More Than a Hothead

Maybe I should take up screenwriting. I’ve seen plenty of students move through the same stages as characters in a movie.

Take Misty, for example. I spotted her the first day of class, a bad-tempered kid with fists balled, muscles tensed, and lips pressed into a sneer. Her classmates gave her wide berth.

But I had taught long enough to keep watching for a softening of the eyes or a lifting of the head or the drooping of the shoulders—to catch a sign that Misty longed for something else. It came when the stone hit Tessie on the side of the head in Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery.” In that moment, compassion joined the anger in Misty’s eyes.

I pulled my stool next to her desk while students were writing their responses to Jackson’s story.

“This story makes me mad,” I whispered to her.

“Ain’t right,” she said, not whispering. “Just ‘cause somethin’ always happened, don’t make it right.”

I nodded, dared to squeeze her shoulder, and left her to her writing.

Literature helped Misty move toward her essence, revealing that under her anger was a person with a keen sense of justice and empathy for the underdog. It didn’t always show. Misty still earned plenty of demerits. Not long after, she was suspended for fighting in the lunch room. But when we read, her eyes showed that anger was not all that defined Misty.

“Could I read this to the class?” I began asking about her reading responses. “I think it will help them understand what they read.”

At first, her nods were curt. But one day, she motioned me to come to her desk and handed me her writing.

“Would this help?” she asked.

Misty, we were all discovering, was more than a hothead.

Fame More Than Anything

Whatever it took—this was Zach’s modus. He wanted fame more than anything, even if it edged on notoriety. And fame is hard to achieve in middle school if you aren’t athletic or rich or popular or smart or funny. But this didn’t stop Zach from trying.

“Sorry, Mrs. Swartz,” he’d say as he walked late into my class.

He’d clear his throat to be sure his voice reached the far corners of my just-settled class.

“I got called to the principal’s office again. This time for a consultation about how to increase school spirit.”

One day the superintendent dropped by my class unannounced. We were in a writing workshop, and I continued to conference with a student as the superintendent walked the aisles observing student work, his eyes alert and hands clasped behind his back.

Lucky me, it was a picture-perfect class. Students were absorbed in research and drafting and editing. And then as the superintendent neared Zach’s desk, I saw Zach straighten his back and clear his throat.

None of us on the faculty or staff ever addressed the superintendent without the title of doctor. And certainly, no student ever dared.

Except for Zach.

“Hi, there, Jake!” he said, skipping the title, not bothering with the proper name, and landing directly on the nickname.

It didn’t take the superintendent long to leave the room.

Zach had just demonstrated once again what repeated studies show, that students want to be associated with fame. More than financial success or achievement or a sense of community, they want people to give them attention and know their names.

They want this so much that if nothing else works, they turn to trouble, an easy and cheap way to get attention, a kind of faux form of fame.

There’s no sense in fighting this. Attention seekers win every time. But teachers who work proactively to draw out the essence of each student and make it visible to others, reduce their need for notoriety. What these teachers offer, instead, is life-giving ways to be known.

A Ballooning Head and a Dead Great-Grandma

My head was too big to fit through the classroom door. And this puzzled me. How would I ever get home? So I sat at my desk holding my head in my hands, trying to catch onto a breath I couldn’t quite find, and wondering how I could feel so chilled on an unseasonably warm spring day.

“You okay, Mrs. Swartz?” a student had asked before leaving.

But I had nudged him out the door, reminding him not to miss his bus. And for the next hour, I couldn’t manage to clear my desk.

I don’t recall much about the drive home, but I remember my relief when my husband found me in the flower bed outside the garage.

“Pneumonia,” the doctor said a short while later. “The kind people died of a hundred years ago.”

To me, it seemed a miracle that an injection and a few pills could clear my fogged thinking and open my clogged lungs.

“Your great-grandma died of pneumonia,” my dad said when he came to visit. “And she was exactly your age.”

I remembered the story. She had died in the middle of her busy life on a farm homestead—churning, butchering, tapping trees and hauling sap, washing and ironing, cooking, cooking, cooking, parenting 11 children, and welcoming her first grandchildren. When she died, six children still lived in her home, the youngest seven years of age.

Just before her death, she called each child, one at a time, to her bed. My grandfather was eleven, and he long remembered the last words he heard from his mother: “Be faithful and sometime you also shall come where I am going.”

The year she died, scientists were making ground-breaking discoveries that enabled them to target the pneumococcus bacteria with antibiotics, a breakthrough that likely saved my life and helped me get back to my uncleared desk and my students.

Living Big in a Tiny House on River Road

My parents lived big in a tiny house long before it became fashionable. In a time before solar panels and battery packs, they moved for their honeymoon and early marriage into a cabin tucked between a hilly slope and the Casselman River. In that low-lying land along River Road, they lived in one room, heating and cooking with propane, using a chamber pot in a lean-to, and hauling water for bathing and drinking and cooking.

“There was something fun,” my dad told me, about living frugally. “It was sort of like camping out.”

He was musing about this as he sat in physical therapy, hooked to an ice machine. He had just been through a regimen of exercises that had seemed more like torture than therapy. And he was glad for a quiet, pain-free talk.

Outside their window, he recalled, Slabaugh Run had tumbled over itself down the slope on its way to the Casselman River. Under a rocky outcrop and behind tall grass, a doe hid her fawns. From the rich, moist floor of the woods, Jack-in-the Pulpit flowers emerged. And the air was filled with the calls of the whip-poor-will and the chants of the katydids.

“You know what?” my dad said. “I don’t recall even missing a telephone.”

He fell again into musing.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said when he roused himself, “about placing a marker where that cabin used to be, a plaque to mark the spot.”

My dad hasn’t walked the River Road for more than two years, not since his knee started giving way. But now that he’s got a new knee and is on the way to recovery, there’s been talk of a River Road walk in the spring. That’s when the woods in Western Maryland will be budding and the woodland flowers blooming and the Casselman River rushing. That’s when my dad will turn ninety. And maybe that’s when he could mark the spot.

What Could Be

When I was a kid, I dreamt of what could be.

On laundry day, I’d thunk the iron down on yet another of my father’s shirts and conjure up a magical closet, one that would sanitize clothes and shake out wrinkles, all with the press of a button.

When my arms ached late at night from holding a book above my head, I’d imagine a futuristic book, one suspended at just the right distance above me, that would turn its pages with the double-blink of my eyes.

And when I longed for the mountains of Western Maryland, I’d concoct a personal aircraft, something like a closed-in version of a flying carpet, that could transport me 500 miles in ten minutes. I’d drop in at my grandparents for apple butter on home-baked bread, and be back home in time for bed, even on a school night.

But in all my daydreams, I never imagined last Thursday evening.

First, my daughter texted me: Micah’s playing in a basketball tournament tonight. Want to watch?

I did.

So on my computer, I logged onto the NFHS Network. And there in my lap, I held, not only my grandson Micah, but his entire basketball team as they dribbled and passed and shot and rebounded balls, almost 500 miles away in Illinois.

Micah had just swished a three-pointer, when my phone rang.

“Christy’s hosting an apartment concert,” said my sister. “Want to join?”

I did.

So I logged onto Zoom and propped my phone beside the computer.

With the basketball game in Illinois muted, I could hear the exquisite sounds of my niece’s violin as she played for her guests in Washington, D.C. Christy’s violin has many voices, haunting and sad and shimmering and urgent. And she used all these voices to tell the Christmas story.

With the basketball swishing and the violin strings vibrating, I sat there in a marvel. This I had never imagined.

To Drive the Shadows Away

I’ve been watching my parents sing their way home. And I have a stage-front seat. Grab bars are going up in the showers, pill boxes line the mantle, and, if you don’t watch your step, you could well stumble over a walker or a couch-side tray or a sock-puller-upper.

Likely not in their last days, my parents know they are in their last years, and they’ve made a choice, each of them—that though their audiences have narrowed, they will keep on singing.

And so my mother sends her great-grandchildren to deliver hand-written notes to her backyard neighbor and her next-door neighbor and her across-the-street neighbor. She journals with her Bible for hours in the early morning when she can’t sleep anyway. And though her energy is waning, she has idea after idea, each one as urgent as the last—a theme for a drama that should be produced, a group of people who could gather for a party, a book to be written, a class to be taught.

My father writes birthday and anniversary cards for all of his seven children and their spouses, 19 grandchildren, and 27 great-grandchildren, often including an original poem. He reads two side-by-side Bibles each morning, one German and the other English. And he researches and chronicles the history of the Casselman Valley Mennonite Church, knowing that what he doesn’t write may well be lost to following generations.

They’re not singing the same song. But they are both following the lyrics of the old children’s ditty—to brighten the road and lighten the load, to drive the shadows away, sing your way home at the close of the day.

The Day My Basketball Pass Went Awry

“Keep your day job, Mrs. Swartz.”

This is what a principal said to me after I hit him with a basketball. Not on purpose, of course. But the temptation to amuse myself had been too great. On a trip to the office during my planning period, I had encountered a student in an otherwise empty hall.

Michael was a quiet kid who sat in the back of my second-period. There was never a moment’s trouble from him, but there weren’t moments of active engagement, either.

A gym helper, he was carrying a newly pumped-up basketball. On impulse, I held out my hands. Michael’s eyes widened, but he bounced the ball toward me. All the way down the long, empty hall we swapped bounce passes. Finally, he couldn’t help it. And a smile broke through.

At the corner where we would part ways, me to the office, him to the gym, my pass went awry. At that very moment, the principal came into view and the ball smacked into him. His face turned instantly stern and his mouth opened. Then he saw I was the culprit. But as Michael stood agape, a smile broke through on the principal’s face.

And that’s when the principal advised me not to switch to a basketball career.

Michael changed after that. He didn’t frantically wave his hand to answer every question I asked. But he looked up. He looked at me. He seemed to recognize that I was a person, even though I was a teacher. He even gave a nod now and then.

Got it, he was saying, I’m with you.

Michael taught me a lesson that that day—that sometimes teachers can reach students by breaking the shell of convention, by doing something off beat, a little quirky, something teachers don’t usually do.

I had often watched funny teachers and wish for their humor. But passing the basketball with Michael, showed that, if I couldn’t be funny, I could at least reach toward whimsy. And that students learned better when I did.

My Debt to Mick

My grandsons are now the age of Mick when he came storming into my life. Seventeen years old with the body of a man, Mick had been living on his own for a year when someone turned him into social services. And he didn’t take kindly to being deposited in the children’s home where my husband and I were house parents.

I once read that fear can be smelled, that the sweat of terrified person actually emits signals that send the fear out to others. Nobody would have smelled fear on Mick when he showed up at the children’s home. But if fury works the same way, the room would have reeked. And while he was with us, Mick spread this ire—glaring, stomping, banging doors, smashing a hole in the kitchen wall, and threatening to bash in faces.

Back then, I didn’t understand much about teenagers. I hadn’t been the parent of teens or the grandparent. I hadn’t taught school for three decades. I hadn’t listened to inmates talk to me about how adults in their lives had messed up with them.

I wish I could do Mick again. Given a second chance, I’d applaud his ingenuity in making a life for himself. After his mom died and his dad went to prison and his drunk uncle knocked him around one time too many, Mick slept in his clunker of a car until he found a job flipping burgers, earning him enough money to rent a single room with a shared bathroom. On his off hours, Mick’s head was usually under the hood of a car, gathering skills from a street mechanic.

The caseworker had told me all this, but I didn’t sit with Mick, asking questions and paying tribute to his gumption. I was too busy urging him into the routines of a children’s home. I should have concentrated on Mick’s future, not on whether he had made his bed. I should have said no as little as possible and yes at every chance.

Mick didn’t stay with us long. He ran away. And I can see why.

I owe a debt to Mick and the other kids who came to live with us at the children’s home. I learned on these kids, as you can read in my book Yoder School. And the lessons they taught made me a better parent and grandparent and teacher.

But I feel bad. Mick was someone’s grandson.

Nearly Ninety with a New Knee

My dad’s nearly-ninety-year-old knee took him places. As a boy, he trudged two miles to school on a country road that wound through the hills of Western Maryland. On long summer evenings, he ran barefoot across the yard playing tag with his cousins. And hand to the plow, he plodded in furrows behind Bob and Fern, the draft horses, to ready the ground for winter wheat.

And it took him across the world: Israel, Turkey, Cyprus, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Liechtenstein, France, Italy, Luxemburg, Belgium, Great Britain, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Mexico, Peru, Columbia, Ecuador, and Canada.

In these last years, his knee has bent to help my mother when she fell, to wash her blood from the floor, and to spade her garden, because growing plants nourish her spirit.

But this last year, his knee has constrained him, keeping him in the house instead of on summer walks, on the couch while others rake his leaves and shovel his snow, and in a recliner at night, trying to find a position that will take away pain.

So to distract himself from the reality of a nearly-ninety-year- old body, my dad turned more fully to the life of the mind. When I dropped by to check on him, I’d find him at his computer, researching, for example, road conditions in the 1850s and how the indentured-servant system worked. Though his face was often fatigued with pain, his eyes would be alert and intrigued.

My dad’s knee did manage to take him one more place—to the hospital, where its worn-down parts were replaced with metal and plastic. And as we soldiered through the first post-op day, he seemed to manage his pain by turning to ideas. We talked about the difference between a meadow and a pasture, how President Buchannan might have staved off the Civil War, the function of applause at a sacred concert, and what it means to be one of eight billion people on the earth.

It’s been fascinating to watch my dad resolutely turn attention from his knee to ideas. But I’m looking forward to joining him for a long springtime walk with his new knee.