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The Million-Dollar Question…

“But what happens if you just cheat?” 
I’d say that question has officially been added to my  “If I only had $1 for every time I was asked this question, I wouldn’t have to work 3 jobs to get by…” list. (I’ll leave you to guess what the other 2 questions are on that list!) One of my caring students I mentioned in my Christmas post posed the question: “Miss Burke, what if on Christmas you just said ‘Oh forget it’ and ate a bagel?”
Yes, I know it’s a hard concept to understand why this would never even enter my mind as within the realm of possibility. I know why non-celiacs don’t get it. I mean if someone has an anaphylactic allergy, the answer is obvious. No one questions someone with a nut allergy…clearly staying alive is reason enough to avoid them. But what about those of us with the autoimmune food illnesses? We’re all too often misunderstood and confusion-inducing. And though that at times can be infuriating, I also can say I’ve reached a point where I’m empathetic enough to understand. It’s because there is no one answer. There is no single reaction that is the same across the board for all celiac sufferers…or food-intolerant friends.  Most of all, it’s because there is no way you can possibly imagine how it feels unless you’ve lived it…and once you have, there is no way you can possibly imagine ever bringing that upon yourself. So today I’ll do my best to answer the question I’ve mostly shrugged off or eluded until now. And I’ll do it in the least graphic way  I can 🙂
As I mentioned earlier, every celiac sufferer has a different reaction. Some do just have a strictly gastrointestinal reaction…but contrary to popular belief, that percentage is small. I certainly do not fall in that category. I’ll even admit that if I knew all that would happen if I ate gluten would be a day spent in the bathroom, I might be tempted once in awhile too. But it’s so much worse than that. I will say there are have been 4 distinct times since my diagnosis when I was “glutened” so severely that it resulted in 30 minutes or so of me face-to-face with the toilet bowl. (I should point out 3 of those 4 times were at restaurants with gluten-free menus…you see why eating out can be anxiety-inducing!) And trust me, it was beyond unpleasant…if you’ve ever had that kind of flu where it seems your stomach is squeezing itself completely dry of any substance you had in it, well that gives you an idea of how this is. Effective I suppose in ridding my body of what it deems to be poison. And, crazy as it sounds, I think if I had to choose a reaction, this would be my first-choice…because the muscular ache in my stomach that lasts a few days and the accompanying tiredness is nothing compared to what happens when those gluten or casein proteins have an opportunity to stick around in my body and wreak havoc for days on end.
Yes, I’d almost argue that those trace amounts of gluten, casein, etc. which find their way into my digestive tract are far worse than an outright piece of bread. It’s not enough to elicit a violent denial from my stomach…but more than enough to send me spiraling into a world I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
  •  First, there’s the tiredness. I wish there were another word for it though…because it’s not like any “tired” I’ve ever felt otherwise. It’s not the kind of tired you can power through or wage war against with caffeine or cold air. It’s a kind of exhaustion where you simply have to admit defeat. It seems physically impossible to sit up, let alone try to function as a human being. In the spring of 2010 (before my mystery symptoms were figured out), my principal literally found me asleep in our faculty room. And I didn’t even hear him come in. I’m not one who typically can nap anywhere but a bed or couch…but that spring, a hard round tabletop to rest my head was all I needed. I couldn’t make it through a day of teaching on my feet either. The stool became my lifeline…and sitting on the floor with my 2nd graders was no longer a behavior management tool but rather a survival mechanism.
  • Second, there’s the numbness and tingling. Of course now I know the clinical term: neuropathy. That’s right…just a little of one of those proteins and a day or two of phantom-feeling limbs is nearly guaranteed. Granted, it’s more manageable when you know what it is and what is causing it; when I didn’t, well terrifying doesn’t begin to describe that feeling. In fact that was the symptom which sent me to my first ER visit in 2010. When you’re a 24-year-old with a family history of brain tumors and suddenly you can’t feel your arm while teaching your 2nd graders, that’s cause for enough alarm to send an ambulance. And so it began…
  • Third, there’s the stomach “issues”. I don’t want to just refer to it as pain because everytime it’s different. Sometimes it’s downright pain, other times it’s puffiness and swelling, other times it’s  burning which results in acid reflux moreso than stomach discomfort. Whatever the form, the pain lingers…sometimes for a few days, sometimes more than a week…and it only worsens when you eat. Yet at the same time I feel like I’m STARVING…because I haven’t digested the food I ate that contained the culprit. Talk about your Catch-22…
  • Fourth, and to me probably the worst, are the mental symptoms. I know it sounds crazy but it’s true. Some experts call it brain fog, some call it gluten-brain, I call it downright misery. I literally feel like I’m losing my mind. And if my experience is even a fraction of what a mental illness feels like, I find it completely unacceptable that, as a society, we aren’t doing more to address it.  I feel anxious about things I know shouldn’t be worrisome. It’s like one side of my brain is talking to the other but neither one is listening. I feel sad…and again I wish there were another word for it because it’s more than that. It’s a feeling of despair and hopelessness, a sense that although this has happened before, that nothing will ever be all right with the world again. Sometimes I even cry. And for anyone who knows me well, tears and I are not things which have ever coexisted often. Other times I feel angry (another emotion with which I’m not well acquainted). I have a short temper and I want to snap at anyone or anything in my path. Again, not attributes most people would typically associate with my personality. And I’m still self-aware enough to know that too which makes it all the more frustrating. Vicious cycle…
  • Last but not least, there are the physical manifestations. Imagine your worst seasonal allergy symptoms magnified by 1000. My nasal passages start dripping, my throat starts to react, sometimes I break out in hives and other less than pleasant skin reactions. And that’s just the physical reactions visible to the naked eye. The thing about autoimmune disorders is that once you have one, they snowball if left untreated. Hence by the time I was diagnosed I had already developed a blood sugar problem caused by my body attacking my own insulin and I was borderline Hashimoto’s (a thyroid-related autoimmune condition)…which I still have to be tested for every 6 months. Unseen inflammation inside is wreaking more havoc than the symptoms on the outside for sure….
Since a picture is worth a 1000 words, this is me in June 2011…
    …barely making it through my brother’s graduation.
This is me in July 2011 (just 3.5 weeks later!) feeling alive and dancing the night away at a good friend’s wedding.
What a difference gluten makes…
SO in answer to the question: Why don’t I “cheat”? Well, after reading all that, would you really want to knowingly inflict that on yourself?
…Because I know what it feels like to reach the end of your rope…to be told it’s all in your head and that you’re crazy when you know that’s just not true…and to find your way back again.
…Because I know what it’s like to look at other 20-somethings in envy because they can do normal things like wake up, drive to work, go to the gym, and go out to dinner all in one day!
…Because I appreciate how good it feels to wake up with a clear head, proper balance, and a enthusiastic outlook on life.
…Because I watched the man I loved most in this world battle illness for 5 years. I’ll never know for sure if his maladies had any relationship to celiac, though my doctor remains adamant that there must have been.
…Because I had to say good-bye to that same man much too soon; but before I did, he taught me that you do whatever you can to add years to your life…but more importantly, to add life to your years.

So in answer to that student’s question: Why don’t I say “Just forget it”? 
Because I already lost more than a year of my life to gluten and if I can help it, it’s not stealing a single second more… 🙂
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All We Want for Christmas…

You’ve made it to December 23rd and if you’re anything like the people I saw swarming Target last night, you’re still wrapping up that last-minute shopping. Or just taking advantage of the 10% discount…I certainly did. And I paid with cash so no hacking worries for me 🙂
Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that gift-giving is an art. A fine one at that. Some gift exchanges are simple: they follow a tradition. Each year I give you a different themed rubber duck, you give me a new Chia pet, we excitedly hug and that’s that. Others are predetermined and thus also simple: you buy tickets to this event, I’ll make reservations and cover dinner beforehand, we both add it to our calendars and look at us: we’ve gifted ourselves time together (which I’d argue is the most valuable gift of all). Others however can be more complicated. What do you get for the crotchety man down the street who seems unimpressed by life, let alone gifts? How about that overwhelmingly perky colleague who seems to have anything one could ever want or need in her possession? And of course, worst of all, what do you get for that friend who has food allergies? You can’t just pick up a box of chocolates or even a seasonal lip gloss without knowing whether it will end up in her trash can. Or worse…that she’ll trust you and end up in the ER. How’s that for a Christmas gift to remember?
Well, fear not you last-minute shoppers. I’m here to help you. And if you’re much more organized and on top of life so you’ve long since finished your shopping and neatly wrapped every gift….well, you can always refer back to this when a food-intolerant friend’s birthday rolls around. (Hint, hint: mine is in less than 20 days!! Just kidding…you reading this is gift enough for me!)
As mentioned in a previous post, I am a self-proclaimed coupon-lover, thrift-store-shopper, bargain-hunter, whatever term you want to apply, I’m sure I fit the bill. I attribute this partially to my upbringing with a very frugal father (who was nothing compared to my grandfather’s skill at stretching a dime), partially to the fact that it becomes a bit of a fun game, and mostly to the fact that I’m a Catholic School teacher. Let’s just say the payscale certainly does not match the amount of work we do on a daily basis. Thus, you learn to be cheap. For that reason, I am a huge proponent of useful gifts. Is a glass ornament beautiful? Sure. 12 scented candles? Absolutely. Do I NEED any of those things? Not really. Would I have purchased them for myself? Not unless they were marked 80% off somewhere. Now, yes, on occasion it is nice to receive a gift you would not buy yourself. However, for me, the best gifts are the ones I will use day in and day out AND would otherwise have had to purchase on my own. This way it frees up a little spending money for outings I would like to treat myself to later…dinner with a friend, a new pair of running shoes, a delicious Katie-safe cupcake from One Dish Cuisine, etc. I started this form of gift-giving when I was still in high school. I remember sending my sister a survey regarding shampoo she used, face washes she preferred, lotions she found most effective, etc. under the guise of some sociology project for school. Then I used her responses to create a basket of her favorite brands…something I knew she would use, and might be able to add a little cushion to the flimsy budget one faces as a work-study student athlete at a private university which doesn’t grant athletic scholarships.
So below is a sample of items I would recommend for the food-intolerant friends on your gift list. And if they’re anything like me, prepare for an enthusiastic hug in return:
1. aluminum foil: It seems cheesy but I’m telling you, the good stuff is expensive! And when you go through foil like we do, it adds up.

2. Pyrex: What a staple to our existence. It enables us to carry safe foods wherever we need to go…and to stockpile safe foods in the fridge or freezer. Quite frankly, this is a great gift for ANYONE on your list. I read recently about the cancer-causing substances that seep into your foods when you reheat them in plastic Tupperware. Whether it’s true or not, I’m staying away from that stuff…it’s glass only for me!
3. coconut oil: I go through these suckers like you would not believe! And it carries a hefty price tag…especially compared to regular PAM or vegetable oil. It’s in almost every Katie-safe recipe, it makes a great base to fry or saute anything in, and if you’ve never scrambled your eggs in it, well prepare to be amazed. Granted I can’t eat those anymore, but alas…
4. Glass Jars (w/ lids!): With the wide array of flours, fillers, xanthan gum, guar gum, sugar alternatives, etc. that some of us have to use, tightly-sealed glass jars are key to our existence. Without them, there would either be critters turning up in our flours OR just as bad, we’d constantly be throwing them out because they’ve gone bad. And considering the cost of each of these alternative products, we’d be in the poorhouse in no time. And if you want to throw in a set of new, fun measuring cups, that’s always a treat!
5. Frontier Vanilla: For the corn-averse among us, nothing is as painful as shelling over $10 or more for our vanilla extract. That’s right, it’s in almost every recipe and the other brands just don’t cut it as far as corn derivatives are concerned. Granted I have plans after Christmas to ferment my own (apparently it’s as easy as soaking vanilla beans in vodka for 30 days) but until then, this is my reality…
6. Earth Balance: For the dairy-averse, any form of Earth Balance will do. For those of us with soy issues, it has to be the orange one below. And for those blessed with the addition of corn issues, Earth Balance JUST came out with a new soy-free, corn-free, and dairy-free version. God bless their souls…
7. Nut butter: Now my question for the nut butter makers of the world is WHY? Why is almost every brand off-limits to me because of that fine print: “Manufactured on shared equipment with wheat, soy, and peanut products”. Why must you share your equipment? Think of all the peanut-allergic customers you lose, let alone all of us wheat and soy-free consumers? Be careful on this one…check the back before you hand it off as a gift. It is highly appreciated though. I want to cry every time I walk to the peanut butter section in most major grocery stores and find just one brand of almond butter, often off-limits to me, and notice the price discrepancy. I know nuts are more expensive…but really, the legume-free are suffering here. This is also on my to-do list for after Christmas…make my own 🙂
8. Bread : Imagine you live in a world where bread will cost you $4.50 a loaf…and that’s on a good day! Yep, that’s the reality facing your allergy friends on a daily basis. $5 on bread. The good news is it can freeze for a long time so buy them a frozen loaf and they won’t be disappointed. Though be sure to read the label to make sure it is free of ALL their allergens.
9. Enjoy Life chocolate chips:  I swear I go through these things like candy. Seriously, some days I eat a spoonful out of the jar just because it’s the only form of candy or chocolate I can have. Needless to say, I go through these in baking rather quickly and at $4 per bag (ON SALE!) and rarely a coupon in the Sunday paper, these little guys get pretty pricey. The chocolate chunks are my favorite…though I read they came out with a new DARK chocolate version I have yet to locate. Keep your eyes open for me!!
10. Alternative Flours: Next time you’re in Whole Foods or a natural food store, take a moment to peruse the flour aisle. The ones consumed most often by those of us with gluten issues include almond flour, coconut flour, tapioca flour, potato flour, and brown rice flour. Note the price of each one. That’s right coconut flour alone is about $11 for a small bag. Now compare that to the $.99 bags of white unbleached flour in the baking aisle…yes I know life just isn’t fair. Buy just 1 bag of any of these…and maybe wrap it in an airtight container…you just made a gluten-free friend’s day!
11. Communion hosts: Now I know what you’re thinking: Katie, really, no one wants those but you. And to that I would say: false. Granted you know the person on your list and whether they’d need or appreciate such a gift. But think about it: you go to mass at least once a week, without factoring in holy days, weddings, funerals, Confirmations, etc.  That’s a lot of communion. The cost of 1 bag (containing 30 wafers) is $5.25. Compare that to the cost of a regular bag of hosts (containing 500 wafers) is just a dime more at $5.35. Crazy but true. Also, I should point out that every Catholic church I know of covers the cost of regular communion wafers.  I am fortunate enough to belong to a parish which also provides gluten-free hosts…but not everyone is so lucky. Thus, it could be a meaningful gift…especially for a gluten-free child’s 1st Communion.
 12. Scope: I know, I know…laugh all you want. But this would make the perfect stocking stuffer, particularly if you happen to be in a relationship with a food-allergy sufferer…or to send a message if you’d like to be 😉 
These last seemingly forever…and I just finished reading my Sunday coupons…Buy 1, Get 1 50% off for the compact, easy-to-slip-in-a-purse trial size at Walgreens this week. 
You’re welcome.
‘Tis the season for mistletoe after all. And New Year’s Eve…

 13. Last but not least, let’s not forget the thing you won’t find on any store shelf, website, or catalog. Find a way to show your food-allergy friend that you LOVE him or her. Regardless of the fact that you have to plan social outings around allergy-safe dining establishments, that you hold your breath for hours after they leave your home for fear you’ll get a phone call they ended up in the ER from something served at your house, that they sometimes cancel on you at the last-minute with vague “I’m not feeling so great- I think I ate something” reasons, you still care enough about this person to see past their overactive immune system and love them for who they are. I mean really, isn’t that what all gifts are supposed to convey anyway?

The best gift of all…

The outpouring of love I received this week….

So, in conclusion, as you head out there today to confront the crowd of fellow procrastinators, or as you settle into the sofa with your hot cocoa and stare at your pile of long-ago purchased and carefully wrapped Christmas gifts, just remember it truly is the thought that counts. Unless of course you can come up with a cure for autoimmune disorders…in which case you win the prize for best gift of all-time 🙂

Merry Christmas Week!!
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And So This Is Christmas…

Yes, it happened…somehow I blinked and here it is just 4 days before Christmas. I know I’ve heard from some readers who were worried I had fallen off the face of the earth…or worse that I had abandoned my writing and decided I was done passing on knowledge/reflecting on life. Have no fear: neither of those is the case. Rather, I’ve been entirely consumed by the madness of report card craziness which then morphed into two weeks of non-stop work editing units in a role which is new to me this year: clinical faculty at the University of Notre Dame. (It’s still rather surreal to me to be on the other end of the ACE portfolio, but what has still remained unchanged is that ACE teachers never cease to amaze me with their dedication or inspire me with their talent.) Throw in wrapping up another semester with my construction men, a few weekend shifts at the hospital, and as any teacher knows, the madness which is December in a school setting, and I’m sure you can see why I didn’t have time to sleep or keep up with laundry…let alone write!
Of course there is another reason too which kept me from making time: I have to be honest and admit that I’ve been a passenger aboard the bitter train more often than I care to admit this holiday season. Since this blog is supposed to be full of positivity and inspiration for those of you plagued by allergies, I was hesitant to start writing for fear my negativity would shine through. But then I realized yesterday that it’s OK, and perhaps even necessary, to let the occasional bitterness shine through. I mean I’m only human, and as far as I know so is everyone reading this, so we’re all going to have our bitter moments. The important thing is how we handle them and come out better on the other side.
Let me begin by pointing out that this is my first dairy-free Christmas. (And soy and corn…but really those haven’t posed much of an issue) I’ve had 2 years to perfect my gluten-free Christmas adaptations but I never realized until this year how important dairy was to even those celebrations. I celebrated Black Friday without my traditional Peppermint Mocha latte to kick off the season. I walked through Target and gazed longingly at the green and red M&Ms, my favorite cordial cherry flavored Hershey’s kisses which grace the shelves this time of year. I attended the Egg Nog pub crawl which became an endearing tradition during my first December in Baltimore and turned down offer after offer of delectable-looking egg nog. My traditional pretzel-Hershey kiss-M&M treats have remained unmade. The packages of leftover Andes mints and Gertrude Hawk Smidgens I packed away in my holiday box have been double sealed in Ziploc bags and sit next to my door waiting for the mailman since they’re now on the contraband list in my home. And worst of all, I was gifted with not one, but two, glorious snow days last week. While everyone I spoke to that day was elbow-deep in flour and butter, engaging in a day full of holiday baking, I stood bewildered in my kitchen as I realized that in all the craziness of life, I had yet to make a plan for new gluten/casein/soy/corn-free holiday baked goods. And since I still haven’t sprung for the internet, I had no Pinterest to guide me…so I surrendered and settled for a nap on the couch instead. I’ve been handed treat bag after tin of what I’m sure are delicious culinary treats prepared with painstaking concern and love…and I’ve piled them into a box to hand out to some of  my neighbors, patients at the hospital, and of course to restock my supply of treats for the homeless who approach my window at red lights. Yes, you could say I was settled into a business class seat on the Bitterness train and I had no intention of hopping off.

I did at least decorate a tree!
Then a change came from an unlikely place, but one I should have known all along would snap me back to my enthusiastic self: the kids. They piled into school yesterday decked out in their holiday finest. They excitedly approached my desk with packages, cards, and enthusiastic Christmas wishes. And then the humility began. First, a 6th grader came in with candy canes she had kept separate from the remaining teacher gifts which contained chocolate because “I didn’t want them to get contaminated with chocolate and make you sick!”; next, a student rifled through a huge bag of treats to dig out my specially-marked bag as he commented “My mom and I made peppermint bark for all the teachers but I told her you can’t have that so yours is a pinecone candle instead!”; a 7th grader arrived and begged me to open her gift: a personalized coffee mug and a bag of treats which “Look Miss Burke!! I found these at Trader Joe’s (clearly a girl after my own heart)…they say gluten-free AND vegan!!”; another literally bounced up and down as she pointed out the certified gluten-free logo on the back of my new canister of spiced holiday tea; a parade of 8th graders arrived and I am now the proud of owner of not 1, not 2, but 3 giant boxes of Rice Chex…a cereal I mentioned a few weeks ago during a real-world application math problem (A whole paragraph framed around the problem: Miss Burke can only eat Rice Chex so she stocks up when they’re on sale. Using the attached grocery store circulars and coupons, where should Miss Burke buy cereal this week?”); And just when I thought my heart could not melt any further, one of the 6th graders whom I also taught last year came bouncing in talking a mile a minute, with no breath between her words: “MissBurke,rememberlastyearwhenImadeyouthosePeanutButterBallsbutyoucouldn’teatthembecausetheyhadricekrispies?? LOOK!!!”. And I’ll admit my eyes were dangerously close to misty when I realized she not only had gone out to buy gluten-free Rice Krispies but she and her mom had cut out the ingredient labels for everything they used and affixed them to the jar…”Just to make sure you’re safe, Miss Burke”.
I have quite the supply of these thanks to my 8th graders…
Well, if I’ve never felt simultaneously foolish and humbled, I certainly did in this moment. Here I had been Miss Borderline Grinch over the past few weeks, and these kids were spending time and energy searching for the perfect gift which I could actually enjoy. Middle school students, who all too often get a reputation for being entirely self-absorbed, addicted to technology, etc., etc., had proven themselves to be entirely selfless and so profoundly thoughtful that their teacher had been moved to near-tears. Granted there were a few of those gifts which I still can’t enjoy as corn syrup is not on their radar of Miss-Burke-averse ingredients but in a purely made-for-Hallmark-Holiday-TV special moment, I realized that the gifts themselves which literally covered the surface of my desk mean so little. What means the world to me is that my students showered me with love in a month when I needed it more than they knew. They not only kept me sane during my month of chaos and craziness, but here they were unknowingly restoring my joy in a holiday season which until today had lost much of its luster. They reminded me that Christmas is about love. It is about sharing our love with others in even the darkest of places, just as Christ’s love was sent to the earth 2000 years ago in the humblest of places. They reminded me that hot chocolate, peppermint mochas, gingerbread cookies, egg nog, and all those holiday traditions which enhance the season are simply a manifestation of the love and joy which characterizes the season. Yes, I miss those things…but what I received this week brought me so much more joy than any of those treats could have delivered. And I know without a doubt that the memory of my students’ compassion, as well as the knowledge that they know just a little bit more about how to look out for others with food restrictions, will stay with me long after the 50% off sales have cleared the Target shelves of holiday-themed M&Ms.

And of course they’ve renewed my inspiration to find those replacement holiday traditions to share with other people who might still be aboard that bitterness train. I made my own Katie-safe holiday shaped pancakes and today when I leave my shift at the hospital, I’m going to attempt my own batch of Peppermint Chocolate Chip cookies AND Coconut Milk Peppermint Mocha lattes. I’ll report back…but until then, just know that if this holiday season has been a bit troublesome for you for any reason, you are certainly not alone; but you are certainly also surrounded by joy, love, and hope. You might just have to look up from your desk long enough to see it smiling back at you 🙂
That’s right…a Katie-safe snowman pancake…complete with “snow”. I have reindeer ones too!

Who needs this…
When I have this??
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Today I Am Grateful For…

Ah yes, it seems as if we blinked and here we are in November. Those shiny saddle shoes have dulled and the once-brightly-colored tennis shoes are showing the wear and tear of 3 months of gym classes, recess soccer games, and some kind of zombie apocalypse tag I have yet to figure out. Yes, we’ve made it to that hallowed beacon of light in the world of teaching: Thanksgiving break. It means 5 days away from the stresses of daily life that have once again become so routine. 5 days without worrying about whether an objective is clearly stated or a lesson has adequate closure; 5 days free from remembering to submit attendance, post homework on your website, and to hit the “adjust density” and “hole punch” buttons before you run copies; 5 days to wake up, eat, and use the bathroom without following a prescribed schedule; 5 days free from worrying about which students forgot the proper uniform belt, need to see the nurse for medication, have band rehearsal, have been in the bathroom too long, or need a little “pick-me-up” smile….all before 9 AM. Yes, to say I’m looking forward to Wednesday morning might be the understatement of the year (and yes I know I’ve been saying a lot of those recently)
I have to be honest…though I’ll be the first to admit I need a break from those things (probably almost as much as Miley needs to take a break from the spotlight), I do have to say they are also among the things for which I am most grateful this week. See, it’s been quite a year for me. When I think back to last Thanksgiving, in many ways it seems like a different life. I could eat dairy. I could eat corn. I was planning for an upcoming trip to Rome. It was warm(ish). I was a 5th grade teacher. Since then I visited Rome and saw a pope (who stepped down only weeks later). I saw my health decline yet again and spent WAY too much time as a human pincushion. I, along with my “doctors-turned-friends” at St. Joseph’s and Johns Hopkins discovered not 1, not 2, but 3 new food intolerances. I found my way back to health. I moved to a new apartment and a new classroom…in the same month. I teach middle school. I’m sitting at that same hospital working one of my part-time shifts and the TV is telling me that this Thanksgiving is going to be remarkably cold. And perhaps snowy. Yes, it’s safe to say a lot can change in a year. However, one thing hasn’t changed in this past year, or in any year…and that is Thanksgiving week always makes me acutely aware of just how truly blessed I am.
Now I can certainly go through the litany of blessings that I’m sure we all share: faith, family, friends, food, shelter, steady employment, etc. but I think you can pretty imagine those. Just turn on the Hallmark channel this week and I’m sure you’ll see some examples. I could sit here and write a novel about all the people, experiences, and things for which I am grateful. I could gush about my family members who love me, my friends who amaze and support me, my students who inspire me, etc. and that would all be true…but it could also never do any of them justice. They know who they are and I hope they know how truly grateful I am for their presence in my life.
 No I’d like to take moment to count the blessings that were new to me this year…the ones that sitting here a year ago, I never could have predicted would be things for which I am now eternally grateful.  A co-worker of mine, I now decided she’s the Effervescent English Educator (I think last time I said Ebullient), gave her classes an assignment this week that got me thinking. She had them practice one of the 6 Writing Traits (Voice) by writing letters using the RAFTS (Role-Audience-Form-Topic-Strong Verbs) strategy. See, I’m still an elementary Language Arts teacher deep down underneath my Math and Religion exterior JThe directions were to choose one person or thing for which they were grateful and to write a letter to that person or thing. For example, someone could write a letter to his or her house, expressing all the reasons to be grateful for one’s home. In my 6 years of “Let’s write thank you cards” as a teacher, I never thought to include inanimate objects on the list. However, I must admit for me this year there are a number of things to add to that list.
  1.  Aluminum foil: I may have campaigned against you for years after my 4thgrade science fair project proved you to be a non-biodegradable material…but now you ensure that I can still eat safely off of baking sheets and grills when I’m not in my own home. So thank you…  
  2. Coconuts: I always loved your coconut flavor but was disgusted by the texture; little did I know that you would become so critical to my existence. You are now a source of safe flour, delicious ice cream treats, and of course the milk which allows me to enjoy my favorite seasonal coffee-based beverages.
  3. Dedicated Fryers: I still get to eat French fries!!! Five Guys, Glory Days, and Chick-Fila fryers, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.
  4. Utz potato chips: You plain ones in the red bag are completely safe, and more often than not you’re on sale! My stomach and my bank account are eternally grateful….
  5. My toaster: You’re the only thing that makes my gluten-free, dairy-free, corn-free bread edible.
  6. Vitamin B-12: I took you for granted until you disappeared to trace amounts and I bruised like a peach. I will never take you for granted again. And I do mean never.
  7. Freezers: You’re the only way I can cope with the inconvenience of food sensitivity: cook/bake in advance and freeze.
  8.  “Find Me Gluten Free” App: You introduced me to places I never would have known were gluten-friendly. Not to mention you were the driving force behind my plunge into the smartphone world. And I met your creator this summer….big moment 🙂
  9. Pyrex: See #7. You also allow me to be a ”normal” traveler who can actually leave her house for a few days.
  10. McCormick spices: With a diet that is forcibly bland, I rely on your delicious flavors to liven up my meals! Not to mention, that scent of spices coming from your factory which permeates the early-morning air on Tuesdays never gets old…
  11. Hand Sanitizer: Seriously, if I had to wash my hands every time I wanted to eat something or thought I came in contact with “the enemies”, I’d have no epidermal layer left. Plus you’re a lot more convenient…even if you have a bad rap in the news.
  12. Scope: Need I say more?? (If so, read here:Mr. (or Miss) Right, Meet Mouthwash ) I thank you for myself and on behalf of my future co-pilot, wherever he is…
Of course, this list goes on and on. And on and on.  What I would like to do today is encourage you to  look beyond your typical litany of thanks. Look deeper and see what you might be forgetting from your list. For me that includes places I’ve been, people I’ve met…but today I choose to focus on my list above. 12 things I never anticipated would become staples to my existence. They are everyday items which have been transformed into blessings due the circumstances surrounding them. And each one contributes in its own small way to the greatest blessing of all: and that is health. If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, not only through my own struggles, but also each weekend as I continue to spend time with patients at St. Joe’s, if you have your health, nothing else matters. And when you don’t have your health, it’s pretty hard for anything else to matter.
So this week as I sit down to the Thanksgiving table and dig into my gravy-free turkey, my dairy-free roasted potatoes, and a plate that no longer includes corn, am I saying there won’t be a tinge of sadness? No. But the reality is that I know this year my blessings far outweighed my trials. I am not the same person I was a year ago, or maybe even a few months ago. And I think that’s a good thing. It seems to me that my sensitivity to other people, to their needs, and to their trials seemed to heighten along with my food sensitivities. Is the relationship between the two cause or correlation…that I don’t know. What I do know is that this year, for the first time, I’m remembering to give thanks for my crazy, confused, “let’s-just-decide-to-attack-harmless-things-like-corn-gluten-and-milk” immune system. Partially because it does do its job the right way sometimes…but mostly because it introduced me to a world I never would have known otherwise. So, immune system, thank you for changing my life. However, I would sincerely appreciate it if you could stay the way you are now…no surprises this year please 🙂
Now, those of you who can, go fill your plate and PLEASE eat a helping of stuffing and mashed potatoes for me!! And take a moment to give thanks for those simple, ordinary parts of your life that never get a proper thank you…

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An Ode to Trader Joe’s

Every so often in an allergen-filled existence, you have moments which excite you, touch your heart, and make you want to hug random strangers.  As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, my autoimmune journey has certainly been littered with such moments: Mom’s Organic Market (where I really did hug an employee very early in my gluten-free days), Whole Foods (though I still feel like people judge me there because I almost always forget to bring my re-usable cloth bags), locally-operated co-ops, farmers’ markets, etc. There’s nothing quite like that moment of pure joy when you find something you didn’t know existed or a place that offers a new (or even revised to avoid allergen) treat that makes eating fun again…if only for a moment.
Of course these joy-filled moments are often tempered by a harsh reality of allergy-friendly eating: a hefty price tag. I mean don’t get me wrong, I will cough up $4 for the occasional gluten-free, dairy-free cupcake…but my frugal, coupon-clipping heart cries a little bit inside each time I do. For those who may not know me quite so well, you can add coupons to the list of things I simply love. I’m not sure quite when this passion was ignited…I have a feeling it was around age 5 when my Dad began explaining basic economics during our trips to the corner store in our neighborhood. (Let’s just say between my dad and my grandfather, I didn’t stand a chance of avoiding the frugality gene.) By 15, my Sunday mornings always followed the same routine: church at my childhood parish, Sunday coffee from the Dunkin Donuts across the street, and then a good hour spent poring over the week’s circulars and clipping coupons. It’s a tradition which carries through to this day; granted the parish, the coffee shops, and even the newspapers themselves have changed over the years…but Mass, coffee, and coupons continue to be the mainstay of my Sundays.
A typical Sunday morning…
So imagine in the midst of all my larger-scale life adjustments 3 years ago, I open up the paper on a typical Sunday morning…and suddenly realize that most of the items in the circular are no longer an option. More upsetting still, I realized that many of the things I now considered necessities (coconut milk, brown rice/pecan bread, almond flour, etc.) don’t really have coupons. And saying they’re slightly more expensive is a bit of an understatement. So add that to the list of worries that were plaguing poor ill, painfully frugal Katie 3 years ago. Well, as I’m sure you can predict, there is a (somewhat) happy ending to this story. For those of you still drowning in the new amount you must add to your food budget, each month: breathe a small (and I do mean small) sigh of relief. I have some advice for you…again gleaned from my own experience.
1)     If the coupons won’t come to Katie, Katie must go to the coupons: Believe it or not, there are coupons for the more allergen-friendly foods. They just don’t appear on your doorstep in the Sunday paper. Almost every natural food store or “alternative” grocery store has their own coupons. Even Whole Foods! They give out a bi-monthly coupon booklet full of treasures! You may just have to go to the store first, grab the coupon booklet, and then plan your shopping. My Whole Foods here is conveniently located next to a Starbucks so I make a morning out of it…coupon book, coffee/make shopping list based on such coupons, go back and actually shop. Make sure to ask at every market you visit…some post coupons on their facebook page or may even have an email listserv. Finally, many of these natural food stores are small enough that they offer pretty great reward programs. ALWAYS ASK.
2)     The internet is your friend: Almost every major allergen-friendly brand posts coupons on their websites. They know the food is expensive (but it’s also expensive for them to make) so they do what they can to help. You just have to take the time to accept it. Enjoy Life, Udi’s, Glutino, and so many other brands often provide $1 off coupons for completing a survey…or even sometimes just for pressing print! Also, I know I mentioned this in an earlier post but sign up for sites like this one: www.glutenfreesaver.comIt’s like Living Social for the gluten-free world…and they come right to your inbox!
3)     Go to Fairs and Expos: There are SO many reasons you should look for allergy expos and fairs to attend…see Today is a Fairy Tale if you need to remember the joy they provide. However, another added bonus, you know aside from eating delicious safe food samples and feeling “normal” again for a few hours, you also leave with an inordinate amount of coupons. Yes, even frugal me was hesitant to pay the $20 registration fee to attend…but I can say without a doubt that I came out in the black on that day. I’m not exaggerating when I say I left with over $50 worth of coupons. So yes, go. It’s worth it!
4)     Be a Hoarder: As a lifelong sufferer of a moderate to severe packrat condition, I can tell you there are few instances in which I will encourage hoarding. (I consider myself on step 8 of the 12-step road to non-hoarder-dom); however, when it comes to allergen-free food I am 100% in support of hoarding. When a loaf of bread typically costs $6 and you can get it for $4.50, buy a few…you know you’ll use it eventually! Same goes for Enjoy Life chocolate chips…if you find those for less than $4, buy every one you can find. (Another one of my former ACE roommates (we’ll call her my Long-Distance Life Chat Listener) can attest to the profound level of excitement when I stumbled upon chocolate chips for $3.49 in an Indiana grocery store…$3.49!!) Bake big batches, use your freezer, embrace your inner hoarder…just try not to let it extend past food. 🙂
5)     Beg, borrow…but don’t steal: I have become shameless when it comes to coupons. Recently, an allergen-free restaurant outside of Baltimore had a Buy 1, Get 1 coupon in our local paper. I put the word out to my co-workers and friends and managed to collect 7 of them. That’s 7 free “cheese”steaks, reubens, etc. Granted they expire in late January so I better get spending. (If anyone wants to come along, let me know. There are still 5 coupons remaining) Just please, whatever you do, don’t steal coupons. SO Delicious has a habit of sticking $1 off coupons to their ice cream and milks. I’ve seen people take them off and not buy anything. I’m not judging.. I just can’t promote coupon theft. It goes against the unwritten code of coupon ethics.
Now after all this, you’re probably wondering why this post is entitled “Ode to Trader Joe’s” when so far it seems like “A Celebration of the Art of Couponing”. I mean Trader Joes doesn’t even accept coupons. Well, remember those joy-filled moments I mentioned at the beginning?? I had one this week. It had been awhile since I’d visited Trader Joe’s because there are a lot of items there that contain that pesky “Made on shared equipment…” label. In fact, Trader Joe’s black beans were the culprit of the ill-fated dinner which taught me that lesson all too well 3 summers ago. However, I walked in there this week and could scarcely believe my eyes. They have a gluten-free section now…with NAME brands (Udi’s, etc.) AND they now carry gluten-free cupcakes and a flourless chocolate cake which was my staple “pick up a dessert on my way to an event” item prior to my dairy-free days. They even have gluten-free pizza! I know, I know, you’re joining McKayla Maroney…you’re still not impressed. Every grocery store has this nowadays. True. BUT what I couldn’t believe were the prices!! SO much more reasonable! For example, among the many things that disappear with one’s ability to process gluten, add many brands of cold cuts to the list. That’s right, those of you who can eat such things might want to skip the next few sentences or you may never eat a sandwich again. You think it’s just meat in that deli counter…sadly, not the case. Gluten-free cold cuts are pretty easy to locate in a regular counter, but add casein (the dairy protein my body attacks) to that list? Suddenly you’re left with very few. Now I’m one of those people I used to stare at who bypasses the deli counter for the much less cost-effective organic/individually packaged/explicitly labeled gluten and casein-free packages of cold cuts. Even on the best days in most grocery stores, I have to shell out somewhere close to $6 for my package of roast beef…a little less if I go for the turkey breast instead. Well, much to my surprise…there was my roast beef hanging in Trader Joe’s…for $3.49!!! Talk about a joy-filled moment. That’s almost 2 weeks of lunches now for the price of 1.

The joy continued…I found a packaged of roasted chicken for my salads that was ACTUALLY JUST CHICKEN! Seriously, next time you’re at the store, find one of those Purdue Short Cut chicken packages. Even the plain, unseasoned one contains soy. The seasoned ones? Forget it, I can’t even read some of those words. I even found a multivitamin that I can take! And the nice associate called the manufacturer for me just to make sure that the only reason it wasn’t labeled vegan was because it contained shellfish fragments and not dairy. (Though trying to explain to someone why you’re looking for a vegan label but you don’t care about eating fish…that was entertaining to say the least) And last but not least, I found chicken sausages that were gluten and casein free!! I left Trader Joe’s with a smile on my face, a receipt for less than $20 (which is rare these days for groceries) and a bag full of delicious safe foods. I went home and made a scrumptious dinner…with enough leftovers for 2 days!

My delicious post-Trader Joe’s dinner…
A refrigerator of safe foods! (well, once the eggs are baked that is)…it almost looks normal, right??
So in short, thank you Trader Joe’s for bringing some unexpected joy into my allergen-free existence. If you have allergies, find one near you and check it out. Don’t swear off all other stores of course because coupons make a difference…but be an informed consumer. Plan, shop, and save. 
And if you live in the Baltimore area and need groceries before Friday, please let me know. I’m 53 points shy of earning my free turkey/ham and I only have this week to earn them. There’s no way I’m getting this close and missing out on free meat that will provide a week’s worth of dinners. My Excel spreadsheet just won’t allow it…
You can take the girl out of accounting…but you can’t take accounting out of the girl…
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Energizer Katie…

To say life has been crazy lately would be an understatement. Well, actually saying “Target dollar bins can be dangerous” would be an understatement. I’m not even sure the category for my life lately. It’s been almost 2 months since I moved and I STILL have a corner of unpacked boxes that haven’t been touched; I’m operating on such a sleep deficit some days that I think I could replace the bunny in the next Energizer commercial; my to-do lists could fill a small novel…and they’re quite eclectic enough that it might be an entertaining one at that. I’ll even admit last week I had a moment when I realized I’d reached an all-time low: I stopped at Target for some last-minute Halloween candy and I put a package of socks in my basket…because I wasn’t sure I’d have time before my weekend trip to do laundry and I’d run out of clean socks. And I’m also not ashamed to admit that those socks proved to be the only useful purchase I made that night…because I was so tired from All Saints’ Day madness that I fell asleep sitting on my couch waiting for the trick-or-treaters and woke up a few hours later, still in my school clothes, with a full bag of treats that I can’t even eat. Yep, that’s right I broke my own rules and let dairy in my house and then I didn’t even get to hand it out!
Now am I sitting here thinking I’m the only one in this boat? Of course not. I’d say society as a whole has reached this point where we’re all riding on the crazy boat together: working too hard, resting too little, and turning into little hamsters on wheels that just won’t stop spinning. I’m sure it’s true in most professions but I know for sure it is in teaching. If there are any teacher friends out there who aren’t feeling this way, please share your secret. I’ll write an entire post in your honor to thank you.
Regardless, tonight I had a moment that stopped me in my Energizer Katie tracks and made me reassess. For the past 3 years I’ve been teaching a remedial math course at night for a local apprenticeship company. As I raced out of school to make it over for 3 more hours of teaching, all of my lists of the tasks still waiting for me at home were running through my head . I was planning how I could squeeze in a few emails while my students (whom I affectionately refer to as my construction men) were on break and just how many tests I could grade while waiting for the copier to spit out the remaining worksheets I needed for the evening. Then I walked into the classroom and was welcomed with an eerie sense of quiet. My typically boisterous group seemed sullen and didn’t respond to my burst of enthusiasm with their typical sheepish smiles. A few gave me wistful grins before someone quietly let me know that one our class members wouldn’t be joining us tonight. He was in a serious car accident earlier in the week on his way to work…he is fine, but the accident claimed the lives of 2 others. He was driving alone and had merged into another car with his construction vehicle. Investigations were conducted and even the experts confirmed…this was nothing more than a tragic accident…a man who didn’t see anything in his blind spot and in a moment switched lanes into another swiftly moving vehicle. There will be no charges and he’s been cleared to work…but no one has seen him since. Until tonight. 
He walked in to talk to me during our break. Tonight was our penultimate class and he wasn’t up to staying but he wanted to make arrangements to take his final next week at a different time, when he wouldn’t have to sit with a roomful of people staring at him while he worked. I know that medically speaking it’s impossible to witness a heart breaking or for a person to walk around and function with one, but I can tell you after tonight I’d argue that it happens. I watched this big, burly man crumble as he gathered up the word problem and measurement worksheets I had so diligently crossed off my to-do list just an hour earlier. And as I watched him walk away, my plans for the evening immediately changed. I ended class earlier than usual. I told the guys to go home and spend time with their families…or even just go catch up on some sleep. I had planned to stick around after they left to grade and write those emails I was drafting in my mind. Instead I picked up my bags and walked out the door. I called my mom for the first time in days. I filled my poor punctured tire with air and then I drove to visit a friend whom I haven’t seen in far too long. (I’ll call her the Crafting Queen.) We caught up over a bean burrito (hers…still no safe tortillas for me!) and a cup of hot apple cider (mine). I returned home and took a moment to upload all the pictures from my ACE reunion at Notre Dame and revisited the joy and smiles of last weekend. And now I’m writing this. As many people pointed out this weekend, I haven’t written in awhile. This is one of those things that has elusively shifted from to-do list to to-do list and yet, like laundry, has remained undone. But tonight made me realize that it just shouldn’t be that way.
Yes, life involves a certain amount of crazy. There’s no denying that. Our to-do lists are too long, our stress levels are too high, and of course the occasional sleepless night is inevitable…but that shouldn’t be the norm. I realized tonight that trying to emulate the Energizer bunny isn’t something to be proud of. After all, he just blindly drums his way through life and doesn’t get to actually experience anything as he just keeps going and going. We never know what life is going to throw our way, when we might suddenly feel complete derailed, or when we might be forced to be that person attempting to navigate life with a heart that is completely broken, even if an EKG doesn’t say so.

 So tonight I am pressing pause on my to-do list. I am curled up on my couch with a hot cup of tea. I am going to bed before midnight. And before I do, I will spend time in prayer for the growing number of people in my life who are dealing with physical illness, emotional brokenness, or some combination of the two. I will read a chapter of the book I’ve been trying to read since September. And I will sleep without a to-do list post-it next to my bed. I won’t even let myself make a mental one.

Yes, I’ll wake up tomorrow morning with a longer list of tests that need to be graded, emails that need to be written, plans that need to be finished, papers that need to be filed, projects that need to be coordinated, etc…but those things aren’t going anywhere. (Trust me, sometimes I wish they would!) So take it from me, take a minute today to stop. Just think about your to-do lists (or novels as the case may be). Are there things on that list that keep getting bumped lower and lower on the list? Things like sleeping, writing, visiting family, drinking a cup of tea, sharing good conversation with a close friend, going for a run, spending quality time with someone you love, sharing exciting/delicious recipes with your food-intolerant friends, etc. Make those your priority this weekend. If you can’t do them all, at least pick one.  Those other things aren’t going anywhere…I promise they’ll be there when you come back to them. My bags filled with papers, grading, plans, and lists are already sitting waiting for me next to the door. But I won’t be touching them until morning. And when I do it will be with a homemade Katie-safe pumpkin spice latte in my hand as I walk out the door. Yes, I finally mastered it 3 weeks ago…and it’s been on my to-do list to share it with you…guess what got bumped?? (You have my sincere it is!)

1 cup coconut milk (I used SO Delicious barista-style coconut milk)
1/3 cup pumpkin
about 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice blend
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
I added maple syrup, coconut sugar, and honey to taste

I heated all of this together on the stove and then poured it over a cup of STRONG brewed coffee. Then I used my new frother to mix it, sprinkled some nutmeg on top, and life was suddenly AMAZING. You’re welcome 🙂
Pure Deliciousness 🙂
I’ll face another day in the life of Energizer Katie. Only tomorrow I’m going to make sure to leave room on that to-do list for gratitude…because I’m fortunate enough to have a heart that is still intact and, at least for this moment in time, a body which isn’t attacking itself. And considering once upon a time (AKA last March) that alone was the one thing on my to-do list…I’d say I’m doing pretty well.
This is hanging in my new apartment…but it never seemed as true as tonight.
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We’ve All Got Bruises…

…some of us more than others. I’ve been battling a bit of a B-12 deficiency so my bruises are quite numerous at the moment. Those of you who can’t eat dairy, do yourself  favor: take B-12!

All from a little plastic grocery bag…B-12 has just become a dear friend in my life

The rest of you, keep reading too; I’m not just talking about physical bruises. Listen to my friend Train here if you need a little background theme song as you read: Bruises

If you’ve found your way to reading this, I know without a doubt that you have embraced the world of technology. Obviously I have too. However, I’ve been living without internet at my house now for almost 3 weeks and my goodness, has it given me quite a bit to ponder. Granted, it’s also given me the gift of time in which to do that pondering. I mean I knew I loved pinterest, but it’s not until you’re without internet that you realize just how much time you spend pinning, scrolling through facebook, catching up on pop culture “news”, etc. I’ve been so much more productive at home, I’ve spent more time reading (actual books…with paper and everything!), I don’t get distracted by news stories on my way to the ND prayer site and then forget to actually pray, and best of all: I’ve been asleep by 10 almost every night…no more, “Oh I’ll just peruse pinterest for 5 minutes before I go to sleep”. That’s OK, you can say it: “Yeah right, Katie. Famous last words”. I have to say this whole internet drought has been one of the biggest unexpected blessings…and just when I needed it most.

Now, before you get too nervous or start thinking I’m a hypocrite (because clearly if I posted this then I haven’t totally abandoned the world of information technology), I am not one of those people who shuns modern advances and will spend the rest of this post criticizing anyone who does for all the world’s problems (I mean clearly the government shutdown must have some correlation to the exponential growth of twitter right??). I love technology. I love how it has transformed my classroom. I love how easily my kids can access information about the great minds of math and locate Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on the rosary (seriously, I was alive in 2002 and I never read it until 2 weeks ago). I love that GoogleEarth can take us from Towson to Rome and back…all before lunchtime. I love what technology can do in my own life too. I love that I can pay all my bills without the treachery of envelopes (remember envelope glue = gluten = 1 very sick Katie), I love that I can find recipes at a moment’s notice, and of course that I can stay in touch with amazing friends who have decided to scatter themselves all across this great country. (I promise this isn’t some plug for Google, but in all seriousness: Google Hangout = BEST thing ever. It’s like being back in our dorm room all together again even though we’re miles and miles apart.)
In a nutshell, I think technology is great. However, I do think it has been accompanied by a whole host of unintended consequences. That list alone could probably fill a novel but I’m particularly focused on one aspect at the moment. Please bear with me while I try to explain. I think back to when I was a kid. When we went on a family vacation, we always had a camera in tow. We would do our best to capture the memories and hold onto those family moments, ones which became increasingly meaningful as my dad’s health declined. We had some amazing trips…but of course no matter how wonderful HersheyPark , or a beach weekend on Long Island, or a family adventure through NYC turned out to be, it was the car ride home which inevitably did us in. Someone was singing too loud, someone was taking pleasure in antagonizing someone else, someone was getting carsick, and someone was usually having a silent anxiety-induced meltdown about traffic, the amount of gas remaining in the tank, and the likelihood of breaking down on the side of the road in 90 degree weather, among other things. (I won’t even make you guess…that last one was me.) They were less than perfect drives for sure….but still the ones I now remember and look back on fondly. Of course, we would get home and what did we do? Send the film off in those little canisters to be developed (I know, I’d almost forgotten about those days too). The pictures came back a week or so later and by then all the bad memories of the trip had already faded from our minds and only the highlights were discussed at dinner or written about in school journal entries. Then as we sifted through the newly arrived photos, the inevitable “messy” ones would surface: you know the kinds: someone looks angry, someone is crying, someone’s finger is covering the lens cap, etc. and for a brief moment we remembered some of the “less than perfect” moments…and we laughed about them. Of course when the pictures were then compiled into an album, those “less than stellar” ones usually found their way to the trash…or at least to the “assorted photos we never really look at” box. When the photo album was shared at the next family gathering, all anyone saw was smiling faces, brotherly/sisterly love, picturesque sunsets…the perfect family vacation.
Am I saying there is anything wrong with that? Absolutely not! The point of albums and scrapbooks is to highlight our good memories, not the ones we’d much rather forget. The problem is that in today’s world, it’s not just an occasional album that gets censored; it’s an everyday occurrence. First of all, the “less than perfect” pictures don’t even make it past 2 minutes of existence. I saw it at least a dozen times when I lived in DC. During an afternoon walk around the mall, “Ma’am can you please take our picture?” turned into a 10 minute process. Each picture was immediately available for view, critiqued, and deleted within moments until the “perfect” picture was the only one left on the camera. And now so few people have cameras that it’s on a cameraphone. Well then you know as well as I do what’s about to happen….in moments it will be off in cyperspace. Those perfect smiling faces in a picturesque sunset beneath the cherry blossoms will be filling up Faceboook newsfeeds, Twitter, and Instagram within moments. No one will ever know that just minutes earlier Mom had been crying, Dad was chasing their son and narrowly saved him from slipping off the ledge into the Tidal Basin as he was trying to feed a mallard, and their little daughter had made them all red in the face when she loudly commented on a rather robust woman who was walking past. But honestly, those are the moments I bet they’ll be laughing about in 2 years when they reminisce about their DC vacation.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all of this during my weeks without internet and about the current state of affairs in our world…and something really struck me. I’m not saying that this alone is the source of our increased anxiety level as a society (goodness knows there are innumerable contributing factors for that) but think about it for a moment. Family photo albums and stories used to be shared on sporadic occasions throughout the year: holidays, annual summer visits, etc. Now those photos and “memories” are shared constantly- often in realtime before they’ve had a chance to even qualify as memories. That means all of us are bombarded multiple times a day with seemingly perfect pictures, status updates, tweets, etc. that make it seem like everyone we know is living the perfect life. Someone has a new job they love, someone else has a significant other who has become serious enough to earn a place in their profile picture, there’s another new engagement ring that could put the Hope Diamond to shame, a new handful of engaged couples have updated their statuses to married each weekend and their gorgeous bridal party photos look like something out of a magazine, everyone’s children seem to be impossibly cute and well-behaved as their smiles beam off the computer screen. Every time we log on, it’s easy to feel as if our seemingly mundane, and certainly very flawed, existence can’t possibly measure up to the fairy tale lives these pictures depict. Well, you know as well as I do that it isn’t true. Those pictures and statuses don’t reveal the 13 failed job interviews, the 6-month separation that preceded the reunion and engagement, the weeks spent arguing over bridesmaid attire, or the endless hours of crying and tantrums that preceded that adorable baby picture.
The reality is that none of us have a life that could fit the dictionary definition of perfect. If we did, we wouldn’t be human. It’s just that these days the pressure, not even to be perfect, but just to APPEAR perfect is greater than ever. Does technology deserve all the blame? Well, that I don’t know. What I do know is that we’re heading down a dangerous path. I for one don’t want to live in a world where everyone is afraid of making mistakes and being true to who they are. And if you could see my apartment right now, you’d see just how imperfect I am. It’s been almost a month here and my living room is still full of boxes I haven’t unpacked! Am I posting pictures of my unfinished abode, complete with empty boxes and milk crate furniture? Nope. Why not? That’s a great question. It’s the reality of moving for sure and everyone knows it so why do we choose not to share that…but then to share the polished photos of furnished apartments, which everyone also knows? I think the answer to that question is simple. At least for me it is. I long ago gave up on trying to be perfect; I know that I am flawed all the time, and that sometimes I’m even completely broken. However, I don’t share that brokenness with just anyone. I am blessed to have people in my life with whom I can share that brokenness…but the cyberworld of facebook friends is not one of them.
That’s the hole I made in my otherwise beautiful-looking bookshelf…
So if I’m not comfortable sharing my brokenness with these people, why do I care to share my joy and accomplishments? Another great question. That answer I really just don’t know. Maybe it’s because I am so excited I need to share my joy and it’s so easy to share with social media? Maybe it’s because I feel a subconscious need to share the same successes I’ve seen others share? I don’t know…but what I DO know is that in these weeks that I’ve been disconnected from the internet, I’ve been much better at picking up the phone and sharing things with people one-on-one. I’ve even been better at face-to-face conversation. Now I’m not saying everyone should stop sharing posts, pictures, and news via social media. Goodness knows I’d count that as another perk of technology. I LOVE poring over wedding photos of couples I watched come together but haven’t seen since college. I LOVE seeing that the proposal we’ve all been waiting and hoping for has finally come to fruition, I LOVE smiling at the antics of adorable children in those quickly-snapped iPhone shots. I WANT to share in the joy of other people’s big moments and successes; in fact I NEED to. I’m one of those people who draws true joy and excitement from witnessing the joy of those around me. However, what I think we all need is a reminder. So this is me reminding you: No, you are not perfect. But neither is anyone else.If they were, they wouldn’t be human and that creates another whole host of issues. We all make mistakes .We are all flawed. We are all broken. Sometimes we’re the ones smiling beautifully in a picturesque sunset; other times we’re the one yelling and desperately diving to keep a son from diving into the Tidal Basin.
As proof of my point, I want to share some imperfect moments with you. I’ve read many a blog with delicious-sounding recipes and pictures of succulent dishes that would make your mouth water. I’m willing to bet that was not the first time that person had attempted the particular recipe. So prepare to feast your eyes on my instances of imperfection…
My first attempt at “Katie-safe” creamer…

My first (terrible) batch of gluten-free/dairy-free/egg-free pancakes…
Those were supposed to be brownies. Though they did still taste pretty good!

So those of you struggling with new food restrictions and failing in your attempts at new foods: fear not. You’re completely normal. Don’t give up, keep experimenting….and you never know what deliciousness you may end up with!

My first successful batch of pumpkin bread in my new allergen-free kitchen. Totally worth the failed batches 🙂

So regardless of where you are in the ebb and flow of life, or the pendulum of penalty as some like to say, there is nothing wrong with imperfection. Love it, embrace it, and let it shape you into the person you’re meant to become.  No closet is empty of skeletons and even the purest of human hearts isn’t void of blemish. We’ve all been wounded and we’ve all hurt someone else. Regardless of your age, you’re on a journey so embrace your imperfection as a catalyst for growth. Really, it’s all in how you handle your imperfections and flaws. As one of my favorite quotes says,

Thanks to Emily Ley for her words of wisdom. And to another co-worker for passing it along. We’ll call her the Ebullient English Educator. Seriously…what a staff 🙂
 And don’t worry about the “perfection” you sometimes feel is everywhere. Trust me, it’s not. As Train so eloquently puts it, “We’ve all got bruises” So go face the day and strive, not for perfection, but for grace.
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There’s No Place Like…

“Miss Burke, don’t you remember?? It was a Tuesday and we got ANOTHER brand new schedule and you told us that nothing is constant in life except for change. Well, and Jesus…you added him in there too.”
Of course my honest answer to that question was no. I actually have no recollection of the conversation…but I will admit it certainly sounds like something I would say so I believe him. (Don’t you just love when kids remember every detail of every word that came out of your mouth a year later? Of course it’s rarely the conversations you actually wanted them to remember…or at least the ones you planned for them to hold onto. But such is the life of a teacher or parent I suppose.) One of my astute 6thgraders said those words to me last week. I was lucky enough to move up with my 5th graders from last year so I have a feeling we’re in for a year full of similar statements. It’s funny because just 2 days later, I finally had a moment to sit and relax (in the doctor’s office…where else?) and his words came back to me.
As any teacher can relate, September is a month when the concept of “constant change” is profoundly real. Gone are the students we had last June…the ones we knew so well: every quirk, charm, triumph, and struggle. Even those of us who are lucky enough to move up with our kids realize that in 3 months, so much has changed. Their hairstyles are different, they suddenly stand eye level with you, and even their conversation skills seem to have improved exponentially over the summer. Yes, change has certainly earned itself a place next to taxes, iPhone upgrades, and bitter Taylor Swift-breakup songs on the list of things that just keep reappearing no matter how hard you try to stop them. (Seriously, if I have to hear one more comment about IOS7…please remember there are some of us who still haven’t given in to the iPhone obsession yet. Sorry, rant over 🙂)
Somehow it’s already been 3 months since the corn diagnosis was added to the list. After my appointment this past week, I returned to that same bench where I sat 3 months earlier with my “it’s all going to be OK” iced coffee. Funny how returning to a familiar place makes you starkly aware of just how much has changed. The last time I sat on this bench, I was sweating in a matter of minutes as I sat baking in the June sun. Today I was bundled in a sweater waiting for my boiling hot cup of “See, I told you it would be OK” coffee to be cool enough to sip without rendering my tastebuds ineffective for a few days.  I sat on that bench and did something I hadn’t done in almost a month: I just sat. I didn’t make lists, I didn’t pack, I didn’t grade papers, I didn’t take out my phone and check messages or scroll through the news. I just unplugged and enjoyed the silence. I looked at the tree where I had sought shade back in June when I was so certain that the sunglare had to be the reason I was misreading the corn allergen list. I remember the simultaneous sense of panic and acceptance I felt that morning and I thought about how much my life has changed over the past 12 weeks. I thought about the number of times I’ve heard the phrase, “But honey, corn is in everything”. Even at an allergy expo. Yes, I know. The corn subsidies have in fact made their direct impact on my life.
To be honest, it’s been harder than I thought it would be. I’ve had a few incidents of unintentional corn byproduct consumption that have left me with no doubt that the doctors got it right this time. I bought ANOTHER set of brand new pots and pans. I have new plates, new utensils, and now even a new kitchen. Yes, that’s right….despite my best efforts to co-exist in a regular kitchen, it was decided that my growing list of food issues made life in a shared kitchen just too treacherous to be considered safe. So after finally settling into a new classroom in late August and adjusting to my schedule of teaching 3 brand new classes (and 1 that I taught last year),  I found myself in a whirlwind 2 weeks of packing up my life and moving everything a mile down the road to my own apartment.  Many a trip back and forth with a loaded-down Ford Focus, let me tell you. Talk about a crazy month. (Needless to say, sleep and I have not seen much of each other lately and I miss it more than I can possibly explain.) I’ve learned that one does not have to actually be homeless to feel that way. One of the hardest questions at the doctor’s office last week was “What is your address?” What do you say when you’re between homes? I settled on “Well, it will be…” and left it at that. As you can tell, change has pretty much been my most faithful friend over the past 33 days since the school year began. Granted, I would be remiss if I let you think it’s been my ONLY faithful friend. I have been reminded yet again how truly blessed I am by friends who drop everything on a Sunday morning to lug heavy furniture out of a UHaul or show up at my door with furniture, appliances, lamps, gift cards… and hugs/listening ears/crying shoulders when it all gets to be too much.
(Sorry, I have to interject this little aside: while we’re on the subject…does anyone else see an issue with the whole registry tradition these days?? I don’t know many people who live with their parents until they get married so I really would like to advocate for a “I’m a single-20-something trying to furnish my own apartment” registry category. Then when it comes time for my wedding (assuming I find a co-pilot that is), I won’t ask for a thing besides a hug and a smile. And maybe a dance. I can assure you by the time that day comes, I literally won’t need a thing for my house. Well, except maybe this:

Do you see that?? Now with a gluten-free setting!!
Regardless, change is once again upon all of us as summer has officially come to an end. The air is crisp, the leaves are just starting to change, and the dreaded Sunday of changing clocks back is just about a month away. Fall is here. And since October 1st , AKA my 4thfavorite day of the year (because it marks the start of my absolute favorite ¼ of the year…October, November, December) is almost upon us, I am here to share some examples of how fantastic change can be. Here are some recipes for pumpkin chocolate chip muffins AND pumpkin coffee creamer!! Gluten-free, dairy-free, corn-free…and still DELICIOUS. And probably far better for you than those artificial “pumpkin” flavored things on the store shelves. Seriously, pick one up….see how many actually list pumpkin as an ingredient. I know, scary….Fortunately I managed to master these 2 weeks ago before I had to pack up my kitchen.
The fun begins!

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins:
·      ¾ cup almond flour
·      ½ cup canned pumpkin
·      ½ tsp baking soda
·      ½ tsp baking powder*
·      ¾ tsp pumpkin spice
·      2 eggs**
·      ½ tsp vanilla extract***
·      1/4 cup maple syrup
·      pinch of salt
Enjoy Life chocolate chips…as many as you want!!
*baking powder has corn so I just mix baking soda and cream of tartar to make my own. It’s a 2:1 ratio (teaspoons) so I just mix a bunch and keep it on hand.
**If you can’t have eggs (I can eat them baked in things but not outright), mix 3 tablespoons of water with 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed. I call it an art not a science, so I can’t guarantee the outcome…I didn’t try it with this particular recipe.
***VANILLA EXTRACT HAS CORN. Except for 1 brand: Frontier. So either get that one (sorry, McCormick, I’m still your loyal fan for everything else) or make your own.
Seriously…just buy stock in McCormick now. I think my purchases alone will bring it up a few cents 🙂


Pumpkin Coffee Creamer!!:
2 cups of Almond Milk (I used vanilla!)
4 tablespoons of canned pumpkin (I’d add more but that’s just me) 
1 teaspoon of Cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of Nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon of Allspice
**OR just use pumpkin pie spice again and add some nutmeg!**
4 tablespoons Maple Syrup (I’ve heard mixing in some agave syrup is good but I didn’t have any so I didn’t)
I boiled it all together on the stove and then put it in the fridge to cool. AMAZING. Smell and taste!

Ready for October!
I hope these recipes will only add to the wonderful-ness that is fall: pumpkin patches, apple picking, apple cider slushies!! These are all things I’m looking forward to and luckily I can still have. Granted I know it will continue to be a season of changes. For me, in particular as I settle into my new life.  I’ve officially lived in my new apartment (and by that I mean slept there) for 3 nights now…and I certainly have a LONG way to go before it feels like home. However, I will say I’m also excited about all that lies ahead. I’m excited to organize, bake, have people over for meals/tea/treats, etc.

And I’m already excited to sit in this same spot on my couch 3 months from now, surrounded by the remnants of recent Christmas celebrations and staring out at bare trees (and maybe, just maybe a little snow??) and think about how much has changed…And how hopefully I’ll finally feel like I’m home. (And maybe I’ll even have sprung for internet by then so I’ll be able to post from the couch too!)

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Today is a Fairy Tale…

You know how every once in awhile something happens where you just feel as if the stars are aligning or the universe has conspired to send you a message that just fits in so perfectly with where you are in life that you have to step back and say whoa?? Today was one of those days for me. See I just got back from a whirlwind weekend celebrating my grandparents’ 60thwedding anniversary with my family. These 2 have a love story that it seems only Hallmark movies are made of these days: he was an immigrant from Ireland who stepped off a boat in New York Harbor not knowing a soul aside from his own siblings and father who had taken the trip with him. She was 1 of 4 children born into a first-generation Irish Catholic family in New York City. They met at a dance…you know the kind that happened every weekend in 1950s New York… and the rest is history. 3 children, 7 grandchildren, and 3 great-grandchildren later, they’ve seen it all. I had a particularly lengthy chat with my grandfather about their story the night before the celebration and at one point he made an offhand comment somewhere (he tends to ramble more and more these days :-)) about how things weren’t always easy over the years and so he figures “people wouldn’t exactly call it a fairy tale, you know what I mean…but I can tell you I wouldn’t change a thing”.
60 years together…and he wouldn’t change a thing 🙂
 For some reason, that comment stuck with me, and even the next morning as I sat in mass, I kept thinking about what he had said. I thought about it as I watched them throughout the celebration and again as I drove the stretch of 95 between New Jersey and Baltimore. I decided my grandpa was onto something (and maybe Taylor Swift too…but I don’t think I’ll ever be willing to admit it:-) maybe an ordinary life…or even just an ordinary day… can be considered a fairy tale. And maybe that can be even more true on a food allergy journey. In another twist of fate (or God’s providential plan, whichever you prefer…you know my vote) there had been a huge gluten-free, allergy-free expo just a few miles from my grandparents’ house this weekend. 
After my early morning mass, I trekked over to the Expo center where I was swept into a world where I suddenly wasn’t the odd one out; where everyone understood that you would never consider popping something into your mouth until carefully scrutinizing the label; where people you have never met…and most likely never will again…speak like old friends, naturally exchanging terms like “cross-contamination”, “parts per million”, and “dedicated production lines”; where for just a brief moment you feel normal…and it’s the people without allergies who seem to be out of place, wandering from booth to booth with a confused, glazed-over look I imagine we allergy-sufferers typically wear when confronted with a new, non-allergen-specific restaurant. I couldn’t contain my excitement as I found gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, corn-free items (from here on, I’ll refer to them more simply as Katie-safe): everything from bread to cookies to ice cream cones…even soft pretzels!! I was so excited the vendor gave me extra powdered sugar for free!!
Can anyone say Puppy Chow?? Or Muddy buddies…I’m still not sure why it has 2 names!
Then I was so excited about the gluten-free picture book I found that the author signed one for me to bring to my classroom library!! Granted, my days of middle school teaching probably mean I won’t be reading it aloud anytime soon…but still, I was excited. Not to mention, it renewed my interest in a long-since-abandoned childhood dream of one day writing a children’s book.
Yes, all in all, it was a magical day. And it was only about to get better as the celebration of my grandparents’ real life fairy tale began. After a beautiful day of laughter, love, and trips down memory lane, I hit the highway. As I drove I thought about those textbook-definition fairy tales. You see, I know quite a bit about fairy tales. Though I’m now known as a math and religion teacher, I spent my first two years of teaching in a self-contained 2nd grade classroom where the best part of my day was teaching Reading (and Phonics) to students who were far below grade level. By far, my favorite unit I taught in those 2 years was our integrated Reading and Writing unit on fairy tales. That’s right: fairy tales are a 2nd grade Language Arts standard (at least it was in DC back then in the pre-Common Core-days). I loved every minute of it: I probably know enough about the various ethnic versions of Cinderella to give Ken Jennings a run for his money in a head-to-head Jeopardy match-up. During my long drive back to Baltimore yesterday, I kept thinking back on that unit. I had just opened the files on my computer earlier in the week after the Savvy Speechwriter (remember him??) paid a visit to my classroom (though I guess now we can also call him the Charismatic Mass Coordinator since we were planning a mass and not a speech) and pulled my copy of Korean Cinderella off the bookshelf. Our subsequent conversation triggered memories of spring mornings spent poring over various fairy tales and afternoons of Writer’s Workshop as my kids composed their own (very entertaining) original fairy tales. See, our school was closing its doors for good at the end of that school year and I still remember the poignant moments while proofreading one of those original fairy tales about how at the last minute, a magical fairy godfather (can you tell the author was a boy?) was going to swoop in and save our school…in exchange for 7 bags of Doritos…and we’d all live happily ever after.
Technically speaking, a fairy tale consists of all the components below: 
That’s right…I still have my fairy tale Writer’s Workshop checklist from all those years ago!
If that’s the case, I guess one could argue that no real-life events or experiences can be truly defined as a fairy tale…but I beg to differ. Let’s take my journey:
  • At least one good character: ME! And of course all those Saints in Street Clothes 🙂
  • A bad character: Gluten. Enough said.  Ok, and casein. And soy. And corn.
  • A problem and solution: Katie getting sicker and sicker, passing out WAY too often, and spending far too much time in St. Joe’s Hospital….until the magical endoscopy! (AND there’s the magic!)
  • Royalty:If that doctor of mine isn’t enough to qualify, I don’t know what is. The man figured me out…and gave me Scope. What more do I need??
  • Things happen in 3s and 7s: Um, remember the autoimmune trifecta?? 
  • Just throw in the special words and you’ve got yourself the framework for quite a fantastic fairy tale!!

(Do you see why I loved teaching 2nd graders to write?? Think of the possibilities just from that prompt!) And the best part is you can do it too! Just fill in your own characters and problems, figure out the missing pieces, and get to work. Granted yours is living, not just writing, but you get the idea. And it doesn’t have to be limited to an allergy journey of course! Maybe you’re battling the demon of a difficult job search/situation, a floundering relationship, the loss of someone important in your life, a seemingly impossible decision, etc. All of these things can still have a happy ending in due time. It’s just sometimes it takes longer to get there than we’d like.
When I think about my grandfather’s point, I think it is quite possible to live happily ever after on a small-scale basis. Is my allergy journey over? Of course not. I know the days ahead are full of reading labels, cleaning counters, packing an absurd amount for even small trips, being a high-maintenance guest, and of course toting around mouthwash…but that doesn’t mean I can’t have happily ever after moments along the way. Honestly, I think it’s why running has become so important to me. When I was at the lowest of the low back in 2011, I used to dream about being well enough to run the team relay of the Baltimore marathon with my 3 college roommates. During tests and bloodwork, I would think about crossing that finish line…a lofty goal for someone who struggled to walk up and down the stairs of my apartment some mornings…but come October, I did it. For me, that day was a fairy tale.
Happy ending #1 in my new gluten-free life 🙂

Then I did the same thing again a few months later with some ACE friends:

Tutus, friends, and feeling healthy: fairy tale day if you ask me!

 And then a year later it repeated itself when I managed to run the 1/2 marathon! 

We didn’t even plan to match!

The same could be said for the race I ran just this past weekend. I first “ran” this annual 5K at my school 2 years ago. I had not yet been cleared by my doctor to run (or even walk alone for long periods of time) so the Saint in Shorts and a T-Shirt agreed to walk with me…and even then we had to cut the course short. In the 2 years since, I’ve been lucky enough to run that course…all 3.1 miles of it…but that first year of walking is never far from my mind. Running that race is a happily ever after for me…something I once only dreamed of doing that seems routine to so many.
Running across the finish line a year after not even walking across!
So, in short, I’d say I think my grandfather is right. (I mean I usually do take his word on pretty much everything…he has quite a few decades of wisdom to share) Life CAN be a fairy tale, both in the longterm and on a daily basis. We just have to remember to be on the lookout for simple joys, unexpected blessings which seem to defy explanation, and of course those “once upon a time” beginnings and those “happily ever after” endings. Dream about them, work towards them, celebrate them when they come, and most importantly encourage others in their pursuit of them too.
Now remember what I said at the beginning of this post? How sometimes life seems to conspire to get a message across?? Well, you think I just meant having all these coincidental events back-to-back in the past week (the Charismatic Coordinator with the Cinderella book prompting the trip down memory lane, then meeting the gluten-free children’s author, followed by my grandfather’s offhand remark) was enough? So did I. And then I walked into my classroom this morning (WAY too early after a weekend away from schoolwork) and pulled the page off my daily calendar to see this:
Today’s daily calendar page!
 Granted when I first read it, I thought it said “Life gives us a fairy tale” not love, but still…

Coincidence?? I just don’t know. Defies explanation to me. I guess that means I better get to work on my children’s book/gluten-free fairytale. 
But for tonight I’ll just be getting ready for another ordinary day: lesson planning, grading, making copies, opening jammed lockers…and living happily ever after. One day at a time.
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The Sights and Sounds of the Season…

Ah yes, everywhere you look the sights and sounds of the season are upon us. You know the ones I mean: bright unscuffed tennis shoes and blinding white saddle shoes, freshly sharpened pencils with uneroded pink erasers, ads filled with unbelievable prices from 25 cent crayons to 50 cent Sharpies (50 cents!! I bought 2 of every color!) School bells ring, diesel engines idle next to you at the red light, traffic seems to multiply exponentially…yes, it’s the week I affectionately refer to as simultaneously the best and worst week of the calendar year: Back to School.
See, I went right from a student desk to the teacher desk so I’ve literally never had a year of my life after age 5 which didn’t involve going “Back to School” in some way, shape, or form. As a kid, it was my favorite week for a lot of reasons: I LOVED school, I LOVED learning, I LOVED buying new crisp notebooks and picking out which Disney character would adorn my new hard plastic lunchbox for the year (not to mention who can forget those fantastic thermoses that were included in those lunch boxes! Whatever happened to those?? Apparently they sell on eBay these days for $30!) I loved how we would clandestinely double or triple bag our groceries in brown bags for the entire month of August in an effort to build up our family stockpile of brown bag book covers. 3 kids = a LOT of books and this whole stretchy BookSox craze had yet to take off back then. I loved strategically going to bed earlier and earlier for the last 3 weeks of August so we could get back into our school-year sleeping pattern (clearly you can see I took school VERY seriously…in fact I’m pretty sure this routine was entirely self-imposed from 4thgrade on). I loved our annual 1st Day of School photo routine (in fact I know for sure that was self-imposed in later years….and not at all appreciated by my younger brother) and that first walk back to the corner to wait for the school bus. In short, I LOVED Back to School Season.
You can tell those are the faces of people who LOVE the 1st Day of School. I’m pretty sure my level of excitement remained the same all year 🙂

Of course, there was also some anxiety associated with the Back to School season. Another new classroom to navigate, another new teacher to figure out, new classmates to meet, new routines to remember, and of course an endless pile of syllabi which made it seem as if we were going to cram a lifetime worth of learning into just 9 months. Not to mention fitting in Irish dance lessons and competitions, violin lessons, orchestra rehearsals, church choir, field hockey, yearbook, school musicals, and the rest of the now-seemingly-endless list of activities to which my mom was my chauffeur…and that was just my activities. Add in my sister’s myriad athletic talents, my brother’s passion for baseball, a few years of Scouting, and a handful of part-time jobs into the mix and it’s STILL a wonder to me how my mom managed to get us all to the right places at the right times.

Yes, Back to School time is full of fun, adventure, excitement, trepidation, stress, exhaustion…and these days, paperwork. You would not believe the amount of paperwork. Parents will attest they’ve probably signed their name more times in the past week than they have cumulatively all year. In a world where the legal system is an ever-expanding force, there are forms for EVERYTHING. And of course every form has to be different and carefully worded in ways you can’t imagine. There are forms for cell phones, photo releases, Kindles, iPods, computer usage, acceptable movie ratings, combination locks, walking to the end of the block, who is allowed to be contacted in case of emergency/who is NOT allowed to be told anything, access to online grades/homework websites…I am not exaggerating, there must be at least 12 forms for each student. At least. And mostly for things which didn’t even exist when I was in school. I’m not kidding: a student handed me her milk money and form this week and I almost hugged her. Milk money!! Finally something which hasn’t changed in the decade since I was in K-12 school.

My fellow 90s kids remember these. I bought this same one 2 years in a row,

Now I must say in recent years there has been an increase in a lot of forms, but that has never been more true than in regards to medical forms. You teachers will understand. You arrive at school in August anxiously awaiting your class list. (I swear the teachers really are more anxious about this process than the kids and parents waiting for the same information) You get your list and a file of scores from the year before, information sheets about math, language arts, and everything in between. Those are all vitally important of course, and things you’ll return to multiple times during the year as you plan engaging lessons. But there is another file that comes with it which has become equally important: the health folder. The number of health issues, particularly allergies, that these kids deal with nowadays is simply staggering. I’ll admit, in years past I always opened that folder with a deep breath…knowing that this moment would determine the stress level of field trips: how many EpiPens would have to be on hand at a moment’s notice? Who would I have to remind to leave class at specific times each day to pay a visit to the nurse? Or worse, in my 1st school where we didn’t have a nurse…how many times a day would I remember to give essential medicines and tests to the little lives entrusted to my care? It always seems daunting, overwhelming, and some years downright scary. And yet somehow, a few weeks into the year, we had a routine and a system and I knew that I was fully capable of caring for even the most delicate of  my newest set of kids.

There may be a lot to digest in those files…but you’ll figure it out!

I have to say ever since my own allergy roller coaster began, there are several things I wish I could do.
1)   I wish I could find every child I’ve ever taught with an allergy and give them a hug. I had no idea what they were dealing with on a day-to-day basis. And they are just kids! I wish I could hug them and tell them I admire them far more than they’ll ever know.
2)   I wish I could call every parent of a child I’ve taught with allergies and invite them into my classroom for a 1-on-1 meeting. I would let them talk for as long as they want about the potential hazards and dangers of their child’s condition. I mean don’t get me wrong, this happened on several occasions, but there usually came a point where I was thinking “OK, I get it. I know what your child can and cannot have. I’ll take care of them, please stop worrying and let’s all go home”. I want to apologize to them now because I realize I could not have been more wrong. Stop worrying?? First of all, I know no parent ever stops worrying…I think it comes with hospital bracelet but never comes off. But now that I have my own food allergies, I can’t even fathom the constant worry and fear parents live with for their child. I now understand that you can spend years scrutinizing labels, avoiding potentially cross-contaminated items, and painstakingly choosing restaurants based solely on allergy ratings…only to have 1 innocent mistake (crumbs left on a table, an unknown ingredient mixed into a snack, etc) turn an ordinary day into a life-or-death trip to the ER. I now understand that although the allergy was something I dealt with as a teacher for 8 hours a day, 180 days a year…that that was nothing compared to the lifetime of hours and days that those parents will spend as the expert on the allergy and as an advocate for their child.
3)   I wish I could talk to the little 9-year-old girl to whom I once had to administer an Epi-Pen. In the midst of that chaotic moment, I still remember how calmly she looked into my eyes waiting for me to give her the medicine that could clear her airways. I remember how terrified I  was and I remember thinking that she must be so calm because this has happened before so she’s used to it. I now realize that wasn’t true. You never get used to a reaction. If nothing else, it almost gets worse as you become more familiar with it…because you know what’s happening and how it’s going to feel. I want to thank her for somehow managing to stay so calm and for having such strong faith in me. And I want to tell her that all these years later, I haven’t forgotten her….and that I never will.
4)   I wish I could gather every kid with food allergies before school starts and let them know that they are not alone. I wish I could tell them that they are my heroes because they understand that going Back to School is far more stressful than worrying about where your next class is or if your locker is going to open. It means trusting someone entirely new with your life. Literally. Day in and day out. Now  I suppose that goes for all students with a new teacher to some degree…but it’s much more tangible and immediate for a child with an allergy or health condition.
Now unfortunately most of those things I can’t do. But there is one thing that I can do: say a few words to my fellow teachers. I know we’re all drowning at the moment in paperwork, updating class lists, creating class websites, memorizing student names, learning the various emergency/evacuation procedures, familiarizing ourselves with Common Core, trying to plan lessons, building a supportive classroom community, and of course somewhere in there finding time to get to know and love our kids…BUT there are a few things I’d like you to keep in mind.
1)   READ THE HEALTH INFORMATION. I know how it goes during these crazy few weeks. You have to prioritize and things get pushed aside. That can’t be the case with health forms. I’m fortunate to work in a school with a phenomenal full-time nursing staff so I have wonderful, knowledgeable support…but still you are the one in the classroom. You are the first line of defense. Read the file and honestly, if you can, make time to call the parents of everyone in that file. I would never know that a gluten allergy means a child needs to beware of Elmer’s glue. Now that I have my own allergy I do, but take it from me, just the broad allergy listed doesn’t tell you much.
2)   MAKE SURE THE STUDENTS KNOW THAT YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO: I will be the first to admit I was a high-anxiety child. And I had no real reason to be. I can still remember sitting in class wondering what would happen if I fainted or threw up (unfortunately I found that out in the hall one day!). Now imagine sitting in a classroom or a cafeteria and knowing that the 2 people you rely on as your lifesavers should something happen (AKA Mom and Dad) are nowhere close. They need to know that you are well-prepared, well-aware, and more than ready to come to their aid should the need arise. Granted, this will change as kids get older and take more responsibility for their own allergy…but still, I can say I still like knowing that someone is around who knows what to do if I fall ill so I’m sure even 18-year-old boys feel the same way.
3)   NEVER MAKE THEM FEEL SINGLED OUT:  I could literally write a novel about this. I know sometimes this is unavoidable if your school as a nut-free table or some other policy that you’re required to follow. Obviously you’re limited by what the school or the parents have deemed fit. However, what you can control are other things: holiday celebrations, class projects, even service projects. For example, Valentine’s Day. When I was a kid, it was simple: you decorated a shoebox and spent the afternoon stuffing tiny cards with princesses or sports figures into a cut-out slot. Well, Valentines have come a long way my friends. Every single one involves a tiny gummy, a chocolate treat, or some form of sticker, tattoo, or body art. I don’t know why…but what it does mean is that Feb. 14th has become a treacherous day for any of your students with allergies. No joke, last year on Feb. 13th I stopped at the local Safeway to stock up on allergen-free treats for my trade-in bin and I saw 2 other women scrutinizing packages, one remarking “Nope, this one has Red#40 that won’t work” while the other was lamenting, “Ugh, shared equipment with tree nuts…great. And then this one works but there are only 18 and I have 19 kids!”. I looked at them both with a smile and said “Teachers?” They nodded and we shared a laugh and shook our heads at the impossibility of finding a treat which is actually safe for every student in a classroom.

So what do you do? Cancel every celebration? I don’t know about you but those are some of my best memories from grade school! You can make the decree that no candy is to be consumed until they get home and thus place the responsibility of removing the questionable candy on their parents’ shoulders…but you and I both know the likelihood of that candy making it all the way home without someone sneaking a bite. I always get a giant bowl of allergen-friendly candy for each specific allergy in my class and give those kids a chance to exchange anything questionable for something in the bowl. This lets them keep the element of choice so they’re not forced to eat one specific thing because of their allergy and it usually gets them excited. Of course, this has to be done after school or at some point where it doesn’t evoke mass chaos in the classroom. Again, it all depends on the age that you teach and how outspoken the student is about his or her allergy. Also, many parents are great about sending in things that are safe themselves so be in contact with parents regarding any upcoming days which might involve treats.
4)   PLAN AHEAD: Just a few months ago, I was walking around a school during a service project and came across a group of kids standing by themselves in a hallway. I looked around but didn’t see an adult leader nearby. I wasn’t working at the school that day but you teachers know, that teacher part of you just never turns off. So I stopped and asked what they were doing. Immediately one of them answered, “We’re the peanut allergy group”. My surprise at the response must have been evident as one of the girls piped in, “Everyone is making sandwiches but we’re not allowed near the peanut butter”. As I stood there, my heart broke for these kids. Now, I know the organizers were putting safety first and keeping the kids safe. That is our first priority so kudos to you. But put yourself in their shoes for a minute. It’s hard enough to be 14 or 15 today to begin with and now you have to be in a group based on your allergy that sits in the hall with nothing to do while everyone else makes sandwiches?? Yeah, that’s what I thought…pretty miserable don’t you think? So plan ahead: have the group make different kinds of sandwiches. There are bound to be people with allergies consuming these sandwiches so vary the kinds you make so that these kids can still participate. Or if the organization you’re working with requires only peanut butter sandwich, these kids can still be involved! Let them put stickers on Ziploc bags or decorate brown bags (BEFORE the sandwiches go anywhere near them) so they’re still playing an active role in the project. Yes, it involves some extra work and foresight on your part but trust me, the payoff is well worth it.
5)   WHEN IN DOUBT, ASK!!: The parents of your students with allergies or health concerns should become your best friends. I mean, not literally, but it should feel that way sometimes. TALK to them. ASK them questions. Invite them in to meet with you. Ask them for reading material, checklists, etc. Anything that they used to learn what was OK and not OK.  Never make assumptions…always pick up the phone and check.
6)   LOVE THEM…JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER STUDENT:Yes, it seems scary and overwhelming at first…but just remember every student comes with his or her unique qualities that make you fall in love year after year. A food allergy is just a tiny fraction of a child. Don’t ever let yourself remember a student as “the insert allergy here girl/boy”. For the 1st week or 2 of school it may feel that way because it is the most important piece of information you learn that week. But in time you’ll see that there is so much more to that child. Focus on those things. Help him or her to see that a food allergy is not a defining characteristic, and that it never should be. Soon he or she will just be another one of your kids that you find yourself rambling on about at home or in social settings. I still love the confused looks I get every few weeks when I mention “my kids” around someone who immediately looks to my hand for a wedding ring and then make some kind of “you don’t look old enough to have kids” remark. Clearly not a teacher. Or a friend of teachers…they always understand 🙂

People with a lot of teacher friends always understand what “my kids” means. And they help you decorate your classroom to get ready for your new companions on the journey.

7)   HAVE A GREAT SCHOOL YEAR!!! I promise these crazy first few weeks will be over before we know it and life will finally settle down. You only get 180 days with your kids…make the most of every single one 🙂

The calm/organization doesn’t last long…they’re on their way!!