When One Door Closes, Another Door Opens

WHEN ONE DOOR CLOSES, ANOTHER OPENS
One mother’s journey with teaching, music and the care of her son.

Connie & her son JacksonI met Connie Gillies of Constant Wonder this summer when she and Alice Weiser performed at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, MA, and we became instant friends. (Click here to read the review) As we’ve gotten to know one another I’ve discovered that not only is Connie a musician, but she is also a kindergarten teacher, starting a new position as a teacher for a Kindergarten Enrichment Program in Northport, NY. We’ve discussed sharing her adventures and projects with her new class here on Hilltown Families and we’re both very excited about the possibilities. Since classes began last fall, Connie’s sent me music they’ve composed, and images of art work and projects. But before we start to share her inspiring projects, I’ve asked Connie to give us an introduction to herself. As I’ve gotten to know Connie she’s also shared with me her struggles and journey as a mother of a young son with Juvenile Diabetes. To follow is her story of that journey. It’s a mother’s journey. An artists journey. An teachers journey. A journey that passes through doors of experience and possibility. Meet my friend Connie…



 

She’s Back! An Introduction to Me
by HF Contributing Writer, Connie Gillies of Constant Wonder

Frederick the Mouse (c) Connie GilliesNothing to me is as heartwarming as young children singing a song that I have written. It is the highest compliment and I thoroughly enjoy it when they add their own personality to the song. (Click here to listen to them sing The Frederick Song.) As I looked into each of the faces of my new Kindergarten Enrichment students, I was captivated for a moment. Scanning the group from right to left, appreciating each of their pantomimed movements. They were singing one of my favorite yet less elaborate compositions, swinging their little arms in an upward motion in order to outline large imaginary mouse ears. The song they were singing is a short little tune, yet conveys a very important message about our classroom pet, a sweet little field mouse. His name is Frederick, named after the main character in Leo Lionni’s book, Frederick, and he is a poet with the magical ability to leave the children a new poem in his pocket each day.

As the song ends and the children curl their imaginary paws and poise with a enthusiastic “squeak, squeak,” I stand before them as their new teacher in my new classroom (decorated with the utmost of care!) and for a moment I feel like Diane Keaton in Baby Boom. Unlike Ms. Keaton catching herself in a corporate office bathroom mirror and verbally confirming to her reflection “She’s back!” I was making my confirmation by diving into the faces and souls of twelve adorable kindergartners. I was back! I was a classroom teacher again!

WHEN ONE DOOR CLOSES …

Like Diane Keaton in Baby Boom, I had hit an incredibly low point and had to grovel through some pretty tough times before emerging on the other side. On October 24, 2002, my then three years old son Jackson was diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes. Sitting in a small room at the ER with a blood glucose meter (which is now as familiar to us as a toothbrush) following a five second blood test which confirmed his diagnosis. 5 – 4 – 3 -2 -1 “Your son has Type 1 or Juvenile Diabetes. You will have to stay with him in the hospital for at least four days and you must be able to give him insulin injections before you can be discharged. Please fill out these forms; he will see a physician shortly.” That was it, just like that. My little lamb had Type 1 Diabetes, a disease for which there is no cure. In comparison to my tough time, his tough time will be part of his life forever and that is a reality that can break a parent’s heart.

With some pretty intense juggling, I returned to my public school teaching position following Jackson’s diagnosis. I was teaching Kindergarten Enrichment. A specialty if you will, like Art or Gym or Music. I designed the class around the gifts I had to offer: my love of nature, my original songs, my obsession with picture books, and choreography as a means for memorable learning for my students. Everything was going along as well as it could be until we considered the long term implications of Jackson’s blood sugar readings. We realized the four shots a day were not affording Jackson the kind of blood glucose control that would grant him a long and healthy life. We decided to put him on an insulin pump. After a particularly difficult night, I opened the Sunday New York Times and read an article about a sleep deprived working mom with a Type 1 diabetic child who came to the conclusion that “she couldn’t do it all,” at least not for now. I realized I could not continue my commute and teaching while trying to balance Jackson’s health – literally! I resigned from the public school where I had starting teaching back in 1985 when I was just 21. A door was closed and my heart was once again broken. Not only would I have to witness my son having to endure diabetes, but I would also have to give up my passion of classroom teaching. But you know what they say about doors closing…

ANOTHER DOOR OPENS!

As a child, I always loved playing John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” on the piano. It was this very song that would spark a friendship and musical partnership which would not only lift me out of the dark months of Jackson’s diagnosis early on, but would launched me into a completely new and unexpected career. That door opened for me when I met Alice Weiser at a women’s spirituality retreat. She approached me while playing an upright piano and asked if I knew how to play “Angel from Montgomery.” If she had asked me if I knew any other song our meeting might not have been so serendipitous. In time, Alice and I would end up forming our musical partnership, Constant Wonder: Interactive Music for Kids. For four years, Constant Wonder was my teaching and creative outlet, only on a much bigger scale, with performances at festivals and other large venues.

FOUR YEARS LATER

This summer marks four years with Alice, performing as Constant Wonder. At the end of this summer I bumped into a woman I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. I asked her how she had been doing and she told me she was no longer substitute teaching but had become the director of a local nursery school. I gave her a Constant Wonder update and chatted a bit about our recent shows.

While we chatted, my niece Emily (age 24), having decided it was time to move from New Haven and change careers, was waiting in my car along with all her belongings. I asked the director if she was looking for a teaching assistant and mentioned my niece Emily was going to be living with me and needed a new job. She told me she was just looking for someone! We chuckled about divine intervention and she gave me the number for Emily to set up a meeting. The next day, Emily walked down the hill into our seaside village to the white church on the corner, met with the director, and later on secured the position.

One week before the start of school, the director called and said the teacher who was slotted for the Kindergarten Enrichment position had taken a public school job and would I be interested. .. So, here I am with a new teaching job with my favorite niece as my assistant! I was so pleasantly surprised to see how dedicated the staff was, many working late into the afternoon, sometimes returning evenings to prepare their classrooms for the children. I’m so lucky!

Jackson is now in third grade and his bus drops him off my school every day. He enjoys helping me out around the classroom before leaving for the day. On Friday, as Jackson collected the Question of the Day names, and Smiley Face Attendance circles, he told me, “I am so happy you are a teacher again!” I told him, “So am I, Jackson. So am I!”

Of course, my family isn’t nestled in a farm in Vermont as Diane Keaton was at the end of Baby Boom. We are nestled under a large power plant in what could be a perfect seaside village, but life as we have learned from Jackson’s diagnosis and my new teaching job, can hand you surprises. And some of them are so pleasant: classroom teacher by school day; performer as Constant Wonder on the weekends. And you never know, my lifelong dream of living on a farm very well may be in my future. As the Roaches sing in their song “Rover” from their Will You Be My Friend? CD, someday this may happen to me too!

Rover
Words and music by The Roaches off their CD, Will You Be My Friend?

Someday I’m gonna get a dog
And the dog’s gonna run free
And I won’t need a collar or a leash
Cause I’ll be living in the country

And when somebody doesn’t want to play
I’m gonna open up the door wide
And I’ll be runnin’ in the tall grass
With my own dog by my side

And when I find a secret hiding place
I’ll make a soft pillow out of hay
And I’ll share it with my happy dog
We will stay there for the whole day

I love to be free
That’s the best thing about me
And there’s a rover in the world now
With the same dream so we
Will find our way home
When the colors of the sunset
I see them stretch across a big sky
That’s a good feeling we get

And by the time I go to sleep at night
I’m ready for tomorrow as I doze
I got a warm cover over me
Sleeping rover on my toes

Someday I’m gonna get a dog
And the dog’s gonna run free
And I won’t need a collar or a leash
’cause we’ll be living in the country

Living in the country!
Living in the country!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Connie Gillies

Connie is a mother, teacher, songwriter and performer. As an advocate for the Earth, she performs with her musical partner, Alice Weiser, with Constant Wonder: Interactive Kids Music with a Green Message. Connie has taught as a K-1 public school teacher since 1985, developing district-wide curriculums. She is currently teaching a Kindergarten Enrichment class in the seaside village of Northport, NY, where she lives with her family.

1 Comment

  1. Janice Whittaker said,

    December 10, 2007 at 1:13 am

    What a wonderful introduction about Connie Gillies. She is a truly talented and gifted woman! She has so much to share with others and it has been an honor being her friend for 38 years!


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