Saturday, August 29, 2009

Everybody Needs to Have a Good Dog Sometime

I think dogs are the most amazing creatures; they give unconditional love. For me they are the role model for being alive. ~Gilda Radner

During the course of everyone’s life a good dog is necessary. At least one good dog. Some people are lucky. They have lots of great dogs. One of my students’ has a pack of beagles. I met a couple. They seem like good ones. Some are lucky enough to have back-to-back good dogs. One good dog dies, they wait a while, and they get another one.

I know that some would disagree. There are a lot of “cat people” out there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a “dog person” per se. I like cats too. But in my experience there is nothing quite like the love of a good dog. I have one now. And she has me.

I have lived with a number of dogs in the past. But just one good dog. When I was a kid my folks got a French poodle. A little white one. Louis was sort of a rescue dog. He belonged to a teacher buddy of my mom. Like a lot of young couples, they had him for about a year (the “practice kid” I guess you might say) got pregnant, had a baby, put Louis in the basement, felt guilty, gave him to us. He had his good side. He came house broken (interesting term). Definitely a plus. He didn’t shed. Another plus. But he was an incessant yapper. When the mailman came, he yapped this screechy little dog bark. Company? Yap! Folks just walking by on the road? Yap! I never really got used to that overused bark of his. Nails on a chalkboard.

I think he was a “toy” poodle. Bigger than a “teacup” and smaller than a… whatever the medium size is. I liked Louis OK. I mean I shared a house with him through a lot of my formative years. But I liked him more like a house plant than a friend. It was embarrassing when my friends would come over and he would bark his head off. He was defensive of his food too. It was like he thought you were going to take it from him every time you fed him. Seriously, you would pour his food into the bowl and then he would immediately start growling at you to get away or else.

When Heidi and I were young-married, she got me a cocker spaniel pup for my birthday. He was a very beautiful animal with long lashes, a beautiful tan coat, and huge brown eyes. Lovely. Tawny was the kind of animal that you just wanted to hug on. And while he was a puppy, that was okay. He was fun to walk with. When he was a puppy, he would grab the nearest branch when we walked him. Even if the branch was bigger than he was, he would dutifully hold it in his jaws and drag it along with us. I guess he thought that was his work.

When Tawny got to be six or eight months old, the Mr. Hyde in him started showing up. At first it was just growling, then nipping. My friend John was definitely not fond of dogs. He was one of your “cat people”. He tried to be nice to Tawny but it was a fa├žade. John would dutifully look into Tawny’s big brown eyes and pretend that he wanted to pet him. Tawny would stand up and lean on John’s leg to be petted and take a pee all over his shoes.

Then when certain folks would come over to the house, Tawny would go nuts and we would have to isolate him until they left. Eventually, one of the people he started tormenting was Heidi. She tried to be brave and commanding as we were told by the dog trainer. Didn’t work. Tawny saw straight through that. After he bit her on the thigh through her jeans I took him straight to the vet’s office and signed the euthanasia papers. Heidi came to the office to save him in the classic nick of time. We ended up giving him to a guy in town. Tawny bit him in the butt. That guy ended giving Tawny to a country farmer where I presume he lived out his days terrorizing the farm animals.

Then we got the classic house dog. She had lived for about six months in a kennel before she came to us so it was very difficult to house train her. She was a cool little dog. Portia was a mix between a poodle and a schnauzer. A schnoodle if you will. She was smallish and gentle, didn’t shed, and didn’t growl… much. Training her was crazy. I had to set the alarm clock for every two hours at night when she was young to make sure she could do her business outside. Eventually it worked.

I am embarrassed to admit it, but she was racist. Whenever we were walking and she saw an African American, she would bark and growl like a mad dog. When a Black delivery person would come to the door she went nuts. Who knows where that came from?

I guess Tawny and Portia were our “starter kids”. We schlepped them along on vacations and to our family’s homes on visits. I took Portia to the airport a couple of times to pick up Heidi from trips. Looking back it seems pretty ridiculous. The final straw for Portia was her being mean to the babies. I know a lot of people who have gone through the same thing. Before kids, your dog is one of the most important parts of your life. After kids, they drop precipitously to a lower rung on your priority ladder. Such is life. When she snapped at our six-month-old-crawling-Colin, that was the end of her for us. We gave her to an educator acquaintance of Heidi’s who was a single mom with a teenage daughter. Portia lived out her days loving and being loved with no distracting little babies around.

About ten years ago I was in the pool store buying chemicals when I saw this cute little yellow lab puppy sniffing around inside the store. Travis, the pool store guy, raises and sells labs on the side. When I first saw Sasha she was making a mess, chewing on things she shouldn’t in the store, peeing on the carpet, etc. Puppy stuff. Adorable if it’s not your dog, right? When she sat down it was VERY unladylike. She sort of had one hind leg sitting up straight and one slung out to the side. Man, she was cute! I called Heidi and the boys (about 5 and 7 at the time) and asked that they come to the store and check out this puppy for sale. I’d been the holdout on getting another dog. Heidi and the boys had wanted a dog for a while so when I called they were very excited.

Our neighbors had a black lab named Tina who was this lumbering gentle giant. She would amble over when I got home from work, lie down on her back and beg you to pet her. She was irresistible. Tina loved our boys and they loved her so a lab was just right. Tina was sort of a block dog, spending most of her day wandering the neighborhood, soliciting affection and raiding other dog’s food bowls, eventually including Sasha’s. Since we already loved a lab, Sasha was the perfect choice.

The rest is history. She was the last of her litter to be bought. She sat crookedly and didn’t have the perfect posture of a purebred lab. That’s the only reason I can think of. We could have registered her with the American Kennel Club but really didn’t see the need to. She was loved up by the boys, played with every day, and her constant shedding wasn’t a real problem because she slept in the garage at first. We installed a dog door so she could wander the neighborhood as she pleased during the day, hang out with Tina and the other country block dogs, and she’d be there to greet us when we got home.

She wasn’t a perfect dog by any means. Often when she would greet us with her dog grin and wagging her whole body to demonstrate her joy at our returning, she would have some old dead flattened squirrel or some other road kill in her mouth. Or she simply smelled terribly of a dead fish that she had no doubt spent the better part of an afternoon coating herself in. Her days as a garage dog were a little messy. She chewed up dog bed after dog bed and anything else that was in her easy grasp.

In 2000 I got a new car. A Toyota Camry. The first and only new car of my life. I was going to baby it, keep it clean, keep it in the garage, use a sun visor when it was parked in the sun, etc. Well, the first time that car spent the night in the garage with Sasha; she chewed the heck out of the front bumper. When I came out in the morning to feed and water her, the bumper had teeth marks all over it. It became a used car VERY quickly.

Over the years she has developed a mean streak toward other dogs. Not all other dogs, she has her neighborhood pals, but when she sees an enemy her hackles rise and she growls a pretty ferocious growl. Now she is walked on a leash. When I attach the leash to her collar, she grabs it in her strong jaws and sort of walks me.

She is an indoor/outdoor dog now. Outside during the day when we are away, inside whenever she wants when we are home. We don’t let her wander for fear of her harming the neighborhood enemies. I put little handles on the bottom of the screen doors so she can let herself into the screened porch when she wants to. Now she walks us nearly every evening after work. When she becomes aware that we are heading out she gets obnoxiously anxious. Before doing anything else every morning we have a five minute pat and rub and pet session. She rolls onto her back with her big pink tongue lolling out the side of her mouth.

She is always glad to see me. She is never mad, never holds a grudge. She is never petty or jealous or rude (well, she is a bit of a crotch sniffer). She loves unconditionally. It’s mutual.

Her muzzle is getting white now, her face sagging a bit. She doesn’t pull as hard as she used to on our walks and the idea of fetching for me is long since past. I tried it the other day. She just looked at me like I was crazy. Sometimes we have to drop her off at the house when we are walking because she is worn out. She rises slower from the ground than she used to. She never chews things she shouldn’t anymore. She has mellowed. When we got her I was 42. She was born in late May, so I gave her my birthday. So, when she turned 7 (49 in dog years) I turned 49 too. Now I am 52 and she’s 70 (in dog years). She is aging gracefully. Perhaps more gracefully than me.

I think we are drawn to dogs because they are the uninhibited creatures we might be if we weren't certain we knew better. They fight for honor at the first challenge, make love with no moral restraint, and they do not for all their marvelous instincts appear to know about death. Being such wonderfully uncomplicated beings, they need us to do their worrying. ~George Bird Evans, Troubles with Bird Dogs

And when her time to go has passed

And she’s buried at the bottom of the hill…

I’ll think of her and that pretty yellow face

And I know I’ll love her still ~Tim O’Keefe

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Hidden Pond


It was a clear, cold, early January day.  A water turtle, commonly known as a slider, paddled across a smallish pond in the sandhills of South Carolina. It was a day like so many other days in the turtle’s long life.  There was a brief warm period after a two-week cold snap.  It was unseasonably warm on this day.  Feathery clouds floated high in the early morning sky.  There was a very faint breeze, just enough to tickle the leaves on a nearby pin oak which had stubbornly held onto its leaves and would not release them until spring.  The sun could not be seen for the day was young and not yet full bright.  All of the sliders in the pond became more active on this day as if by some silent signal or command of nature.


Sliders are the racers of the turtle world in the southeast.  They can move quickly on land when they need to, especially when they are chasing something to eat, or when a predator is chasing them.  This slider was a pretty one, older than any of the other turtles in her pond.  At twenty-five, she had outlived most of her kind by at least five years.  Because of her age she was a large, over a foot long.  While there was some algae growing on her shell, this old one was quite striking.  Most yellow-bellied sliders have a prominent patch of yellow on the sides of their heads.  This old female had a yellow mark that stretched from the corner of her eye all the way down her neck making her different from all the other sliders in the pond.


A dead fish was floating on the surface of the pond near the northeast shore.  This silver fish was actually on of the lucky ones.  It was not eaten by a predator.  Like the slider, it had lived a relatively long life among the cattails and rushes at the pond’s edges.  It died of a fungus common to older fish.  It was floating side up, its body curled into an inverted ‘u’ shape with its head and tail bowed severely into the darkly stained water.


The turtle had only recently become active in the brief warming trend, gratefully coming out of semi- hibernation to satisfy her considerable winter hunger.  Mating season would be at least six weeks away and she needed to stock up on high-energy foods to last another month of cold weather.   She didn’t think about these things, these were highly developed instincts.  Her keen senses were tuned to finding food right now, preferably animal food.


After cruising along for some time under the water, grazing on algae, leaves, roots and stems of aquatic plants, she came up for air.  Her first breath brought her the scent of high protein food.  Something dead.  Probably a fish.  A small silvery lump was showing near the brush sticking up at the edge of the pond.  She dove deep, wanting to surface near her intended meal. 


Forty meters away, a gray fox smelled the same dead fish floating on the surface of the pond. He was hungry and not too proud to scavenge.  He wasn’t fond of getting wet in weather this cold, but the energy he would gain from eating the fish would more than make up for the energy it would take to become warm again after wading into the pond.  He would eat something found dead although he would much rather kill his meat.  He preferred rabbits, mice or rats to scavenging.  He would even eat berries and other fruit before eating something dead.  This being winter, many of the smaller animals were hibernating or near hibernation.  Fruit was long gone.  Food was scarce in this woodland habitat.  He would take what he could get. 


This gray fox was an adult male.  At twelve pounds he was a big fox.  His tail was tipped with black and a black stripe ran up his back and neck giving him the appearance of having a close-cropped black mane.  His face and sides had a tawny, almost orange cast.  His last litter had left the den eight weeks earlier and now it was time to take care of himself.


He moved cautiously in the direction of the scent.  He stared down the hill at the glistening pond.   The sky with its golden-edged, striated cirrus clouds was reflected in the perfectly still surface of the pond.  He could see the dead fish floating in the rushes near the water’s edge. Instinct told him to wait a few moments before heading down to the water. 


The slider was approaching the dead fish from underneath.  Through her clear eyelids she spotted it, a little fuzzy from decomposition.  She approached cautiously, keenly aware of her surroundings.  There weren’t many predators in the pond area large enough to attack a large slider but her instincts had helped her escape birds of prey when she was younger and much smaller.  She had also had a run in with a coyote as a young turtle leaving her with a crack at the back left edge of her shell.  She didn’t remember these occurrences, but every encounter with predators left her more cautious.  It was precisely because of these cautionary instincts that she lived to be as old as she was.  As she poked her head above the water it created concentric ripples which spread across the shining surface.


The movement caught the clear golden eyes of the fox, standing motionless on the hillside.  His interest increased, thinking there might be more to his meal than a single, small dead fish.


The slider came up from behind the fish.  The strong odor of decay capturing its attention.  She glanced all around before beginning her meal. As she looked up the hillside to where the fox stood, she did not notice the form of the predator.  The fox stood absolutely still. Its tail fur swaying gently in the faint breeze blended in with the gentle movement of the grasses behind.  She surveyed the pond next, more concerned about competition for this food than predators.  The fish was not very big and she did not want to share the meal with other turtles. 


The fox crouched lower to the pine straw-strewn ground, bending its legs and slowly lowering its belly.  He straightened his bushy tail behind him to create a smaller view of himself in case the old turtle should spot his movement. The fox crept with incredible stealth toward the still water making sure that his steps made no sound.  Each paw felt the ground for potentially crunchy leaves.  It was almost as if each paw had a mind of its own.  The gray fox made no appreciable sound as he crept toward his prey. 


The slider faced the still water of the pond, its tail toward the rise of the sandy bank.  The fox’s eyes were fixed on her, his mind in total clear focus.  For him nothing else in the universe existed except for this moment, this place, this prey.


When it was about a meter from the pond the fox leapt.  His jump made a small crunching sound as one paw crushed a golden oak leaf by the water’s edge.  The slider had time to register the danger.  In the space of less than a second, the turtle abandoned the dead fish and pushed off the bottom of the pond with its strong-clawed feet toward the deeper water at the center of the pond.  It was a moment too late for the old slider.  The fox was on the turtle in a flash.  Teeth bared, tail puffed out, ears laid back against its head, muscular hind legs bunched and braced, it was a blur of gray-orange fury. 


The sun broke through the clouds and beamed through the atmosphere in beautiful curtains of misty light.  One of these beams found the fox at the shore of the pond tearing and pulling the meat from the old turtle’s shell.  The fox, wary of other predators and scavengers, kept looking around ready to defend his hard won meal.  Vultures circled above effortlessly, waiting for the last few scraps of the fox’s kill.  Their flight feathers fanned like black fingers silhouetted against the radiant blue morning light.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Food Not Bombs Again

If you have read much of this blog then you know that I participate fairly regularly in a cool project called Food Not Bombs. For those of you who don’t know, it is the simply elegant process of folks with the resources and the initiative bringing food to those who would like a meal. FNB meets on Sunday afternoons at 1:00 at the top of Finley Park in downtown Columbia, SC. FNB is a volunteer organization whose soul purpose is to serve others. It is a simple way to help the poor and hungry.

Many of the people who serve at FNB gather leftover food from bakeries and grocery stores that would otherwise go to waste. Anyone who wants to serve may serve. Anyone who wants to eat may eat. I know that I have recorded this on my blog before, but there is a small sign that you see as you walk up to the serving line. It is a quote from (Republican) President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." Dwight D. Eisenhower - The Chance for Peace April 16, 1953

FNB is a non-partisan, inclusive group; both those who serve and those who are served come from all walks of life. Some of those who come for food are doubtless homeless. Some come straight from church wearing coats and ties and pretty dresses. Some parents come with their children. There are old ones who have a hard time walking. One gentleman, a regular when his health permits, uses a walker. When he first introduced himself to me he tagged his name with, “grandson of a slave.”

Folks who serve often bring in something that is special to them. One couple almost always brings in something with venison, because the man is a hunter. Several bring vegetarian dishes because they don’t eat meat themselves. There is fresh fruit, cheese, salads, sandwiches, pastries, greens, potato salad, spaghetti, fried chicken, mac and cheese. It feels good to be there. Really good.

So it bothered me when I read this little rant in the Free Times. It was a response to an earlier article about a man and his wife who didn’t feel safe visiting Finley Park because of the large number of homeless people who spend time there.

… The park has become unsafe because of these vagrants. To make matters there worse it was recently brought to light that some charity group is lobbying to keep the upper parking lot open because it is where they provide free meals to these bums. Are you kidding me? It’s no wonder there are so many homeless people in the park. These bleeding heart liberals are FEEDING THEM!

Rather than rant back, I can only respond benignly… try serving sometime. Try coming out on a Sunday afternoon and helping to feed people who need a meal. There are few finer feelings than helping out in this small way.

A man came through the line last Sunday. He is one of the folks I have seen a lot this summer. He is always thankful for the food, even if he doesn’t take what I have to offer. He God-Blesses me every Sunday. He had obviously read the piece in Free Times because he said, “You know you are feeding bums, right? Well God Bless you for feeding us bums.” It broke my heart. I wished that the person who wrote that piece in the paper could have looked into his watery eyes when he spoke those self-deprecating words.

I couldn’t help thinking of the inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France to celebrate our independence.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

I wonder if the writer of the Free Times piece believes these patriotic words. Are we not called by these moving words to give assistance and comfort?

Jesus himself made it a special point to reach out to those considered the lowest in society including poor people, women, Samaritans, lepers, children, prostitutes and tax collectors. In his day, these were the most maligned. Didn’t he ask the rich man to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor?

In the Old Testament, which Christians share with Muslims and Jews, it says in Proverbs, “Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

As far as I know, in all religions and belief systems it says that we lift ourselves up by helping those less fortunate than ourselves. Aside from religious doctrine or patriotic words, there is a simple calling of the heart for many people to share, to do what we can to ease suffering.

I doubt the writer of the Free Times piece will ever know the wonderful feeling of giving in this way. It is great to give to a church or charitable organization. Isn’t there a special feeling associated with dropping money into the red bucket of a Salvation Army bell ringer at Christmas? Isn’t that what we want our children to learn? If you think that feels good, try spooning out food onto someone’s plate. So, to the writer of the Free Times piece and to those who feel the same. Try it, you may like it.

Jesus commanded, "Love your neighbor." When asked to define "neighbor," Jesus expanded the traditional meaning of the word--defining our neighbor as anyone who is in need, including social outcasts: "But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed." (Luke 14:13)

Jesus must have been a bleeding heart liberal. That’s not such bad company.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Last week I was at the dentist. Far from my favorite place to hang out. I was waiting to get a cavity filled. Waiting to get a tooth drilled and filled could almost be worse than the actual process. I got there a little early and I found myself without a book. I hate being in waiting areas without my book. I didn’t even have my notebook so it was difficult to write anything. I’d have to scrounge paper then tape it into my writer’s notebook.

I checked out the reading material in the dentist’s office. They had “O” magazine. I’ve never been a big fan. Nothing against Oprah. I like her choice of books, but the magazine didn’t thrill me. I am probably one of only a few people in the US my age never to see her show. Lots of people like it. Now it’s sort of a personal record for me.

There was AARP magazine trying to convince me that 65 is the new 40. Hmmm. At 52 I’d like to extrapolate that out and think of 52 as the new 27. Doesn’t work.

My dentist’s office is in a pretty nice area so they had Money magazine. Lots of expensive stuff in the ads and lots of articles about how to invest your money. Wish I had a little more to invest.

Car and Driver would have definitely appealed to my son Devin. If he had been sitting there it would have been the only thing for him to read. Not me. I’m more than happy with my 11-year-old Toyota. Best car I’ve ever had.

Family Circle looked a little appealing. They have good recipes. Not what I had in mind.

My dentist must be a hunter/fisherman because they had a few recent issues of American Hunter. There was a picture on the cover of a big old buck with a big old hole in his neck and a big old man holding this deer up by the antlers with a big old grin on his face (the man, not the deer). I’m not squeamish - but not for me.

There was a pile of a regional women’s magazine called Skirt. At the risk of looking effeminate (there were no other people in the waiting area but the receptionist could see me if she wanted to) I picked it up and began to leaf through. It was mostly ads. Clothes, fine dining, manicure/pedicure information, where to get facials, that kind of thing. There was this one full-page ad on skin tightening. Truly. $500 Lower Face (Regularly $600). $500 Neck (Regularly $600). There was even a $50 rebate on all botox treatments. Good deals I guess.

At the very end of the magazine there was a little piece that I really enjoyed reading. The author wrote a tender little story about the smell of her dad from when she was a little girl, before her parents got divorced. It was a leathery, soapy, pipe aroma sort of smell. Her dad had a special after shave lotion he used that she couldn’t identify but that she still smelled every once in a while when she was in a large crowd.

It started me thinking of my dad’s smell. Most of the time I remember him working was in an office. He worked as a technical service rep for a big steel company and spent a lot of time at the office. His smell was coffee, and dry cleaning (he always wore a suit), cigarettes (he smoked off and on but a lot of his cronies were smokers), after shave, restaurants and dinner mints. When I was young he often had a handful of dinner mints in his pockets to hand out when he got home. Sometimes I’ll get a whiff of him when I don’t expect it. It makes me a smile in a small, private way.

I got to thinking about other smells that make me feel good. I’m sure everyone has his or her own. I’m not sure what it says about a person – their list of favorite smells. Here are some of mine. They aren’t in any particular order. These were originally written on the torn out last page of Skirt, which was the only paper handy.

* Fresh cut grass. What a harbinger of spring. It reminds me that summer is around the corner.

* Babies. Anything having to do with babies. From poop to powder, from the smell of their heads to the milky smell of their breath. It reminds me of my own two little ones from so long ago and of my little brother Dan (soon to be 47). I am five years older so I remember his baby smell.

* The hot sweaty smell of 2nd and 3rd graders after a hard recess. Okay, some of these are weird, but they’re my smells. My students all remember me saying, “Hey! It smells like a bunch of little kids in here!” To which they always reply, “That’s because we ARE little kids!” To which I respond, “Oh, yeah.”

* Heidi Mills’ hair in the morning.

* It’s funky if you’re not the one eating it, but the smell of chicken and rice always makes my mouth water. The way we make it has dried onion soup mix in the recipe. If I walked into someone else’s house and it smelled like that I would think pee yoo (sp?). But when it’s my kitchen, yum. It reminds me of Heidi’s beloved grandma Hulda Hansen. She gave us the recipe.

* The sweet basil in my summer garden. Oregano and cilantro too.

* Roses. Other flowers too, like this new snail flower that we grow (it smells like concord grapes) and the angel’s trumpet, of course. You can smell the angel’s trumpet thirty yards away. And gardenias. And wisteria. But roses are my favorite. Heidi used to wear a rose smelling perfume when we were kids.

* The smell of chlorine in a swimming pool. Summer.

* My dog’s feet.

* Fresh cut lemons, peaches, oranges, apples. Any fresh fruit.

* Wet paint. Some people hate it. To me it represents a job well done; effort with obvious rewards.

* The oily smell of newspaper ink when you first open it up. Sunday mornings, early back porch, coffee, quiet, mourning doves and hummingbirds.

* Pancakes.

* Pinestraw.

One of my favorite books is The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter. It is also one of my favorite books to give. I can’t tell you how many copies I have given to student teachers, new friends, old friends and family members. I think they keep it in stock at our local Books A Million just because I buy three or four copies every year to give away. I have read it many times. I always find something wonderful and refreshing about the narrator’s look at the world.

Little Tree is a young Cherokee boy during the depression who ends up living with and learning about the world from his elderly grandparents in the mountains. (Stay with me, this gets back to smells.) Here is a quote from a chapter called “The Secret Place”.

Once I spent a whole afternoon collecting some musk bugs, just a few in my pocket, for they are hard to catch. I took them to Granma, as I knew she loved sweet smells. She always put honeysuckle in her lye soap when she made it.

She was more excited about the musk bugs than I was, might near. She said she had never smelled anything so sweet and couldn’t figger out how she missed out on knowing about musk bugs.

At the supper table she told Granpa about it before I could, and how it was the brandest new thing she had ever smelled. Granpa was struck dumbfounded. I let him smell of them and he said he had lived seventy-odd years, total unaware of such a smell.

Granma said I had done right, for when you come on something that is good, first thing to do is share it with whoever you can find; that way, the good spreads out to where no telling it will go. Which is right. (p. 57)

Friday, August 7, 2009

This is Your Life

At the end of the school year our class was in charge of learning celebration. I wrote about this in an earlier post. One class every week comes up with the thought for the week and does the morning announcements for the school. At the end of the week the class demonstrates in some way what we have been learning and thinking about. It’s a celebration of what matters to us for the entire school. Every learning celebration is different. It’s one of my favorite times of the week in school.

For our final thought for the week we chose the title to our favorite new song (well, it was new to our class). When these 22 children sang this song it would melt your heart. There was such power, such sincere appreciation for the message. You should have seen these kids with their heads back, some with their eyes closed, singing in full voice. I strummed a very simple version of the chords on my old acoustic guitar. But even “unplugged” there was real intensity.

We had several conversations about what the lyrics mean. The beauty of these conversations is that we are all sharing OUR meanings, OUR impressions. No one is wrong. Often I become so much more aware of the potential understanding of a poem, quote or lyrics through these “language appreciation” conversations. It’s good stuff. Below are the lyrics to this great tune.

yesterday is a wrinkle on your forehead
yesterday is a promise that you've broken
don't close your eyes, don't close your eyes
this is your life and today is all you've got now
yeah, and today is all you'll ever have

don't close your eyes
don't close your eyes

this is your life, are you who you want to be
this is your life, are you who you want to be
this is your life, is it everything you dreamed that it would be
when the world was younger and you had everything to lose

yesterday is a kid in the corner
yesterday is dead and over
this is your life, are you who you want to be
this is your life, are you who you want to be
this is your life, is it everything you dreamed that it would be
when the world was younger and you had everything to lose

don't close your eyes
don't close your eyes
don't close your eyes
don't close your eyes

this is your life are you who you want to be
this is your life are you who you want to be
this is your life, are you who you want to be
this is your life, are you who you want to be

this is your life, is it everything you dreamed it would be
when the world was younger and you had everything to lose
and you had everything to lose

Anyway, for our final learning celebration the kids drew big pictures of who they want to be. Below is an excerpt from a newsletter to parents about the event…

This is Your Life – Are You Who You Want to Be? This Switchfoot song prompted lots of great conversation and thought about who we want to be and how we want to live our lives. Some children wrote about what they want to do when they grow up. Others wrote about how they want to be remembered. Some children wrote about what matters to them most. Everyone shared their ideas and art with the school during our final learning celebration of the year. Here are some highlights:

I want my personality to have a touch of humor and fun and good… When I leave this earth I want people to remember me as a life saver to animals and people… I want to help people to make the right choices… I want to be a person with loving and caring for one and all. This is who I want to be… I have been so blessed. I want my life to be a blessing to others… I want to be a great scientist with animals… I want to be a part of the BIG GREEN HELP, to help our earth be a better place… I want to be kinder, I want people to think I’m heartful… I want to be a person who gives care and love to the poor people… I want to be a writer writing in my books, I want to be a reader and do the journey and adventure through my books, I want to be smart and brave, nice and kind to others… I want to be a person who can change lives… I want to be a singer and a teacher… I want to be a nice, helpful, kind person… I want to be a nurse because I want TO HELP PEOPLE… If I want to make the world a better place then I should recycle… I want to be thankful for what I have… I want to be a joyful peacemaker and poet… I want to make people enjoy my stories and well-crafted sentences with adjectives that make stories beautiful… I want to clean this desperate place so the world will be clean and beautiful… I want to be a person with a good imagination, a person who thinks outside of the box… I want people to think of me as caring, loving, kind, great, generous, terrific, a good friend and student… It’s my life to learn about animals… I will bring life and hope to the poor…

This work of thinking and writing and drawing who we want to be was so meaningful. Think of what the kids did NOT say. No one said they wanted to own a fancy car or a big home; no one mentioned being rich, famous or powerful. Their plans are to make the world a better place, to follow their dreams, to be helpful to others who need it. It is an honor to work and play with people like this. You raise good kids.

As the new school year approaches, I look forward to working with this same group of children in third grade. I say it to my students and their parents often, I really don’t know many people who enjoy what they do as much as me. I’m not bragging. It’s just that I know I am blessed. Think about it. Who else besides a teacher gets to spend so much time with a big bunch of best friends, thinking up together, challenging each other, making each other laugh? Who else gets to share favorite books with best friends, sing and write cool songs, create and solve each other’s math problems, observe animals, do science experiments, research and teach each other about topics that are truly fascinating to us? I’m not saying it’s all 100% perfect. We have some rough spots. But nothing compares to the feeling of a really good day at school and nothing is finer than anticipating another great year with a room full of best friends.

I am blessed.

Monday, August 3, 2009


I knew this kid once. I’ll call him Carle. He was in my class in third grade. This was years ago. I’d like to say that Carle was a complete success story, that he was able to overcome great academic difficulties and behavioral problems. If I said that, it wouldn’t be completely true. I can say that Carle and I became good friends. And that friendship, those memories are something I will always cherish.

My principal, who I held in high regard, suggested that I read Carle’s file (“permanent record” in teacher lingo) before the students came in at the beginning of the year. I usually never bother to do this. I am too busy at the beginning of the year setting up the classroom, getting desks cleaned out, writing curriculum, getting my final letters together for the kids, preparing the book lists and other paperwork required by the district. Besides, I really don’t really care what other teachers thought of the children or even what their grades were. I just try to be the best teacher I can be. I love the kids, support them, have fun with them and we learn a lot together.

Carle came to our school with a huge permanent record. It was filled with terrible notes and reports. His report cards were filled with D’s and F’s as well as venomous comments from teachers who obviously despised him. Behavioral referrals from teachers, notes about his violent behavior from counselors, discipline procedures “applied” by principals, observations from psychologists. I’d never seen anything like it. Frankly, I was pretty freaked out. This was Carle’s last chance in a regular public school classroom. He was expected to do something nutty or violent right away. My principal predicted that his stay with us would be intense and brief. Then he would be off to an institution where his education would no longer be the affairs of the school district. He was a last chance kid.

My principal assured me that any of this behavior would get him kicked out of our school. She was pretty sure that it would happen – and soon. She told me that he would probably only be there for a few weeks, one nine weeks period at the most. She chose me because I was the only guy teaching third grade. She also knew my history of working with challenging kids. It was a compliment in a way. Great.

Carle had already had an extra year of second grade so he would be one of the older students in the class. He was also huge, at least four or five inches taller than the next biggest kid. Almost as big as me. I had read his file. The guidance counselor assured me that she would be there when we needed her. She also assured me that we WOULD need her sooner or later.

I was apprehensive that first day. In a way I am always a little nervous. Sleeping is tricky before school begins. Would it go well? What would the class be like? Curriculum? Parents? Everyone would be a little jittery from meeting each other. Many children would have been in the same class the year before or back in first grade or Kindergarten. There is a certain sizing up that goes on those first few days. The kids try to see where the boundaries are. I try to establish reasonable boundaries but not come off too strong, or too mean, or too businesslike, or too demanding. It is a complex balancing act. All of teaching is – talk to a teacher. But that first day is especially so.

Carle came in with the others. He was edgy. This was his first day in a new school. He was bigger than the rest. I was his first male teacher. He certainly knew he was marked, right? He had seen his counselors, his principal, he had spent countless hours in “time-out”, he had been suspended so many times, brought up for expulsion, etc. His file was crammed with his misdeeds and the efforts to get him in line. Most kids’ permanent records are thin files when they reach third grade. They contain their shot records, report cards, family information and not much else. Carle’s was at least an inch-and-a-half thick. And it was a paper trail of a troubled kid and an educational establishment that didn’t know what to do for him.

During that first day I asked the kids to write and draw something to let me know who they were, what they liked, disliked, what they wanted from school, anything they wanted me to know about themselves so that I could be a more effective teacher. They were fun and interesting. A lot of kids wrote about their summer vacations, some wrote about best friends and family. Carle helped himself to crayons and drew a sunset. There were no words on his paper except his first name, middle initial and last name. The picture was magnificent. Not just well done for a third grader. It was an incredible explosion of bright and dark colors created in a few minutes. It was frantic and vivid and alive.

For the rest of the day Carle was subdued. He was attentive as I read The Giving Tree. He did not share anything but his name when we introduced ourselves. He played all by himself on the playground, drawing pictures in the sand with a pointed stick. We got through the first day with no real mishaps.

I read through the papers after school that afternoon and marveled at Carle’s drawing. He totally disregarded my instructions to write to me. This activity was intended as a window for me into the children’s writing, not simply an art piece. Carle had finished quickly and sat at his seat biting his nails and picking incessantly at large scabs on his legs. In many ways, Carle was anti-social. But this art. It was breathtaking.

When I read with Carle and had a written conversation with him later that week, it was clear that, while he was a year older than most of the children in class, he was pretty much a beginner with reading and writing. He was clever at mental math but had a hard time explaining what he was thinking and had little recall of basic facts. He used his fingers and drew tally marks for simple addition and subtraction. It would be a challenge working with him in as much as he seemed much younger than his peers academically. But my first impression was that Carle was a good kid, a little needy, but basically a good guy.

When I told him how much I enjoyed his art he brightened. He began to make art for me in class when others were having exploration time. He brought in art from home. Many kids are good at drawing one thing. They’ll draw cartoons or sunsets or flowers. Few are all around artists. Carle was. Once the kids were in computer lab sort of doodling around with “paint”. Most came back with quite simple pieces. Green hills, blue sky, red flowers and white clouds. That kind of thing. Carle came in with a piece he called “Shattered”. It had little multi-colored shards of shapes all over it. Every square millimeter of the space was covered. Where the shards overlapped, Carle had carefully filled in with another color. The effect was amazing. I hung up all of the art pieces that the kids gave to me. Carle knew that I liked his. When I took the papers down and returned them to the children a couple weeks later Carle gave his back to me. “I’d just loose it,” he explained shyly looking down. So I kept it.

Whenever we had a written response to anything, Carle drew. Sometimes he would write too, but his main form of expression was art. When he did write, his words were few but carefully chosen. In a poem about the sea, Carle wrote, “the salt wind silked my face”. Along with his well-crafted poem was one of the most beautiful beach scenes I had ever seen. There was a sea bird, waves caught in mid-curl as if in a photograph, swirling clouds, sand and… the salt wind.

Once I read a book to the class called Dear Willie Rudd about the memories of a white woman and her relationship with her African American housekeeper from her long ago childhood. The book is mostly a letter, an apology for not treating Willie with the respect she deserved. The letter is a lengthy retrospective wish that things could have been different, a wish to tell Willie how much she meant to the little girl, to tell her, what she never said while Wille Rudd was alive, that she loved her. At the end of the story, the woman, now quite old, attaches her apology/love letter to a kite and lets it drift off into the evening sky. Its message of respect was not lost on Carle.

Carle's response was the only one in the class written as a letter. His artwork showed Willie on a mountain peak, surrounded by stars. She had on an old fashioned hat with feathers. He wrote:

Dear Mrs. Willie Rudd,
It is too bad that you are dead now. Sorry. It was your time. My name is Carle. I know that you are up there with God. I wish I could have helped you with your work. I really do. I would like to see your face in the sky please ma'am. I hope I see you. I feel like I know you.

There are many little stories that come to mind about Carle and his brilliant art. He looked at the world with an artist’s eye. On the playground I would see him looking down a fence line, sketching shapes in the dirt with a stick and feeling the rough texture of pine bark seemingly wondering how he could capture that with his art. Once he pulled a piece of light cardboard from the trash and asked if he could have it. It was the back of a legal pad I had used up. “Sure,” I said. “What for?”

“You’ll see.”

The next day Carle gave me the cardboard back with this wonderful Peter-Max-looking drawing of a curvaceous young African American girl with one hand on her hip and one hand fluffing up her hair. He called it "Hubba Hubba". All around her were concentric rings of bright colors blended subtly together. She was dancing he said. He told me that the paper I gave him was amazing with all its rough bits and uneven surface. The color of it was exactly what he needed to bring out the bright background colors. “Do you know what I mean?” he asked.

“You are the one teaching me sometimes. You know that don’t you, Carle?”

He smiled and looked down and nodded.

I think our art teacher recognized Carle’s brilliance, but I don’t think she appreciated it. I went to collect the kids from art class one day and the students were all happy and chattering away. They had been working on “still life”. There was a little basket of objects placed in the middle of each table for the kids to draw as realistically as they could. It wasn’t the kind of activity that would normally captivate Carle. He liked to draw what was in his head, what he imagined.

I could never quite tell how Carle would feel on art days. While he was mainly self-taught (although it was easy to see that he had been taught by all the great artists he encountered as he read the world), in some ways he was more of a natural artist than our art teacher. True, his work still needed some tweaking, and it would never hurt for him to get some tips from an “expert” but Carle had something that most artists don’t have. It’s hard to put into words, but Carle was an experimenter, a thrill seeker, he went beyond merely drawing or coloring or recording. When he drew he was there. He put himself into his art like no one else I have ever known.

As the class came back from art, I could see Carle stomping down the hall with his bottom lip stuck out, an angry expression on his face, his arms folded across his chest (he was pretty transparent with his feelings). Emotionally he was a little kid in a big body. I gave a 'what’s up?' expression to Carle and the art teacher who was accompanying the kids back to the classroom. She just shrugged. Carle glowered. “What is it, Carle?”

“She wanted me to color my drawing like it was some sort of stupid coloring book.”

“Now Carle,” she said. “I can’t just let you do whatever you want to. How would it seem to the other boys and girls if you were the only one who didn’t have to color your drawing?” She turned to me in exasperation. “He simply refused to participate. After he was finished with this picture he just sat there.”

“I know what you mean,” I said to her. “C’mon Carle.” His drawing was balled up in his hand. As we got back to class I asked him to come out in the hall with me. I asked if I could see his piece. It was simple but incredible. The others had drawn their still life art in pencil and then gone over it with black marker and finally colored in their pictures with crayons. Carle’s piece was a careful rendering of exactly what was in front of him done in fine tip marker. There was a stuffed Raggedy Ann doll with loopy yarn hair, fruit, a book and other found objects in a frilly country basket draped in a patterned fabric. While it wasn’t the most creative piece he had ever drawn, I was amazed by the accuracy, detail and confidence. You could see the shine in the doll’s button eyes, the rolls in the fabric and how the pattern changed as it folded away from the viewer’s perspective.

“She wanted me to color this with crayons,” he said with tears in his eyes.  “Like it's some kind of damned coloring book page... Like I’m some kind of little kid or something.”

“Stop cussing.” I said. “That will get you into trouble.” He nodded, looking down. “I get it, Carle. Your piece is fantastic just the way it is in black and white. Coloring it would just mess it up.”

“You like it?” he asked, looking up and fishing for more compliments.

“I love it, man. Can I have it?” He took it from me, smoothed out the wrinkles as best he could against his leg and handed it back.

“Sure. You really like it? I mean I didn’t use my imagination like you said I should.”

“Carle, you can’t blame the art teacher. She has to teach twenty-five kids at a time.” I looked around as if to make sure no one was watching or listening. “She doesn’t recognize your talent. You, Carle… You’re one in a million,” I said conspiratorially.

He could not suppress a grin. “You like it?”

“I told you I did, didn’t I? Now listen, do what she says from now on with no complaining. She knows more about art than you do and these little exercises won’t hurt.” He nodded his head. “And cut that cussing out. Whatever you do at home is your business. I have no control over that. But in this class, in this school, cussing is not an option. Understand?”

“Yeah, sorry Mr. O.”

“Now get in there,” I said and gave him a noogie for good measure.

I have more stories about Carle. The way he teared up when I read certain sad stories. The way he was by himself - even in a crowd. The way he chewed his nails incessantly and picked his scabby legs until they bled. The road was not an even one that year. His temper flared now and then and when he was mad, he was difficult to calm. He did end up with the assistant principal now and again for a good talking to.  He didn’t do his homework very often. He didn't pay attention to spelling when he wrote, but it did develop over the year. He didn’t make friends with the other children. Not really. But they sort of tolerated each other. He did manage to keep his aggression to a minimum and never really hurt anyone. And how his art did shine!

When I think back on his school file, the one that would follow him through high school, it angers me. With all of the psychological reports, stories of his aggressive behavior and poor attitude, behavior contracts, poor grades and nasty notes, I don’t remember reading a single one about Carle’s art. It was his gift. Wasn’t there a teacher, counselor, principal or aide who ever noticed this? Not even an art teacher?  How could one not recognize this part of his intelligence?

When we said good-bye at the end of that year, it was hard. I was moving to another school and I knew that I would not see many of these kids again. There was Bryan with his big old heart and his love of playground games. There was Susannah who could make you cry with her writing – and often did make me cry. Every year is different because every child makes special contributions. Carle is one of those kids who made that year special for me. I hope that I did something for him as well.

Carle still had difficulty reading at the end of his third grade year, but he did pick up a book now and then to read on his own. He was still pretty anti-social and while he didn’t make any real friends among the children, we were friends. For that I am so grateful. While it wasn't always easy being his teacher, it was an honor.