Saturday, May 30, 2009

Caleb's Story

Reading books aloud to my second graders is about my favorite part of the day. We almost never miss it. I tell my students, it is a chance to share my favorite books with my best friends. I mean it too. Some of the very best books I have ever read have been written for kids. Nothing beats Charlotte’s Web for me. Or Number the Stars or The Wizard of Oz, Bridge to Teribithia, Because of Winn Dixie, Holes, Stargirl, Pictures of Hollis Woods, Ida B., Walk Two Moons… The list is too long.

And then there are picture books. I begin and end every year with an old Shel Silverstein book called The Giving Tree. It was the first real present I gave to Heidi Mills when we were first dating back in 1976. So of course it has special meaning to me, but it does for a lot of people. And it does for my students by the time I get through with them. There are some books that are downright hard to read aloud because they are so good, so real, so inspiring. Pink and Say, It’s Not My Fault, The Children We Remember, Fly Away Home, Faithful Elephants to name a few.

So this week we were at the end of a sweet little chapter book called Caleb’s Story by Patricia Maclaughlin. It is the third part of a series, which starts with Sarah, Plain and Tall and Skylark. Caleb is sweet and simply written and so it is in the children’s book category. But it is one of those amazing books that adults also find powerful and intriguing. It’s about a Kansas farm family in the early 1900’s. The family is OK but Anna, the oldest child, is attached to a soldier who is fighting in the war and there is constant fear of influenza. In one scene while our family is traveling to town they see a large bonfire off in the distance. Approaching the fire they spot a tiny wooden coffin. Another family is warming the ground so they can dig a grave to bury a little one who has succumbed to the flu. It’s very powerful.

But this book is mostly about forgiveness. Grandfather (John) shows up unexpectedly. His son (Jacob) thought his father was dead and does not understand how he could have left and not stayed in contact over these many years. John is incredibly angry. Slowly, Grandfather makes his way into the hearts of the family, but not John, who cannot find it in his heart to forgive.

There are a number of small climaxes in the book but it comes down to the last few pages whether or not Jacob forgives John – who has his bag packed and is ready to leave. This little series was a breakthrough set of books for my students. The conversations we had about the readings were breathtaking. The kids were not just learning to read but learning to love literature. I think every single child looked forward to reading and talking about this book. Every child. That in itself is pretty amazing.

So Thursday we were on the last two chapters. Everyone wanted to know what was going to happen. We were reading, talking at the page breaks, making predictions, anticipating, discussing writer’s craft, being amazed at how the author could make us love these fictional characters with her well-chosen words. Curricular Heaven Heidi would have called it. Only a few pages to go. Everyone hanging on every word. I was reading this last chunk aloud while the kids were following along in their books.

But I had to keep stopping. My voice cracked a few times. The kids kept looking up expecting me to read on. Silently urging me to finish. Well, I wasn’t about to cry in front of them, so I kept pausing, waiting for the emotion to pass so I could continue.

I did finish. It was extremely satisfying. There was an immediate buzz as kids wanted to share their thoughts about the story. We went around the circle sharing ideas. When it came to my turn I said that this kind of story is sort of hard for me to read aloud. “The characters are so real to me. The emotions so strong.” They know me pretty well so they understood without me saying too much. “Anyway, that’s why I had to stop so often. I guess I’m just…” I paused searching for the right word.
After a few seconds a little girl filled in for me, “… A wimp?!” The class burst out laughing.

Another little one came to my rescue, “He’s just sensitive.”

Of course everyone had to fill in their own adjectives at this point. “A big baby?” “Sweet?” “Emotional?” “A great reader?” “Sissy?” I guess that I’m all of these things. But I believe that my students got something huge out of this shared reading. This book, and these books, went so far beyond teaching reading skills or reading comprehension. This writer taught us clearly how to make ink on paper come to life in our minds. No set of exercises can do that, only sharing wonderful books with best friends. It’s the difference between teaching reading and living and learning with readers. No comparison.

Teaching second graders is a great gig.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Getting Older


Yesterday was my birthday.  52.  A good age.  I went to Food Not Bombs. It was pouring rain when I got there and it was unclear at first where we were going to go.  Not in the open air at the top of the fountain as usual.  Not in the band shell where we usually meet on rainy days because they were set up for a youth fair of some kind.  Rides for the kiddies, entertainment, food, fun.  So the stage was spoken for.  We ended up in a covered area which is mainly used to get into the restrooms.  The tables were set up.  Food spread out.  It was kind of cramped and we were mostly soaked.  People are hungry even in the rain so it was especially good feeling despite being wet.  At least it was a warm rain.


I knew it was close to the birthday of Maris, a friend who is a regular server.  I had gotten a few emails about a get together and some live music this week.  So I said happy birthday and mentioned that it was my birthday as well.  She gave me a big old Happy Birthday back-at-ya.  It was overheard by several folks waiting in line to be served whose faces I know but whose names I do not. It felt pretty special to get Happy Birthdayed by this group who I care so much about.


When I got home I was reading the newspaper; the PEOPLE page which includes birthdays of celebs.  It was kind of interesting to see who all was born on the same day.  Let me state that I am not a big believer in astrology.  No, I am a disbeliever altogether.  I don’t look at my horoscope.  Never have.  I do know that I am a GEMINI, but I don’t really know what that means.  Twins, right?  Am I supposed to be tempermental?  Or just mental?  Superficial?  Or just super? 


Turns out Gary Burghoff was born on this day (66 years ago).  I think he was the actor who played Radar on M*A*S*H.  He was a pretty cool guy.  How did he get that old?  Patti LaBelle.  Singer.  65.  Hey!  I sing too – but I ain’t no Patti LaBelle.  Pricilla Presley is 64 today.  It has her down as “actress” but I don’t think I ever saw her act in anything.  An evening soap maybe?  I know her as the bride of Elvis.  Didn’t she marry him at 13 or 14?  That was weird.  Alfred Molina is 56 today.  Didn’t he play Dr. Octavius (Doc Ock) in Spiderman?  Pretty cool.  Rosanne Cash is 54.  She’s a country singer-songwriter.  I have one of her albums.  It’s very sweet.  She is talented.  Hey!  I write songs too!  But I ain’t no Rosanne Cash.  At this point the list got younger and younger and I didn’t really recognize anyone… Heavy D. (rapper-recording exec), Billy Sullivan (actor), Cody Hanson (rock musician – Hinder).  It seems I’m out of the loop for those celebs younger than myself.  Oh well.


There was the double picture thing where you try to guess who is older.  It wasn’t much of a contest.  It was Bob Dylan and Tommy Chong.  Tommy had this bandanna on with wisps of white hair and a snow-white beard.  It looks like he’s been rode-hard-and-put-away-wet.  No offense, by the time I’m 71 I might look like that.  Although, hopefully, I’ll have a few more live brain cells than Tommy.  Bob is also looking a little ripe at 68 but I understand that he is still cranking out the tunes.  Hey!  I crank out the tunes too.  But I ain’t no Bob Dylan.  Anyway, I guess I’m in good company.  Look at this bunch of GEMINI’s. 


It reminds me of this funny song by John Gorka (one of my favorite singer-songwriters… I don’t know his sign).  It’s called “People My Age”



People my age

Have started looking gross

I cannot say all

And I shouldn't say most

I've seen 'em in the grocery

I've seen 'em up close

And people my age

Have started looking gross


People my age

Are showing some wear

There's holes where their teeth was

And their heads have gone bare

Their brains are shrinking

Faces sinking into fat

And as for the mirror

We won't be looking into that


People my age

Have started looking gross

Maybe not in Colorado

Or up the Silicon Coast

Back in Pennsylvania

I'd eat scrapple on toast

Those were my first steps

On the road to looking gross


People my age

Are looking overripe

Some are getting operations

To tighten up what ain't tight

What gravity's ruined

They try to fix with a knife

What's pleasant in the darkness

Is plain scary in the light






Click here if you want to see/hear John sing this.  He explains Scrapple too.  It’s like SPAM he says, but without the health benefits. 



Friday, May 22, 2009

Kids 3

On Monday mornings we have a whole school meeting out in our great room. At this point we only have 9 classes (10 next year) so we are all pretty comfortable on the carpet sitting in rows. We sort of come to order by singing our good morning song

Let’s set our mind to work and play,
Let us plan to seize the day,
To help someone along the way,
Let us greet this golden day,
Let us greet this golden day

One class is in charge. They think of the thought for the week and share announcements in the mornings. We say the Pledge then, “Are there any birthdays at the Center this week?”

The announcements always contain, “One interesting thing we are learning is…” It’s a nice way to begin each week. Altogether. It helps us to feel more like a big family. What could be nicer?

On Fridays at my school we have a learning celebration at the end of the day. We meet together in the great room as we do on Monday mornings and the class in charge shares with the rest of the school the kinds of things they have been learning about or thinking about.

Last week this little boy kept asking me funny questions. Things like, “Could you kill yourself if you swallowed a fingernail?”

“No, I don’t think so,” I replied.

“What if you swallowed a whole lot of fingernails?”

“You bite your nails, right? You’re not dead yet so you’re probably pretty safe. But I’d stop biting them if I were you. Lots of germs associated with that habit.”

He asked another question about what would happen if you put a seed in your nose. “You’d pull it out,” I said, “and you’d avoid doing that again, I hope.”

“Well what if you couldn’t get it out…”

Hmmm. So last week we were sitting at learning celebration on Friday afternoon. It was the week of our music celebration. Each class went up in turn to sing a few songs and play these cool bells, xylophones and other instruments with mallets. The little guy with all of the questions came crawling over to me with a look of concern on his face. We were supposed to be politely listening. “Hey,” he said.


“Hey, what would happen if you had a big piece of string stuck in your ear?”

At first I didn’t know if he was kidding, if this was a hypothetical or if this was autobiographical. He did have a worried look on his face.

“You’d reach in there and get it out and not do it again. Now go sit down.”

“What if you couldn’t get it out?”

“Listen, the program is almost over. Your mom will be here soon. We’ll see if she can get it out with tweezers.”

His eyes grew big. “TWEEZERS?! I don’t want tweezers in my ear!”

I’m thinking, really? It’s okay to put string in your ear but not tweezers?

“Well, what if she can’t get it out with tweezers?”

“Then it’s a trip to the doctor, I’m afraid. You’ve got to get that out of there.” His eyes grew larger still.

“Can’t I just leave it?”

“Nope, you could get an infection. Don’t worry, we’ll get it out when your mom comes.”

I could see he was pretty upset and as I glanced over he kept trying to pull it out. When the presentation ended I went up to him right away. “Well?”

With a look of relief he said, “I finally got it out.” I thought the scare might have convinced him to stop trying to push the envelope with this kind of thing.

I’m not sure it worked because yesterday he asked, “Could you die if you ate paper?”

“I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t do that if I were you. It couldn’t be good for you.”

“No, I’m not saying that I do it. I’m just wondering.”

“Well, if you’re wondering the answer is DON’T EAT PAPER! It’s not good for you.”

“Exactly how much paper would you have to eat in order for it to kill you?” It could be that he’s just putting me on. He is a funny guy. I can only hope.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Getting Older

When I got up today, my shoulders ached. Too much playing on the playground with my second graders. When I swung my legs over and got out of bed my joints popped and I staggered into the bathroom. Who was that guy in the mirror? I know, I know, you’re only as old as you feel. But I was feeling old.

This is my thirtieth year as a teacher. That makes me 51 (Yikes! Almost 52). You could only call me middle-aged if I live to be 102. Not going to happen. But it’s all relative, right? My dad’s dad lived to be 94 or 95. He was a practicing dentist until he was in his 90’s. I’m sure that my sons – 15 and 17 – can’t imagine being 51. When I was their age I couldn’t imagine it either.

One of my students was going on today about how quickly this school year has gone by. I gave her my philosophy about how quickly time flies. When you are 7 (as she is) a year is 1/7 of all of the time you have experienced. I drew a pie graph divided into 7 parts and shaded in a section. It was a big piece of pie. “But when you are 51, one year is a tiny slice of pie, just a small part of the time you have experienced so it feels little compared to your life.” I drew a circle with 51 sections and filled in one.

“Wow, you’re right, Mr. O… that is one TINY piece of pie!” And so it is.

Being this old has its advantages and disadvantages. The obvious advantage is… it beats the alternative. But being this old gives me some perspective. When I was born the Russian space satellite SPUTNIK was put into orbit. Now there is so much space debris up there that it’s dangerous. Personal computers were unimaginable. As were cell phones, ATM’s, calculators (we still used slide rules when I was in high school), microwave ovens, cable TV, digital cameras, GPS systems, CD’s, MP3’s, DVD’s, etc. All of this stuff was not even fair game for our science fiction writers. Consider STAR TREK of the 60’s. They had communicators (think “Beam me up, Scotty!”), but they were sorry compared to the text-message-internet-access-GPS-system-camera-video-phones of today. Being this old has allowed me to see the changes in our technology and the corresponding changes in society. I know that whatever is here today is only temporary. The disadvantage is that, in some areas, it’s hard to keep up.

When I was a kid (I’m thinking my sons’ ages) I thought my folks’ music was so boring and outdated. How could they still listen to that? My mom with her show tunes and Sinatra and Perry Como and Andy Williams. I would always be into what was current. I’d never be stuck listening to music of a bygone era. And I’m not. Whenever James Taylor comes out with a new album I get it. Or Jackson Brown or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, or Carly Simon or Dan Fogelberg (oh no, he died) or John Denver (oh yeah, he died too). And the truth is, I get misty when I hear a song from Fiddler or Music Man.

I used to be a runner. Not serious like a lot of folks who read running magazines and buy running clothes that wick away your moisture. And not competitive like those who train for marathons. I just ran because it felt good. I was up to about 5 miles 3 or 4 times a week. But then first one knee went out (thank goodness for arthroscopic surgery) and then the other. Now Heidi and I walk for exercise. My brother Dan said that’s old people’s exercise. Of course that was before he had to stop running and stick with yoga. But I walk with Heidi and we talk about our respective days and take in the beautiful seasons. Sometimes we catch a sunset down at the dock. The dog comes along and to go on her sniffing expedition. We have a spot or two where we stop and kiss. It’s nice.

I was born during the Eisenhower administration. I was seven when The Civil Rights Act passed. When I was a kid, African Americans had a hard time voting in the Old South and Jim Crow Laws were common separating Blacks and Whites. There were race riots because of bussing in the North. Ruby Bridges still hadn’t braved the angry mobs in New Orleans, the Freedom Riders still hadn’t made their trek and both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court were comprised of white men. Now that I am 51 we have a Black President of the United States of America. And he won with a mandate. And my second grade, public school classroom is as sweetly integrated as you can imagine. Not that the US still doesn’t have race issues, but look how much we have developed in these 51 years. And being 51, I have been aware enough (most of the time) to bear witness to this miraculous change. Not a bad deal.

I have seen my brothers and sisters get older too. At my nephew Jack’s Bar Mitzvah a few weeks ago, most of us were there. Along with lots of wonderful nieces and nephews and my mom and step-dad. My nephew Tim, turning 40 this fall, is an attorney. The finest kind. He is an advocate for those in prison who need his translating skill – and his compassion. Being 51, and just 11 when he was born, I have had the privilege of watching him grow up and become himself. It’s true for all of the young ones in my life.

Heidi and I were pretty late in having kids ourselves. I was 34 when Devin was born, 36 for Colin. I wasn’t so old that we couldn’t play hard and wrestle and run and fish and do the stuff that you should do with your little ones. How lucky was I that both my boys went to school with me from Kindergarten through grade 5; had my best friends as their teachers? Then we commuted across town together until they were both in high school.

When they were little guys, I would carry them, still asleep, into the car each morning and buckle them in. We had car pillows and blankets. They woke up when we got to school and brushed their teeth and had cereal in my classroom. When it was time to go to class they both hugged me good-bye and told me they loved me. I could smell the cereal on their breath.

In the car on the way home we would talk about our days, tell silly stories and sing songs. Later we would listen to books on tape. I got to spend nearly two hours a day confined to the car with them. I watched them from afar in the lunchroom and in our school gatherings. If I weren’t this old, I wouldn’t have those memories and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I do miss those little boys who would still cry from a skinned knee or hurt feelings, who still needed help opening jars, putting a worm on a hook and doing their homework. But I love the men they have become. I’m really fortunate to have those memories.

I guess the finest thing about being 51 is all of the years I spent with Heidi. Our love is different than when we first fell in love (at 19). It is softer. Gentler. She has some gray and some tiny wrinkles around her eyes (she was a sun worshipper from the 70’s) but she is so much more beautiful than when we first met. Her beauty is a light that shines for anyone who knows her well. Over these years she has gotten kinder, more concerned about social justice, more compassionate. Deeper. I like to think that some of her light has become a part of me. So much of any goodness in me I attribute to her. She has been and will always be my best friend.

Being this old means that I have spent over 32 years being in love with this wonderful woman.

Being 51 isn’t so bad.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

I Saw What I Saw

This time 15 years ago Rwanda was a living Hell. It was three months of evil while 1,117,000 Tutsi people were massacred by extremist Hutu – the Interahamwe. That much violence and death in so small a country as Rwanda in that short of time is almost impossible to understand.

I was incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to visit Rwanda two years ago, just 13 years after the genocide ended. And it was genocide. Our government was busy trying not to do anything about it. We knew it was happening. We watched as neighbor killed neighbor and tried to close our eyes. President Clinton and his administration were splitting hairs about whether or not it was “genocide” or merely “genocidal acts”. Our country and the UN were in a unique position to stop further killing but we sat by making up reasons why we couldn’t.

In the years since the genocide, Bill Clinton and Madeline Albright have apologized for our inaction. Still, over a million people were killed. Over ten thousand a day for a month. Interestingly, July 4th is also their liberation day. I was there in 2007 to celebrate their liberation. It was a day I’ll never forget. If you’re interested in reading about that trip go to

While looking for links for that blog, I came across this beautiful Sara Groves song. She also went to Rwanda and wrote about her trip. The video is so moving to me because I had been there. I saw what she saw, visited some of the same places. The images in her video, along with lyrics make this hard for me to watch and yet something I must watch.

I don’t obsess over Rwanda. I guess I did when I first returned. But a day doesn’t go by when I don’t think of it. The strong beautiful people, the untiring spirit, the forgiveness and repentance. Rwanda has so many lessons for us. They have achieved a peace that has lasted.

Below is a small piece of my Rwanda blog. I visited Mother Teresa’s orphanage and saw a little slice of life for some men who worked there cutting wood.

Wednesday 7/3/07 8:00 PM

I didn’t get to finish my thoughts on Mother Teresa’s orphanage. Just one more before I forget. There were about half a dozen guys
chopping firewood for cooking in a big open area inside the compound at the orphanage. Somehow they managed to haul in some huge logs. They looked like cedar but smelled different. Three feet across. Really hard wood. It was a hot and sticky day. The men were working with machetes and really dull looking hand axes. The axes had pipes for handles. Hot. Hard work. The kind of work that would have taken about an hour in the US with chainsaws and splitting equipment. Six guys. Chipping away at tree trunks with machetes. That’s like a metaphor for how things are done in Rwanda. This scene stays with me. They had their shirts off. Their dark bodies were glistening with sweat. They were relentless. We were there for about an hour and when we came out they were still chipping away with machetes and these tiny axes, hatchets really.

Then a puff of cool breeze came. Almost as one the men stopped their labor, closed their eyes and sort of leaned into the breeze. Little smiles came to their faces. Just that little pause. That tiny sip of refreshment. Then, just as quickly as it arose, the breeze left and the men went back to work. Sleek. No body fat. Thin and muscular. Determined. Uncomplaining. Facing a limitless task – That is Rwanda.

I watched Sara Groves video again this morning and Rwanda came rushing back to me.

I saw what I saw and I can't forget it
I heard what I heard and I can't go back
I know what I know and I can't deny it

Something on the road, cut me to the soul

Your pain has changed me
your dream inspires
your face a memory
your hope a fire
your courage asks me what I'm afraid of
(what I am made of)
and what I know of love

we've done what we've done and we can't erase it
we are what we are and it's more than enough
we have what we have but it's no substitution

Something on the road, touched my very soul

I say what I say with no hesitation
I have what I have and I'm giving it up
I do what I do with deep conviction

Something on the road, changed my world

I will never forget.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Small Kindnesses


The people who serve at Food Not Bombs, are among the best I know.  They bring peace through food, understanding through kindness.  They share what they have with no questions and no reservations to everyone who shows up.  These good people are not afraid to love.  I’ve written about FNB before (Food Not Bombs,  Food Not Bombs II) and I guess that I’ll write about it occasionally as long as I keep posting on this blog. 


For those who don’t know, FNB is an idea that is elegant in its simplicity.  People with food come to serve people who need food.  It’s at Finley Park in downtown Columbia, SC.  It happens at 1:00 on Sunday afternoons in the parking lot at the top of the fountain. 


Every time I return from FNB I am left with images of the people and events.  It is truly one of the best times of my week.  It’s not a laugh-a-minute or anything like that, although we do laugh.  It can be intense from time to time.  Some of these people are desperate.  It’s not so tender that it makes you want to cry.  But I have.  And I do.


Once, in the fall I recognized and served the son of a colleague.  I had not seen him since he was a high schooler.  It had been years, but he recognized me too and we greeted each other warmly.  The next week, I saw him there again.  This time he was serving from a pot of some bachelor food.


Today I was standing next to a kid who was about 11 or 12 years old.  He was funny and engaging.  He was spooning out canned mixed carrots and peas.  These are vegetables I like a lot but, apparently, many of the folks going through the line don’t.  While my dish was going very quickly, the veggies next door were not moving very fast.  At first while the folks came through the line and asked “Wha’s that?” to me I said, “It’s kind of like Hamburger Helper.”  After a while the name morphed into “Cheesy Pasta and Beef” and then into “Three Cheese Pasta – Supreme”.  My neighbor started doing this cute hard sell with the folks passing by his wares.  “C’mon, it’s vegetables…  You know they’re good for you… If your mom were here, she'd make you eat 'em...  It’s like taking vitamins!  When was the last time you had vitamins?”  He was charming.  His dad was kind of hovering around keeping an eye on his boy.  Don’t you know, folks started getting more veggies and the boy lit up.  Dad beamed proudly at his son. 


Ira, the man who gives out tickets and warns us about not giving out too much (“Watch the portions!  We have 75 more to go!”) walks up and down the line, chatting, greeting folks by name.  He tries to make sure that every person only takes one plate and a few do take advantage but there is usually a lot of food to go around.  At the beginning of the line Tom and Judy Turnipseed always have huge pots of greens and potato salad.  When they run out, you know we have had a lot of folks going through the line.  Maris and Tim are towards the beginning of the line.  Maris has grapes and different kinds of cheeses.  There is a group of beautiful Asian ladies with the absolute best food.  Today it was sausages with broccoli and onions.  They got there after we had already started serving but the line stopped and reversed for a few minutes until the people in front got some of their delicious offerings. 


As people walk through the line they get a little of this and a dab of that.  The idea is to bring something that you can put on 150 plates.  So portions are small but… there are so MANY portions.  Some are meticulous about not mixing their foods and delicately slide the food around so there is a place for everything.  Others just say to pile it on top.  You hear a dozen times, “It’s all going to the same place,” or some derivation of that.


There was one fellow who came through the line this time who I had never seen before.  I could not tell his age.  He had been burned very badly some time in his life.  His face and neck were webs of scar tissue.  He wore a baseball cap and an eye patch over one eye.  What struck me most about him was his sincere gratitude.  He thanked every single server, whether or not he took what they offered.  He looked me square in the face and God Blessed me.  I thanked him and said that now that he knew we were here to please come back.  He said he would and shuffled off to thank the next server in line.  And I did feel blessed.  So blessed.


I know very few names, but I know who comes often, who shows up occasionally and who are the newcomers. One of the regulars came through and was really happy.  He is an older gentleman.  He usually wears a baseball cap.  The old style with the high crown.  He walks slowly with a cane.  He beamed and we exchanged our usual “How ya doin’s?”  A short time later, he was eating his big plate of food, sort of leaning up against the wall and he tipped his Styrofoam plate and some food fell off.  Then he rocked to the side.  Something was wrong.  He reached out and grabbed the wall, his head down.  His legs buckled and he dropped to the ground.  People were there to help him in a heartbeat.  Folks I see every week, some of them homeless, some down on their luck, were down on their knees with him, giving advice, showing concern, demonstrating that they cared about him.  A woman prayed out loud for him.  By the time I left he was back on his feet, embarrassed by all the fuss. 


There is another fellow who always wears the same thing.  Sunglasses, a scarf and cap, gloves with the fingertips cut off and an army fatigue coat (even on the warmest days).  Most often I see him with this portable chess set, a lit cigarette between his lips, deep in thought over a game, a cloud of smoke encircling his head.  I understand he’s pretty good. 


Today I saw this little guy, I can’t remember his name, Larry?  Gary?  He sometimes brings a guitar and strums a tune or two and sings with great enthusiasm.  It’s always nice to see him.  His face is older than his real age.  Once, when the food was passed out and he had his guitar we swapped a couple songs.  It was fun.  Neither of us is very good at playing, but that wasn’t the point. I gave him a ride when we were cleaned up.  He led me down a few blocks and said to let him out at this corner.  He lived in the woods in a tent and he didn’t want me to see his place.  I had a five in my pocket and gave it to him.  He God Blessed me in a big way.  And I felt it. 


I ran out of “Three Cheese Pasta Supreme” pretty early today.  There were still about twenty-five people in line.  I gathered up my pot and utensils and said good-bye to the folks in line.  As I was heading to my car I heard the most beautiful singing at the beginning of the line.  Two women in the food line were singing to the Turnipseeds.  “I Wanna Be Ready When Jesus Comes!”  Stunning.  Harmony, big old grins on everyone’s faces.  Tom and Judy clapped.  All around appreciated it. 


The thing about FNB is that I get out of it so much more than I put into it.  How could I not?  It is sobering.  But it is important. Sad and joyful, serious and fulfilling.  It is a steady dose of reality that fills me up and makes me grateful.



Saturday, May 2, 2009

Baby Blessings

A couple weeks ago my second grade class said goodbye to Teresa, our student teacher. Within a couple days she gave birth to her and Eric’s new son, Jace. As I have written before, it has been such an honor to be around her as she bravely did her student teaching just as pregnant as she could be.

The delivery was successful, and apparently fairly easy (I know, I know, I am a guy. How could I know? It’s just what I was told). The baby is beautiful and healthy and is making everyone around him happy.

After Teresa finished her student teaching and before the baby, there were a few complications. She had to leave us rather suddenly and have baby Jace. We wrote letters expressing our feelings. I didn’t read the letters until they were finished as I was writing my own. My only input for this project was to say that we should give advice. Being little kids, and on the receiving end of teaching for a few of their young years, they should have some special insight that I couldn’t provide. I asked that the kids give Teresa some advice for a new teacher. Also, being kids themselves, they would have some insight about how to be an effective parent. So, I asked them to think about giving some advice for a new parent as well. That was it. We turned on some Santana instrumentals and wrote for about 45 minutes.

Most of the kids took this seriously. For a long while, all you could hear, besides Mr. Santana, was the scritch scratch of pencils on paper. I made a copy of each letter for the kids’ files. This is the kind of writing sample that really demonstrates who they are as writers. Of course there were misspelled words and some awkward grammar, but the sentiments were so sweet, so sincere. Here are some excerpts from the baby category:

I bet your baby is as beautiful as the sky and land and earth. I bet your baby is happy when he comes out. But sometimes babies do cry. Can I have your autograph? If not I understand. Love, 22 classmates… When the baby is ready to play, play with him. That’s the best thing you can do… I am very happy for your newborn, well-healthied, welcomed, understanding, conscious, eternal, new to this world, thanksgived and finally, baby boy… If Jace takes after his mother he’ll definitely be the kindest boy... Babies are very hard to take care of. They will: wake you up in the middle of the night and early in the morning, cry until they get what they want, follow you around and learn the wrong words… I think you are a good student teacher. You are so lucky to have us, that’s what I think but you aren’t as lucky as me because I have to dance every Sunday at church and it makes my feet hurt a lot. Well, back to you… My heart is full of joy. You are a great, good, nice teacher. You are from the heart and so is your baby. We will never forget you. We will miss you our whole life… We love you and your baby. We will dream beautiful dreams about you and the baby… I am so happy your new baby is coming out. I hope you are not sick or infected… You are in love with all of us. Together we are a team. Do you love me as a teacher? Please say, “of course”… You will be an exciting and amazing mom… Advice: When the baby cries it probably wants some food. Give the baby a little amount of food at first. Don’t shout at your baby… Babies can be a bit demanding sometimes and annoying… You better enjoy it while you can. Babies don’t last forever you know… Teach Jace to read when he is little and he will be reading big fat chapter books by the time he is in first grade… You should read to him as much as you can. Take some time to play with him. Talk a lot to him. Play music. Let him get used to you… NEW BORN: When he comes out ask someone to take notes, draw a picture and take one. Then show it to him so he can see himself. 2 YEARS: Catch his first bug. Take a picture and let it free. KINDERGARTEN: Ask him if he likes to read and write. Surprise him with a pen pal… You are going down in my who-to-remember list. All of your movements are going down on my movements-to-remember list. Jace is going down in my predictions-to-write-down list… Say “I love you” to the end of space and back… Be with him as much as you can. Teach him different and new things every day. Read him bedtime stories so he won’t have bad dreams. Love him with all your heart... It’ll now be hard to sleep at night. “WAAA, WAAA!” The only fright you’ll hear at night instead of the sweet sound of “ZZZ”… All of your stress will go away when the baby falls asleep. The only good part about having a baby is cuteness… Fill him with love and care all through the day and night. FUN + CARE = LOVE… Let your baby eat a candle on its first birthday… Give your baby lots of love. Read Jace bedtime stories. Play with Jace. Check on Jace every night. Feed him with love. Hug Jace every day. Thank you for bringing another loving person in this world…

My letter was no funnier, no more well intentioned nor more sincere. From the pencils of babes…

Thank you, Teresa and Eric, for bringing another loving person into this world.