Scared to Sub

Some teachers sub after they retire. Not me. I’ve never had the nerve. And this after teaching at a middle school and in a state penitentiary, with even a seminar on death row. For one thing, I remember how we treated substitute teachers when I was a kid. We chatted, chomped on gum, threw paper wads, switched names and seats, refused to work, and pushed each other around.

My last year of teaching, I saw a substitute teacher hiding in the hall. He sagged against the closed classroom door, his head hanging down. And from the gap under the door, I heard yelling and slamming around and raucous laughter.

“I can’t go back in there,” he said to me.

I opened the door and stepped inside. Silence fell.

The difference? I had a relationship with those students, and he didn’t.

Which is why I’m too scared—I wouldn’t know the students.

What’s amazing to me is that some people have the courage to sub anyway. . . and do it well.

These superstars come through the classroom door knowing they’ll get what they want, and, sure enough, they do. They say it like they mean it, walk around like they own the room, and don’t mind making some noise—slamming shut a door, banging down a book, or whistling to call for attention.

They don’t care if students like them, or so it seems. But strangely, students take to them and settle in to do their lessons.

Filling in isn’t easy. But subbing matters—for teachers who need to see doctors and care for sick children and especially for students who need to keep momentum in learning.

Just this morning, I saw the end-of-summer advertisement for substitute teachers in my school district. I hope some fast-thinking, thrill-seeking, kid-loving people answer the call.

Pigtailed Girl Who Had Never Eaten Pizza

When I moved to Flint, Michigan, I was a country kid from the hills who had never eaten pizza. I had never been served at a restaurant or ordered food at McDonalds. I had never worn a store-bought dress or ridden a city bus. I had never watched a television show. And at school, that’s what seemed to matter most.

Television was big in 1963. Most people watched shows in black and white, but the families of cool kids had color sets. And everyone knew who had what. Furthermore, they knew I had neither.

So when they talked about Bewitched and Andy Griffith and I Spy, I had nothing to say. That was bad enough, but what I dreaded most was their talk about the new Beverly Hillbillies. This was a show about a family who struck oil back in the mountains and then moved to the city without knowing city ways.

After watching a few episodes at a friend’s house, I could tell this show poked fun at mountain ways. Did my new city friends, I wondered, think my grandma still back in the hills was like Granny on the show—sour, sharp-tongued, and always reachin’ for a gun?

As a kid, I didn’t like steeling myself for the next joke about Granny. It wasn’t fun having nothing to say about Peyton Place and missing innuendos about The Dick Van Dyke Show. But years later, remembering these embarrassing moments helped me teach.

When I welcomed students from Japan and Ukraine and Australia and Mexico into my classroom, when kids from the Deep South heard shouts of laughter the first time they called me ma’am, when those from homes without books struggled to read good literature—when all these students stood in front of me, I tried to remember the out-of-place, pigtailed girl in a long skirt who had never eaten pizza or watched a television show.

A Cowlick, a Spinning Wheel, And a Hand to the Chin

My grandson never met my grandpa. So Andrew doesn’t know how my Grandpa Miller would push his chair back from the table at the end of a big family meal, how he would sit there, absorbed by our table talk—his arms crossed and one hand to his chin. When Grandpa sat like that, I could see that we mattered.

And this is how Andrew often sits at our table, looking around at us, his cousins and aunt and uncle and parents and grandparents, as if we matter. The first time I saw him do this, I was instantly back at the Mapleshade farmhouse. Though Andrew was young, maybe only six, he sat there, arms crossed and one hand to his chin, just watching, finding meaning in our words and on our faces. 

And Andrew is not alone. I also see earlier generations in other grandchildren—a penchant for policy, a need to move often and fast, a knack for turning a dime into a dollar, generous giving, precision of language, a smile, a nose, and a cowlick.

Through my house are scattered other treasures from the past: a wooden, leather-hinged box my great-grandma used to organize wool dyes, a primer that taught my two-greats-back uncle how to read, an aunt’s Bible, and a Civil-War era spinning wheel crafted by my grandpa three greats back.

I give this wheel a spin when I dust it, thinking of the generations of human touch. It’s hand-smoothed wood and the worn leather on the dye box and the crinkled pages in the primer—all these come from the material landscape of those in the chain before me.

But much as I enjoy the patina of these relics, I value even more that Andrew shows the spiritual culture of my Grandpa Miller, that like his great-great grandpa he finds worth in people around a table.

A Hard Night’s Work

“The kids,” my son wrote one morning, “are strewn around the living room right now, apparently exhausted by sleeping in.”

These are the kids who used to bounce up early each morning, who couldn’t believe how long grownups could stay in bed.  

But I don’t need to imagine their lazing about. For decades, tired teens trudged through my classroom door in the morning with heads too heavy for necks, eyelids too droopy for seeing, feet weighted to the floor, and legs looking for a place to rest, acting just like I feel when I’m jet-lagged.

It’s hard to get a good night’s sleep, students would tell me. Sometimes their phones and video games kept them up. But often, they just couldn’t sleep. No wonder. Research shows that the sleep-wake cycles change during the teenage years with the body waiting longer into the evening before producing melatonin, the hormone that brings sleep. Morning, their brains tell teens, is the best time to sleep. This is why some school districts have switched school times, sending buses first for the younger kids who are already up and ready to go and starting school later for middle and high school.

Besides changing sleep-wake cycles, my grandkids have one more excuse for morning inertia. They’ve been busy all night—growing. It’s in deep sleep that the human growth hormone is released, and there is growing evidence that significant growth can happen in very short periods, even overnight. So the strewing around on couches and recliners may not be so much a sign of slothfulness as it is an indicator of a hard night’s work.

With this rapid, growth, teens need more sleep than they did when they were younger and more sleep than they’ll need as adults.

So I’m glad its summer break for these exhausted kids.

I Just Love All My People!

“I just love all my people.”

This is what our grandson said one evening as his dad tucked him into bed.

He had just prayed for us and his other grandparents and his cousins and uncle and aunt. And he must have been struck in a toddler sort of a way with the richness of his relationships.

This is how I’ve been struck, only in a senior sort of a way.

As I read over the responses to Steve’s biopsy results, I was fascinated to read Brady Smith’s comment in the same list with my Yoder School friend, Gertrude. When I first knew Brady Smith, he was a scampy little kid with a big vocabulary who lived down the street from us in Flint, Michigan. He was so smart that he sometimes preferred going into my dad’s study to talk instead of hanging out with us. These were the days we were new to the city and I was missing Gertrude, my best friend, who still lived back in the mountains. Now Brady is an undertaker in Flint, and Gertrude is a nurse and a grandma like me.

The juxtapositions continued—a former student from London City Schools next to a Bendle High School friend, a friend from Sudan alongside someone I see at Kroger in London, a cousin commenting just before a former colleague, someone we met while visiting churches for Steve’s job just after an author I learned to know at a writing conference—young friends and old, old friends, all sending words of care.

And this is why I remembered what my grandson said that evening in bed, words I can’t say any better: I just love all my people!


This week I’ve been a little envious of King Louis XIV.

“I almost had to wait,” he’s famous for saying when a coach he had ordered arrived just in time.

Louis XIV ran his days timed to the minute, starting with a getting-up ceremony, in which members of his entourage appeared in his bedchamber like clockwork—one after the other in order of importance to watch as he was washed, combed, and shaved. By the time he was dressed and drinking soup for breakfast, these spectators numbered around 100.

He was unwearied, people said of him, and able to see many moves ahead. He used precision and urgency to make France the main political power in western Europe in his time. Waiting around was not his style.

Not mine either, as I’ve known before and confirmed once again. This week as we’ve wait for Steve’s biopsy results, I’ve felt sometimes felt as impatient as the middle school kids I’ve taught.

I’ve seen them wait—for the end of the year, the end of the term, the end of the week, the end of the day, and even clock checking every two minutes for the end of a period. I’ve watched them fidget and stew as they waited for the posting of a drama cast list, a weekly eligibility report, and SAT scores. I’ve seen them in daunting waits for their own custody hearings, for court rulings that could send a mother to prison, and parole hearings that could bring a father home.

Most middle school kids make the strains of waiting visible. They explode tempers, forget homework, backtalk teachers, fail classes, and thrash around in relationships. Or they pull inside— shuttering faces and falling silent.

Even though I’m sixty-six and should know better, I’ve shown some strain this week. But I’m trying to remember that life will keep bringing uncertainties, times when I’m at the brink and don’t know what will happen on the other side. I’ll get lots more practice at waiting than King Louis XIV.

And I’m coming to see that getting better at waiting will improve my life. So I’m trying to learn, to fill this wait time with meaning. And I’m grateful to so many of you who have waited with us and to the God who has been sustaining us.

Unwelcome Lessons

This week I’ve learned more about the colon than I ever wanted to know. This five-foot long tube ascends, transverses, and descends. It hosts 100 trillion microbes called gut flora, absorbs a quart of water a day, and uses a wave-like pattern of muscular action to move food along, transit time being 12 to 48 hours. But the most compelling thing I’ve learned is that bad things can grow inside the colon  . . . and that they can be cut out.

All week nurses and doctors have been telling me what they know and I don’t. And to subdue my worry about my husband, I began to not only listen to what they said, but to also watch how they taught. Here’s what I found to be helpful on my steep learning curve.

  • Kindness—One morning during a doctor’s visit, my brain fogged. After he left, I thought of Macy. As her mother was dying one fall, Macy sat in my classroom struggling to write a five-paragraph essay. I wish I had taken more time to pull a stool next to Macy’s desk and just sit there. Nurses and doctors did this for us this week—pausing to sit for a moment, giving us courage to learn.
  • Showing—I’ve long known that 65 percent of us are visual learners. But I’ve never seen images used so well and so often—x-rays, diagrams, sketches on scrap paper, and hand gestures. My favorite was the day the surgeon used his finger to draw on his knee.
  • Renaming—I discovered this week that the colon offers a whole new vocabulary: submucosa, carcinoma in situ, visceral peritoneum. These words rolling off the tongues of experts can bewilder the rest of us. But appositives help.

“We need to find if the mass penetrated the serosa,” the doctor said, “the outer-most layer of the colon.” This appositive gave me a word I needed to know, but it also gave me its definition—and without my needing to ask. An appositive gets people educated without making them feel stupid.

  • Starting with the most critical information. Steve’s surgeon is thoughtful, thorough, experienced, and skilled. He performed a colon resection which has resulted in very little pain. But he put me and our son David through an anxious few moments in his post-op report. He took us through the procedure step-by-step, and not until the end did he say, “So I am hopeful.”

After he left, David said to me, “He sure buried the lede on that one!”

Until we hear the bottom line, it’s hard to listen to the details.

And actually, still waiting for lab results, we still haven’t heard the bottom line. But we’re hopeful we can move on to learning about something else, maybe about the joys of retirement without liquid diets and incisions.

If You’re Not the Life-of-the Party Teacher

“I’m staying in bed,” Charlie Brown says to Snoopy one day. “It’s too peopley out there.”

And scoring 95 percent introverted on most personality tests, I’ve known how Charlie Brown feels. There were times I doubted the wisdom of working in a profession packed with people.

Most teachers I knew were extroverts. I admired these free-and-easy teachers, but I spent far too much energy yearning to be like them. I came to see that I also brought good things to students, not in spite of being an introvert, but because of it. Here are a few gifts I began to offer:

  • Quiet Spaces: In a place bombarded with social interaction, I could provide quiet spaces—noise-cancelling headphones, reading corners, journal time, writing opinions before class discussions, soft classical music for reading.
  • A Thoughtful Voice: The ability to speak as you think is valuable in a middle school, where teachers never know what will happen next. I learned to do this as I watched my extroverted colleagues. But life-of-the-party teachers can also learn from introverts—to think before they speak. During faculty meetings, one teacher on my team was quiet, until she wasn’t. But when she did speak, her voice was novel and discussions often turned on a dime.
  • Modeling: I tried to show students that you don’t have to be a stand-up comic to teach a class or to lead a group. You may not be the first one to speak, but you can be valued for thinking through tough problems, working independently, and planning in advance. The largely extroverted world needs the rich inner lives of the introspective.
  • An Off -Stage Presence: —Be the guide-on-the-side kind of teacher, my college instructors urged me, not the sage-on-the-stage. The measure of learning, after all, is not what comes out of a teacher’s mouth; it’s what students say and show and write.

There were plenty of school mornings when the day ahead seemed too “peopley.” But I’m glad I climbed out of bed. My introverted students needed me for company. And the extroverts? They needed me, too!

Reading Grandma’s Diary with Adult Eyes

Last night I read my grandma’s diary.

When I was a kid in Flint, Michigan, Grandma Bender, who lived on the home farm back in the mountains, represented all that was simple and safe and bountiful. At her many tables, my fifty-some cousins and I ate endless mounds of mashed potatoes and falling-off-the bone turkey and rich slices of rhubarb pie. Once fed, we played riotous games of no-bears-are-out-tonight and sat on the hillside to watch the older cousins race down the slope on their hands.

And at first twilight, we’d be called from our play. Sitting on chairs and benches and blankets under the trees, we’d sing I Love My Mountain Home and Twilight is Stealing—trying to match the bass and alto and tenor and soprano voices of the grownups.

It was this grandma who surprised us with a visit to Flint on what happened to be the day John F. Kennedy was shot. The city was still new to us then. The water tasted bad, my class had a bully, our neighbor beat his wife, and racial tensions were rising. And on the way home from school that day, I learned about the assassination from a carful of raucous, horn-honking high schoolers.

And that was the afternoon I found Grandma Bender at our kitchen table. She sat there, short and round, snapping green beans for dinner. Her hair pinned under her head covering, her cape dress covered with an apron, and her instant smile—all this was such a contrast to my day that I felt two worlds had collided.

When my grandma went back to her mountain farm, I went with her—in my mind, that is. When life got tough in Flint, I’d imagine sitting in her kitchen, watching her roll out pie crusts, or in the living room darning socks with her new radio playing music. A place of peace, where no trouble came.

But last night I read my grandma’s diary—and with adult eyes.

All the years I planned lessons and graded mounds of school papers and managed classes of middle school kids and checked through security at the prison school, I’d contrast my life with Grandma, thinking of her as having a leisurely day quilting with her sisters. But her diary showed me otherwise. She “dressed” a thousand chickens and sewed six pairs of bloomers in a day and hilled in 500 strawberry plants and took the wash off the line because the snow would come before it was dry.

I had thought my stress was high. But in the diary I read about her fear of babies dying. And the sickness that seemed to be all around her for weeks and months and years: polio and pneumonia and rheumatism and grippe. And fevers—page after page—hers, grandpa’s, her children and grandchildren and friends. She worried about people falling through hay holes and onto the tines of pitchforks and drowning in farm ponds. She had known these things to happen.

She also wrote about her “nerves” not being good and her heartbeats “messing up”, and I could see why as I read coded messages I didn’t fully understand, but that showed me that she, too, worried about children and grandchildren—and not just their bodies.

Reading Grandma Bender’s diary made her not only a comfort for the journey, but also a companion.