The Golden Plunger

The Golden Plunger was a coveted trophy at the school where I taught. Keep in mind as you read today that the world of teaching involves meetings on topics that you never dreamed would be needed. There are conversations only others involved in education can understand. Lots of talk and resulting rules about snow pants, snowballs, and what constitutes as throwing snow. Days spent testing students and then meeting to discuss what those assessments meant and how they would inform our teaching. Most often it struck me pretty quickly what was needed, but it was discussed at length so we could come to an agreement in 4 hours with what could have been decided in an hour. Common planning time each week was often dictated by administrators and true team time was delegated to lunch which always got used for work because teaching overflowed to those places and times that were supposed to be duty free.

There were meetings about bathrooms.

Messy bathrooms were discussed a lot. Kids weren’t showing responsibility and respect in how they acted in the bathrooms and in keeping them tidy. I kid you not. Water was splashed everywhere. Paper towels were on the floor rather than in the trash. They could be left in disgusting shape for numerous reasons. Some kids disappeared there many times during a day because despite the appearance and smell it apparently was preferred from being in the classroom.

What was to be done? How could we affect positive change and gets kids to care? I worked in a district that had adopted PBIS ideology. PBIS is short for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Trainings. Surveys. Data. Rubrics. More meetings. My school focused on behaviors of being respectful, responsible, safe, and being learners in a variety of settings around the school.

Including the bathroom. Yes, we discussed how being a learner applied to school bathrooms.

In case you’re wondering, the answer is to take care of business quickly so you can return to your classroom and your work. It could be work you’re trying to avoid by going to the bathroom multiple times during reading or math, but never mind discussing underlying causes. That could be saved for another riveting meeting.

The Golden Plunger was born from these important meetings and conversations. Someone somewhere conceived this tool for all of us to have at our disposal.

There were three main bathrooms in my school: The Bell Bathroom, The Eagle Bathroom, and The Elm Bathroom. Yes, they had names. This was perfectly normal in school culture. Classrooms were assigned a designated bathroom to use. Each week there was a competition on which bathroom could be kept the cleanest. The custodians kept notes and made the final decisions. The winning bathroom would receive The Golden Plunger Award.

There was an actual golden plunger. It was hung each week in a place of honor in the winning bathroom. Great suspense was built up during the morning announcements before the winning bathroom was shared.

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Classrooms would erupt in cheers.

Spoiler alert: It was rigged.

The custodians made sure all the bathrooms received this prestigious award. Some got it more than others. I’ll go on record asserting some bathrooms got used more than others. For example, my class was assigned to use the bathroom that was also used by the entire school because it was closest to music, art, gym, and the lunchroom. It was going to be messier by default every week. Hence the rigging.

I let this go long ago, but the truth always comes out.

Some kids cared. Some thought it was lame. Yet, even the ones who thought it was lame would pump their fists like they had won the plunger championships when they won. The Golden Plunger was one of many ways that built school community.

What does this have to do with cancer?

Motivation.

I would love an award for my efforts as someone living with metastatic breast cancer.

Silent yahoos for decent lab numbers. Frequent flyer miles for racked up driving miles to be used in the germateria. I am not opposed to a sticker chart. Impromptu dance parties in exam rooms are a must whenever good news is given. It would be appreciated to be acknowledged for the small strides I make. Heck, plan an assembly.

I’ll do these things for myself privately (except the assembly). I am a firm believer in rewarding myself and celebrating good work through walks, books, shopping, and treats.

Believe it or not, I am intrinsically motivated. I also want that sense of community at oncology visits that accompanied the golden plunger in the school. It’s harder to remain motivated without a sense of community. I can do it but I want more. It still frustrates me that this is missing when I go to visits and treatments.

Motivation is a key component to success. Feeling like I make progress in my efforts makes me feel successful. Even small wins are still wins. I work to raise or lower lab numbers. I strive to remain active and exercise. I do not lose hope because hope gives me energy time and time again to push through when the going gets tough.

I am motivated to continue treatments and endure whatever side effects I need to because I believe that breast cancer research will make future treatments more targeted and therefore more successful. I am motivated to keep advocating for myself because I am well aware that I have the most interest in my outcome. I am motivated to keep speaking up and repeating myself because more people need to hear my words. Stage IV needs more. Research equals hope. I am motivated to dig my heels in and not budge when others tell me I’m not realistic or I’m being too ambitious. I am doing what I need to do.

I am motivated to keep pushing for positive change.

Motion comes down to a push or pull. A push or pull is how force was defined in science on an elementary grade level. A plunger clears blocked pipes using the forces of push or pull. I am golden and powerful, just like that golden plunger, motivated to keep pushing that my life flows in the right direction. By no means do I wish to be equated with a plunger, but I am a force, trying to clear my way and make a better path for others.

I have become pushy.

I will find a way to keep pushing. Always.

Big Steps

This is a tale of taking steps.

Step One: Failure and Recovery

It starts last September in a training session where my fitness coach was gathering baseline data to use for setting goals.

She wanted me to step up on a medium sized step up box without any help from my hands, other equipment, walls, etc. It was hard for me.

I can step up on a small step up box 12 inches high successfully without support.

The medium box is 18 inches high. I can do it if I am holding something for support. This means I am using leg muscles and relying on arm muscles for help. What counts in this setting is to not use arm muscles. My hamstrings, quads, glutes, and core need to do all the work.

I knew it wasn’t going to go well and I didn’t want to do it. My coach was there to hold on to me if I needed it. She’s great but I didn’t find her stabilizing. I fell backward, stumbled, but was able to right myself so I didn’t fall.

It was scary. There were tears. I moved to another part of my workout. We focused on all the things I was really good at. I don’t do well with fear or failure and couldn’t shake the voices in my head. Casting away those negative voices is also hard for me. It bugged me that I had trouble with the box because I knew I could do it. At home stepping up and down from a kitchen chair I had moved into a corner was part of my workout because it mimicked climbing hills and making big steps I climbed on hikes. I hold on to the top of the chair while I practice which is cheating, but it works for me.

Since I couldn’t get rid of the voices, I moved the medium box to a corner and did it confidently without issues, without hesitation, without fear. I felt a little better. It shut up the voices and I salvaged what I could.

Step Two: Approximated Movements and Muscle Building

Some time ago I bought a TRX suspension trainer to use at home. Entire workouts can be built around it. I love using it because it works so many different muscles and fits whatever level of difficulty I need. I can do pull-ups, push-ups, squats, lunges, stretches, and modified yoga moves. Working with it makes my body feel quite good.

I hang on to the TRX when I’m practicing with the medium box at my weekly training session.

I have worked to isolate movements in my hips, glutes, and legs.

I climb my staircase at home with exaggerated movements pretending my regular steps are jumbo-sized.

I have turned on my abs repeatedly.

I have exhausted myself and felt like I wasn’t making any progress at all.

Step Three: Success

Muscle memory is mysterious yet strong.

Something happened at the end of November.

I felt like I wasn’t making any discernible progress. There was a minuscule lift of maybe an inch when I would try to push off from the ground with my foot. I didn’t have the needed strength.

My trainer set the small box next to the medium box. I stepped onto the small box, then the medium box easily. I took one big step backward from the medium box to lower myself to the floor. Even doing that terrified me the first time because it felt like such a big step down. I modified (cheated) and held onto something to make sure one foot was securely on the ground before letting go and step down with the other foot. It was doable. I repeated this exercise several times not using my hands.

I tried stepping up from the ground straight to the medium sized box. No dice. I was unable to piece it together moving forward. My trainer gave me the TRX to use while I stepped up. As an educator, I’m all for modification and chunking smaller steps together. I get it. I know that’s what I’ve been practicing. I don’t get why I haven’t progressed faster.

It was time for something different. What was next? Did I want to do arm pulls or push-ups? Neither. I wanted to use the punching bag. I like hitting. Beating up something other than myself feels good. Hitting works. It helps me focus. Other feelings fall away.

More practice on the box was next. No one expected a surprise. I was to practice a skill in isolation and work on pushing off with one foot.

I knew I felt different as I walked to the box. Let’s blame it on adrenaline. An insane idea entered my mind when I was just a couple of steps from the box that I was going to go for it and I’d make it this time. In hindsight, I should have announced my plans in case my plans didn’t work out and I needed help. I still had on the boxing gloves and wouldn’t be able to grab anything easily if I fell.

The momentum was there. I stepped up, pushed off, used my core, glutes, and leg strength, and just like that, I stood on the box.

Yes, I did it. Triumph was mine.

I did it several more times, giddy and confused with my success.

Step Four: Real Life

A step up is defined as when there is an increase in size or amount. There have been noticeable improvements in my strength and stamina where my fitness is concerned. Right now, I feel I struggle a bit more because I’ve moved up a level.

Quite often I find I am not making many strides living with metastatic breast cancer. Every time I go to the hospital for treatment, I am faced with at least one aggravation, usually several ranging from long wait times, people who don’t know who I am, insurance or billing absurdities, and of course health hurdles. I will step up to each of these with as much tenacity as I can muster. Persistence and doggedness paid off in the classroom when digging in my heels with teaching children. I do it well and I’m getting lots of opportunities to showcase how stubborn I can be. My life away from treatment days when I can do things the way I want without restraints (aka the right way) goes much more smoothly.

There have been changes I’ve noticed in myself. I’ve stepped up in my confidence. I carry myself with more assurance and I see it in how I talk to others and what I’m willing to take on myself. I am bolder when I stand up for myself and say what I need when I’m at an office visit or treatment. I plan events that go well. Each successful event moves me closer to a greater goal.

The Rockettes practice hours a day to ensure everyone is in the right step at the right time for a performance. Marching bands do the same. The moon landing and the first steps on the moon didn’t just happen. It took many people working together and many small steps over time that added up to a giant leap for mankind. Medical advancements, breakthroughs, and treatments used today are the result of research, trials, and carefully planned steps that led to medical successes.

In what areas of life do you need to step up? Success takes time. Moving forward takes time. Whatever it is that challenges you, keep at it one step (up) at a time. Use a TRX suspension trainer or boxing gloves if you need a hand. Keep working.