When You Whisper

I once taught middle school three days straight with laryngitis. I started the week with a scratchy throat that turned into a croaky voice and then into no voice at all. Except for a whisper. And that’s what I used for three of the easiest days of teaching I’d ever had.

Partly the students were being nice. Because of my sore throat, they took pity. But as class periods ticked by, each as smooth as another, I began to think I was learning something important. 

The most visible change was student posture. Instead of slouching or slumping over to fend off a teacher voice coming at them, they leaned forward, their ears and eyes actively trying to catch the words I said.

That’s the strange thing about humans. We are attracted to what is not readily available to us. If it’s too easy to get, we don’t value it. And if we’re pushed into it, we turn away.

This is why force feeding doesn’t work. Last week I was caring for my ninety-three-year-old mother who lost her appetite. A plateful of food revolted her. She grew weaker as the pounds kept dropping. One day my father, in a new ploy, cut her portion down to appetizer size. And she asked for more. Watching this took me back to when our children were babies. If I pushed a pacifier further into their mouths, they spit it right back. It was only when I pulled it back that they latched on.

Film maker Ken Burns has noticed this dynamic. In his documentaries, he has used hundreds of first-person narrators. To find one good storyteller he sometimes evaluates 200 people. Burns has noticed an easy-to-spot trait that most good storytellers have in common. They lean back as they talk. And what happens next, Burns says, is that their listeners lean in.

Too often, I got in wrong—leaning forward so far my students instinctively leaned back.

The Mennonite Community Cookbook and Me

When I was a kid, the Mennonite Community Cookbook meant a whole lot of work. To follow its recipes, I had to pit cherries until I was restless with boredom and knead dough until my arms ached. Onions made me cry, and my stomach cramped when I cut up a dead chicken. And there was the endless scrubbing of pots and pans and cookie sheets. All this for food that vanished in one short table sitting.

Despite my antipathies toward cooking, my mother saw to it that I learned. So I mastered recipe after recipe: old-fashioned bean soup and fried potatoes and tip top cake. And after I married, I cooked and baked from my own copy of the Mennonite Community Cookbook, not for pleasure, but because people needed to be fed.

Cleaning out a kitchen drawer this week, I pulled out this now-dilapidated book. The spine is letting loose of its 494 pages, one edge looks suspiciously scorched, and page 208, where you can find the recipe for Devil’s Food cake, is spotted with chocolate.

As I thumbed through the pages, I recalled what has always redeemed this cookbook for me. As a child desperate for diversion in the kitchen and as an adult hankering to relieve tedium with words, I had always turned to the stories scattered through the cookbook. I read about how, in the old days, folks made mush by adding enough meal and flour to the boiling water until the mixture became thick enough to pop as it bubbled. The stories told about a smokehouse built over a spring and guineas who were alarm clocks, waking their people every morning by calling, “pot rack, pot rack.”

The stories keep going—about a grandmother who baked 16 pies every Saturday morning and about clear crisp fall days that were just right for boiling sorghum molasses in a big kettle over the fire with a taffy pull to follow. And near the end of the book I loved to scan the list of food needed for a barn raising, a few items being 115 lemon pies, 500 doughnuts, 16 chickens, 3 hams, 50 pounds of roast beef, 300 rolls, 16 loaves of bread and all things pickled: eggs, red beets, and cucumbers.

Somehow, reading these stories made me more willing to measure a precise quarter cup and sift the dry ingredients and drop teaspoonful by teaspoonful onto a greased baking sheet, spacing two to three inches apart.

Story does this. It prepares the mind. I’ve found students are more ready to remember the dates of the Civil War when they follow the story of a boy who lived across the five Aprils it spanned. They are more willing to learn chemical properties when they hear about John Walker, who one day in his pharmacy scratched at a lump of sulphide and chlorate that had formed at the end of his mixing stick. When flames burst forth, the striking match had been invented.

The stories in the Mennonite Community Cookbook pulled me into the kitchen, and over and over I’ve seen story hook the attention of reluctant learners.

Slowing Down to One Kid

Earlier this summer, I spent a week going to zoos. That’s because Jesse came to stay. Most of the time grandchildren come to us in a whole pile. Food flies from the freezer to the oven to the table to their stomachs. All manner of clutter collects in corners and across counters—Lego creations, sketch books, Kindle cords, rocks and sticks, kicked-off shoes, faced-down books, skateboards and scooters and the necessary tubes of wheel grease and bars of wax and wrenches to make the scooters and skateboards work. Through the house you can hear the slamming of doors and the pounding on stairs and the barrage of ack-ack-ack-ack that comes from kids talking over each other.

And this bustle brings back for me the crackling energy of the classroom, where kids push their thoughts and energies up against each other, creating new, untapped ideas.

But in all this splendid chaos, it’s possible to lose a kid. And that’s why our grandchildren take turns, coming one at a time. For that week, we concentrate on the enthusiasms of that kid.

“You know how to tell that’s a predator?” Jesse asked me at our second zoo. “Look at its eyes.”

And that’s how I learned the mnemonic device: Eyes in the front, the animal hunts. Eyes on the side, the animal hides.

Because I slowed down to one kid, I was transported into his world, marveling at the many ways insects feed: chewing and sucking and sponging and siphoning. I managed to watch buzzards feast on a dead rabbit and to look, really look at the markings on snakes and lizards and to inhale the putrid smell of the komodo dragon.

My grandchildren keep teaching me on these weeks—that you can build rabbit cages if you watch a how-to video, that skate parks are all around me and that wonderful, risk-taking kids use them, that you can have just as much fun staying home all week and stretching the dining room table way out to build a gigantic Lego city, that doing logic puzzles down on the floor in front of the fireplace is a fine way to spend the afternoon.

I couldn’t do this often in a classroom full of middle school kids, take the time to consider closely the interests of one student. But each time I did, I came away richer, knowing more about Saudi Arabia or mullet haircuts or black holes or how to make clapperboards or what it’s like to stutter or to put a drunk parent to bed or to already know almost everything that’s taught in class.

An Unexpected Message From the Past

I couldn’t believe what I saw on a chalkboard yesterday. Those words, which I saw almost by accident, were more than a decade old. And for just a moment they got the better of me. They had been written, after all, on one of the saddest days in my teaching career.

I had been working that afternoon in the Madison County Genealogical Society library, researching for a book I’m writing, scanning microfilmed newspapers from the 1920s. My eyes had begun to blur and my neck was aching.

“I need a break,” I told the volunteer who had set up the microfilm reader for me. “I’ll be right back.”

So I stepped out into the hall. The genealogy library is housed in what had been the middle school and was now the city building. So I walked past old classrooms now turned into the mayor’s office and the council chambers and the zoning department. And I came to the stairs. The second floor had not been renovated, I knew and was still empty.

But there were no Do Not Enter signs. And I was curious because at the top of the stairs was a classroom, where I had taught my last day in the gifted program. That had been a day of mourning for me and for the students. The school district, caught in financial trouble, had made the heart-wrenching decision to cut all non-mandated programs, including gifted.

The memories of that day pulled me up the stairs. The room was empty and the closets cleared out—all of it a deserted shell of what had been. And then, as I turned to leave, I saw the chalkboard, the decade-old words on it written by students usually more willing to share concepts than feelings:

But there was more. Off to the side was an answer, later written by eighth-grade students from other rooms, in other programs.

And there you have it, I thought—a student version echoing the board of education discussion, but more than that, the eternal debate about gifted education.

Deadheads and an Old Teacher

Mostly I feel young for my age and hopeful and full of dreams. But I was in my garden last evening deadheading—removing the spent, withered-up flowers. The longer I worked the more vibrant and vigorous the garden became.

That’s what got me to thinking about being retired, and nearing seventy, and my greying hair and cranky knee and eyes that keep needing more light to see. I thought about how I keep losing what I touch. And I remembered that time I stood at the gas pump when the machine asked for my zip code. All kinds of other numbers came to my head—my social security number and the telephone number for my childhood home in Flint, Michigan, and even my grandparents’ number back in the hills of Western Maryland: Twin Oaks 5-5451. If you’re my age, you remember this—telephone numbers starting with words instead of digits. I could recall all these numbers, but not my zip code. Until finally, it came.

It’s good, I thought, as I pinched off the washed-out blooms, that I’m not going back to school this fall. And I pictured younger teachers I knew, who that very evening, were conducting an open house at London Middle School. These teachers remember numbers and walk with a spring. They speak the jargon, know the music, and breeze through the technology. Their clothes are cool and their crankiness better hidden. They’ve just come from college classes where they’ve learned best practices. Their journey is fresh and their outlook unjaded.

Though I knew all this, for a few minutes I felt bereft.

But then I found a happy thought. Those fading flowers I plucked off and dropped into the soil—those flowers are full of seeds.

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.