Those who can….

I did not choose teaching.  Teaching chose me.

I knew that I would be a teacher for the rest of my life  the second day I student taught.  The teacher who’d been assigned to supervise me was nearing the end of her career.  She was tired and crabby and burning out.  She spoke harshly to the students and spent a great deal of time griping about them in the teachers’ lounge at lunchtime.  I think she was glad I was there because after the first week, I was pretty much left on my own for the nine weeks I was required to complete as a Student Teacher.  So I taught.  Or at least I tried really hard to.  And I swore I’d do it without yelling or crying.  By the time I left those weird, wonderful 8th graders, I was hooked.  That was in 1983.

Through the years,  there have been days I’ve been frustrated, angry, and sick to death of grading comma splices and sentence fragments.  Actually,  I’ve been a lot of things,  but I’ve never been bored. There have been more than a few times in the middle of giving a lecture or talking with a student after class when I’ve thought, “Oh my GOSH! This is so much fun!  I can’t believe I get a paycheck to do this!”  So,  I admit it.  I’m a little Dork-y about teaching.  I remember the moments of grace and the satisfaction as well as the students I’ve had through the years who’ve touched my heart or challenged me to be better and more compassionate.   People like that tend to stay with a person.

My daughter is a teacher, too.  Maybe it is as a result of having  practically grown up out at the college where I teach or maybe it has something to do with some of the really great teachers she has had through the years.  Maybe it is because she loves literature and school supplies. Or maybe, just maybe she has felt the same calling that I felt so many years ago.

The teachers I remember helped to create teachers like me as well as nurses and lawyers and scientists…..doctors and funeral directors and dentists and pharmacists…..clergymen and architects and musicians and police officers and business owners…..set designers…and artists… carpenters and mechanics.  They did it in a town of less than a thousand people in a county with one of the highest poverty rates in the state.  They coached our teams and directed our choirs and bands. They volunteered in the community and chaperoned countless school dances in the old Arena.  Sometimes, they called our parents and ratted us out.  Sometimes they WERE our parents.  They didn’t get rich doing it and the schools they taught in were not the ones with the marble staircases and chandeliers and swimming pools  we visited up on the Iron Range during Away games.  But they did it.  Without much thanks.  And they did it well.   We are the proof.

Most of them are retired now.  Many of them are gone.  But not really, because what they taught us all continues to shape lives in a million different ways every day.   If I close my eyes, I can still see the hallways of the old high school.  I remember their faces and voices.  I believe that what I learned from them has remained with me, with my friends and classmates.  I wonder if they knew then the impact they would have?

I am a wife and mother….a daughter and sister…an aunt and cousin and niece and friend.   I am a citizen of the world.

And because of a lot of other teachers, I am also a Teacher.  With a capital T.


Waiting for the water to flow….

We raked the yard at the lake last weekend and have decided that a good lawn tractor with a bagging attachment is in our future. Our work crew has dwindled to two and it is time.  The water is low and the long dock that juts out into the Bowstring is high and dry. The meadow is one massive whispering sea of tall, yellow, grass and fuzzy, molting, cattails. My grandmother used to burn this off every spring, standing with a shovel to pound down embers that came too close to the house.  She said it kept the mouse and snake population from taking over the acre. The truth? The woman loved a good fire more than she hated the mice that scurried from the weeds.  This April, I hope that nobody’s grandmother gets it into her head to light any matches to any meadows. It is scary dry and we need rain.

The mice that wintered in the cabin were busy, as usual.  I didn’t get a chance to hide the toilet paper before the place was closed in the fall and in case anyone is curious as to how many rolls of toilet paper it takes to keep winter mice warm, the number is four full rolls from an eight roll pack.  They must’ve had fun pulling the entire roll off the spool in the bathroom before they found the ones in the linen closet.  I wonder whether they run on the roll like a little treadmill to empty it or just stand below it and pull.

The brown bat that swooped over the bed as I pulled the sheet over my head last fall isn’t going to be waking anyone else up.  She’d managed to attach herself to the inside of a window screen in my son’s bedroom after I lost my nerve and shut the door. When I found her small, brown body with the dark tissue paper wings folded around her in eternal hibernation, I felt a small twinge of something resembling guilt for not making her leave last September so that she could find a warmer place to spend the winter.

We’ll wait another month or so to turn on the water up there.  As we finished raking, I realized I hadn’t brought any water to drink and used the old, red handled pump that has been in the yard for generations. There’s a white metal cup strung on a piece of coat hanger that hangs from a nail my grandfather pounded into a tree.  When I was small, I always counted the number of times I’d need to pump the handle before cold, clear water would begin gushing out of the end of the faucet. Old habits die harder than bats.  As leaves I hadn’t yet raked were picked up in wind gusts coming off the lake, I stood, counting under my breath.  One, two, three……..four, five, six……I pumped…..waiting.  At twelve pumps, a  tiny trickle began.  At thirteen, I rinsed a dead spider out of the cup. At fourteen, I filled the cup.

So much about this place depends upon that cup on that nail.  It, and a hundred other reasons more difficult to explain, is why we stay.

What matters….

When I met him, he was a bulky linebacker.  Tall and broad, with dreadlocks, a gold-capped front tooth, and intricate tattoos embroidered on both of his forearms. He had been raised by two old school grandparents who’d raised him to say, “Yes, Ma’am” whenever he was spoken to by older white women like me.

It became clear fairly soon after we met that getting a college education hadn’t entirely been his idea. He was a good high school football player. The tantalizing lure of playing one more year of football had been dangled in front of him and he’d taken the bait without understanding that in college, the word student comes before the word athlete for a reason.  By the time he realized that he’d chosen the right path for all the wrong reasons, trouble had already found him.

However, what he lacked in college preparedness, he made up for in manners.  Before he left, he came to my office to say goodbye and we spent some time talking about how to know what matters.  We talked about how the choices we make when we’re young determine how we’ll live when we’re older. He said, “Yes, Ma’am, but you know me. Trouble has a way of finding me wherever I go.”  And then he smiled in the sad, nineteen year old way that some students do when they’ve realized that they’ve screwed up and can’t quite figure out how to make things okay with people who are invested in them.

He had been on my mind a lot throughout the winter.  And then, I heard from him last week. It’s  funny how often that happens in the life of a teacher.  He is in his late twenties now, a father of three. He has also collected a parole officer and a criminal record for petty crimes that follow him, like trouble. I knew about the jail time. He was calling to tell me that he is looking for a fresh start. Fresh starts are good, I told him. “Yes, Ma’am. I know, but I’m having a hard time. There are no jobs down here. I am trying to do right and I’m staying off the street. But I’m scared. You know me. Trouble always finds me.”  We talk a little longer and I listen as he tells me about his kids, I worry that he will become the next one who is in the wrong place at the absolutely wrong time either by choice or chance. The next one that brings out the protests, the signs, and the slogans about who matters.

But see…here’s the thing. I know without a single doubt that he mattered to his grandparents and that he mattered to his teachers and his coaches. That wasn’t enough to keep Trouble from knocking on his door and pretending to be his friend. He matters to three small children.  He matters to his village.  He matters to mine.

Fresh starts are good, I tell him again.

Yes, Ma’am, I know, Ma’am , he says.

And for that moment, we both actually believe that he matters enough for the possibility of one to exist.

Sparkle and shine….

People are like stained-glass windows.  They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within.  ~Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

We visited the Methodists on Easter because they have the prettiest stained glass windows in town and they always seem  happy to see us even though we are not Methodist. A Methodist bishop donated the money to build Hamline University back when Minnesota was just a territory. Then, something even more amazing happened.  Women were permitted to attend this first university in the state where they excelled and shone and graduated. This proves that the Methodists had some stuff figured out pretty early when it came to being a welcoming bunch.

Two of us are Hamline graduates, but that’s not why we go. We go because the Methodists shake our hands and say “Welcome!” like they mean it.  A one hundred year old woman with a glorious halo of silver hair seated two rows ahead of me did just that this morning and the fact that she is over a hundred years old is not the really amazing part of this story. It is the fact that she is over a hundred years old and still sparkly as all get out.  As the sunlight shone through the stained glass windows, she beamed at me and I had what can only be described as a holy moment.  I seriously thought I heard angels. Her hair..her smile…the windows…the fact that the windows were about the only thing in the church older than the sparkly woman who was smiling at me…the whole shebang.  I decided then and there that I want to be her when I grow up.  One hundred years young and smiling like I’m the queen of the universe.

From the moment we’re born, we are each given 365 days a year.  Little girls  start out all sparkly, like diamonds. Then, something happens. Some stay sparkly and some start to get less sparkly.  I know a lot of women my age and even younger who are already less sparkly than the lady with the halo in church was this morning.  Sometimes, the sparkle comes back, though.  For example, I’ve just recently noticed that women are usually at their absolute sparkliest when they are holding a grandchild in their arms. They just are. And then, sometimes something else happens and the sparkle fades from good, strong women who fight battles I can’t even begin to fathom. They fight disappointments, demons, or diagnoses and rise from the rubble shiny and triumphant, flashing a V for Victory.

But back to the Methodists. Today I left their sanctuary feeling full. I think this should be the end goal of going to any church. It wasn’t just  the windows,the sermon, or even the fellowship that filled me up.  It was the older, but not old woman two rows ahead of me.  The really sparkly one.

Her first name starts with the letter V.