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.

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.