A Tribute to Martha Stoltzfus

Last week, my friend died.

Martha Stolztfus was a character. To me, at least, she felt like a person you could lift from life and set in a book and people would want to read it. Or maybe it was the other way around—she stepped out of a book to become a real-life character.

With Martha, I kept seeing different sides and wanting to know more. The demure side, for example. She was a great-grandma, after all, and a preacher’s wife. Sitting in a church pew with her hair tucked neatly under her prayer cap, a Bible in her hands, and her face carefully composed, she was the model of piety.

But she also had a tongue with some spice, spice that flavored up a conversation and made it something to remember. Once at a writers’ retreat, she took on a bunch of young’uns, as she called us since we were all a generation or more below her. We were sitting around coffee, using big words to talk about abstract concepts.

Martha, who probably had a greater readership than any of the rest of us, hadn’t said a word, just kept moving her eyes from one speaker to the next.

“What do you think, Martha?” someone asked.

“Only this,” she said, “that if you all knew what you were talking about, you could say it plain out.”

And she had us there.

Seeing Martha, as quick and light and diminutive as the birds she fed outside her window, you might not guess that she had forded rivers and waddled across a swinging bridge on her way to give birth, that she had fought coal soot and mud and copperheads, once taking a .22 rifle after a snake in her martin box.

Martha crossed cultures, leaving Pennsylvania’s Amish country to live in an Appalachian hollow, a deep chasm with high, close-in hills. She learned to love this hollow, where the sun shone late and left early, where each spring, she counted off the cold snaps—Redbud Winter, Dogwood Winter, and then Blackberry Winter, one after the other as they first dotted the dark, bare hills with their blooms and then turned impish, and blasted them with polar air.

Impish, that was Martha. Anyone could see her sincere faith, but running through it was a saucy sense of humor that kept me curious. What would she say next?

The Marvelous Pencil

When I was a kid, I’d turn a brand-new, freshly-sharpened pencil in my hand.

Inside this pencil, I’d think, are words, waiting to come out. All I have to do is put its tip to the paper and see what happens.

So I’d turn on my imagination and listen to the scratchy sound of lead as it left a trail. And if I messed up, there was the eraser on the other end, ready to forgive so I could try again.

These days I write with a keyboard . . . mostly.

But the other day, my computer couldn’t clear my muddled thoughts. So I went in search of a pencil. I found a dozen. But they had dull leads and worn-down erasers, and chewed-on sides.

After the pencil sharpener ate up my few remaining hopefuls, I lost patience. And just yesterday a box of 150 pre-sharpened, number 2 pencils arrived on my porch.

I’m counting on these pencils to help me think my way out of my muddle. Studies have shown, after all, that writing by hand lights up the brain. Handwriting is more tactile than fingertips on a keyboard. And its sensory nature calls on various parts of the brain to work together to fire neurons and open the brain.

Handwriting slows the thinking process, helping students go deeper and wider. And because writing by hand uses more brain power than keyboarding, students understand more and remember longer.

And besides, pencils are fun. They smell like the first day of first grade. They connect you to trees and to earth-mined graphite. Pencils have been in the hands of John Steinbeck, who is known to have used as many as 60 a day to write his novels and in the hands of American and Russian astronauts, who take them on space missions since pencils work in zero gravity.

So the next time you pick up a brand-new pencil, turn it in your hand and marvel for a moment. The pencil you are holding can draw a line 35 miles long and write about 45,000 words.

Scary Students; Scared Teacher

If I could subtract one thing from my career, I’d choose fear. I was a scared teacher way too often. Especially when it came to firsts—the first class of eighth graders and of highly gifted students and of minimum-security inmates and medium-security inmates and even death-row inmates. The first college class I taught and the first parent-education group. The first time we had a murder in our hometown and the sons of the murdered and of the murderer were both in my homeroom.

How, I often wondered, did I keep finding myself in these daunting places when my threshold for fear is low? I don’t ride roller coasters or see scary movies or even eat spicy foods. And I can’t understand why people seek these thrills.

A pounding heart, sweating palms, and shaking knees—I do what I can to avoid all these.

Except, apparently, when it comes to teaching.

Perhaps I kept going back for more because I came to see that, though I usually started out with dread and shrinking, I didn’t have to stay there. I learned by necessity that I could move my focus off my anxious self and settle it solidly and gently on my students.

I’d move in close, passing by their desks, looking into their faces as though I knew I’d find something interesting there. And when you look, I discovered, you find. Even when faces are shuttered.

Those shuttered faces! They threw me at first, But I learned to keep looking, keep expecting. This drove out my fear. And it opened students to me and to learning.

In each new place—the middle school, the prison, the gifted program, the college—this started as an effective strategy, something that worked. But soon came the magic. What had been a form, turned to feeling—something warm that flowed from me to them and often also from them to me.

And this feeling, love or whatever it was, worked better than fear.

Next Best To Amtrak

I’ve been longing for the train. Never has my writing brain worked so well as on a 126-hour, 5000-mile Amtrak trip across the country last fall. Sitting by my husband on a heating pad with a shawl around my shoulders, watching the ever-varied scenery out my seat-to-ceiling window, hearing the rumble of wheels on the tracks, and swaying with the train—all this helped me write better and faster than ever before.

It was like I could feel the neurons firing across the bumps and groves of my brain. The lobes—the frontal and the temporal and the occipital—each did a part, syncing as I plotted and polished. And chapters flowed from my fingers.

But I can’t climb on a train every day.

So when I put my hands to the keys to write a daunting revision this week, I settled for next-best—train cam videos on YouTube. On dozens of channels, millions of viewers a day watch hundreds of trains, some recorded, others in real time.

I joined the millions this week. Sitting in my living room on a leather recliner even more comfortable than a train seat, I clicked away on my computer. One day I wrote as a train lumbered up mountain passes and bored through the tunnels to make its way across Montenegro to the Adriatic Sea.

Another day, when I was stuck on a word, I looked up to see a train screeching to a stop in Elkhart, Indiana. I’ve been across those railroad tracks, I thought. And maybe because I had quit trying, I found the word I needed.

“No hurry,” I told myself one afternoon when I couldn’t get it right. “Slow down, and it will come.”

It was, after all, another nine hours to the Norwegian Arctic Circle.

All week, I took my pick: winter in the Swiss Alps, spring in the Netherlands, summer in New England, and harvest in the U.S. Midwest.

I’d rather be moving with a train than watching one. But with train cam, I can almost forget I’m sitting still and concentrate on writing.

What I Didn’t Know About Alvina

Alvina is the star of my book Yoder School. She taught me in first grade the most important lesson of my education—that learning is magical. And she made this lesson so convincing that a decade later, when I sat in high school chemistry where the wall clock seemed to take a minute to tick a second, I was sure that with different teaching, chemistry could crackle.

When Alvina taught, time melted away. Suddenly, it was lunch, and I had spent the morning messing around, trying to solve a puzzle and find the right word for my journal and make something cool. All morning, my tasks had kept bringing my energy back to me.

As a child I thought Alvina’s joy-filled teaching must have come from a burden-free life.

I didn’t know that Alvina had followed the horse-drawn wagon carrying casket of her little sister to the graveyard. And that not long after, her father had taken ill, becoming so weak he could no longer pick her up, that he died a few weeks before Easter, and that her mother was so distraught, she passed out at the funeral.

I didn’t know that Alvina’s teacher training had been accelerated because of the World War II teacher shortage. Even her trip to college was fraught. The train being filled with soldiers, she stood or sat on her suitcase for nearly twelve hours. Once at college, she took classes at almost twice the normal rate. A case of mumps placed her in such a strict quarantine that she wasn’t allowed to touch books or paper or pencils. So, although her friend sat on a pile of dirt outside her window to read history lessons to her, Alvina couldn’t take notes. And she earned a D in history.

I didn’t know Alvina entered her first year of teaching thinking she had no idea of how to teach, that she was scared but couldn’t tell anyone because, after all, she had been to college. And her first teaching years weren’t easy. When Alvina started teaching at Yoder, it was a one-room school. One year she taught forty-seven students spread across seven grades.

All I knew is that teaching seemed to be a glorious adventure for Alvina. And that I wanted to be a teacher like her.

Not until a couple decades into my teaching did I learn that Alvina’s exemplary teaching didn’t come from a pain-free childhood, an exemplary teacher-training program, or ideal teaching conditions.

Best views, after all, come after hard climbs.

Clip Clop and Tick Tock and Chit Chat

There’s a grammar rule you’ve probably never broken, not once. At least none of my students ever did.

They might have come to class saying, “I ain’t got my homework done, Mrs. Swartz.”

But when it came to ablaut reduplication, they never messed up.

Tip top, they’d say, never top tip.

They’d say Kit Kat and chit chat and jibber jabber and clip clop. They followed the ablaut reduplication rule without thinking because the other way—top, tip and chat chit—just sounds wrong.

So I never explained the rule to them. We never discussed that in these repeating kind of words, the first word always uses i as its inside vowel and that the second word uses an a or an o. My students never understood that a mouth makes i’s in the front and a’s and o’s further back, and that, for English speakers, a mouth works easier from the front to the back.

In bringing rhythms to language, what comes first matters.

And it matters in teaching, though how to begin doesn’t come so naturally.

For too many years, I got it wrong. Teaching, I reasoned, is about growth of the mind. And so I’d begin by offering a concept to my students. This would intrigue them, I reasoned, draw them in.

But the rhythms of my classes were off. I was working the hard way, by engaging the head first.

I should have remembered the example of my professor in a graduate-level statistics class. I walked into that class with a giant-sized pit in my stomach.

“How many of you are dreading this class?” the professor asked.

And it was all of us.

“Let me tell you something,” she said. “I failed statistics twice in college. And when I figured out why, I decided to teach statistics—and in a way students can understand it, actually like it.”

She had us.

Even in a class as logic laden as statistics, she knew the right order: the heart first, and then the head.

What To Do On Days You Feel Old . . . And Other Wisdom from My Mom

I spent a day and a night in an emergency room chair. My ninety-three-year-old mother had fallen and her brain scan showed a small bleed. So a steady stream of nurses and doctors kept checking on her.

“Grip my hands,” they’d say to her.

Without fail, their faces registered surprise at the strength of her clutch. But she hadn’t hand-milked cows before and after school all through her childhood for nothing.

“What’s your secret,” they kept asking, “for staying so young?”

And so she told them that on the days she felt old she walked the fastest.

And she gave credit for this to a teacher.

“When I was in sixth grade,” she said, “our teacher taught us that to stay healthy, we should keep our spines straight when we sat at our desks. And we should move.”

This teacher showed them how to move. She told them to put books on their heads. And they marched around the room keeping those books balanced.

“March faster,” the teacher would say. And then, “Still faster.”

“Well,” the nurse said, “I do believe in mobility as medicine.”

That phrase had a nice ring to it, so I looked it up. And I discovered it’s a campaign to help people in healthcare facilities move safely and more.

After the nurse heard that my mom climbs stairs every day—to the basement for laundry, to the second story to visit my dad in his office, and to the attic to sort through relics of her past—she was convinced my mom didn’t need to move more.

This still left some questions about safety, as her raised eyebrow showed.

But what impressed the nurse most was the teacher.

“Imagine,” she said, “teaching a thirteen-year-old something she will remember 80 years later.”

Snow Days Not What They Used to Be

Snow days not being what they used to be, I feel sorry for kids these days. For one thing, the news that school’s out comes too easily.

“I just check my email,” my fourth-grade granddaughter told me.

That’s not how it was when I was a kid. When we woke to a world quieted and brightened by snow, my brothers and I huddled around the big radio cabinet in our kitchen with the dial turned precisely to 600 AM, WTAC. Wrapped in blankets, we’d wait through news about the Vietnam War and the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Michigan Wolverines basketball game and weather. And finally came the school closings.

We wished as hard as we could as the radio announcer listed closed schools.

“Atherton,” he’d say, and “Carmen-Ainsworth and Beecher and Davidson.”

We’d hear papers rustling, and he’d call Fenton and Flushing and Genesee and Clio. When he made Clio sound like a period at the end of the list, we’d groan.

But in the background, we’d hear the station phone ring.

“And this just in,” he’d say.

Bendle, I’d think, let it be Bendle.

And when it was, the world seemed to pause. No one had plans for us, not our teachers, not our parents. So we made snow angels and sledded down the hill in Kearsley Park and made a little money shoveling driveways. We drank hot chocolate and read books.

Now the most my grandchildren can hope for is a non-traditional instruction day. They can stay in their pajamas, if they’d like, and drink hot chocolate. But they’re in front of the computer on Zoom or bent over paper packets of math and reading their teachers sent home the evening before, in hopes of snow.

This is why, on wintery days of bluster and ice, I feel sorry for kids these days.

Until, I remember that, no matter how much it snows, school days won’t be tacked onto those fair weather days in June.

Two Ears; One Tongue

He had two ears and one tongue—my Uncle Monroe.

At family reunions, he’d pat an empty chair next to him and ask me a question.

Amazing, his eyes would say, while I talked, tell me more.

So I did. And I came away from Monroe seeing the fascinations of my life.

Never mind that his stories were better than mine.

After all, he was the only human “guinea pig” I knew. As a conscientious objector during the Korean War, he was among the first volunteer normal-control patients in clinical studies at the National Institutes of Health. In one study, he and eleven others were kept awake so doctors could study the effects of sleep deprivation. What happened, Monroe told me, was strange. After a couple days, he and his study partners couldn’t talk straight and saw things that weren’t there. But, their bodies faring better than their minds, they could still play basketball.

I know this much, but I wish I had asked him more.

And not just about being a human guinea pig. What was it like for an Amish-Mennonite plowboy from the hills of western Maryland to earn a Ph.D. and to work in Manhattan at the New York University lab where moon rock was analyzed?

What was it like to serve on a bishop board and on a Head Start board and on a camp board?

And after 55 years in the Big Apple, how did it feel to retire in a cottage nestled into the hillside of a retirement village just miles from the fields he plowed as a boy?

With Monroe having asked the questions, I’ve missed my chance to hear more from him.

Instead I’ll mourn at his funeral today. But already I’ve heard stories from others who knew him.

“He was curious about my life,” they’ve been saying.

And this gift he gave to so many of us has now become our calling.