Monday, December 29, 2008

Yellow Dog

I saw this cute movie with my family the other day. "Marley and Me" wasn't rocket science but it did have a way of tugging at your heart, especially if you're a dog lover. We have a big yellow lab like the one in the movie. She wasn't quite as crazy as a puppy, but she did have a habit of destroying every dog bed we got her for about the first three years. I did have to bury wire fencing under our wooden one so she wouldn't dig her way out. I did blow my knee out burying a wire for one of those "invisible fences" that she never did obey. And she did chew the heck out of the front bumper on the only new car I've ever owned - the very first day I got the car. Still, she is one of the best friends I've ever had. She's mellowed now. At the ripe old age of 9 she still walks with us at night but she doesn't drag me on the leash the way she used to. I know that when she's gone I'll be one sad man.

I wrote this memoir a couple years ago, about another big yellow dog I crossed paths with. At a K-mart no less. It was just one of those chance encounters that when you write about it, it becomes sort of permanent. Sasha was just a puppy at the time. She was still taking me for a walk instead of the other way around. Anyway, it's called "Yellow Dog".

Thunder rolled like a freight train across the summertime sky. There was a blue-green diffused light that I always associated with severe weather. The treetops, heavy with early summer leaves were lunging back and forth in the circular wind.

I found myself in the car on this early stormy summer evening. Dog food. I should have written it on the grocery list the week before. I ended up making my weekly trip to the store on Sunday and forgot the dog food. I had just enough for Sasha’s early morning bowl. My forgetfulness meant that I had to venture out on this windblown evening.

The storm began in earnest when I was about half way through Lexington. It was about then that it was clear that this was not an ordinary summer shower. It looked dangerous and the safest place was probably inside. Huge drops of rain, the size of grapes, pelted my windshield making it difficult to see. I switched the wipers to high. Low clouds, full of moisture raced across the darkening sky as I pulled into the crowded parking lot. There was an open space fairly close to the entrance and I hustled to get inside before I got too wet. The worst was yet to come – and it was coming fast.

As I walked through the wind and rain I shielded my eyes and hung my face low to avoid getting the rain in my eyes. It was chilly for this time of year. I felt goose bumps race across my arms and back. Unexpected movement to my left startled me as I approached the overhang to the store entrance.

An old ragged dog cowered behind some canoes chained together outside the store. It wasn’t much shelter but the dog managed to crawl partway under the lowest canoe to shield itself from the fiercest of the storm.

It was a big dog, about the size of Sasha, my yellow labrador retriever. It wore no collar. It was thin and bedraggled. Its ribs arched outward from a grubby yellowish coat. Its tail was tucked firmly between its legs and our eyes met for a brief moment before it looked away and settled into the shelter of the boats. One eye was slightly larger than the other and one of the ears had a huge tear in it. It was an old wound for it had healed leaving a wedge shaped hole in the tip. Bleary eyed and tired looking, the dog looked quickly away and slunk lower to the cement. It did not want contact.

I looked around to see if there was an owner nearby, not expecting to see anyone. I didn’t. This was a stray, its owner long gone. I wondered about the dog. Where had it been? How did it get here? What would become of it? I turned into the bright warmth of the store.

The image of the dog stayed with me as I walked through the aisles of the busy store, despite my efforts to think of something else. The storm raged outside. Occasional thunder rumbled through the ceiling and we could hear the roar of heavy raindrops as they pounded the roof. Overhead lights flickered occasionally. Customers gasped each time, expecting the power to go out.

The store manager, a huge, soft, fussy man with beads of sweat standing out on his upper lip, traversed the front of the store quickly looking important, barking orders to the cashiers and stockers. Walking back and forth, commanding his minions. He was nervous. He was in charge. He had the power.

The manager had the kind of eyeglasses which made his eyes look large and his big stomach bounced up and down as he walked from one area to another – giving orders. Power.

At one point our paths crossed as I was searching the signs above the grocery section for dog food and dog biscuits. When I asked him for the location of these he didn’t answer me or even look in my direction. Instead, he ordered a young man who was busy stocking the shelves to take me there. He had a vest on. “How may I help you?” was silk screened onto the back of the blue vest.

“That’s OK,” I said. “Just tell me what aisle.”

When I completed my shopping and was standing in the checkout line the lights flickered once, twice and finally the power went out altogether. There was no panic but the shrill voice of the store manager rose above the commotion, “Be calm, everyone!” he screamed in a terrified voice. “The backup lights will be on within a few moments. I repeat, BE CALM!” He brushed past me importantly, smelling strongly of cologne and sweat. I could faintly see that the doors had been stuck in the open position when the electricity went out. While it was stormy and dark outdoors, the darkness inside was so complete that the rushing clouds could be seen clearly. People were silhouetted against the storm outside.

As some moved toward the front of the store, toward the doors, a couple of Wal-Mart employees stood close by asking people not to leave until the electricity came back on – just to be sure that everyone had checked out and that no one was shoplifting.

As suddenly as the lights went out, the electricity came back on with a loud hum. The bright lights dazzled our eyes and the manager heaved a sigh of relief, mopping his forehead with a large red handkerchief pulled from his back pocket. As I stood back in the checkout line I saw a disturbing sight. There were red blotches all around the floor at the front of the store. As my eyes adjusted to the glare of the overhead lights I could see that the uneven spots on the floor were actually bloody paw prints in a path which led round and round on the shiny linoleum floor.

“There it is!” screamed a woman in the front of a checkout lane. Cowering in a corner near where the ice machine met the wall was the yellow dog I had seen earlier. Girl dog. Totally soaked, tail between its legs, head down in a defensive posture. It was shaking with cold, with fear. It held up its right front paw, which was dripping blood – it looked black – onto the otherwise spotless floor.

“Get that filthy thing out of here! Get it out of here!” yelled the manager frantically. He was waving his hands around like he was swatting some unseen flies. None of the store employees made a move to follow his command. His eyes looked even larger now and sweat stains were growing under his arms. Two of the cashiers slowly came forward and approached the big yellow dog. It cowered lower and looked at them menacingly. They were afraid. Big yellow dog was afraid. Blood dripped from the upraised paw. Silence. For a few moments everyone in the place was staring at the wet wounded creature.

That moment is etched in my mind; the spreading pool of blood on the gleaming floor, black in the harsh overhead lights, the ragged ear, the wet matted fur, the big store manager puffing and sweating, the scared cashiers inching their way toward the frightened, injured creature. The scene from an overacted movie.
The manager, agitated that his orders were not being followed quickly enough, broke the nervous silence yelling in a high pitched falsetto, “Somebody grab that thing and get it out of my store!”

The cashier closest to the dog stopped and crossed her arms across her chest. She had been offended and wasn’t about to take orders given so harshly. She walked to her station at the register. “Sorry,” she mumbled sarcastically, in a voice just loud enough to be heard by those around her. “That’s not in my job description.”

The manager was getting desperate. Not only was a wet and bleeding stray dog messing up his immaculately clean store, but he was being told off by an employee. Another cashier, not to be outdone by the back-talker, also turned away and said, “Why don’t you get it out of here?” She also crossed her arms over her chest and returned to her register with a look of smug satisfaction.

“I wouldn’t touch that filthy thing!” he snorted.

I broke open the box of dog biscuits before paying for it, left my basket on the floor in the checkout line and walked slowly over to the frightened animal. “Here old girl,” I spoke softly, offering the biscuit. Head down, water dripping from her ears, belly, snout and tail, she glanced up meeting my eyes for the briefest instant before again looking down. Lifting her nose slightly higher in the air she sniffed in my direction but wouldn’t accept my peace offering.

“Won’t somebody do something?! Call 911!” shouted the frenzied manager.
“Oh, for crying out loud,” grumbled an elderly man whose job it was to gather shopping carts from the parking lot. He walked slowly and steadily toward the big yellow dog. The old guy, “PAT” was on his nametag, knelt down and let the bleeding dog sniff the back of his hand. Then, sensing no danger from the frightened creature, Pat grabbed it by the scruff on the neck and dragged it in the direction of the door. Although it was a rather large dog, probably around 50 pounds, it slid easily because of the wet floor and its bloody paw. It left a red brown skid mark on the floor where it had been dragged. The old man pulled the dog. It struggled but didn’t snarl. It dragged its legs and resisted, but the man in the Wal-Mart vest shoved it outside into the pouring rain. The last I saw of the dog it was turning its head to the side, squinting in the rain, looking where to go. It trotted off to the right, head down, tail between its legs, favoring the bloody paw.

The store manager started yelling for someone to get a bucket with water and bleach to clean up the mess on the floor. I guess that was in someone’s job description because the employees began getting back to work and before long, a skinny guy with long greasy hair had a bucket and mop and was swabbing up the mess.

I finished my store business and headed back to my car. I looked around for the dog but it was nowhere in sight. I unlocked my car and switched on the heat. I sat thinking for a while, then started up my car and headed for home.

When I pulled into the garage, my dog Sasha was waiting for me. Dog smile. Wagging tail. She was glad to see me. I rubbed her chest the way she likes. She rolled over lazily onto her back, tongue lolling out to the side as I continued to scratch her. I thought of the dog from the store and wondered where she was.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Mrs. G - A Student Teaching Epidode

When I first began my student teaching in the spring of 1979 I was an idealist. “Chuck E.’s in Love” by Ricky Lee Jones, “Dependin on You”, by the Doobie Brothers and “Dog and Butterfly” by Heart were on the top 40. The Bee Gees did a shamelessly disco version of “Sergeant Pepper’s” which was way over played on the radio. Way over played. Saturday Night Live was happening on, well, Saturday night and we all crowded around my roommate’s old black and white TV. Nothing was sacred any more on TV with Saturday Night Live. We were loving it. Bell bottom pants were in but going out. We called our girls “chicks” and it was cool. “Cool” was in, “groovy” way out. Being a hippie was becoming passé but long hair was still fashionable for about half the young men I hung around with. Jimmy Carter was president. I had voted for him in 1976. I was a senior in college. I was looking at graduation (not that I would actually walk across the stage – I was way too cool for that). After graduation, a graduate internship in Grand Rapids, Michigan. All was good in the world. All was cool.

With my course work mostly behind me, (I had changed majors and still had a little catching up to do the following summer – but that was cool) I was looking forward to real teaching. I had loved spending time with the little ones in my practicum courses. After a spell of not knowing what I would do as a “grown-up” I had settled into the fact that I would teach little kids. It was going to be a wonderful experience, a wonderful life. My classmates and my very best friend Heidi (who was to become my wife in another year and a half) were doing their student teaching at the same time. I had just enough money to make it by. I lived in a communal house with my music buddies. All was right with the world.

Because I was going to have an Early Childhood Endorsement with my teaching credential, I had a split placement for that semester. I was going to spend the first 9 weeks in a second grade class and the next half of the semester with a Kindergarten group. When I showed up, bright and early at the second grade class on that first day of school the door to the classroom was locked. I had never met Mrs. G (I shall use her initial henceforth), but I knew that her husband was the principal of the elementary school. The door was locked. The other teachers in the hall were all there early, setting up their rooms, taking down the Christmas decorations (in those days it was still politically correct to have Christmas decorations publicly displayed in the halls and in classrooms) and anxiously preparing to see their precious students. Two weeks is a long time in the life of a little one and these teachers knew it. They were probably as excited to be back at school as their kids. I was excited too. Breathless. This would be my first real class. I knew I would fall in love with them, that I would learn so much from this experience.

All of the other teachers were there and the door to my new classroom was still locked. Children were entering the building. I was beginning to doubt whether or not I was in the right place when Mrs. G. came barreling down the hall. She was an enormous woman. I wouldn’t even mention this except that it was part of her presence. She practically yelled whenever she spoke. Most of what she said was an order. The first words I ever heard her speak were something like, “Get out of my way! DON’T YOU SEE ME COMING?” She hustled down the hall (as fast as she could hustle) and dropped her bookbag at my feet as she reached for the classroom key on the springy elastic band around her wrist.

“Hi,” I said weakly. “I’m…”

“I know who you are! Pick up my bag and place it next to my desk. On the right side looking forward.” We walked in and I beheld the room where I was to spend the next nine weeks, the official beginning of my teaching career. “WELCOME TO 2ND GRADE” was stenciled on faded construction paper above the chalkboard. Above that was the manuscript alphabet, white letters on a green background. They’d been up there for years. They looked exactly like the alphabet up on the wall in my second grade classroom in 1964. “That’s where you’ll sit,” she said with a swivel of her large head. In the corner of the room, facing the wall was a student desk with a student-sized chair. “Wash the board before the students get here. So, they let you have hair that long at IU, do they?”

“Ummm, yes.”

“Not very professional in my estimation. You’ll find that when you have your first interview, I expect. Now hurry with the board and dry it with that rag. Write in your neatest manuscript, ‘WELCOME BACK CHILDREN’ all capitals. Children really love capital letters. They didn’t teach you that in your methods classes did they?”

“No, ma’am.”

“There, you see, I taught you something already. Hurry up, the children are coming.” Mrs G. smelled. Her body odor trailed behind her like an unwanted ghost. Sweat. Perfume. She hadn’t had a bath in a while. My first impression was a scary one.

The kids came piling into the classroom in that way that kids do. They were eager to see each other and to catch up on the last two weeks. It was obvious that they were not looking forward to seeing their teacher. She barely addressed them but as soon as they came across the threshold their voices dropped and they put their things away and went to their assigned seats. Mrs. G hardly looked up as she was pulling out worksheets to copy for the morning work. “Here, get these run off.” I didn’t know the procedure for running papers in this building but it was clear that I was on my own. It was also clear that I’d better hurry. “BOYS AND GIRLS! QUIET. GET TO YOUR SEATS!” It seemed to me that she was hollering and I couldn’t tell why. “Get out your math books and do the problems on page 68. Let’s just see how much you’ve FORGOTTEN over these last two weeks!”

In that building the secretary had to run all papers. They used an old ditto machine, the kind with fumes and purple ink. The secretary asked me who my cooperating teacher was and when I said Mrs. G. She paused and sighed. I couldn’t exactly read that, but it didn’t strike me as a positive sign.

I could hear her hollering as I came back down the hall toward room 202. I don’t remember exactly what it was but I do recall that, “WHAT IN THE WORLD IS WRONG WITH YOU!?” was one of her favorite sayings. When I came in the room was silent. Stone quiet. Mrs. G. was puffing. Sweating a little too. And stinking a little. “WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT!?” Well I hadn’t been looking at anything I mumbled. “Make yourself a key and check these papers for me,” she ordered. I was happy to oblige.

The rest of the morning was seatwork with the language dittos I ran off for her. She let me have the honor of taking the kids out to recess. It was a little chilly and I had checked all the papers she left for me. There was a blacktop pad on the playground with a basketball goal. With Mrs. G. not around, I felt more at ease with the kids. We played and laughed and had a good time. No one misbehaved in any way that I could tell. They were just kids. I was miserable thinking that Mrs. G. was going to be my mentor for half a semester. All I had seen her “teach” was the dittos and they were pretty insane. Circle the letter for the initial sound of the picture… Fill in the blank with a word from the word bank… And handwriting, handwriting, handwriting. The way she “taught” handwriting was tracing over letters and copying letters. On dittos. The morning seemed like it had lasted for hours. No one could talk or whisper.

Now that we were outside and playing and laughing hard, I wondered if I could take being Mrs. G’s underling for nine weeks. I was trying to be optimistic but the morning was the exact opposite of what I was taught about good classrooms. I had already participated in a number of practicum courses and all of my methods courses and underneath all of these was a basic respect for human dignity, an appreciation for children. There wasn’t a whiff of those feelings in Mrs. G’s second grade classroom.

The afternoon was nearly the same as the morning, only the handouts were fairly random math seatwork (called arithmetic by Mrs. G). These sets of papers were handed to me as the children went to gym. I sat at my assigned seat in the corner fuming about the day and thinking that all she wanted me there for was to run off and check her stupid papers. What was I going to learn about how to be an effective teacher from this?

We had hardly spoken to each other all day. The silence in the room was uncomfortable as she snacked on potato chips and I graded the papers. “I saw the way you were interacting with the children at recess. I can see the recess field from the window.”

“Yes?” I responded. Her tone was accusatory. I hadn’t a clue as to why.

“Awfully familiar, don’t you think?”


“Familiarity breeds contempt, you know.” It was an accusation.


“You’re NOT to play with the children at recess. It’s unseemly and the children will not treat you with the respect you deserve if you play with them. It’s unprofessional.”

I was perplexed. I could see that she could never - would never, even if she could – play with children. But she was forbidding me to play at recess. I was only 20 years old. Not much more than a kid myself. She was telling me that I couldn’t become friends with the students. I didn’t know how to respond. I tried to be bold. “Don’t you think that a little time playing together might help me to get to know the kids? I mean we just met and I thought…”

“You thought? Are you questioning me? What in the world are they teaching you at IU? It’s all about respect, Mr. O’Keefe. RESPECT!” She turned away from me toward her desk and left me to sulk about not being allowed to play with the kids. We’ll see about this, I thought.

“Libby,” I pleaded with my university coordinator after school on the phone. “She is totally mean. She is always yelling and the kids don’t even know what she’s mad about half of the time.”

“You were just there a day. You don’t know the history of the class.”

“Libby, you would have felt it too. It is poison in there. Poison. I’ve got to get out. Can’t you find me another placement? It’s so early in the semester. I’ll make up the day, I swear.” Libby was an old hippie. She was a grad student making her own ends meet with supervising student teachers. She was kind and real and sympathized. She knew what I meant but wasn’t willing to let me give up.

“Stick it out for a week or two, O’Keefe. You were there what, one day? You didn’t give the woman a chance.”

“You should have heard her Lib. She was mean from the second she saw the kids to the second they left.”

“Listen, I have had some kids with tough placements before. You can still learn a lot. It isn’t pretty, but in a very real way you can learn how NOT to be a teacher. Based on the things you’ve told me already, you’re learning tons.”

“No way. Nine weeks? You expect me to learn how NOT to teach for nine weeks? And she stinks to high Heaven,” I said, grasping at straws.

“I trust you, OK? I have heard that she is a decent teacher but you’re probably right. Please just give it a week. Just five school days. If it doesn’t work… we’ll find something. Five days is all I ask.”

“Just to the end of the week. That’s four more days.”

“OK, but keep the faith.”

That conversation did not put my mind at ease. I should be in another classroom with someone kind. I wouldn’t have cared if they were the same as me philosophically, I couldn’t stand being around someone who never lightened up, who never stopped hollering and who stunk. I felt so sorry for those students. I felt that way after a single day, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live with this woman for seven hours a day for one hundred seventy days. That would seem like an eternity.

The next day was basically the same. I was early. Mrs. G was late. I ran off papers and then checked them. She hollered and scolded. She smelled worse than the day before. I asked about teaching science at our break since it didn’t look as though she was headed in any particular direction that way. It didn’t seem as though she had any science of social studies in mind at all. “SCIENCE?” she yelled. “Of course I teach science! Would you like to see how an experienced teacher teaches SCIENCE? Watch carefully Mr. O’Keefe.”

When the children returned from their morning recess, she kept them busy at their seats with plenty of meaningless seatwork. She removed an egg from her huge lunch sack. Then she took a dirty old glass milk bottle from a cabinet. “Watch what you can do with SCIENCE, boys and girls!” she yelled, smirking in my direction. She removed the shell from the hard boiled egg and sat it nakedly on her desk. Then she ripped a piece of paper from a notebook and took some matches from her desk drawer. After lighting the paper she clumsily dropped it into the bottle. She grinned. The children ooohed as they had probably never seen fire in the classroom before. Then she put the egg over the mouth of the grimy bottle which covered the opening completely. The fire in the bottle went out as the air inside was used up. Smoke curled up and because of the low pressure in the bottle the egg sank into the opening. Unfortunately, it was not enough to suck the egg into the bottle. The effect was rather subtle and I’m not sure that the children could notice any change. Mrs. G squirmed a bit.

“YOU SEE?!” she asked. “THE EGG IS GETTING SUCKED INTO THE BOTTLE!” The egg just sort of sat there. “SEE?!” she said again, as if saying it louder would make it actually happen. Then, not so subtly, she reached up from behind the egg with her thumb and popped it in. It landed in the ashes at the bottom. The children were not all that impressed because they had seen her push the egg in. “DID YOU SEE?” The children dutifully nodded that they had, in fact, seen the egg enter the bottle.

“Well, alright then, it’s time for lunch. Get your things.” The children gathered their lunch and recess things and lined up. “Take them to lunch and recess, Mr. O’Keefe. And remember what I said. I can see the recess field from the window.” As I left the room I could see Mrs. G with the overturned bottle and a knife cutting the ashy egg to pieces, which she would no doubt eat as part of her immense lunch.

Okay, disgusting. And not good science by any stretch. Also, I wasn’t allowed to play with the kids at recess. But it was not an altogether horrible morning. I guessed that I could get used to it if I had to. But for nine weeks?

When we got back in from recess it was time for more handwriting. The kids had a few trace-and-copy worksheets to do. When they were finished they were expected to pretty much just sit there quietly. Mrs. G sat at her desk flipping through magazines (she told me that she was working on lesson plans – I never saw any lesson plans). At one point she got up and walked around to check on the kids’ progress. One little girl was sort of doodling on the back of her paper. Mrs. G had walked up behind her as quietly as was possible for her. The girl kept on making her looping drawings on the back of her finished handwriting sheet.

“WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE YOU DOING, MISSY?!” she shrieked. The little girl jumped as if slapped. “WELL, WHAT?”

“Just trying some cursive, Ma’am,” was her soft reply. I wouldn’t have believed that Mrs. G could move so fast. She did not hit the girl. But she snatched up the paper from the little one’s desk and violently ripped it to shreds all the time yelling, “HOW DARE YOU WRITE CURSIVE?! WHAT MAKES YOU THINK THAT YOU CAN TEACH YOURSELF?” She tore all of the papers on the girl’s desk into pieces. “WHAT YOU LEARN INCORRECTLY COULD TAKE YEARS TO FIX! YEARS! DON’T YOU EVER WRITE IN CURSIVE AGAIN UNLESS I TELL YOU TO. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”

The kid was scared speechless. “WELL, DO YOU?” A nod. “FINE, and let that be a lesson to all of you.”

She returned to her desk with a satisfied sigh. She was panting. It was the most effort I’d seen her put into anything in the two days I’d spent with her.

That was it for me. After the children were dismissed at the end of the day I gathered all of my things. Mrs. G didn’t have a word to say to me. I didn’t have anything to say to her. Not even a good bye.

“Libby, it’s Tim.”

“Uh oh…”

“You don’t have to worry. I’ll get a job waiting tables this spring. There’ll be plenty of placements in the fall. I’ll just finish my coursework in the summer and stick around. I love Bloomington. I’ll just begin my masters a semester later than I thought…”

“Okay, okay, how bad was it?”

“Truly, Lib, it’s not a problem. If we can’t come up with an alternative placement, I’ll just stick around…”

“What’d she do, O’Keefe?”

“For one thing she screamed in this precious little girl’s face. You wanna know what for? For pretending to write in cursive! She was done with her freaking seatwork and she was bored and G came down on her like a ton of bricks. The kid was just supposed to sit there and do nothing. Like it’s solitary confinement at your desk or something. She committed the crime of pretending to write in cursive…” I was ranting and I knew it. But it wasn’t right, what G had done to that girl. It just wasn’t right. “She tore up that child’s paper, Lib. Shredded it and threw it in her face like she was worthless. She made her cry, Lib. For no reason.” I was running out of breath. “No reason at all. I can’t do it, Libby. But don’t worry, like I said, I can wait tables…”

“All right. All right. You win. If I made you go through nine weeks of that it would be idiotic. We’ll find you something.”

And we did. By the grace of God, Heidi heard a fourth grade teacher sort of complaining at her faculty meeting at the University School about never getting a student teacher. I contacted Libby, she contacted the principal, who contacted Sandy Richards. Sandy welcomed me into her classroom with wide open arms. There couldn’t be two more different teachers on the face of the earth than Mrs. G and Sandy Richards. G's mean spirited attitude was raplaced with Sandy's kindness. The student-vs.-the-teacher mentality of G's classroom was replaced by collaboration and great conversations in Sandy's room. Sandy's students loved coming to school. They laughed a lot. They were optimistic. They dreamed. When I got to Sandy's fourth grade classroom they were in the middle of studying whales. Those students were passionate about whales. They thought they could change the world for whales. I don't even think G's kids knew what science really means. My placement there at University School with Sandy, and later with Vickie Drummonds in kindergarten, was the most incredible good fortune in my life up to that point.

I ask myself now and then how things would have turned out if I had stuck it out with Mrs. G. Would I have become as miserable as her? Would students be my enemy? Would I still be teaching? Or, could I have learned how not to teach and come out on the other side of that mess a strong teacher who loves children?

Because she saved me from my predicament, Heidi and I did our student teaching at the same school for the winter and spring of 1979. We were married a year and a half later. Would we still be together if I had not switched placements? What if Libby was hard-nosed about it and made me stay with G? What if I had quit and waited tables? Would I have even gone back in the fall? I know that I’ll never know the answer to those questions, but I think back on how close my life was to becoming something so very different than it is now and it is another reason for me to count my blessings.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Jacob's Ladder Part 3

This is the final installment of the quirky, fictional piece called Jacob's Ladder. If you have just happened on this look back a couple of posts to part one and read forward.

Part 3

He opened his eyes. He was on a large, barren, snowy plane. The sun shone bright in a cloudless blue sky. It dazzled his eyes. He was wearing a leather fringed parka. It was made of animal hide and had a hood of long fur which surrounded his head and face; the long hairs tickled his cheeks.

It was beyond any cold he had ever felt. It stung his nostrils to breathe deeply so he immediately began short shallow breaths. He turned his head, still unable to see any signs of civilization, any sign of life at all. On his hands he wore crude but effective leather mittens. He looked down at the rest of his clothing. All leather skins, all very primitive. His feet were clad in rough leather moccasins. He could feel fur between his toes. He was warm enough but his heat was already dissipating. He wasn’t sure how cold it was but by the way his nostrils froze he knew that it was dangerously cold. These clothes could not protect him for long. It was just a matter of time before he lost too much of his precious body heat.

He had to move or it would be too late. He knew it would increase his circulation to move and therefore keep him warm a little longer. The soft surface snow was up to his ankles. Who knew how deep it was below that? As he looked over the dazzling crystal snow, nothing broke the view all the way to the clear distant horizon. Not a man-made structure, not a tree a bush, or a single blade of grass. There was a strong wind which whipped up the loose snow and blew it across the surface in crystalline waves. However beautiful the scene before him, he knew that the wind was his deadly enemy, robbing his body of the precious heat he needed to survive.

He started to jog; slowly as his fur clothing didn’t give and flex much. His sleeves and pant legs were thick and very rigid. Right away he felt a slight temperature increase inside his furs. But the running also made him breathe harder which stung his nostrils fiercely. So he slowed to a gently, rolling trot.

The steam he exhaled condensed on the fur rim of his hood creating a silvery wreath around his face. The sun was dazzling and tears filled his eyes and overflowed his lower lids. The tears froze instantly on his cheeks. He stopped and rubbed his face with the back of his mitten. The frozen teardrops fell to the ground with a tiny chittering sound. This frightened him. He spit and his saliva froze solid and shattered as it hit the ground. This was cold unlike anything he had ever known. If he did not find shelter – and soon – he would die. This cold was death. Nothing could survive for very long exposed to this temperature.

He began to jog again, pacing himself so he would not breathe too hard. The tip of his nose was numb as were his exposed cheeks. He pulled the hood more tightly closed around his face. As he moved along he felt his forehead go numb. Then his fingertips and toes. Frostbite. He had to keep moving. It was his only hope. He looked behind him and saw that his tracks were roughly in a straight line. His only hope now was to get to shelter, to warmth. He had to move forward, always forward. He might be moving away from people and further into the wilderness of blinding whiteness, but there was nothing else he could do. Forward. All he could do was move one foot, then the other. Always forward.

Seconds turned to minutes. Minutes to hours. A step turned towards hundreds and these to miles. His head throbbed from the glaring ferocity of the sun. The numbness that started in his fingers and toes had spread gradually to his arms and legs. The frost from his frozen exhalations that initially covered his moustache and beard had spread into an icy mask that sheathed his face from his eyebrows and lashes to his chin and throat. The fringe of his hood was a white icy ring encircling his frosted face.

He began to tire. Looking behind him, his footprints went all the way to the horizon. How many steps had he taken? How many miles had he walked? He stopped. Just stopped. What was the point? There was nothing behind him but his own empty footsteps in the slowly drifting snow. Nothing ahead but endless snow. Nothing to be seen anywhere but the lowering sun, dark azure sky and snow – boundless snow. As far as he could see in all directions – snow. Infinite.

He sat. His entire body felt numb, almost warm but he knew that was impossible. He knew he was actually feeling his circulatory system shutting down. What felt curiously like warmth was actually his frozen nerves ending their signals to his brain.

He watched the sunset. Beautiful, he thought. His last sunset. Red. Crimson. There were just a few clouds in the west now, sending brilliant shafts of sunlight and shadow radiating across the sky. Hadn’t he called that “Godlight” sometime in his past? As the sun lowered the blue above darkened to purple. He sat there upright as if in a straight-backed chair. He felt nothing but exhaustion now and even that was fading. A lightness overtook him. He became drowsy, his eyelids heavy. So, this is how it ends. He thought. He fought to keep his eyes open. Fought for those last precious moments, those last few beautiful sights.

Then he lay down on his side and closed his eyes and fell asleep.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Jacob's Ladder Part 2

This is the second installment of my little fictional piece called Jacob's Ladder. If you are just checking this out look at my last post for part 1.

Part 2

Pressure. Silence. An ache in his chest. Pounding temples. The need for air. Green light. Swirling. Salty taste in his mouth. He opened his eyes and all the world was a blur. Underwater! Panic. He was out of breath and submerged deep in a world of water. The ocean!

Air! If he did not have air his lungs would implode. He needed to reach the surface within a few moments or he would drown. But which way was up? He was so disoriented that he couldn’t be certain. Were his head and shoulders already pointed in the right direction? No time for thought. He needed to act. He reached up and out with his arms, closed his fingers into fins and scissor-kicked. He prayed he was moving toward the surface.

Steel bands squeezed around his chest. He kicked and stroked again. In a few moments it would be over. In seconds he would have to breath in. He kicked once more with all his strength. He could see faint gray light above. He sensed he was near the surface. If he just hold on. Stars filled his vision. His ears rang. He was blacking out. If he did, he knew it would be over. He reached out one final time, pushed his fingers together for a greater hold on the water…

He burst through the surface with an explosion of exhaled air and a gasp of inward breath. The man sucked in air so violently that he simultaneously breathed in salt water spray. Coughing violently, he nearly put his head underwater again. Treading carefully, he deliberately calmed his aching, searing lungs. He closed his eyes and forced himself to breath slower. To relax.

It took a minute but he gradually got a hold of himself and his panic slowly eased away. Opening his eyes, he rotated his body in a complete circle, scanning the horizon. Water and sky were all he could see. Not land, not a boat, not a seagull or pelican. Only water and sky.

Dazed and confused, he knew he had to move forward. If not, he would surely drown. How long could he last out here treading water? An hour? A day? If he didn’t swim forward, he would simply lose strength and sink. Sink. Like a stone. Which direction should he swim? The sun was directly overhead so he could get no bearing from it. It didn’t matter. He simply had to swim.

Getting horizontal on the water, he reached forward and kicked. His stroke was not strong. He could not move very fast. That wasn’t the point. He just needed to move. He needed something to do; he needed to act, to survive. Even if he didn’t spot land before his strength left him, he might be seen by a craft. No matter. There was no choice. His will to survive was the one single thing he had. To try to survive was his only option. He would not give up. No surrender.

Time slipped into uncertainty. It washed over him like salty waves. Eyes stinging, throat burning, arms and legs aching, stroke after stroke after stroke.

After a while, he didn’t know how long, the burning and aching in his limbs became numbness. His shoulders tingled as if someone were jabbing them with needles. Then his knees, his neck from turning side to side. He knew that he didn’t have much strength left. He knew he didn’t have much time. He kept looking up instinctively monitoring his progress but that was impossible of course. He had nothing to mark where he’d been, how far he’d gone.

Still no land, no boat, no seabird. He swam on until his head was buzzing from exhaustion. His arms and legs felt as heavy as lead. He had so little strength left. Another hundred yards? Another fifty? Another ten strokes. One more stroke. That was it. That was all he had. He stopped pulling himself along in the water and became upright. He could no longer move himself forward but he could keep himself upright.

Again, the seconds turned to minutes and the minutes flowed by endlessly. His strength gradually and completely drained away until he thought he was too weak to even breathe. He knew that he only had moments left but he clung to them tenaciously.

His vision blurred, became fuzzy and gray, as gray as the clouds above. He was about to stop kicking and just let go, sink into the deep. How bad could it be? At least it would be rest. How he longed for rest. Peace. Maybe there would be peace.

He stilled his arms and legs and sank slowly, slowly, still holding his breath. He was still very much afraid but faced the inevitable.

Then a sudden sickening, stinging, scraping sensation against his feet, smashing his toes and tearing his skin, ripping back his toenails. Sandpaper against soft flesh. He woke with a start, came out of his sleep-like trance with a shriek. He burst to the surface gasping once again, coughing. His skin was covered in goose flesh, his hairs stood out on his neck. He wasn’t certain but all he could think was… shark. Was it below, waiting, sensing him, smelling his blood? Was it closing in on him, jaws open, sharp triangular teeth exposed, shooting toward him like a missile? Is this how it would end?

He swam with renewed energy. He was aimless. He was frantic. Knowing that his motions were probably giving the shark a clear target, knowing full well that the end was near. He had to do something. Swimming was all he had left; it was all he could do.

The sky was darkening, he could not see the sun behind the thick, dark, low clouds but it had to be near the horizon. They seemed to be rushing across the late afternoon sky. The brush with the shark had given him a kind of paranoid energy. His swim strokes were erratic and uneven. But he was in no danger of dozing or sinking. Not now.

Then he saw it. It may have been fifty meters away but he could make out the gray triangular form slicing through the surface of the water toward him. It wasn’t moving incredibly fast but its course was directly at him. It was the dorsal fin of a very large shark. It was moving on a slow curving course.

Oddly, he was not afraid now. He would almost embrace the end. He couldn’t hold out much longer anyway. There was no land in sight. He was doomed. As the fin approached, he sucked in a final lung full of air, pulled himself into a tight ball and awaited the end. He hoped it wouldn’t hurt, but he was ready. He hung suspended at the surface of the sea waiting for the jaws that would surely end his life. He waited.

Finally, he could hold his breath no more. His pulse was pounding in his temples and eyes. His lungs were burning. When would the shark attack? Just when he could hold his breath no more he felt something brush his face. It was not the sharp, toothy attack he expected, but light, feathery, tickly…

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Jacob's Ladder Part 1

Here is the first piece of fiction I’ll add to the blog. This is something I have been writing in my classroom during our writer’s workshop for the last couple of months. It’s not quite finished and I’ll post it in three parts since there are three distinct parts to the story. I call it Jacob’s Ladder because it reminds me of a movie of the same name from the early 90’s. I think Tim Robbins was the star. I Googled the term and came up with some interesting Biblical references. This is from Wikipedia:

According to the Midrash, the ladder signified the exiles which the Jewish people would suffer before the coming of the Messiah. First the angel representing the 70-year exile of Babylonia climbed "up" 70 rungs, and then fell "down". Then the angel representing the exile of Persia went up a number of steps, and fell, as did the angel representing the exile of Greece.

This sort of catches the essence of what I tried to do with this piece. A story with beginnings but no end. It was also inspired by my little friend Lisa, a really fine writer herself. She emailed me with an idea she had for a story in which the main character wakes up from an adventure that was just a dream. Then she goes on with her life and wakes up again. It was just a dream. Again, she goes on as if things are normal and wakes up. Just a dream.

The obvious connection to mythology is the Sysyphus character who was condemned in Tartarus to roll a boulder uphill then watch it roll back down again for all eternity.

The other night I was looking around and came across a wonderful little film on youtube called "Occurence at Owlcreek Bridge" (There are three parts if you watch). I saw this film in college back in the fall of 1976.You might find a tiny connection between "Owlcreek" and my modest story as well.

With this odd little piece, I wanted to present a story in which there is only a single character with no identity, not even a name. It is all a drive to survive. To keep moving forward. The man in all three is the same. You don't know who he is, where he's been, how he's gotten here. It has no beginning and, seemingly, no end.

Jacob’s Ladder

Part 1

Thirst. Incredible thirst. Heat. The blazing sun beat down upon his shoulders and the back of his head like a burning hand. His face was turned on its side when he awoke from a deep dreamless sleep. The sand under him was piercingly hot. Had he just fallen? How long had he been lying there? His blistered, cracked lips were leathery as he licked them. Precious moisture from his tongue swiped over his parched lips. He spat out sand and slowly, painfully rose to his knees. His vision was blurred as he lifted his pounding head and gazed out toward the horizon.

Sand blew in dusty clouds. Sand stung his arms and legs. Sand burned his eyes. Sand as far as he could see.

Thirst. If he didn’t find water soon it would be over. His muscles ached; his joints creaked as he rose carefully to his feet. A wave of nausea almost made him black out again. He fought to keep from retching.

He didn’t know which way to walk but he knew that he must keep on moving. Staying where he was meant certain death. Thirst. Water. Water. Thirst. His tongue was heavy in his mouth. Thick. He had sand in his nose and throat. He didn’t know if he would find water in time, but he had to try. He needed to keep lifting his feet and putting them down. One foot in front of the other. His feet were lead. But he kept on walking.

In the distance he could see heat waves rippling off the dunes. It looked vaguely like the water he sought so desperately. But it was a fool’s dream. All he could see was sand. From horizon to horizon. Sand. Hills of it. Valleys. Waves and ripples. Sand.

His eyes ached from the glaring sun. His only relief was to close his eyes. When he did, he stumbled and fell having to painfully get back on his feet. He had to keep his eyes open to the full glare of the tormenting sun. He had to live.

Exhausted, he kept plodding. He wasn’t sure if he was walking in a straight line, but he tried. Every few minutes he looked over his shoulder at his trail. In the distance his footprints faded into a faint blur.

He walked slower and slower. His mouth and throat were so dry and sore he could not even swallow. He knew it wouldn’t be much longer. Maybe one more mile. Trudging on, muscles burning, head pounding, just a few more steps. Then he simply fell. He had so little strength that he could not even break his fall with his hands. At least he turned his face to the side before he hit the hot ground. Sand flew up his nose and into his parched mouth as he drew in breath.

Then – unconsciousness. Dreamless deep sleep. Darkness…

Sunday, November 30, 2008


When I was thinking of Katy in Zimbabwe - from my last post.  She was picking through a recently plowed field for corn kernels to take back to her grandson.  Without her, the child would surely perish.  She was going to share these precious grains with him even though she hadn't eaten in three days.  After writing that piece I was reminded of a song by Sade called "Pearls".  If you have not heard it... you should.  It is on an album called "Love Deluxe" from '92.  Old school, but oh so wonderful.  Smooth.  Silky.  Fine.  

I remember washing the dishes and listening to the words - really listening.  You know, sometimes when you get new music you listen first to the feel of it.  It isn't until after a while that you listen to the message.  Anyway, I was finally listening to the  message of this lovely song.  I stopped the chores I was doing and sat in front of the speakers with the liner notes in front of me, reading along as Sade sang.  I listened again with my eyes closed.  Crying.  It isn't just the lyrics.  It is her voice.  Hypnotic, powerful and, if you know Sade, smooth.

I hadn't heard this album in a while but after posting yesterday's piece I was drawn to it again.  Once again it made me cry.  Here are the lyrics.  If you get a chance to listen to it sometime, you should [click on one of the links above].  I can't guarantee that it will make you cry but it WILL make you feel something.  The hero in this song is Somalian.  She is scraping for pearls on the roadside and not in the freshly plowed field that Katy searched.  But they are both searching for pearls.  Pearls.  In Sade's song our hero is simply human, her actions and feelings universal.

there is a woman in somalia
scraping for pearls on the roadside
there's a force stronger than nature
keeps her will alive
this is how she's dying
she's dying to survive
don't know what she's made of
i would like to be that brave

she cries to the heaven above
there is a stone in my heart
she lives a life she didn't choose 
and it hurts like brand-new shoes

hurts like brand-new shoes

there is a woman in somalia
the sun gives her no mercy
the same sky we lay under
burns her to the bone
long as afternoon shadows
it's gonna take her to get home
each grain carefully wrapped up
pearls for her little girl


she cries to the heaven above
there is a stone in my heart
she lives in a world she didn't choose
and it hurts like brand-new shoes
hurts like brand-new shoes

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Giving Thanks

I was listening to NPR the other day. It was Tuesday morning, the day before our Thanksgiving holiday break. I was tooling along, planning the menu for the big meal, right? I was looking forward to the break. My folks were coming down, we were just all just going to take it easy. Play some music, share some story, laugh, eat a lot. Family. Fellowship. Thanksgiving.

Riding along, only half listening to the radio, there was a report from Zimbabwe. Political leaders fighting about power, the U.N. cut its food rations and they are predicting a terrible crisis.

Part of the story focused on one woman and her plight. Her name is Katy. She was searching through the dirt in a recently plowed field for single grains of corn. She hadn’t eaten for three days. Three days. She was 70 something, bending over in the blazing sun, looking for grains of corn to take back to her home and split with her grandson. Three days without food. The last thing she had eaten was a wild root. She was sick to her stomach, foraging for food for her grandson and herself, she said that all she could do was to put her faith in God.

This is one of those classic stories that make you look at the world differently. At least it did for me. You can hear that millions of people in southern Africa are at risk. That millions are hungry. And it does affect you, right? It is sad.

But sometimes it takes one person’s story to make a real difference in how you understand. Katy was literally giving her last strength to help her grandson survive. Looking at her face (on the NPR website) makes a different, far more powerful impression. Imagine Katy times millions. In that way we can go beyond simply large numbers to looking carefully at the tragedy of real people. People who have the same joys sorrows as us. Looking into the eyes of one person makes the larger picture clearer, more focused somehow.

So at this Thanksgiving time, let us really understand the tremendous blessings we have. We have been born into a world of food and creature comforts almost unparalleled in the big picture. As we go to bed with full stomachs each night, let us be mindful of those who are hungry. And as we eat our big holiday meals, let that food give us the strength to make the world a better place.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Til the Last Shot's Fired

Last weekend we caught up with some good old friends. We headed to a little venue in West Columbia. There we listened to Rob Crosby – who is a friend of our very good friend Dori. Rob was stellar. Folksy, country, approachable, real. His songs are the kind that touch me. It was just Rob and his guitar and an occasional chorus from the audience who knew and appreciated his songs. He peppered his banter with stories about his family, friends, old times, life and the writing process. I wouldn’t say exactly what his politics are since I don’t know him (I can guess though given what I know about his friends). However, he sings one song he wrote called Til The Last Shot’s Fired. It is a timeless, shameless anti-war song.

I was there in the winter of sixty-four
When we camped in the ice at Nashville’s door
Three hundred miles our trail had led
We barely had time to bury our dead
When the Yankees charged and the colors fell
Overton Hill was a living Hell
When we called retreat it was almost dark
I died with a grapeshot in my heart

Say a prayer for peace
For every fallen son
Set my spirit free
Let me lay down my gun
Sweet Mother Mary I’m so tired
But I can’t come home
Til the last shot’s fired

In June of 1944
I waded in the blood at Omaha’s shore
Twenty one and scared to death
My heart pounding in my chest
I almost made the old sea wall
When my friends turned and saw me fall
I still smell the smoke and taste the mud
As I lay there dying from a loss of blood

Say a prayer for peace
For every fallen son
Set my spirit free
Let me lay down my gun
Sweet Mother Mary I’m so tired
But I can’t come home
Til the last shot’s fired

I’m in the fields of Vietnam
The mountains of Afghanistan
And I’m still waiting, hoping, praying
I did not die in vain

Say a prayer for peace
For every fallen son
Set our spirits free
Let us lay down our guns
Sweet Mother Mary we’re so tired
But we can’t come home
Til the last shot’s fired
Til the last shot’s fired

I saw a bumper sticker in Lexington a few weeks back. Perhaps you have seen it too. “Kill ‘em all. Let Allah sort them out.” 

Kill ‘em all.      All?      Under that was a sticker, which indicated that the truck’s owner is a former Marine. Is THAT patriotism? God, I hope not.

I think there are some who believe that if you are strongly anti-war that you are unpatriotic, un-American. I couldn’t disagree more. Is war patriotic? Is fighting and killing – American?! God, I hope not. To me, this is a VERY American song, a very patriotic song. Believing in a peaceful world and insisting on it as much as we can is patriotic – and Christian. What would Jesus think of collateral damage?

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Hat

I wrote this little piece last year when my third grade class was working on memoir.  

It was gray when I woke up; misty, foggy, cool – no, cold. Not a great day for the beach. It was chilly and gusty. The kind of day that made my ears ache when I went swimming. Michigan City, Indiana. 1968. I was 11 years old.

In early summer the downtown area was home to a bazaar, a fancy name for giant sidewalk/garage sale. All of the shops had racks and shelves of bargains outside. People were invited to bring their used clothing and household items and set up tables to sell their wares.

My mom was a bargain hunter. With seven children she had to be. My brothers and sisters decided to stay home that day. I’m sure they had better things to do. I wanted to go with my mom.

This was the kind of day my brothers and sisters loved to swim. There was a cold northwest wind blowing and the waves on the beach would be enormous, way over my head. I loved these days as well. There was danger involved in swimming these waves. They towered over you, threatening to squash you into the sand if you didn’t catch them just right. If you went out too far, the undertow could snatch you up and pull you out.

This latter danger was for people who didn’t grow up on the beach. Almost every day that the wind whipped up from the northwest during swimming season someone along the beach would be swept away. Chicago, Gary, Miller Beach, Porter Beach, the Indiana Dunes State Park, Beverly Shores, Michigan City. We would read about it in the paper, occasionally see a helicopter flying by on these days. When we did we knew someone had probably died. We pretty much knew what we were doing. We never ventured out far. Still there was the danger.

As for being smashed into the sand if we didn’t get on top of the waves we were body surfing, that happened all the time and we routinely walked back into the house with bad scrapes and sand rashes from this hazard. Those wounds were all right. Those scabs would become badges of bravery.

I got ear aches on these days. I could have worn ear plugs but that would be a sissy thing to do. So I chose to go with my mom to the sidewalk sale. With six brothers and sisters, I didn’t get much time alone with her anyway so this would be my chance.

The bazaar was very busy. Vendors, crowds of people, the smell of sausages and popcorn, laughing, bargaining, little kids clinging to their mothers’ dresses, occasional babies crying. Teenagers, parents, old people.

My mom let me wander around by myself for a while. There was a huge clock tower so, even though I didn’t have a watch, I could see to meet her at noon. I only had a quarter with me so I was just looking. I’ve always been intrigued by crowds, always been a people watcher even as a kid.

There was a table of old used clothes in front of St. Anne’s church. They were musty and wrinkled and piled on the tables not folded neatly or hung on racks as the clothes were in front of the stores. The poorer people were drawn to this area because the prices were so low. There seemed to be something for everybody. They were practically giving the clothes away.

One old man was wandering between the rows of tables. I’m not sure why I was drawn to him especially. He was one of so many. But I watched him carefully for the next few minutes. His clothes were very worn. Gray pants frayed at the cuffs and pockets. They were pleated pants. My mom would have called them trousers. Tired old jacket which could not have kept him warm on this chilly day. His fancy old dress shoes were terribly worn.  He needed a shave. His cheeks and throat were covered with short gray stubble.

He wore no hat and his head must have been cold. It was early summer, but that northwest wind… He was very bald and the gray fringe that surrounded his head was shaggy and blew in the cold gusty wind. He could have used a hat.

I wished that he had newer clothes. I wished he had a hat. In those few moments that our paths crossed I felt sad for him. I’m not sure why I remember him after all of this time, after all the years and distance; his windblown hair, his disheveled yet somehow classic clothes, his stubbly cheeks and the smile lines around his eyes. I don’t think I could pick him out of a lineup after all this time, but I remember the feel of him.

I wished he had a hat. It was chilly. His head, shiny on top, was blotchy from the cold. He must have been freezing with his threadbare jacket and his thin, worn pants.

As he walked down the long tables in what I thought of as the poor peoples’ section in front of the church, he would pick up one item then another. He would pick up a woman’s scarf, turn it over in his hands and, almost as if he were having a conversation with himself, would shake his head and return it to its place at the table.

Finally he came to an area on one table with hats. I was relieved. He needed one. There were stocking caps and baseball style caps, earmuffs and old fashioned felt hats like the one my dad wore to church. The old man stopped at these, meticulously searching through them for just the right one.

Why was I concerned about him finding the right hat? I had never seen him before, would probably never see him again. But I was mesmerized, silently urging him to find a comfortable hat to warm his bald head.

He picked up a gray felt hat with a wide brim. I think it’s called a fedora. He tried it on and it fit snugly. He sort of wiped his hand around the brim in an automatic gesture. I had seen people do that kind of thing in movies. They were rich people or gangsters.

The hat looked great on him. A lady at the end of the table was eying him suspiciously. She had a gray metal box in front of her – the money box. Perhaps she thought he would walk away with  the hat without paying for it. The old man didn’t look at her. I could tell that he was pleased with the hat. He had this dreamy faraway look in his eyes like he was remembering something from long ago. His fingers went around the brim again. He smiled a small stubbly smile, a satisfied smile, the smile of a younger man. It was the look of one who has found a jewel.

The money lady continued to glare at the little man. He reached up and took the hat off. There was a little piece of masking tape on the band inside the hat. A price tag. I couldn’t make it out but the man stared at it unbelieving. I could see his disappointment.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out some money. All change. It surely wasn’t enough. I could tell by the look on his face. I wanted to buy it for him. I only had a quarter. It wouldn’t help much.

With a look of quiet disappointment and even embarrassment the old man put the hat back on the table - slowly, almost reverently. His shoulders drooped and he shuffled softly away. The money lady smirked.

All these years later I wonder why the image of the old man stays with me. Certainly I have witnessed sadder moments. On the news. In the papers. In books. So many tragic stories with greater magnitude. Why this man? So long ago and so far away.

Perhaps in a way this little story has served to make me aware of the small sufferings all around me. Perhaps this little memory reminds me of all the rich blessings in my own life. I am so blessed. I pray that I never take it for granted.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Food Not Bombs 2

This Sunday was golden. It was a late fall day, just past the color peak but still magnificent. More dark reds and browns than the yellows and oranges of last week, but still spectacular. Brilliant sunshine. Cool. Crisp. I headed to Food Not Bombs at Finley Park in downtown Columbia, SC. It is always a good feeling. I’ve written about it before. It is simple but important. A big group comes with a bunch of food to feed a much larger group of hungry people who show up. There is a core group of regulars, but also some different folks each week both on the serving and receiving ends.

Sparing the time on Sunday afternoon is not always easy. FNB usually comes between playing for the youth service at church (10:30 – 10:45) and practice for the same service next week (3:00 – 4:00). So I rush home, set the brew kettle (which doubles as a pasta pot) on high, cook up the meat and pasta, hustle downtown to be there around 1:00 with spaghetti. I don’t eat red meat, haven’t for years, but my son Devin proofs out the spaghetti for me. Today he said it was “magnificent”. He’s easy.

Today was more special because my teaching buddy Tameka called the day before and asked when the serving began. I was excited. But what if I had talked it up too much? What if she didn’t see what I saw there? I was also pleased about her coming because she was bringing her beautiful daughter Alani. I think she’s 4. Alani’s a little shy but has given me some pretty easy hugs the last few times we have seen each other. There aren’t many little ones there and I knew she’d stick close to Mom.

When I arrived, Tameka and Alani weren't there. Maybe something else came up. I set down my pot next to two women with broccoli and chicken. They’re from South Korea. I see them every time I go. I hunkered down next to a couple guys playing chess. This one guy with a cane and stocking cap and dark glasses and gloves with the fingertips cut off brings his chess set nearly every week. He’s good too.

When it was time we all pulled on our plastic gloves and the line began to move. There was an extra pot of cheesy/tomatoey macaroni next to me and for a little while I was serving from both my pot and the mac.

Then I heard Tameka’s familiar voice from behind. Ira, who sort of runs the show (as much as anyone) introduced us. “This is Tameka. She’s here to serve.” Alani hugged my leg in greeting. Tameka put on plastic gloves and took over serving the macaroni. There were a lot of people serving today. We had to sort of stand sideways to all fit together. It feels good to share the physical warmth, being so close together, as well as the emotional warmth from the simple fellowship of FNB. Anyone who goes for a few times feels it.

At first Alani was at a bit of a loss. She was shy and clung to Tameka’s leg. Of course that made her even cuter and folks coming through the line would comment and ask her name. Shy silence was all they got. But she did bring some light that would not have been there otherwise. After a while Tameka and Alani were serving together. It was one of those simple but incredibly beautiful scenes that I cherish more and more these days. Alani was much too small to serve on her own. She stood well below the top of the pot. Tameka had her hand around Alani’s. Tameka’s strong adult hand guided the wooden serving spoon, holding the spoon with Alani, serving pasta to hungry people. Serving hungry people. Serving.

What a great mom. What a wonderful example of how a parent can show through her own actions, the way to live. What a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Serving. What a marvelous way to spend a life.

When we said goodbye I had a different feeling than the usual one when we part ways at school every afternoon. I got to see this cool side of Tameka that I don’t get to see in the usual day to day. I am even gladder now to be her friend.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Friend

A friend of mine is leaving the area. He’s actually leaving this region. When he pulls into Portland, he’ll actually be about as far from here as he can be and still be in the continental US. His name is Alan and he is a colleague of my wife’s at USC. Her best friend there. I know that things just won’t be the same without him.

Years ago I taught some classes as an adjunct for USC at the main campus. It was Language Arts methods. I remember coming out of class and looking down the hall at the open door to his classroom. This when we were only acquaintances. He was seated on top of the wooden table that served as a desk. Legs crossed. He was wearing the (now legendary) red sweatshirt I had seen him in so many times. His hair on top was very thin but long and rakish on the back and sides. He had a definite non-professor look. And he was shouting. Not at the top of his lungs but with gusto. I don’t remember what he was yelling about but there was passion there.

I wondered. Do I ever shout in my little college class? I mean I care about the stuff I teach but do I ever really go out to the edge? Am I really passionate? I’ve got to get to know this guy, I thought.

And I did. When our boys were just shrimps we started hanging out. Not real regular but we didn’t want to let more than a few weeks go by without touching base. At first when he called and I answered the phone I assumed he was calling for Heidi. University business. But we would talk about politics or Africa or university folks we had in common or music and then we’d close up the conversation. He called to talk to me. He reached out to me. I am a man with few close friends. He was becoming one.

We’d go out to dinner with our little family and Alan. Often. When the guys were getting a little older and they knew what cussing was, we would debrief in the car on the way home. “He said @#$% four times,” Devin would say.

“Uh, uh,” Colin, our math-boy would reply. “That was *&%$. He said @#$% six times.” So, in his way, Alan helped to teach our boys to count.

Over the years he was there to watch our boys grow up. At dinner often we would talk politics. Colin, our politics lefty, would absorb, think, discuss, debate. As much as anyone outside of our little core family, Alan taught Colin about the world. Its complexities, gray areas. Right and wrong. Human rights.

Alan was there as our boys became adolescents and witnessed the necessary baggage that comes with that. If I ever whined about the occasional disrespect, defiance or over confidence (read: know-it-all-ness), Alan would respond with something like, “What do you think their job is now?” (read: get-over-it-it’s-normal). Alan has had a way of bringing clear perspective, an objective, caring, outside view of life. As much as anyone, he loved our boys unconditionally. If Devin or Colin wasn’t around when we caught up with him, he was genuinely disappointed.

Alan’s politics are simple. Human rights. He taught me that liberal and conservative labels don’t mean anything compared to that. Human dignity and worth are what is right. It is that simple. I am clearer when I look out at the world because of my friendship with Alan. I am able to look beyond my own limited scope.

Alan has a passion for Africa, which has rubbed off on me and enriched me deeply. He has done powerful work telling the stories of those oppressed under Apartheid in South Africa. He is friends with some of the best people there.

Heidi and my boys and I had the privilege of seeing Alan fall in love – for the first time. We watched him go from infatuation to passion to commitment. Joanie is so fortunate to be a part of his life. And, now that we know Joanie, we understand that he is blessed to be a part of hers. A few weeks ago we were among the few invited to their beautiful, intimate wedding at the beach. They asked Colin and Devin and me to play at their reception. It was such an honor. Such a milestone. One of the proudest moments of my life for me as a dad was watching Devin and Colin improvising together, making beautiful music to celebrate this new union. It will be forever etched in my mind.

It’s hard to know how to put the gratitude I feel for knowing and being friends with Alan into words.

He taught me to look up and out at the world, how important it is to have a opinion, how important it is to try to understand beyond the surface.

I guess the most important thing I am grateful for is simply the friendship of this good man. I am better for knowing Alan. We will still be in touch I am sure (although I am prone to not staying in touch with old friends – a terrible personality flaw). But it won’t be the same. In this day and age distance is really only theoretical but there was comfort in knowing that he lived only several miles away and not thousands, knowing that we would connect over dinner every few weeks, that we would certainly share some holiday time, music and good beer at The Hunter Gatherer occasionally.

I am glad for Joanie and Alan’s new beginning. What an adventure lies ahead. What a brave new start. I will selfishly miss Alan but I swear to keep in touch.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


My dad was a meticulous guy. When he went to work later in his career, the only part of his career that I remember, he always looked sharp. When I was a kid, he wore a hat to church. One of those sporty-but-gentlemanly things that Dick Van Dyke would have worn. He used an electric razor even when they were going out of style. He never let anything go to waste. I think he had every electric razor he ever owned in a sort of razor graveyard in one of his dresser drawers. He kept them for spare parts.

He had his own bathroom. We could have used it when he wasn’t around. I’m sure we did, but it really was his. There were three bathrooms in our ranch style house and one was definitely his. He was a rather typical dad when I was growing up. I don’t think he ever changed a diaper on my little brother Dan. That was normal for the times. He was the provider. He was a hard worker. He was pleased when we did well, stern when we needed it. We were a good Catholic family. I had six brothers and sisters. My dad was proud of us. He loved my mom and showed it. He was a really great guy. He rarely said it, but he loved us all.

Things were tight around our place. Seven kids and my folks started out with next to nothing. They were pregnant within a couple months of being married and less than a year after my sister Maureen was born, they had identical twins. Three kids in diapers in two years. My mom was a coupon clipper, a bargain hunter a sale shopper. She had to be. Nine mouths to feed.

My dad worked at Inland Steel Company in East Chicago, Indiana. He was a management guy, but he started out working in the mill itself. It was hot, hard work. It was work that he enjoyed. He moved into a sales rep job after some years (I think it said Technical Service Representative on his business card) and that was work that really agreed with him. He was a friendly guy. Great smile. Interesting conversationalist. Warm handshake. You WANTED to know him.

We had a wonderful life. Every family has its ups and downs. Maybe we had a few more than most, but looking back, it all worked out. Now my folks weren’t money geniuses by any means. They bought a house cheap in the 40’s and made $5,000 in a few years. Of course that was a lot of dough back then. And, of course they turned it into another nicer house. But they weren’t tycoons. They were thrifty. Our clothes were hand-me-downs, especially the younger kids. We wore our shoes until we wore them out or outgrew them. If we did, we passed them down the line. My mom sewed and knitted. She canned vegetables and cooked huge pots of pasta and stew so we could eat leftovers. We bought apples by the bushel. We were never hungry and we ate plenty and healthy. But it was clever and careful planning that allowed us to do so.

In December 1989 my dad was diagnosed with cancer. By the time they found it, it was too late and he only had about six weeks to live. He had only been retired for a short time. He was young. 64. He was very brave about the whole thing. I never saw him feel sorry for himself. Never saw him whine. That last bit of time was precious. He died around Christmas time. We were there to spend time with him, to see him off, to say goodbye. To say, “I Love you.” And, “I’m sorry for the crummy things I did when I was young.”

The end came very fast for him. He had been sore and his appetite had been off for a while. He had lost weight, but he was still him, Jack O’Keefe. With the ruddy Irish face and pale blue eyes and beautiful brown hair with just a touch of gray. His friends were envious of that hair. Once later I wrote in a song, “When I look at my hands, I see my father’s hands, and in the mirror, my father’s eyes.” And it’s true. And I’m lucky for it.

During that Christmas when my dad was dying, he wanted to make sure that my mom was going to be all set. He wanted to assure her that she wouldn’t be short on money. They invited their accountant and neighborhood friend Tom Roberts over to go over their assets and the stuff they kept in the safe. They had a modest stock portfolio, some t-bills, a deed to some land in Kentucky, my dad’s retirement account, the house, a little of this, a little of that. Honestly, during that conversation with Tom Roberts, it was clear that money-wise, they were well off. Quite well off. I don’t think that it ever really occurred to them just how their saving and scrimping paid off. When Tom had added things up and included their house, which was already paid for, they had it made. Rather, my mom had it made because my dad was not going to be around much longer.

That was one of the moments when it really hit my mom. My dad was not going to be around for very much longer. But they had taken care of each other all of their adult lives. They had raised seven kids, had a bunch of grandchildren. My mom was going to be OK. I could see relief in my dad’s tired eyes. Calm. I witnessed pure panic in my mom. She fought back tears, unsuccessfully. Neither Dan nor I would let our feelings show at that time. It would just have made things harder for Jack. This was really happening. My dad was dying. There was nothing any of us could do about it.

When the business meeting was over, Tom and my mom and brother Dan headed upstairs. My mom was broken. Her life and love were changing forever. Dan and I were sadder than we had ever been. Tom, our business friend was satisfied, I think. He had brought some peace of mind to my dad. There were about ten stairs up to the living room. My dad was walking with great care. He was using crutches as the cancer was dissolving the bones in his hips. I walked behind him, wondering if he would be able to make the stairs. He’d only had crutches for a few days. As it turned out, he would only need them for a few more.

I walked behind him, arms ready to catch him in case he tipped back or slipped. The others were already up. My dad had carefully, painfully managed to climb three or four steps when he stopped. I wondered if he would be able to finish climbing up. Maybe he stopped because he needed help. He turned around slowly. I backed down and he gingerly started back down the stairs.

“You OK?”

“Yeah, just a second.” He continued down the stairs and slowly crossed the large room to the other side. It took a lot of effort. He was dangerously unsteady on those crutches. Then he flipped off the light switch. That was it. He just wanted to turn off the light. To save that little bit of energy. Those few cents. He crossed the room again and paused at the foot of the stairs. “Oh, boy,” he said a little nervously. “Here goes.”

He made it up the stairs that night.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Judge Not Your Brother

One of the coolest thing about being a teacher of little kids is sharing my favorite music with my best friends ( as well as my favorite books, poems, etc.). In some ways it's selfish but how could I NOT share some of these? I was given a great folk compilation CD by a parent of a first grader last year who was to become one of my students. That worked out well, didn't it? I haven't shared this tune with the kids this year yet. I'll get there. I had never heard of Eric Bibb at the time. It's simple but brilliant.

Judge Not Your Brother (lyrics by Eric Bibb)

Passed a young man on the street dressed in rags couldn’t

have been more than 25
Lying on the sidewalk in a sleeping bag and a sign that read:
Your kindness keeps me alive
I remember I stopped and turned around couldn’t hold my tongue saying something about that sign bothers me
So I asked him, “Why’s a guy like you healthy, white and young living off working folk’s charity?” He said,

Judge not your brother
Walk a mile in his shoes
You see he’s doing the best that he can do
Like me and you

My mouth fell open wide shocked by the truth
The look in his eyes was wise and sad
He said, “Brother, I was born a rich man’s son, but I gave it all away, every last dollar I ever had”.
He wanted to know how it felt to be humbled by disdain, pity and indignation.
He asked me if I’d read the book Black Like Me. He said it was his inspiration.

Judge not your brother
Walk a mile in his shoes
You see he’s doing the best that he can do
Like me and you

Just when we think we know what’s really going on
Life serves us a surprise
A lesson to learn again and again
‘Cause we’ve all been victimized by prejudice and lies

Judge not your brother
Walk a mile in his shoes
You see he’s doing the best that he can do
Judge not your brother
Walk a mile in his shoes
You see he’s doing the best that he can do
Like me and you.

Left to Tell

In previous posts I have mentioned going to Rwanda in the summer of 2007. At that time I had immersed myself in the history and culture of the people. I had read Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza - twice. I have a blog of my travel notebook called White Boy In Rwanda that chronincles my journey, both the pysical trip and the spiritual journey. Below is one of the last posts of the White Boy blog. It is a reflection piece and in it I quote from Immaculee's amazing book. Her message is all about forgiveness. I will return to that blog from time to time with excerpts. Often my journey to Rwanda comes echoing back to me. Sometimes I will see the face of a beautiful African American child and it reminds me of a child there. Sometimes, when issues of forgiveness come up I think, my God, if Rwandan's like Immaculee can forgive all that has happened to them and still look ahead, what can't I forgive? Sometimes it will be a song, the voice of a fellow traveller or an email. I am now reading Immaculee's new book, Led By Faith. I can't fairly evaluate it. I love everything she could ever write because I love her and her message of love, hope and forgiveness. If you have read Left to Tell or White Boy before this will be familiar to you. But sometimes it helps to be reminded...

If you have read much of this notebook/blog, you have read about Immaculee Ilibagiza. Her book, Left to Tell is one of the most important books I have ever read and has influenced my spiritual walk immensely. If you don’t know, Immaculee survived the genocide by hiding out in a tiny bathroom for 91 days with seven other women in hunger and silence. For all of this time Immaculee and her friends were waiting to die. They waited quietly as the killers searched for them just outside the bathroom door. Immaculee heard her name called out by the very men responsible for deaths of her beloved family members. She survived this horrific ordeal through prayer. She prayed her rosary and spoke to God in ways that I will probably never truly comprehend.

She and the others in the bathroom narrowly escaped death many times but she did escape. She did survive. Her parents, two of her brothers and all of the Tutsis in her village were brutally killed. Immaculee survived. She went to the prison where the killer of her mother and dear brother Damascene was held…

As burgomaster, Semana was a powerful politician in charge of arresting and detaining the killers who had terrorized our area. He’d interrogated hundreds of Interahamwe (extremist Hutu) and knew better than anyone which killers had murdered whom.

And he knew why I’d come to see him. “Do you want to meet the leader of the gang that killed your mother and Damascene?”“Yes, sir, I do.”

I watched through Semana’s office window as he crossed a courtyard to the prison cell and then returned, shoving a disheveled, limping old man in front of him. I jumped up with a start as they approached, recognizing the man instantly. His name was Felicien, and he was a successful Hutu businessman whose children I’d played with in primary school. He’d been a tall, handsome man who always wore expensive suits and had impeccable manners. I shivered remembering that it had been his voice I’d head calling out my name when the killers searched for me at the pastor’s. Felicien had hunted me.

Semana pushed Felicien into the office, and he stumbled onto his knees. When he looked up from the floor and saw that I was the one waiting for him, the color drained from his face. He quickly shifted his gaze and stared at the floor.“Stand up, killer!” Semana shouted. “Stand up and explain to this girl why you murdered her mother and butchered her brother. Get up I said! Get up and tell her!” Semana screamed even louder, but the battered man remained hunched and kneeling, too embarrassed to stand and face me.

His dirty clothing hung from his emaciated frame in tatters. His skin was sallow, bruised and broken; and his eyes were filmed and crusted. His once handsome face was hidden beneath a filthy, matted beard; and his bare feet were covered in open, running sores.

I wept at the sight of his suffering. Felicien had let the devil enter his heart and the evil had ruined his life like a cancer in his soul. He was now the victim of his victims, destined to live in torment and regret. I was overwhelmed with pity for the man.

“He looted your parents’ home and robbed your family’s plantation, Immacculee. We found your dad’s farm machinery at his house, didn’t we?” Semana yelled at Felicien. “After he killed Rose and Damascene, he kept looking for you… He wanted you dead so he could take over your property. Didn’t you, pig?” Semana shouted again.

I flinched letting out an involuntary gasp. Semana looked at me stunned by my reaction and confused by the tears streaming down my face. He grabbed Felicien by the shirt collar and hauled him to his feet. “What do you have to say to her? What do you have to say to Immaculee?”

Felicien was sobbing. I could feel his shame. He looked up at me for only a moment, but our eyes met. I reached out, touched his hands lightly, and quietly said what I’d come to say.

“I forgive you.”

When Semana had Felicien dragged back to his cell he was furious with Immaculee…

“What was that about, Immaculee? That was the man that murdered your family. I brought him to you to question… to spit on if you wanted to. But you forgave him! How could you do that? Why did you forgive him?”

I answered him with the truth: “Forgiveness is all I have to offer.” (p. 202- 203)

Now when I am asked, “Where was God?” “How can you believe in a God who would let this happen?” I think of Immaculee and Richard and Bishop John and of all of Rwanda who survived to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. God is in the message of forgiveness held closely by the leaders of this wonderful nation and in the hearts of those who are unknown to the world. Where is God? God is in the heart and soul of Rwanda.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Not My Fault

In my second and third grade class we think about social justice.  It isn't something that is tested at the end of the year on high stakes tests.  It's just there.  It would be difficult to be a teacher and not think about the world critically with my kids.  How can one teach about culture, geography, government, history, current events, without considering human rights?  I don't think it's possible.  At least not if you try to be real.  Not if you try to teach well.  

This fall we have been fairly glued to the election coverage.  How could one teach social studies and not discuss this world changing event?  It's stimulating for everyone.  I feel so lucky to be there for their awakening.  I hasten to add that none of my students know who I will vote for (oh, they know I WILL vote).  I don't try to convince my students to think the way I think politically.  While they ask often who I will vote for, I don't tell.  But I think home conversations are started with the conversations in our room.  That is truly important.  Perhaps it is more important than some of the curriculum that is tested.

 Last year we looked at the life (and death) of Ann Frank.  The obvious question the children asked was, "How could the Nazis have done that?"  As a literature study, the little Ann Frank biography (not The Diary) was very successful.  Partly because we all became more critical careful, readers.  Partly because my class had their young eyes opened to this tragedy.  They were stunned.  They asked hard questions.  They became more awake.  I don't pretend to know the answers about how good people can do such bad things.  I said as much.  But we thought about it.  We explored.  We read this little book together, Not My Fault, and talked about it.  It has these simple pen and ink drawings of children talking to the reader.  A different kid on each page.  You never know what really happened in the story.  I guess it doesn't matter.  It is so simple - but at the same time - so complex.  Here is the text.

Not My Fault

It happened after class – It had nothing to do with me!

I didn’t see what happened,
So I didn’t know he was crying.

Even though I saw it, and know what happened,
It wasn’t my fault!

I was really scared, and there wasn’t any way to help,
So I just stood on the side and watched…

A lot of people were bullying him.
I couldn’t stop them all by myself.
You can’t blame me!

A lot of people hit him. Actually everybody hit him.
I hit him too, but only a few times…

I didn’t hit him first.
Someone else hit him first, so it wasn’t my fault.

So, was I wrong?
I always thought he was weird anyway.

The whole thing wasn’t strange at all.
If he gets picked on, maybe he should blame himself.

He was standing all alone, crying.

Guys shouldn’t be crybabies.

I know I should’ve gone and told the teacher,
But I was afraid!
Anyway, it had nothing to do with me.

He was just crying quietly, not saying anything.
Everyone acted like nothing happened…

He didn’t say anything,
So we just stood on the side watching.
He should have shouted for help!

I hit him too, but it doesn’t matter.
Everyone was hitting him, so you can’t blame me.

Does it have nothing to do with me?

- Leif Kristiansson -

I have said this before in my blog, children sometimes know at an intuitive level, so much more about truth  and what is right than many well-educated adults I know.  It's sad to think that the outlook and optimism children have at an early age can be changed, darkened, twisted as they grow.

Two weeks ago we heard tragic news about the death of a young man who used to attend our little school.  While I don't know the details of his death, he was shot.  He was in my son's class.  He was taught by my best friends.  He was a good kid.  He was 16, the same as our Devin.  He was funny, engaging, he laughed easily.  Somehow, in these last few years the circumstances of his life changed.  I hadn't seen him in a while.  He was killed.   Too young.  Such a waste.  It got very little coverage in the news.  The reporters, newspaper editors, the folks who make decisions about what goes on the TV news didn't know him.  If they did, they would have explored this tragedy more, made a lesson out of it somehow.  Helped us to see the value of this young man's life.  The terrible sadness in his death.  It's easy to say "It's Not My Fault" but he was our charge.  Could we have done more for him?  Could we have turned a tendency?  Let him to see a world  with more hope?  All I can do now is to help my students, my best friends, to see a hopeful world, a world where their beautiful voices do make a difference.