A New, Age-Old Hack

“Guess what’s all the rage now,’ my husband said to me, looking up from his digital newspaper. “It’s got a new name, but it’s exactly what we did when we first got married.”

Cash stuffing, it seems, is all over TikTok, where young consumers are urging each other toward this low-tech, age-old hack on how to stick to a budget.

Back when we were newlyweds, we’d been shocked by the cost of living. Who knew that heating a small house could cost so much? And the bills kept coming—groceries, car insurance, appliance repair, and quarter after quarter of college tuition and books.

To make our money outlast the month, we labeled envelopes and stuffed them with the cash we budgeted for each category. The first Friday of each month, I’d pull bills from the Groceries: Week 1 envelope to take to Meijer, an expansive new store offering a plethora of foods, most of which never landed in my grocery cart.

One spring break, though, we found that cash stuffing carries risk.

We were packed for a road trip to visit my parents. Just as my husband turned the car key, I had a thought.

“Could you wait a minute?” I said to him. “I have one more thing to do.”

He turned off the ignition.

Back in the house, I lifted the tin box of newly-filled envelopes from the bottom filing cabinet drawer. This box held our living for the next month. And I was having an uneasy feeling. I cast my eyes around the room, and, on impulse, stuffed the box under the dirty laundry in the hamper.

Whoever broke into our house that weekend didn’t find it, but not for lack of trying. The thief emptied filing cabinet drawers and riffled through cupboards and rummaged in closets. But our cash was safe.

Cash stuffing might not have been fool proof, but it did curb our spending. With credit and debit cards, we could have lost track. We could have derailed our budget and accumulated debt.

And I hope this new, age-old hack going virtual on TikTok also helps today’s young consumers make their money outlast the month. 

With the Sun In Mind

More than a century ago, someone gave me a gift. Scarcely a day passes that I don’t give thanks to this unknown person, who understood how the sun moves through the sky and who used this knowledge to design our house.

Now that I’m retired and no longer turning off my alarm long before sunup, I see the rainbows that move across our white bedspread as the sun rises. They come from the beveled glass of an east window­. As it catches the light, it acts as a prism, splitting what was white into colors.

I’d be reluctant to leave the bedroom each morning, except that I don’t want to miss what’s happening downstairs. In the living room, transoms top the east windows. And the light that filters through their textured, colored panes, casts a rippling, rose glow over the room, a gentle welcome to the day.

All along its path across the sky, the sun shines in on us, through one window and then another. But it saves the best for evening. Having reached the west side of the house, the sinking sun sends its light through the amber and purple window panes on stairway landing. And the foyer below is sprinkled with sunset colors.

Our old creaky house is full of windows—forty of them, many stretching from near the floor almost up to the ten-foot ceilings. We feel their numbers on window-washing day. With few blank walls, it’s hard to arrange furniture and to make Zoom calls. These windows increase our heating bills and decrease our privacy.

But I wouldn’t trade them. The changing light elevates my energy and brings beauty and cadence to my day. And all because someone in 1872 thought to designed with the sun in mind.

My Ninety-Year-Old Father Has It Both Ways

I stood in the doorway of my dad’s study. He hadn’t heard me coming, not even with his high-cost, high-tech hearing aids.

On the table lay what appeared to be an ancient book. But on his computer screen, he was reading an ebook, in German.

When I cleared my throat, he looked up.

“Guess what I found on Hathitrust Library?” he said, pivoting his chair to reach for the old book.

“This was published in 1853,” he told me. “My grandfather’s mother gave it to him.”

The book contained a section on the beginnings of the Amish church, and my father was reading it to prepare for a talk at a history conference.

“But why are you reading electronically?” I asked.

Old books in digital form have perks, my dad explained to me. He showed me how he clicked on the full-screen toggle and how he could search for words. With the backlit screen and control of font size, he didn’t need to strain to see. And besides, it saved the wear of the old book.

But when he looked at the vellum-bound book in his hands, his eyes softened. His great-grandmother and his grandfather had held this book. They had turned these very pages, now yellowed and brittle. 

My nonagenarian father likes the lure and nostalgia of old books. But he isn’t tech-averse. He appreciates the efficiencies of new ways.

When I finish writing this post, I’ll head to his house for my daily check-in. He won’t hear me coming. So I’ll pause again in the doorway of his study to catch him in action. If he’s not reading a book on Hathitrust, he’ll likely be on some online database, using the new to search out the old.

The Secret in the Fruit Cellar

I never told anyone what I did once a week in the fruit cellar. Not my parents, not my siblings, and, for sure, not my friends. Everyone already thought I was a strange kid. And there was no sense in offering up more evidence.

But I felt the call of history. So I surreptitiously made my way down the cellar steps to the backroom where Mason jars of peaches and applesauce and green beans lined the shelves. And there, I made my contribution to the annals of history by narrating my daily life.

My days seemed ordinary enough. But you never knew. Anne Frank didn’t know what was coming, either, when she wrote the first entry in her diary. And besides, my dad, who read and wrote history, had told me that diaries, even those of common folk, helped historians understand the times.

This is what I wanted to do—leave a trace of ordinary life in Flint, Michigan, during the 1960s.

Only I wanted to do it in a new way. Someday, I decided, someone would invent a machine, one that could scan sound waves that had once bounced off the walls.

So once a week, I sat on an upturned milkcrate and talked.

I told the wall about the kids who, hearing the jingle of bells on my brother’s ice cream push cart, surrounded it and stole ice cream. I explained that our family didn’t have a television, but that I loved to watch Henry Wrinkler play The Fonz on Happy Days while I babysat the six Jackson kids who lived above the Judd Road party store. I talked about the riots in Detroit and how folks in Flint were cleaning their guns, getting ready, just in case.

I described how much I wanted the new Skip-It toy that all the girls in my class brought to recess. And how sad it was my parents couldn’t afford one. And that maybe I could figure out how to make one of my own.

Of course, all these words are lost to history, which is probably good. I’m sure most of what I said was cringe-worthy.

Still, I’m glad I sat on that milkcrate and talked. The listening wall helped me organize my thoughts, consolidate my memory, move toward action, and ease my angst. All this help from the wall, and no one else was any the wiser.

The Funeral of a First Friend

We three sat in a row, silent and waiting.

We hadn’t known we’d see each other at this funeral. But we had each come, of our own accord, and found spots on the same row. Living across three states and in different worlds, we hadn’t seen each other for a long time. And we probably hadn’t sat in the same row since second grade.

Suddenly, we couldn’t help it. Just as we had back at Yoder School, we began to whisper.

But our talk was changed. It was no longer about what to play at recess or how many plants we had found in the woods to add to the class collection or that our parents had said yes—we could order chocolate milk, not white, for the afternoon snack.

Now we spoke of knee replacements and cataracts and nitroglycerin. But mostly our words were about our schoolmate Nathan, who was no longer sitting in our row and whose family was beginning to gather in the front rows, preparing to honor him.

In our little huddle, we paid our own pre-service tribute. The three of us had been placed with Nathan in the same school group, one that was expected to work a little harder and a little faster than the rest of the class. And Nathan pressed us forward.

He was so smart. In flashcard contests, he beat us, almost every time. But we remembered that he was also kind. How could he be so smart and so kind?

And for the next hour and a half, those twined themes kept reverberating in the scriptures and songs and words of people who loved Nathan, only in more grown-up verbiage.

It’s a strange thing to bury a first friend. We three sitting in our row were perhaps the only people there who carried memories of Nathan in primary school when the seeds of intelligence and kindness were sprouting in him.

Now, six decades later, his body had given out, and ours were wearing down. But our minds were still sharp enough to consider Nathan’s life. I don’t know what the other two were thinking during our friend’s funeral. But I was hoping that, when my time comes, the word kind will show up in a thought or two about me.

Once again, Nathan was pressing me forward.

Nathan, front row, far right; my friend Gertrude, front row, red dress; my friend Ruth, third row, yellow dress.
I am seated in the front row, blue dress

Too Good to be True

It’s too good to be true. I can’t believe I can walk three blocks down and one block over and be at my favorite building in town. And all because of Andrew Carnegie, who was once the richest person in America.

But also because of James Anderson.

Before Anderson stepped into his life, the young Carnegie could only dream of reading books. He was then a thirteen-year-old bobbin boy working in a cotton mill from dawn until dark, earning $1.20 a week. He couldn’t buy books. And he couldn’t pay the $2 subscription to the local library, where working folk like him weren’t welcome, anyway.

But when Anderson opened his personal library to working boys, Carnegie showed up. Each Saturday afternoon, he returned a book he had borrowed from Anderson’s 400-book collection. And after he and Anderson discussed the book, Carnegie chose his new book for the week. Anderson’s books—volumes like Lamb’s essays, Bancroft’s History of the United States, and Shakespeare—provided most of Carnegie’s education.

After Carnegie made his fortunes, he remembered the wonder of those Saturday afternoons with Anderson and his books. And between 1886 and 1919, he donated more than $40 million to build 1,679 new libraries in communities large and small across America. Each library was built on two conceptual pillars. They were public, and they were free.

One of these Carnegie libraries is four blocks from my house. My son worked there through high school, shelving returns and helping patrons find books. I served on the library board for seven years, during the time computers were coming in and whispering was going out.

But though I sat though nearly a hundred board meetings, I’ve never lost the wonder of walking through the library door. I like the muffled rustle of turning pages and the rows of shelves holding hundreds of books—old leathers with flaking gold lettering; new with glossy dust jackets, paperbacks holding each other up, tall books and skinny and short and squat. I like breathing in the scents of paper and dust and ink.

In these books I find friends and advise and information. I can run may fingers over their spines and pull out this one and that. I can pick up any one of these books and take it home.

It’s too good to be true.

And I thank James Anderson and Andrew Carnegie.

How To Grow Eyes in the Back of Your Head

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

This is what Mr. Weber was saying to his students just as I walked into the back of his mostly-settled classroom.

What he said made three things happen. Holly pocketed the note she was about to pass, Jennifer stuffed a unchewed stick of gum back into her bag, and Josiah crumpled the straw he had smuggled from the cafeteria to use as a paper-wad launch.

How could Mr. Weber have known about the straw launcher and the gum and the note? His back to the class, he had been writing an algebraic equation on the chalkboard.

It turns out, he hadn’t known.

“I just sensed something in the air,” he told me later. “I figured my warning would land justly on someone.”

Having eyes in the back of your head—this is what students call this uncanny ability to be aware of what seems to be hidden.

Educators call it “with-it-ness.”

Effective classroom management, Mr. Weber taught me, is not so much how teachers deal with misconduct as how well they prevent it.

Mr. Weber used a lifeguard approach. Lifeguards are trained to spot early signs of danger: panicked looks and flailing arms and vertical positions. And by acting in good time, they forestall crisis.

So how can teachers grow eyes in the backs of their heads? Here are some strategies I learned from Mr. Weber:

  • Watch as students’ faces as they enter. Then respond to what you see. The squeeze of a shoulder, the offer of a corner nook, a calming word, a note dropped on a desk, all these can avert trouble.
  • When you can, keep turned toward the action. When Mr. Weber conferenced with a student, he positioned himself so he could see the rest of the class. When students were testing or writing, he sat at the back of the room, where his eyes were on them and theirs weren’t on him.
  • Move throughout the classroom. Never knowing where Mr. Weber would show up, students stayed engaged instead of acting up.

Mr. Weber might have been known for the eyes in the back of his head. But when students talked about him, their voices held more admiration than grumble.

The Day I Pretended to be Bad

Friday afternoon stretched endlessly in Mrs. Lott’s third-grade class. Flies droned on the window sills. I watched the secondhand tick past the minute hand, and I squinted my eyes trying to catch the hour hand move. I had already written each spelling word five times each. And now I was copying page after page of math problems from the textbook onto my paper, solving the same kinds of calculations over and over again.

Still, I tried to be good. My parents wanted me to follow the rules. And besides, Mrs. Lott had an end-of-class ritual. Each day when the closing bell rang, she stood in her doorway with a paddle in one hand and a dish of M & M’s in her other hand. Every kid left her room with a swat from the paddle or a good pill from the candy dish. Some kids, like Judy Hadley, who sat across the aisle from me, got the paddle every day.

Even so, I envied Judy. Her afternoon had been far livelier than mine. Having just shopped at the Judd Road party store, she had munched through a box of Lemonhead candy and was now chomping on a mouthful of Bazooka gum while she surreptitiously parceled out hot cinnamon toothpicks to her friends. When Mrs. Lott wrote on the chalkboard, Judy talked and passed notes. And she created a mess in the aisle by stuffing so many papers into one side of the book box under her seat that they fell out the other side.

I was watching her use the tip of her scissors to etch a design on the back of her math book, when I got an idea. I could liven up my afternoon by pretending to be bad. I didn’t really chew gum, but I moved my mouth like I did. I didn’t carve a design on the back of my book. But I sketched one with a pencil and then erased it. I didn’t actually talk to Frank Adkins, who sat behind me. But I turned around and pretended I did. I began to see why Judy was bad. Being bad made the end of school come faster.

The dismissal bell rang. That’s when I remembered the good pills and the paddle. I could hardly breathe. When I stood up, I thought I would fall down. Somehow, I got to the door. For a terrible moment, Mrs. Lott looked at me.

“For the first time,” she said. “I’m not sure what to do with you.”

I waited.

Then she gave me a good pill.

I was never bad for Mrs. Lott again.

(For more stories like this, read my memoir—Yoder School.)

He Can’t Believe I’m Still Alive

He towered above me in the Kroger parking lot, a smile sweeping across his face.

“Mrs. Swartz!” he said. “I wasn’t sure you’d still be with us.”

And then, having heard his words, began sputtering around as his brain searched for a way out.

“I mean,” he finally managed. “I thought you might have moved out of town.”

Jerome had been a wistful sort of student, never quite sure he’d make it onto the basketball team or through the midterm exam or into a group of friends. But he had also been dogged, trying against the odds.

Now he stood beside what looked to be a luxury pickup truck, as well-kept as his scuff-free boots and chino pants and fleece-lined cargo jacket.

Jerome worked in construction, he told me. And on the side, he bought houses and flipped them. He was working on his third house. The money from these houses went into the bank as a foundation for starting his own construction business.

He shook his head in disbelief, and a look of wonder came across his face.

“I’m doing it,” he said to me. “I’m making a good life.”

It’s something to get a strong hug from a hulking young man who used to sit so timorously in the back of my class.

I wish he could have had a glimpse back then of the assured adult he was at this moment in the Kroger parking lot. But probably it was the struggle against the unknown that made him this strong.

Just as he left, Jerome again showed his true colors.

“Goodbye, Mrs. Swartz,” he said. “Glad you’re still here!”

Knowing that kid, he’ll probably keep checking for my obituary.