The Way You Walk

It’s the way you walk.

This is what my instructor said at orientation when I started teaching at a state prison. In that session we learned about a study in which researchers showed video tapes of pedestrians to inmates who had committed violent crimes.

“Who would you mug?” researchers asked.

Their answers were overwhelmingly the same. So researchers analyzed results to find what made the difference.

“Victims,” they found, gave signals of uncertainty through posture, body language, pace of walking, and awareness of the environment. Their walk lacked organized movement and flowing motion.

“How you move,” my instructor said, “gives a lot away.”

And so that morning, I learned how to cross a prison yard with hundreds of eyes on me, how to enter a classroom of middle school students who had me measured in five seconds, how to stand in front of bleachers filled with hundreds of kids on before-school duty—just me and them, how to move across a stage, and, yes, how to walk down a city street.

Here’s the advice I took with me into all these places:

  • Look alert. Keep your eyes moving, scan the surroundings, take it all in.
  • Walk tall—shoulders back, spine straight.
  • Keep your chin parallel to the floor, not tipped arrogantly up; not tilted submissively down.
  • Move with purpose. Know where you are going and how to get there. With places to go and things to do, you have no time to be self-conscious.

On the days I felt most like a coward—when a class had gone wrong the day before, when a bully was flexing his muscles, when I was assigned a new class of mandatory inmate students, who wanted to be anywhere but in my classroom—these were the days I needed to use these strategies, consciously and on-purpose.

And what amazed me was that imitating confidence helped. Walking brave helped me teach.

No Longer Nimble, Agile, or Quick

Yesterday afternoon we stood on the rim of a canyon and tried to decide. Should we use our time to visit more national monuments? Or hike down? A challenging trail, the marker said, for those who are fit. So there we stood, senior citizens on a retirement-celebration trip, trying to decide if we were fit.

Sometimes that afternoon I thought we had lost our decision-making ability. We squeezed through narrow passages between boulders, climbed a rock using foot and finger holds, held to a scrubby tree as we scooted across a narrow cliff that dropped sharply to the desert valley far below, ducked through a rock tunnel, and then three hours later, climbed back up, up, up narrow, steep steps carved into rock.

Through that afternoon, we were mostly passed. Young people in jaunty ponytails and athletic shorts and running shoes looked at us with a mixture of doubt and respect.

“Good for you,” some said.

And when they found us reading books on a flat rock, they said, “Good luck!”

We could recognize in those passing us, our younger selves, seeing the path as a place to be nimble and agile and quick.

But we kept to our unhurried pace, and the spirit of the canyon lay hold of us—brave trees clinging to rock walls with their roots, mule’s ear daring to bloom bright yellow in the drought, colossal boulders that had broken loose from the cliff above and thundered to a new resting place, yucca plants that had given gifts to the desert people: roots for soap, leaf fibers for rope, and sap for medicine. We saw close ups of three-story cliff dwellings and ancient petroglyphs carved into rock. And we stood, trying to imagine, wishing we could see, even for thirty-seconds, a moving picture of life in that place at that time.

At the hike’s end, we found the first bench on the canyon rim. And after deep breaths and long draughts of water, we just sat there and grinned.

It would have been good to read about the canyon, to watch a documentary, to stand on its rim and see the park service diagrams that explained it. But there’s something about going down deep, nearer to the beauty and the grit of things.

Taming Brutes

I’ve seen stories tame brutes. Take, for example, the year the entire sixth grade read Wonder, the story of Auggie, who starts a new school wanting nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid. His classmates, though, can’t get passed his face.

“I won’t describe what I look like,” Auggie says in the book, “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”

As they read, the students grew to like Auggie, who is funny and loves his Xbox, his dog, and Star Wars, even wearing a braid in the back of his head like a Jedi. They read with a marked grimness as the class bully turns the entire class against Auggie, inventing a game called The Plague, in which kids became infected if they touch him. The sixth graders talked about Auggie’s dogged courage in showing up day after day and his pluck in cutting his hair short, revealing even more of his face. And more than one kid hid tears when, at the end of the year, Auggie receives a standing ovation as he is given an award for courage and kindness.

The reading of Wonder actually changed the lunch room. For the rest of that year, bullies toned down and fewer kids ate lunch alone.

Centuries before this peaceable time in the middle school and on the other side of the world, a tale was told about a king bully. This king in Arabian Nights discovers his wife’s infidelity and decides all women are alike. So he seeks revenge, marrying a succession of virgins, only to execute each new bride the next morning. This continues until a heroine steps up with a plan. To save the lives of other women, she volunteers to become the next bride. But on her wedding night, she begins a story, which she leaves unfinished.

To hear the rest of the story, the king delays her execution. Night after night the heroine works her plan—continuing the story of the night before and then starting a new one. And the time comes when the king finds he no longer wants to kill. Like the author of Wonder, this heroine storyteller has tamed a brute.

And the longer I taught, the more I turned from scolding and expounding to telling stories to bullies.

“Let me tell you a story,” I’d say.

And they’d actually look at me and listen.

Looking Into Corners

When I lead tours at the art museum, I watch where people look. It’s almost as if they can’t help it. Their eyes latch to the focal point, perhaps a jeweled queen or a robbed magistrate. This is what the artist intended, of course. But I like to invite museum visitors to move beyond the center, to also look to the corners of the canvass. This is where you often see the everyday people—the baker and the vendor—those who live the ordinary life.

Steen, Jan, Fantasy Interior with Jan Steen and the Family of Gerritt Schouten, ca 1659

And as a young teacher, I needed the invitation to look into the perimeters of my classroom.

“You’ve got to notice all the students,” a principal once told me, “not just the squeaky wheels.”

In every classroom are students who, for one reason or another, come instantly into sharp focus. They are the loudest, richest, poorest, or smartest, the daughter of board member, the son of a recently-arrested drug lord, the kid without a leg, or those that show the biggest charm or the most volatile tempers. These are the kids who can instantly draw your eyes and attention to them, leaving everyone else out of focus—blurred around the edges and only partially discernable.

After that talk with my principal, I tried peering into the classroom corners.

“I read what you wrote about your grandma being a strong woman,” I said to Karina one day after class. “I’m curious. How did she get so strong?”

Karina’s shyness sloughed right off. Forgetting herself, she told me about her plucky grandma who had left her country to make a new life in the middle of Ohio.

“Even though she was scared,” Karina told me, “she learned a whole new language and how to cook different foods.”

That small conversation with Karina, brought her into my line of vision. When we read passages about courage, for example, I’d glance her way. And she’d be waiting, her eyes on me. We’d share a nod, and that was all it took. For that moment, the bully, the board member’s kid, the charmer, and the tantrum-thrower all faded into the background while Karina took front and center. 

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!