Keeping Christmas

Image-1-2Keeping Christmas is a custom made of traditions lit by truth with a story that happened over two thousand years ago. Even so, it is not a past tense holiday. Christmas is. But this year, for me, it almost wasn’t.

I come from a family with a history of crowd-sourcing the miracle of cheer, year after year. We grew up celebrating Christmas in Williamsburg, in Vermont, in Bethlehem, in Germany, and even in a Coptic Church in Cairo. We have also celebrated Christmas in Intensive Care waiting rooms, hospital rooms, and hospice units. No matter where we were, Christmas happened because we came together and made room for it. We have celebrated Christmas around festive holiday tables where we have pulled up chairs for new in-laws and children and grandchildren next to the empty chairs of people we’ve lost. Joy and loss and acceptance are the wintry mix of the holiday.

Last year was our first Christmas without my sister and, as it turns out, our last with my mother. She thought it would be and wasn’t shy about saying so. We went all out. My mother knew how to bring the “merry” to Merry Christmas with her own brand of elfin sparkle. So it follows that this year a Merry Christmas would honor her and my other family members who have also died: my sister, my brother, and my father. Keepers and lovers of Christmas, they wouldn’t want it any other way. And yet…as we turned the calendar page to December, I stood motionless in a month of frenzy– adrift without a treasure map to take me through this silent night.

My students brought joy up the steps to our classroom every morning. Surrounded by ebullient eight and nine year olds and supportive teacher friends, my days grew stronger and stronger—but when the sun went down so did I.  I found myself in the darkest month of the year gasping for light.

Finally a bereavement counselor said something that jolted me. She said that if I skipped Christmas, it wasn’t coming around again for another year and that I would miss it. Miss Christmas? I was raised not to grieve publicly, and here I am publicly writing about grief. But this is not so much about grief as it is about letting the light break through. As much as we focus on a baby in a manger, it is easy to forget that Christmas is really about light breaking through as a baby’s cry rings through the darkest night and the angels sing. We can’t make Christmas happen, but we can make room for it to happen. We can clean the stable and clear away traditions that don’t make sense. We can stand on tiptoe, watching for new traditions that do. The manger must be prepared so that even common straw can gleam like gold as light breaks through.

I paraphrased an old hymn for my students that my husband’s Moravian mother liked to sing:

“December bids us shine, shine, shine

You in your corner and I in mine.”

We talked about the role that light played in all of our December traditions, and that in our corner classroom light shines through us. We created a celebration together that was respectful of all our traditions. I explained that traditions often have humble beginnings. People do something fun or meaningful and they say, “That was fun, let’s do that again.” As we shared traditions from our families, a child asked if I would read his family copy of The Night Before Christmas. I said I was happy to, but didn’t get very far. My eyes were stinging with tears. I explained that I thought the illustrations (done by his grandmother) must be too beautiful and that was why I was crying. A child said, “I don’t think this is about the illustrations, Mrs. Campbell.” Another child gently took the book out of my hands and read a page and passed it tothe next child. It made its way around the circle. Generous. Kind. Compassionate. Light breaks through and there is a new tradition. That was fun, let’s do it again.

School emptied for Winter Break. My husband and I decorated the tree with the ornaments that were collected by our mothers and tell their own story. We’ve spent time with family and friends. We’ve baked and cooked in preparation for the family Christmas that will take place at our house. We’ve spent time with our granddaughters. We picked up my son and his wife from the airport. I am tracking Christmas moments with the same tenacity with which a child might track Santa’s sleigh. This year Christmas is different, but light breaks through and I am not going to miss it. Christmas is for keeps.

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A Life Speaks

FullSizeRender(6)Barbara Elliott Hopkins (Sparks)

August 16, 1928- October 9, 2017

When my mother asked me to write her eulogy she said, “It is going to be hard to try and figure out the words for what I’ve tried to say with my life over the past 89 years.” She was right. It is hard, but I will do my best.

The fact that my mother was bigger than life is both our comfort and our heartbreak. Heartbreak–let’s get that word out in the open. She would not want me (or you) to dwell in heartbreak any longer than we have to. She lived her life as proof that the worst can happen and you can still go on one step at a time until joy regains its foothold on your life. For Mom, heartbreak was never an excuse to avoid joy. My mother taught us that when we fall apart, we hold it together. She taught us to keep going, because she knew that life would get better. Easier. More beautiful.

Early on, my mother took fate by the hand and they traveled together as choice and chance. Chance was the invitation; choice was her response.

By chance she ended up in Washington. She was flying to New York from Florida in the early fifties during a hurricane. The plane made an emergency landing in North Carolina and then had to make another in Washington. She chose to get off the plane in Washington and did not get back on. She never looked back. By chance she had friends who lived in Washington who welcomed her.

By chance, she found a poem by John Updike in the New Yorker Magazine. She chose to tuck it into her wallet to read and reread. She said she didn’t remember the title, but remembered the yearning for love. One night, a thief came up the fire escape and stole her purse through an open window. The purse and wallet were later recovered, but the thief kept the poem. “He must have needed it,” my mother said. And she pointed out that she no longer did, because by then she’d found love.

It was by chance she found love when she met my father on a streetcar at DuPont Circle. There was no question that he was the one. Not in her mind. He, on the other hand, took some convincing. When he came to Washington he had been given one piece of advice: the best way to advance in Washington was never to get married and have children. That advice slowed him down, but it never stopped her. She lived across the street from him and then when an apartment opened up in the building next to him, she moved in. When he asked why, she responded that she’d read in a magazine that nine times out of ten the boy marries the girl next door. They may have met by chance, but my father didn’t stand a chance.

I asked him when he knew. When did he know that she was the one? He said that she took all her friends to New York by train in a club car to attend a party her brother was giving. She invited him to be her date. On the way back they all stopped for breakfast at Aunt Marge’s farm near Philadelphia. Many of my mother’s cousins were there and my dad fell in love with my mother’s family. It was the first inkling he had that if she became a Hopkins, he was going to be an Elliott. That’s how it works in this family. At its best, this is an inclusive family and no one was more inclusive than my mother. Her rule was simple: if you say you are one of us, you ARE one of us.

By chance she only had four children. She’d always wanted six, like Grandma Elliott, but she once wrote for her writing group, “The good Lord knew what he was doing by just giving me four— especially the four I had.”

She stuck by us no matter what. Her parenting philosophy was that love trumps supervision, and her mother-love was fierce. When we got into scrapes (and we did) she was philosophical: “You paid your tuition; I hope you got an education.”

Her rules were simple: be polite, don’t pout, and be home for dinner. Those rules extended to the many people who ended up living in our house. And there were many. Coming home for dinner was no hardship and our friends loved coming home with us. My mother was an amazing and adventurous cook. She grew a lot of her own vegetables. She, with my dad, presided over the stories and antics at our dinner table. Many of our family jokes were really punch lines of stories that had been told over and over:

“Never get married and have children.”

“One streetcar later and none of this would have happened.”

“Now you see her, now you don’t.”

My mother could laugh at herself. And did. When my parents were stationed in the Middle East, they had a weekend house in Jericho. The house was set upon terraced land at the foot of the Mount of Temptations. The veranda led to the roof of the tool shed that stood on the terrace below.

They often entertained guests there, and on this particular Sunday, my parents were entertaining a congressman from Washington. We were told to “comport ourselves with decorum” and we did our best… until my mother stepped just beyond the veranda and said with her most elegant elocution, “And here we have a view of the Jordan River.” And then she disappeared through the roof of the tool shed. Whoosh. She was gone. Disappeared. We couldn’t see her– we could only hear her laugh. We started to laugh. We couldn’t help it and we couldn’t stop; we held on to each other and couldn’t move. We were helpless. The congressman looked horrified. My dad, by then also trying not to laugh, shrugged and said with great flourish, “Now you see her, now you don’t.

No one was laughing harder than my mother. Dad walked over to the gaping hole the roof and said, “WHOA Sparks, you all right down there?” She shouted up, “Couldn’t be better!”

My mother was ingeniously generous. One morning, when I was about nine, she said, “I have a surprise for you when you get home.” I knew it would be good. When I got off the school bus that afternoon, there it was: a brand new bike on a kickstand. Actually there were four brand new bikes on kickstands, because there were four of us. No doubt she had pulled each of us aside and told us that she had a surprise for “just for us.” That’s how she worked. We were thrilled, but it turned out that the real surprise had been for my father.

That week, he’d worried about bringing home important visitors for lunch, and this was to be the day. His concern was not unfounded. Though she had great taste, my bohemian mother, with her flower child heart, cared more about self-expression than decor. My dad fretted, but my mom had a plan. When he went off to work that day she alerted the trucks that waited around the corner. They sprang into action and unloaded and installed new draperies and carpet. They unloaded and arranged new furniture. They unloaded four brand new children’s bikes.   They took the old furniture away and when my father and his guests arrived, the new table was set, lunch was ready, and he stood in a room he didn’t recognize. His favorite record—“Round Midnight” by Thelonious Monk— was playing on a new Victrola, and he couldn’t say a word in front of the guests. He told me that somewhere in the middle of the meal he stopped worrying and started enjoying what my mother had created… just for him.

My mother was adventurous and fiercely dedicated to her family. As each grandchild graduated from high school, they went on cruise with mom. These adventures took them all over the world. She took all of us to Capon Springs every year, a place she dearly loved. She made sure that everyone could afford to go to our annual Elliott Family Reunion. Her idea of family was expansive and she was so encouraging to so many. Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again. He hadn’t met my mother. She kept home alive for all of us.

My mother understood acceptance. She watched two of her children die– our sister Elliott and our brother John– both incredible people. Her heart broke, seemingly letting more light in and more light out. When I asked her how she could not only endure this, but go on with her life, she explained that she was honored to be there when they each took their first breath and it was an honor to be with them at their last.

When I asked my brother Charlie what I should say today, he told me to talk about how Mom spent her life learning how to be an angel to so many, and how she depended on the angels around her. He told me to talk about the way she always said, “When you need an angel, you get an angel.” She believed it and delighted in the almost daily proof of it. One day, Mom had an appointment in an office building. She pushed her walker to the big heavy doors and when she realized that she could not open them, she peered into the empty lobby. No one was there, so she waited for her angel. Finally someone came through the door and held it open for her. She thanked him and said cheerily, “When you need an angel, you get an angel!” She went through the door and realized she faced another set of heavy doors that she could not open. She turned around to see if her “angel” was still there but he was gone.

“What did you do, Mom?” I felt the discomfort that comes with worry. She said, “I waited for my angel. It didn’t take long. Someone came through the door and held it open for me. And I reminded them, ‘When you need an angel, you get an angel.”’ Mom lived with angelic force and had faith in the economy of Grace. She never wavered. Over and over, even at the end of her life, she marveled at how lucky she was.

A little over a month ago, she found out that what she’d been calling gas pain was Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. She was matter of fact and pragmatic. “I want to go to movies, I want to see my people, I want to teach cheerfulness with my last breath.”

My brother Charlie and I, along with Ben and Teri, were honored to help mom write her last chapter just the way she wanted it. And many of you, friends and family, helped us do it. We did go to movies. We had big family dinners, and walks with great grandchildren and bubbles, and dancing in the living room.

Mom was a radiant mix of the luminous with the numinous. When asked how she was, she always responded with “Better than I know how.” And she meant it. Her wish was to die at home with family and friends around her. She said over and over how lucky she was that this wish was coming true. I gathered her words in a notebook that I kept close by.

She said:

“I want to go fast, but not today.”

“People give what they have to give.”

“People do the best they can.”

“It takes a special family to produce such people.”

And she said, “Everybody has to die, but it is nice if illumination of character shows up in the end.”

She was a wordsmith, but she spoke most boldly with her life. Her last breath was her last word — punctuation on a life lived well. And yes, she did it: she taught cheerfulness with her last breath.

What was she trying to say with her life?  It is my task to come as close as I can to putting it in words.  I think it is this:

“Go forth and choose joy. It’s waiting for you.”







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Flying Without a Net

Trapeze artists fly through the air with the greatest of ease, but not without a net.  No one flies without a net, but it can feel like we do. Teachers are high flying acrobats who fly the highest at the beginning of the year.  Before  our students even enter the room, we have a repertoire of the tried and true. Our stunts and maneuvers uncover the rigors of our classroom, the joy of a literate community, and the excitement of getting something brand new just right. We get to know our students; they get to know us and each other. The more skilled we are, the more effortless it all looks. Our repertoire helps us make it through September.  By October, it is clear that the pairing  of teacher and class is a love match. The routines and rituals have been established. We soar, learn, and make mistakes. Only the teacher knows the amount of summer preparation, reading, cleaning, organizing, writing, and coursework that is involved in laying the groundwork for the acrobatic feats of deep learning. September is tough. September is worth it. September makes way for October.

This year September is tougher than usual. Room 204 is happening without me.  The first week of school my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. The second week of school she was hospitalized. Now she is a Hospice patient at home. I am absent from school so I can be present to her.  This.  Here.  Now.  Sometimes it feels like we are making this up as we go along and discovering new moves in mid-air. It is the most daring of family acts and my mother is bent on the good finish. But sometimes it really does feel like we are flying without a net.

The first thing I did was find a great substitute teacher.  The next thing I did was choose a great book to help my class process my impending  leave.  To ease the transition, I gave each child a piece of string and asked my third graders to brainstorm all the ways string might be useful and important. They held on to the string as I read The Invisible String by Patricia Karst.  In this book, a mother  explains to her children that we are connected to the people we love–and to the people they love–by invisible string that will not break.  I explained to my third graders I was leaving for a while and why.  I told them  they could keep the pieces of string in their pencil boxes as a reminder of the invisible string that connects us, even when we are not together.

Much of what I do now is help my mother welcome her wonderful friends who come to support her. A group that has met at my mother’s house for the last 27 years came last week. I told them about The Invisible String.  Before I knew it, I was reading them the book. Suddenly the book (like most good quality children’s literature) took us to a deeper, quieter, and more poetic place.

And then I saw it. When we leap into the unknown, we may fly high–but never without a net. Not ever. Our net may be invisible, but its invisible string shimmers with love, hope, grace, and profound connection.  It is strengthened by who are and who we love and who loves us.   It stretches from the past and into eternity.

Our family story is a great big beautiful messy love story with lots of happy endings.  My mother taught us to believe in happy endings, but never more powerfully or courageously than she is teaching us now.  Each day is a stunning leap into the unknown.  But never without a net– a net made strong by invisible string.  A net made strong by love.

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My Life at the Improv

 Not too long ago, my mother said, “I can’t see back very far or very well, but the fact that I had four such unique children is proof that I let them raise themselves.” Without trying, she speaks her truth in metered poetry. But that bit of truth is only part of the story. My mother decided her children were brilliant, whether we were or not. She knew we were talented—because every child is. She knew how to tend our talents. Collectively, we were actors, dancers, singers, artists, drummers and fifers, divers, football players, and ice skaters. She did not raise us to be stars or Olympic champions. She just wanted us to be us.

I wanted to be an actress. It didn’t mean I would be one, or even that she thought I would be. It meant that together we stumbled upon a path with a sign that said “This way in….” She sent me on my way to learn how to greet and follow passion. She enrolled me in the first of my acting classes when I was twelve. There were more acting classes, and lots of plays to read. When I was sixteen, she got me into an Improvisational Workshop at The Arena Stage in Washington. In my summer at the “Improv,” I learned that improvisation is the ultimate in playing well with others.

Improvisation wasn’t new to me. My dad, when he wasn’t a buttoned-down diplomat in a Brooks Brothers suit, was a jazz musician. He had a deep repertoire, studied the greats, and practiced. A lot. Simple scales, rooted in the classic canon of composers, became creative ingenuity that was the soundtrack of our childhood.

I did not become an actress; I became a teacher. But improvisation has been as important in my classroom as it might have been on the stage. Improvisation is both a trust fall and a leap into the unknown. It is deeply collaborative and responsive to the talent in the room—my third graders. It draws upon deep skilled practice and a repertoire built over time. To be able to improvise, I have studied the greats, practiced, and used literature as a starting point. I have learned in the classroom what my father learned at the piano: letting it fly is very different than “winging it.”

Improvisation is about noticing, connecting, and drawing from an acquired party mix of what works. Improvisation is an invitation to use your talent, passion, wit, and grit to make something new again with others. All you have to do is work hard and know when to stop and say yes.




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At the Heart of Reading

img_1097I love…

I stood at the blackboard that had been there since the school was built in 1911. Black slate. It was the first day of school and hot sunlight streamed through the large open windows that lined two walls in my corner classroom. I stood before first graders who did not know how to read. This was not unusual back then, and it was certainly not cause for alarm.  This was before kindergarten was the new first grade.  This was way back when first grade was the new first grade.

I told them that they did not need to be nervous about learning how to read, I was going to teach them.  And not to worry, because I was an expert.  I began that first reading lesson with two words that many of them already knew: I love….   I asked them to write those words and then, when they were ready, to draw a picture of one thing they loved.  Reading is more than hard work–it’s heart work– and this is where we began.  The third word would be theirs.  Meaning and connection would result in letters that spilled upon the page from the tip of my pen…and they would have a new word that was theirs to keep.

I moved around the room connecting with each child as they shared what they loved most in the world, and in return I gave them the word they needed to begin to write their life.  And then I got to Sam. He looked up at me with a shy smile.  His glasses pushed back and slightly crooked on the bridge of his nose, a sign of his hard work and concentration.  I looked at his paper and was awed.  I knelt down for a closer look at the scrolls he had drawn with his yellow, brown, and black crayons.  “Oh, Sam,”  I whispered. “What a beautiful word to choose… I love Torah, too.” I wrote the letters carefully. Reverently. Intentionally. T-O-R-A-H. I stayed for a few extra seconds, not wanting to rush what had just happened.

His mother told me that he came home that first day and excitedly told her the news: “My teacher is Jewish.”

“Hmmm,” she said. “Annie Campbell?  I don’t think so.”

She and I remembered that story together years later at his Bar Mitzvah, when Sam honored me by asking me to read a poem about the sacredness of reading.

I teach third grade now, but I am still in the same classroom. The slate blackboards have been covered by slick white boards and the room is now air conditioned.  Sunlight still spills across the room and I often think about kneeling beside Sam’s desk. The memory is a reminder that there are holy moments in teaching.  And we never see them coming.

Such holy moments remind us that teaching reading and writing is sacred work. It forms community in a classroom, and creates a space where something new can happen. Reading connects us, deepens us, changes us.  Reading  builds empathy and leads to self-awareness.  Reading builds words and language that are spent in a lifetime of service to thought and imagination and the long view of the possible.   It starts in the heart with the lexicon of the soul:  I love…






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In Praise of Summer Reading

img_1032-1I am in West Virginia at a place that has been dear to my family for a long time. The present evokes the past with the familiar: the sound of rain on a tin roof; a rushing stream just outside the screen door; that  summer mountain smell of  fresh rain on slate and storm-drenched leaves in the woods. And books. Everywhere. Every summer I’ve had a bag of books to read on a porch or hammock or Adirondack chair.   For as long as I can remember, I have loved summer reading.  But  I have not loved summer reading lists.

My summers have been populated with books that I have embraced and books I’ve resisted.  I resisted the mandatory books on mandatory school summer reading lists.   They got in the way of the reading I loved. I did, however, like the summer lists of suggested books. That’s how I met Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and visited Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street and happened upon Daphne Du Marier’s Manderley in Rebecca. Without fail, I devoured the books I chose and avoided the books that were mandated. I am now revisiting  the books I once ducked– the books I said I read but didn’t.  So now they have become books of choice.  Readers love choice.

While moving through some pretty tough reading, I’ve had a summer epiphany.  I’ve realized in a new and personal way that the struggle is an important part of what we teach when we teach reading.

After three eye surgeries in little over a year (the last one just a couple of months ago) I have had to reclaim my reading life and regain my reading stamina.  As a result, I’ve had the opportunity to research the reading process in a very personal way. I am both subject and researcher as I work to better understand stamina, engagement, and responsiveness in reading.  Authentic reading responsiveness, that artful synergy of thought and text, is at risk for our young readers.  Too often reading is reduced to workbook-like assignments. Big ideas and grand conversations are freeze dried into structures that work with high stakes computerized tests. These tests have more to do with top down institutional accountability than with the education of the reader.  Testing and textbooks are big business– one big business.  If we are not careful, we can ruin reading with reading instruction. As I choose to struggle with text, I am  very conscious of how I use what I teach readers in my own reading.

Amazon, both bookseller and virtual mind reader, seems to know I am thinking about these things and recommended Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters by Kylene Beers and Robert L. Probst.  The authors say that we read best when we engage text with our head and our heart. Their Book, Head, Heart Framework (BHH) is a way of paying attention while we read. With head and heart engaged, we track how our thinking might be changed; or how are our empathy is enhanced; or how our observations of characters might be sharpened. This is key to staying awake to what we read, and to our thinking while we read.

At the recommendation of Beers and Probst, I am intentionally asking what Dostoevsky thinks I already know—and what he would want me to know–about the world of the Brothers Karamazov. I am asking what I see and what he would have me see. As I plow through Writings of Ruth Benedict: An Anthropologist at Work by Margaret Mead, I am incorporating what I read into what I’ve previously read and known and experienced. Sometimes a book falls open and we fall in.  And sometimes we have to pry a book open with intention and determination.

The reading path of struggle is full of heavy vines and thorny brambles that block our way.  It is the long way in to that most desired summer destination: Lost-in-a-Book.   I am sticking to it. I intend to reemerge as a renewed guide to help readers negotiate unknown terrain and to help them get lost in the very way they may ultimately find themselves–with books.

I didn’t become a reader or English major or teacher because of mandated summer reading lists.  I became a reader because I lived in a house where I saw people reading for pleasure.  I became a reader because I had time to read.  I became a reader because my father took me to the library and let me choose my very own books with my own library card.   I became a reader  because in the shadow of mountain hemlocks standing tall against the sky, in a thousand and one firefly  summer nights, I let books choose me.



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The Stormy Seas of June

IMG_2794This past month we turned the calendar to a fresh page and entered the stormy seas of June. With the clashing weather patterns of high stakes testing looming, and the happy anticipation of summer beckoning, something else came crashing in on us. Loss. Somebody spoke it: “We only have three weeks left.” A quiet sadness settled over the room.

I walked over to the sink and took three paper towels…one for each week. I soaked them with water and began to squeeze. And squeeze. And squeeze.

“It’s a metaphor,” I prompted. “Who can work out what this means?” They began to work it out together and then worked it out with me. “Let’s squeeze out everything we can out of these three weeks. Let’s make these last three weeks ‘Good to the last drop.’”

These children rotate leadership. Each day we have two new team leaders who are responsible for taking attendance, passing out papers, running errands, and supporting the routines of Room 204. On Thursday, the second to the last day of school, we had a pizza party on the front lawn of William Fox School. I reminded my third graders that those with pork or meat restrictions should be served first –Then I  turned it over to the class. Red and white checked tablecloths were spread out on the grass. They ate and when everyone had finished they lined up for seconds. They took turns serving. When they were done eating, they folded the cloths, collected the trash, chased butterflies, and played tag. I took it all in. Good to the last drop.

As sometimes happens, yesterday was the last day of school and also my birthday. Birthdays are big in our classroom. In Morning Meeting, the birthday girl or boy sits in the center of a birthday circle. We drop into silence and reflect on the child’s gifts that we see in Room 204. I point out that these are the gifts that will be thrown out into the world. After a moment, hands are raised. The birthday child calls on his or her classmates, and in turn they say what they see. Finally the child comes to me and I name the gifts that I see. In this way, each child gets celebrated. Their gifts are named in front of their community. Love and appreciation go public.

With the help of their parents, my children threw a surprise birthday party for me, and it ended with a birthday circle. Their kind and generous words reflected the collective values that have been built over time. These are habits of the mind and heart that we work on all year long. They are deceptively simple, but they are the bedrock of respect, community, and learning. If this hidden curriculum had a report card, it might look like this:0001ST

I know this… if there were such a report card, each child would receive “exceeds expectations.” This is who we are. This is what we do. This is how we made it good to the last drop.



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