The Crackle of Bindings in Rooms Filled with Books

When I turned twelve, I didn’t get what I wanted for my birthday—to spend the whole day alone at the Flint Public Library. I wanted to go to the main library, the one downtown by the art museum. This gift, I reasoned, wouldn’t cost my parents a dime, except for the bus fare. But they had read too much in the Flint Journal, and how could they go through a whole day wondering if I was safe from all the city crime? So though this had been my wish since my first visit to the big city library, I had to settle for an hour now and again.

On that first visit, I had stood in the lobby and stared. I had never imagined so many books in one place. I wondered through the muffled stillness, past rows of bookshelves holding hundreds of books—old leathers with flaking gold lettering; new, with glossy dust jackets; colorful, with images showing the story right there on the cover; dark and secret with the story hiding inside; paperbacks holding each other up, tall books and skinny and short and squat. I breathed in their scents of paper and dust and ink. I ran my fingers over their spines. I marveled that I could pick up any one of these books and take it home.

And when I couldn’t go to the main library, the bookmobile came to me. Well, not right to me, but to my school, just blocks away—once a week, all through the school year and all through the summer. Right there in the parking lot, I could climb three steps and find books that would take me to India or Spain or outer space. I could explore the mystery of UFO’s or find a new Nancy Drew book that would turn me into a detective, right along with her. And all for free!

Decades later, I find that libraries keep giving.

“Come to the library,” their slogans say as they go fine-free, “where the only thing overdue is you.”

And the library keeps coming my way—delivering books contact-free to the trunk of my car and making books magically appear on my devices.

All this is wondrous.

Still, I’m old enough to wish for a day in the library, in rooms filled with books that have texture and thickness and weight, where I can flip pages and hear the crackle of bindings and get that vanilla-like whiff of paper filled with ink.

Shoddy Schooling

“The worst nightmare of a contractor is undoing the shoddy work of another contractor,” my brother-in-law said to me at a family reunion last weekend.

And this got me to thinking of my teaching at the prison. Half my classes were students who failed a reading test when they entered the prison system. And they were told they had to go to school, willing or not. And most were not.

They had their reasons. They didn’t like to learn, they didn’t see the use in school, and they didn’t think they could learn. And besides, school was for kids. So on the first day of class, they sat with averted eyes, crossed arms, and jutted chins.

My job was clear—to undo some shoddy schooling. Here’s evidence that something had gone wrong:

  • My students felt dumb. Having teachers who belittled them for what they couldn’t do instead of building on what they could do, having been at the end of sarcasm and intimidation, they had withdrawn from learning. They had, after all, their dignity to think of.
  • My students thought learning was boring. Math, for example, can be taught as a series of formulas and tables to memorize or it can be shown for the beautiful and precise language it is. Most students in my mandatory classes at the prison had little imagination for math or science or literature or social studies. Their teachers had failed to inspire, so they were no longer curious about academic subjects.
  • My students saw school as irrelevant. Many of them hadn’t read about their own people in literature or heard their own history. They hadn’t seen pictures in books that looked like them. Their teachers didn’t know much about their lives and didn’t ask. Their own worlds and the world of the school seemed to be in different galaxies.

To be sure, there were other dynamics at play. Students come to school hungry or after an early morning beating. They sit at their desks with minds clouded by alcohol or drugs. Their parents don’t care much what happens at school. So the complete burden doesn’t rest on teachers.

But part of it does.

And to be honest, I’ve done my share of shoddy teaching. Teachers who knew how to have more fun than I did, teachers who kept a better balance between the practical and the theoretical, and teachers who didn’t get mired down in student problems have all made repairs behind my teaching.

Reconstruction is harder than building fresh, so I can sympathize with my brother-in-law, who left our family reunion to go back to work—tearing out what someone else did wrong.

Back Together Again

Fall brings a jolt. Being closed up in a classroom together, unable to get away, creates sure tensions for students, all of whom bring their own quirks. One might sniff with allergies, another interrupt too often. A third might be always tapping—pencils and fingers and feet—while another spreads books and papers across the aisle, expecting others to maneuver through. And so in these and a hundred other ways, everyone gets on each other’s nerves.

And this fall seems especially fraught. Added to the usual challenges of socializing still-immature humans, teachers will welcome some students whose social skills have atrophied with remote learning and others with pandemic-induced anxiety. Students who share the same classroom will come from families with different political leanings in a time when these mindsets show themselves in visible and specific ways—masking, or not; opting for the vaccine, or not.

Once again, the teachers of this pandemic will carry on, adapting as they go. But here are three ways to consider engaging students without letting the pandemic and its accompanying politics derail a classroom:

Lead with the lesson—I once went whale spotting in the Pacific Ocean. The sea was rough, but the ride was exhilarating. Until we found the whales and stopped. Without forward movement, the waves tossed us until I was so seasick I wished I would die.

While classroom discussions should be relevant to the times, they should also advance the curriculum and be contextualized by it.

“Read not the Times,” Thoreau advised. “Read the Eternities.”

Moving forward toward the larger context can keep students from tossing about in tumultuous waters.

Find company from other times and places—When students read the stories of young people caught in the polio epidemic and those whose families were divided during the Civil War, they find companions for their own journeys. And they begin to understand that they, too, are living histories.

Cultivate kindness—“Kindness isn’t about what someone else does or believes,” I like to tell students. “It’s about who you are and your code of living.”

Kindness is good, not only for others, but also for the person being kind. Studies have verified, for example, that giving compliments actually makes people happier than receiving them. And so kindness, working both ways, brings people together like a social glue.

It’s daunting for students to live every day in the classroom with people who grate on their nerves, who see life a different way, and who won’t ever be a best friend. But what is more frightening, in this already polarized age, is for students to huddle with their own ilk, to reach for relationship only with their own kind.

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!

Waiting

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.