Confessions of an Empath

If you’re an empath, as I am, people can wear you down. As I watched students stream into the classroom, my mirror neurons would start firing, and I’d start feeling what students felt. I’d notice eyes that were glazed and angry, gaits that were swaggering and dragging. I’d see a kids hunkered down in hoodies or hiding behind hair. I could find trouble in one glance. And what I saw often exhausted me.

I was a sponge, absorbing their pain. Most students liked knowing their vibes mattered. This emotional bond drew them in. When they knew I cared, they were willing to learn.

But I had a few things to learn myself. From the cradle, I had been taught to give until it hurt and that part of caring for others meant suffering myself. And while I wanted to stay generous toward my students, I was overwhelmed. With a hundred students rotating through my room every day, I needed a tool.

And I found it in a diagram called The Mud Hole.

This diagram showed me what I didn’t want to become—a detached teacher, looking down with pity at struggling students. It also showed me where I was too often—in the mud hole, slugging around with students who needed care. And when I over identified in this way, I had little energy for other students and myself and my family.

But the diagram also gave me a way forward. Reining in my empathy, I found, made it stronger. I learned to reach out with one hand and hold to my sources with the other, to keep my own feelings separated from theirs. The space between us made me a better listener because I was less engulfed, less clouded with their pain.

This middle ground is hard to find. It’s easier to look down from above or to slide all the way into the bottom of the pit. There is an art to being partly in and partly out. But for me, this rooted empathy was the only way to keep teaching with love for thirty years.

My Ninety-Seven-Year-Old Mother-in-Law Comes to Stay

The main problem with my mother-in-law is that she’s such a hard act to follow. In my book Yoder School, I describe her as Mother Teresa of Mennonites. She opened her home, already full with her own nine kids and her foster kids, to people in trouble. Steve had never known who he might sit next to at supper—an alcoholic trying to stay on the wagon, a mom and her kids who had run out of food stamps, or someone on a suicide watch. In decades I’ve been part of the Swartz family, I’ve never once heard her complain, and I’ve watched her, time and again, find hope in bad times.

She showed up for her ten-day stay with us, bringing her abundant goodwill, which I had expected, and a touch of genius, which I hadn’t.

“I have a goal,” she said within the first hour, “of reading your book again while I am with you.”

This was a way to my heart, for sure.

I watched as she doggedly set about her task. I’d walk by her room, and she’d be huddled by a window for light, peering through a magnifying glass.

“Would you like me to read to you?” I asked one day, and her face sagged with relief.

And so our daily readings began. We read mornings in her bedroom, after lunch at the table, and evenings in the living room recliners. She listened as I read about my childhood, the times before she knew me, and how I dated her son and married him and how together we scrapped through the lean years of our early marriage as we juggled babies and classes on our way to college diplomas.

“I didn’t realize that,” she kept saying.

One evening she was tired, so, so tired. But once in bed, she wanted me to read. After a few pages, I paused, thinking she’d want to sleep.

“Go on,” she said. “Keep reading. I want to hear.”

It was one of the precious moments of my life—this ninety-seven-year-old woman, who had once nurtured my husband, who had read him countless books, now snuggled in bed, weak from the efforts of the day, listening to a story.

Changing Diapers and Spreading Manure and Learning

I changed my brothers’ diapers before I started school, made supper before I was ten, and baked cinnamon rolls by twelve. As a kid I hoed the garden, mowed the lawn, babysat in the neighborhood, and supervised my siblings in weekly Saturday house cleanings. And all this was good for me—turning me into an efficient, competent adult.

So as a teacher, I was surprised to find that work can be an enemy. Mostly it isn’t, of course. In one of the longest longitudinal studies ever, Harvard researchers found that people who did chores as kids had greater job satisfaction and closer relationships as adults. They were healthier, lived longer, and were happier, much happier—and all this regardless of intelligence, family income, ethnic background, or level of education.

Despite this praise of work, I’ve known high school teachers to drop in at fast food and convenience stores at 11:05 P.M. with an eye for students behind the counters, the ones who fall asleep in their classes. They’re not out to get the kids, but they’re fully prepared to report employers who violate child labor laws.

And I’ve taught numbers of middle school students who were parentified. That’s what we in education call the too-early taking on of adult roles—children stepping up for struggling parents and thus thwarting their own growth.  

“Could I have a seat in the back?” Carmen asked me one day after class. “That way I can stand when I’m about to sleep.”

While her single mom worked second shift, Carmen ran herd on a pack of younger siblings—feeding them, breaking up fights, and supervising homework, baths, and bed time. And all this before staying up late to do her own homework.

This is not a new problem. More than a hundred years ago and long before work permits, Joseph Oppenheim, teacher in a one-room school, was concerned. Parents were keeping kids home from school to spread manure. Unloaders at that time dropped manure directly behind the wagon. And the manure had to be spread to prevent burning the soil. But this was back-breaking work, and parents needed help.

Not having child-labor laws to back him up, Oppenheim turned to invention. One day at recess, Oppenheim watched students play ball with a paddle-shaped bat that deflected the ball to one side or the other. And from this idea, he created the first manure spreader with a wide-span reach. Now students could learn again.

So, yes, have kids change diapers and spread manure. But also send them to school well-rested.

Dreadlocks, Roses, and Death

Today I went to the funeral of a teacher. The normal people, her husband and children and grandson and siblings, were there. And the old people like her. She looked shrunken to me, lying there in the casket, like a withered version of the flower-like person she had been. She had always reminded me of a rose, both elegant and delicate, both soft and with just enough of a thorny edge to engender respect.

I sat near the near back entrance. That’s how I saw them slipping in. By the end there were rows of high school and college-age kids, who didn’t look like they belonged at the funeral of a little old lady, whose body had been wracked with pain for years. Cool kids with piercings and dreadlocks and man buns and hair dyed pink or gold. They wore long, curled-up eyelashes and low-slung pants and jeans and boots.

At the graveside, they clutched their cell phones for comfort. They managed tears under their masks.

They listened as the preacher said, “Death is a fearful thing, but Jesus made death a shadow.”

Then they bowed their heads as the casket was lowered.

Afterward, I talked with some of them. And I wasn’t surprised by what they said. They talked about her pluck and confidence, her jokes, and how she often fed them before she taught.

“And she was kind, always kind,” one of them said. “With her, I could count on kindness, every time.”

Some had been visiting her at the nursing home, where it wasn’t easy to see her wracked with pain. One of them sang to her when he visited.

“I actually sang,” he said with a sheepish look. “She liked it.”

Another young guy didn’t actually make the funeral. Breathless from the airport, he arrived just in time for the burial. He had cut short his Jamaican vacation.

I’m sure there were days when this beloved teacher wondered if anyone was listening. I wish she could have seen what I saw today—and heard what her students told me.

A Pandemic Shift

During this pandemic, I’ve felt a shift. And last week when I rolled down my car window and held out my arm is one example. I almost forgot to feel the poke. And this was because of the voice coming in the window on the other side of the car. The man preparing to vaccinate my husband spoke with economy. Every word counted. But his tone—sympathetic and exquisitely courteous—kept him from sounding abrupt.

I had known someone who spoke like this. I reached into my memory, but I couldn’t find the name. So I turned my head to see. This didn’t help. I could barely see his face, covered as it was with a mask and a pair of glasses and a hat pulled down against the chill. But when he spoke again, I knew.

“Richie Boyd?” I asked.

He bent to look across the car. And I saw his struggle to recognize me. We had both changed since he sat in my gifted class. He had grown taller and broader and now carried himself like an adult who had made his way in the world. I was different, as well. Above my mask, he saw a woman with wrinkles and silvered hair, who looked like she belonged in the 65-and-older vaccine line.

But he, too, bridged the years.

“Mrs. Swartz!” he said.

And he wasn’t the first former student to care for me in this pandemic. One evening soon after the pandemic began, our governor called for Ohioans to look out for senior citizens.

“Pick up your telephone,” he said. “Give them a call.”

That evening my phone rang.

“I’m calling to check on you,” a former student said

The mayor of our town, who was once in my seventh-grade English class, has led our small city through this strange year, asking people to care for each other and setting up structures to make this happen. In the grocery store, former students who usually offer a hug have been taking two steps back. And when they want to talk, they send me Zoom links instead of ringing my doorbell. But the biggest shift is that, instead of launching instantly into a recitation of their lives, they’re asking about mine, genuinely wanting to know how I’m doing.

This feeling of being watched over by those I used to tend is strange, a reminder of my mortality. But how satisfying to see students who once couldn’t find their pencils now running the world!

My Ninety-Two-Year-Old Mother Takes on Voice-to-Text Transcription

My ninety-two-year-old mom has been wanting to write her story.

“I remember things no one else knows,” she told me. “And I want to preserve these memories before they’re lost forever.”

But she’s been plagued with trouble. Her hands hurt when she writes with a pen. And when she types on a computer, her documents somehow disappear. So her daily story-writing sessions had been fraught—until she discovered voice-to-text transcription.

“All I have to do is talk to this microphone,” she said, pointing to an icon on her laptop. “And the computer does the rest.”

This reminded me of something I had never told my mother. Being a quirky kind of a kid, I had early-on developed a sense that it was best to hide some of my strangest ideas. So my parents didn’t know about my story-telling sessions in the fruit cellar every evening after supper dishes.

Impressed with the new television sets and Etch-a-Sketch toys and audio cassettes, I was convinced someone would soon invent a wall-reading machine, a device that could scan walls and retrieve every word the wall had ever “heard.”

And sure that I was living in unusual times, I thought I’d help future historians by documenting these times. So every evening, I sat on an upturned crate in the fruit cellar and talked to the wall—about war and assassinations and the space race and civil rights marches. I also explained what I missed from the mountains of Western Maryland and what I found strange in the city—the faded stars and sirens and rushing traffic and big schools and people who talked all sorts of ways.

Earlier this year I drove back to that childhood house in Flint, Michigan. I sat in my parked car and wished I had a newly-invented wall-reading machine to take down the cellar steps. And though I didn’t know what kind of nonsense I had spoken to those walls, I came to a better understanding of why I had spent so much time talking to them. I was doing then what my mom is doing now—trying to make sense of a life and then share that sense with others.

The Casselman Inn: Then; Now

“Come home.”

This is what my grandma said to me, often. And this usually meant we stayed at her historic inn on Route 40 in Grantsville, Maryland. Built in 1842, the Casselman had served the stage coaches, covered wagons, drovers, and horseback riders who made their way long the National Trail to cross the Appalachian Mountains. But when my grandparents owned the Casselman, tourists and locals drove there to eat Amish-style fare in the restaurant or to sleep in a vintage, high-back bed.

When I came home, first with my parents from Flint, Michigan, and later with my husband and children from Ohio, and still later with my grandchildren, we slept in Casselman beds and ate restaurant meals of chicken, homemade bread slathered with apple butter, and shoofly pie.

The Casselman gave us and our many cousins a base. We’d eat there and sleep. But during the day we’d visit the farm to tramp in the woods, fish in the river, play in the haymow, and roast hot dogs over a fire. No matter where we lived, we had a place back in Grantsville.

Now our family no longer owns the Casselman. My grandfather died. And then my grandmother. And several years ago my father and his siblings sold the historic inn to another branch of the family—to my second cousin Elissa and her husband Ben.

To hear their story and to see historic and recent pictures of the inn go here. You’ll meet my grandparents and their children. And you’ll see why our branch of the family is delighted with Elissa and Ben.

From Sap to Syrup

Writing is like boiling down maple sap.

One of my favorite childhood haunts was the sugar camp. All winter I’d wait for sugaring. Wet winds would blow in from Lake Erie and the Ohio Valley, and when they tried to climb the mountains of Western Maryland, where I lived, those mountains would wring them out like a rag, turning the moisture into snow at an average of a hundred inches per year.

But I could tell winter was wearing down when my grandpa started tinkering around in the sugar camp. He’d gather the spiles that pierced the trees and wash the keelers that gathered the sap, and fire up the evaporator. Soon I’d trail along under the maples as he harvested the first crop of the year.

Sap, I discovered when I sneaked a bit of the clear liquid, tastes almost like water. The sweetness had to be in there somewhere. I knew this from the maple candy my grandma made by pouring hot maple syrup on a clean bed of snow, the taffy we pulled with buttered hands until it turned satiny and held its shape, and the golden river of syrup I mopped up with my pancakes.

But between the sap and the syrup was a whole lot of boiling down. It takes, after all, forty gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. So from the vats of bubbling sap, clouds of steam rose into the chilly spring air, taking away what wasn’t wanted and leaving what was sweet.

That image of the vanishing steam has helped me write. My first drafts, I’ve found, are more like sap than like syrup—full of what isn’t wanted. I’ve learned to be wary of every word—to ask, “What are you doing here?” Actually, leery of each syllable. I’ve learned to distrust words that end in tion and ance and ious. Good writing, I’ve come to see, doesn’t correlate with long words.

Fire up the evaporator, I tell myself, boil it down.

A Clever Horse Teaches Me a Lesson

If you asked Clever Hans the answer to 12 + 12, he’d tap his hoof 24 times. And if the problem was written on the chalkboard, he’d answer that, too. I had never heard of this counting horse. But during a series of two-minute mini lectures on our family Christmas Zoom call, my niece Emilie introduced us to him.

His owner, Herr Wilhelm von Osten, loved horses and taught math. In Clever Hans, he brought these two passions together. Using teaching techniques and lots of carrots and bread, von Osten taught his horse to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, to change common fractions to decimals, to understand the value of German coins, and to tell time on a watch.

And Clever Hans could spell. By tapping the alphabet—once for A, twice for B, and so on—he could stomp out words. When he saw a painting familiar to him, he could spell the name of the artist. Hearing a tune, he’d hoof off the composer. He recognized colors and playing cards and spelled out their names. And he knew the calendar of the whole year.

Von Osten took the show on the road. But not to make money. Demonstrations were free. And they were sensational, attracting attention across Germany and world-wide.

In 1904, Clever Hans appeared before the German Board of Education. After studying the horse for over a year, these educators concluded there was no hoax. Von Osten had convinced them that people didn’t give animals enough credit for their intelligence.

But then psychologists had a go at Clever Hans. They confirmed that the horse almost always gave the right answer not only when von Osten asked the question, but also when others asked. But when the horse wore blinders, something interesting happened. If Clever Hans could see the questioner, he’d get it right. If the questioner was out of sight, though, right answers dropped to six percent.

The horse, the psychologists discovered after further study, couldn’t count after all. But what Clever Hans could do was pick up the signals his questioners gave him. When he noticed a raised eyebrow or a shifting foot or a change in breathing, he could tell he was at the right answer and stopped tapping his hoof.

“Maybe Clever Hans couldn’t count,” Emilie said that day on the Zoom call. “Still, he was clever.”

After Emilie’s mini lecture I got to thinking about what we in education call the hidden curricula.

These are the lessons we teach from underlying tones.

“Trigonometry?” a guidance counselor may say with a raised eyebrow to a female signing up for classes in her junior year. And she gets the message—girls and math don’t match.

“When you go to college,” a teacher may say in a matter of fact tone to one student and not to another, even if their academic profiles are similar. And these students catch the expectation.

When I taught at a state prison, I heard a recurring statement from my inmate students, one that caused me pain each time I heard it: My teachers didn’t believe in me.

I’ve never known a teacher to say this to a student, not outright. But I take my place among the teachers who have sent powerful messages—with eyes and words and silence—that hurt rather than helped.

Students, after all, constantly look to us for cues about who they are and how to work out their lives.

Thank you, Emilie, for sending my mind this way!