for my eyes to adjust looking at all that color considering all the other walls around campus were stark white.

The class was barely underway when our teacher began handing out a list of books we would not only be required to read in addition to our regular coursework, we’d be also expected to analyze. I remember thinking repeatedly as more titles were rattled off, what have I gotten myself into?

The question only grew louder in my brain as the class went on. I thought of the rest of my schedule and the demands of my other courses. Classes like science and math. Classes, which I thought would have a greater impact on my future career.

You could still ask to change your schedule during the first two weeks of school, and so after the second class, I approached my teacher to tell her that as much as I liked her style, I was worried I would be overwhelmed and would she mind signing my transfer request.

My teacher listened to my concerns but didn’t pick up her pen. Instead, she looked me in the eyes and told me she thought I had what it took. She asked me to think about it a while longer and if at the end of the second week I still wanted to move to another class she would sign the request without argument. Considering she didn’t know me any more than the other students in the class, I wondered briefly if she had said what she had out of some form of self-interest. Would she get dinged for her performance if kids transferred? I wondered. Then again, I argued, she’d probably get dinged more for kids not passing. Wouldn’t she? Mostly, though, I found myself wanting to believe what she said. I wanted to be that person she thought I was.

I agreed to her suggestion. In the scheme of things, what really, was another day or two?

At the end of the year, we entered the room only to find the mural all but gone with the majority of walls painted the same white as the rest of the campus. Our teacher explained then that for those final days she wanted us to fill in the blank spaces. She would supply the paint and we could pair up however we wanted, but we were to create a mural of our own based on readings we’d done throughout the year for next class to enjoy the following year.

I left behind a piece of myself on the walls of that classroom, if only for as long as an extra year, but I took with me much more.

I’ve blocked out the majority of my high school experience, but not her class, and not the lessons I learned there. For it was there I learned that, while I will be tempted to quit when the work gets difficult or otherwise overwhelming, if I press on the end result will likely prove to be worth the sweat and tears. I also learned that while I might not always believe in myself, there are others out there who are willing to believe enough for the both of us. The trick is to trust them.

It is important to find mentors in life, people who believe enough in you to coach you through the tough times. A simple nod of encouragement by these people can be enough to make the difference between success and failure. And there is no rule to limit a person to just one. You can build yourself a team of mentors if that’s what your path to success requires.

And if you do find yourself one day looking into the eyes of someone considering giving up, think of the people who once believed in you. Look them in the eye and tell them to give it another day. Who knows what a difference your words can make.

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