Voices on the Train

For 126 hours and 5000 miles, I heard voices on the train. I hadn’t anticipated this listening when I packed my bags for our Amtrak trip. The main attraction for me was looking out the window. And I did. I saw people in their daily lives—combining fields and walking dogs and sweeping front porches and climbing on school buses. I saw laundry on lines and irrigation in desert fields. I saw mansions cropping the tops of mountains and people subsisting under strung-out canvases along the railroad tracks. And from the ground, I saw the vastness of this country and its varied terrain. All this is what I had expected.

But I was surprised by the richness of listening. There were, of course, the official Amtrak voices. Most of them made me feel like getting on board, cooperating with the program—take my turn, make way for people who were exiting the train, wear a mask, and follow Amtrak’s security slogan: If you see something, say something.

Many of them helped me know what I was seeing.

“Out your window,” a conductor said as we crossed Minnesota, “are bluffs, not hills. You want to know the difference between a bluff and a hill?”

He paused while we considered.

“A word,” he said. “That’s it. And this is not a valley we are passing through. It’s a coulee. If you’re getting off at the next stop and you want to fit in, use the right words.”

But there were some other Amtrak voices that helped me sympathize with rebellious middle school students. Three syllables in, I could feel my spine stiffen. I could already tell I didn’t want to comply, no matter the request.

Several times I heard computer keys clicking right along with mine. I spoke with an author who was finishing his ninth book on music history. And with a woman who was writing about her journey across the country. She told me that right there on the train she was working to forgive what happened on her last stop. A white man in a SUV hurled a hot cup of coffee at her as she walked along the pedestrian path of a bridge and then rudely gestured with his hand.

“I’m trying to tell myself,” she said, “that his anger is a mask for his fear.”

One night I had just reclined my coach seat. My travel pillow was in just the right position, my eyes were shielded from the overhead lights, and the rocking train was lulling me to sleep. That’s when I heard the first heavy breathing across the aisle. Soon the man was snuffling and wheezing and snorting through his nose. And then guttural snoring echoed through the car.

What amazed me was the voices I didn’t hear. All night the man snored, and no one complained. That night, my faith that compassion still exists was restored.

Not So Far From Home

We’ve lived in the small town of London for almost forty years, and having taught thousands of students, I run into them almost everywhere—at the grocery store, in the park, at a concert, in the doctor’s office, and on the street.

“Mrs. Swartz,” someone will call.

My grandchildren nod knowingly and say, “A student!”

And they’re usually right, although it could be a parent of a student. The parents also call me Mrs. Swartz.

But across the country at Crater Lake?

We were standing on the rim of the volcano-turned lake trying to take a selfie and looking quite awkward doing it.

A friendly woman left her small group and asked, “Would you two like some help?”

And after the photo shoot, we stood there with her group, basking in some Midwest friendliness and narrowing down our common geographies—from Ohio to central Ohio to Madison County and—we couldn’t believe it—to London. And that’s when we started on names.

It turned out that I taught their nephew Billy in the gifted program of London City Schools during his middle school years. So besides the picture she took for Steve and me, the friendly woman took a group picture of all of us to prove to Billy that we met, not at the London Kroger, but at Crater Lake.

Who would have thought?

More than two thousand miles from home and 7000 feet higher in elevation, where snow is already on the ground (with another 559 inches to come this season) and the sky and the lake (the deepest in the country) combine to create the bluest place I’ve ever seen, I was still a teacher and not that far from my hometown, where the fields are golden and the trees are scarlet and the creeks are muddy and the land is flat.

What a Trip!

I’m making my way across the country on a dare from our son.

“Amtrak has a special,” he told us. “And you’re both retired now.”

And so for three-hundred dollars each, my husband and I are making a big loop—from Chicago to Denver to San Francisco to Crater Lake to Glacier National Park to Minneapolis and back to Chicago again.

It’s not a trip for the faint-of-heart—sleeping in coach, pulling luggage up narrow Amtrak steps to the top deck of superliners, brushing teeth while the train lurches in restrooms so small you have to decide how to turn around, and reading the news about a derailment and a shooting.

But . . . what a trip!

We just completed our longest stretch of almost 40 hours between Denver and San Francisco. But I was sitting by my husband and on a heating pad with a shawl around my shoulders. I had my computer and a bag of crocheting and an acrostic puzzle book and a Kindle full of hundreds of books.

And through seat-to-ceiling windows I watched as the California Zephyr cut through the center of the country. We saw harvest in the Midwest and climbed to the mile-high city. After Denver, we forgot about reading as the train chugged through precarious mountain switchbacks and through tunnel after tunnel.

“Most of you will never reach an altitude higher than this,” the conductor said as we entered the Moffat Tunnel.

Before the tunnel was built in the 1920s, it took six hours of switchbacks over Rollins Pass to cross the continental divide. But we tunneled through in six minutes and worked our way down through narrow canyons where rivers, rails, roads and bike paths all share close space.

We watched sunlight playing on sandstone cliffs in the Sierra Nevada mountains and descended still further through the infamous Donner Pass. And after that, we just kept going down, down, down.

We’re glad to have some time off the train, to walk instead of ride—up and down the streets of San Francisco, around Fisherman’s Wharf, and across the Golden Gate Bridge.

But I’m looking forward to getting back on the train. I like moving while I’m sitting still.

Forget the Rules, At Least for a While

The room was filled with 120 kids, some already restless and cavorting in their seats, others hunched over as they battled first-day jitters, and still others in a snit about getting sent to music camp instead of soccer camp.

The director didn’t say, “Hello, my name is Mr. Stutzman.” He didn’t say, we are here to learn music. He didn’t tell them the rules or the consequences for breaking these rules.

“This,” he said, “is my voice.”

Wiggling stopped, and heads went up.

“I am the boss of my voice,” Mr. Stutzman said. “I can make it do what I want.”

The smiling started.

“I can growl,” he said, dropping his voice to gravel at its bottom.”

Campers began leaning forward, more and more of them as he sent his voice, bright and light, to the top of his falsetto and then slid it back down to its bottom. He kept showing ways he could boss his voice: staccato and flowing, whispery and resonant, vibrato and straight-toned.

“Do what I do,” he said.

So their voices began echoing his tongue trills and pitch glides and vocal sirens and lip buzzes.

I could see self-consciousness fade. Boys forgot that their voices were sure to crack, first-year campers lost the fear they couldn’t perform, and kids who liked to keep moving relaxed because they had something to do, something fast and changing and unpredictable.

“As you can see,” Mr. Stutzman said, “I’m here to help you boss your voice.”

And he had them.

The first minutes of every class at every level should be like this—opening what’s closed and bringing greater wonder to what’s already open.

This is why I quit starting class with the rules and introductions and SMART goals and reminders of high-stakes test and the syllabus. I turned instead to story and mystery and demonstration and paintings and music. After I had their hearts, I found, they were willing to bend their minds toward learning.

When You Whisper

I once taught middle school three days straight with laryngitis. I started the week with a scratchy throat that turned into a croaky voice and then into no voice at all. Except for a whisper. And that’s what I used for three of the easiest days of teaching I’d ever had.

Partly the students were being nice. Because of my sore throat, they took pity. But as class periods ticked by, each as smooth as another, I began to think I was learning something important. 

The most visible change was student posture. Instead of slouching or slumping over to fend off a teacher voice coming at them, they leaned forward, their ears and eyes actively trying to catch the words I said.

That’s the strange thing about humans. We are attracted to what is not readily available to us. If it’s too easy to get, we don’t value it. And if we’re pushed into it, we turn away.

This is why force feeding doesn’t work. Last week I was caring for my ninety-three-year-old mother who lost her appetite. A plateful of food revolted her. She grew weaker as the pounds kept dropping. One day my father, in a new ploy, cut her portion down to appetizer size. And she asked for more. Watching this took me back to when our children were babies. If I pushed a pacifier further into their mouths, they spit it right back. It was only when I pulled it back that they latched on.

Film maker Ken Burns has noticed this dynamic. In his documentaries, he has used hundreds of first-person narrators. To find one good storyteller he sometimes evaluates 200 people. Burns has noticed an easy-to-spot trait that most good storytellers have in common. They lean back as they talk. And what happens next, Burns says, is that their listeners lean in.

Too often, I got in wrong—leaning forward so far my students instinctively leaned back.

The Mennonite Community Cookbook and Me

When I was a kid, the Mennonite Community Cookbook meant a whole lot of work. To follow its recipes, I had to pit cherries until I was restless with boredom and knead dough until my arms ached. Onions made me cry, and my stomach cramped when I cut up a dead chicken. And there was the endless scrubbing of pots and pans and cookie sheets. All this for food that vanished in one short table sitting.

Despite my antipathies toward cooking, my mother saw to it that I learned. So I mastered recipe after recipe: old-fashioned bean soup and fried potatoes and tip top cake. And after I married, I cooked and baked from my own copy of the Mennonite Community Cookbook, not for pleasure, but because people needed to be fed.

Cleaning out a kitchen drawer this week, I pulled out this now-dilapidated book. The spine is letting loose of its 494 pages, one edge looks suspiciously scorched, and page 208, where you can find the recipe for Devil’s Food cake, is spotted with chocolate.

As I thumbed through the pages, I recalled what has always redeemed this cookbook for me. As a child desperate for diversion in the kitchen and as an adult hankering to relieve tedium with words, I had always turned to the stories scattered through the cookbook. I read about how, in the old days, folks made mush by adding enough meal and flour to the boiling water until the mixture became thick enough to pop as it bubbled. The stories told about a smokehouse built over a spring and guineas who were alarm clocks, waking their people every morning by calling, “pot rack, pot rack.”

The stories keep going—about a grandmother who baked 16 pies every Saturday morning and about clear crisp fall days that were just right for boiling sorghum molasses in a big kettle over the fire with a taffy pull to follow. And near the end of the book I loved to scan the list of food needed for a barn raising, a few items being 115 lemon pies, 500 doughnuts, 16 chickens, 3 hams, 50 pounds of roast beef, 300 rolls, 16 loaves of bread and all things pickled: eggs, red beets, and cucumbers.

Somehow, reading these stories made me more willing to measure a precise quarter cup and sift the dry ingredients and drop teaspoonful by teaspoonful onto a greased baking sheet, spacing two to three inches apart.

Story does this. It prepares the mind. I’ve found students are more ready to remember the dates of the Civil War when they follow the story of a boy who lived across the five Aprils it spanned. They are more willing to learn chemical properties when they hear about John Walker, who one day in his pharmacy scratched at a lump of sulphide and chlorate that had formed at the end of his mixing stick. When flames burst forth, the striking match had been invented.

The stories in the Mennonite Community Cookbook pulled me into the kitchen, and over and over I’ve seen story hook the attention of reluctant learners.

Slowing Down to One Kid

Earlier this summer, I spent a week going to zoos. That’s because Jesse came to stay. Most of the time grandchildren come to us in a whole pile. Food flies from the freezer to the oven to the table to their stomachs. All manner of clutter collects in corners and across counters—Lego creations, sketch books, Kindle cords, rocks and sticks, kicked-off shoes, faced-down books, skateboards and scooters and the necessary tubes of wheel grease and bars of wax and wrenches to make the scooters and skateboards work. Through the house you can hear the slamming of doors and the pounding on stairs and the barrage of ack-ack-ack-ack that comes from kids talking over each other.

And this bustle brings back for me the crackling energy of the classroom, where kids push their thoughts and energies up against each other, creating new, untapped ideas.

But in all this splendid chaos, it’s possible to lose a kid. And that’s why our grandchildren take turns, coming one at a time. For that week, we concentrate on the enthusiasms of that kid.

“You know how to tell that’s a predator?” Jesse asked me at our second zoo. “Look at its eyes.”

And that’s how I learned the mnemonic device: Eyes in the front, the animal hunts. Eyes on the side, the animal hides.

Because I slowed down to one kid, I was transported into his world, marveling at the many ways insects feed: chewing and sucking and sponging and siphoning. I managed to watch buzzards feast on a dead rabbit and to look, really look at the markings on snakes and lizards and to inhale the putrid smell of the komodo dragon.

My grandchildren keep teaching me on these weeks—that you can build rabbit cages if you watch a how-to video, that skate parks are all around me and that wonderful, risk-taking kids use them, that you can have just as much fun staying home all week and stretching the dining room table way out to build a gigantic Lego city, that doing logic puzzles down on the floor in front of the fireplace is a fine way to spend the afternoon.

I couldn’t do this often in a classroom full of middle school kids, take the time to consider closely the interests of one student. But each time I did, I came away richer, knowing more about Saudi Arabia or mullet haircuts or black holes or how to make clapperboards or what it’s like to stutter or to put a drunk parent to bed or to already know almost everything that’s taught in class.

An Unexpected Message From the Past

I couldn’t believe what I saw on a chalkboard yesterday. Those words, which I saw almost by accident, were more than a decade old. And for just a moment they got the better of me. They had been written, after all, on one of the saddest days in my teaching career.

I had been working that afternoon in the Madison County Genealogical Society library, researching for a book I’m writing, scanning microfilmed newspapers from the 1920s. My eyes had begun to blur and my neck was aching.

“I need a break,” I told the volunteer who had set up the microfilm reader for me. “I’ll be right back.”

So I stepped out into the hall. The genealogy library is housed in what had been the middle school and was now the city building. So I walked past old classrooms now turned into the mayor’s office and the council chambers and the zoning department. And I came to the stairs. The second floor had not been renovated, I knew and was still empty.

But there were no Do Not Enter signs. And I was curious because at the top of the stairs was a classroom, where I had taught my last day in the gifted program. That had been a day of mourning for me and for the students. The school district, caught in financial trouble, had made the heart-wrenching decision to cut all non-mandated programs, including gifted.

The memories of that day pulled me up the stairs. The room was empty and the closets cleared out—all of it a deserted shell of what had been. And then, as I turned to leave, I saw the chalkboard, the decade-old words on it written by students usually more willing to share concepts than feelings:

But there was more. Off to the side was an answer, later written by eighth-grade students from other rooms, in other programs.

And there you have it, I thought—a student version echoing the board of education discussion, but more than that, the eternal debate about gifted education.

Deadheads and an Old Teacher

Mostly I feel young for my age and hopeful and full of dreams. But I was in my garden last evening deadheading—removing the spent, withered-up flowers. The longer I worked the more vibrant and vigorous the garden became.

That’s what got me to thinking about being retired, and nearing seventy, and my greying hair and cranky knee and eyes that keep needing more light to see. I thought about how I keep losing what I touch. And I remembered that time I stood at the gas pump when the machine asked for my zip code. All kinds of other numbers came to my head—my social security number and the telephone number for my childhood home in Flint, Michigan, and even my grandparents’ number back in the hills of Western Maryland: Twin Oaks 5-5451. If you’re my age, you remember this—telephone numbers starting with words instead of digits. I could recall all these numbers, but not my zip code. Until finally, it came.

It’s good, I thought, as I pinched off the washed-out blooms, that I’m not going back to school this fall. And I pictured younger teachers I knew, who that very evening, were conducting an open house at London Middle School. These teachers remember numbers and walk with a spring. They speak the jargon, know the music, and breeze through the technology. Their clothes are cool and their crankiness better hidden. They’ve just come from college classes where they’ve learned best practices. Their journey is fresh and their outlook unjaded.

Though I knew all this, for a few minutes I felt bereft.

But then I found a happy thought. Those fading flowers I plucked off and dropped into the soil—those flowers are full of seeds.