Another Surprise of a Pandemic Year

I’ve been invited to sing in a choir. And this just doesn’t happen to me. Granted, it’s a family choir, and there’s only one necessary qualification—to be part of the family. But still! When you consider that I’m the least musical person in the family, that people in my family give recitals and take music lessons and hold graduate degrees in music and critique music with words I don’t understand—when you take all this into account, you can see why singing in this choir is a bit breathtaking for me.

This choir came about because of the pandemic. Our family isn’t gathering for Christmas this year, not in person. Instead, we’ll meet virtually—four generations of us. But Zoom’s no way to sing together. With audio lags and glitches and garbled tones, everyone else’s voices would sound as unmusical as mine usually does.

So since we can’t fathom meeting without music, my brother offered to put us together into a sixty-eight-member virtual choir, the kind you can see on Facebook, with people singing from boxes in a grid.

“I’ll make sure you don’t sound bad,” my brother assured me. “We want one hundred percent participation, and I’ve got the technology to blend your voice in with the group.”

He might have meant the mute button. I’m not sure.

Regardless, I’m glad to be included. My brother sent me something called a scratch track so I could practice. With it, I can hear in my ear the notes that should come from my mouth. And as I sing along, I’ve been feeling like a good singer for the first time ever.

I’m now a fan of scratch tracks. And I’m thinking about how I can offer people scratch tracks of other sorts—guides that can help them do well what doesn’t come easily.  

When Students Drag Their Messes Into Class

You can find plenty to disgust you in a middle school classroom. There are the good kids, of course, those who bring delight, who come to school fully-fed, well-groomed, and with generations of support behind them. And there are the survivors, who for some inexplicable reason have learned to live above the fray of their turbulent lives. But then, there are the kids who haven’t, who are still mucking around in the wreckages of their lives.

These kids drag their messes right into the classroom with them. They are grungy kids living in slovenly houses, hotheads who have been knocked around themselves, withdrawn kids whose inner demons call louder than any teacher’s voice, and poor little rich kids trying to erase the neglect of their parents by flaunting their deep pockets. 

These kids stink and fight and emit bodily sounds into the magic moments of a class and look down their noses at others and bully. And my first impulse toward them was usually disgust.

But I learned early on that disgust didn’t fit into a student-teacher relationship. And when I finally managed to move from disgust to pity, I felt Herculean.

Only pity didn’t work either. My pity sent them the message that they were powerless, that they were different, that their problems made them the “other.” Instead of giving them a way out, my pity seemed to humiliate them. And they felt like a lost cause.

What worked was counterintuitive.

It was respect. When I held these damaged students in regard, they could learn from me. I tried to think of the courage it takes to walk into class with tatty sneakers and sit next to someone with Nike Kyrie shoes. I appreciated the valiant effort a kid took to stay awake in class—a kid who I later discovered had stayed up half the night hearing his dad beat up his mom. I looked for cracks of kindness in a bully. I noticed a kid from the lake who usually flaunted her wealth offering a pencil to a kid from the other side of the tracks.

And when I looked at these students in this way—remembering how hard they worked to survive, watching for the creative ways they found to exist in broken places, celebrating their grit, and acknowledging their sparks against dreary backdrops of their lives—something happened. Disgust seemed to fade away.

A Greying Grandma and the Beast Within

I’m reading a bleak book with my grandsons. During this pandemic school year, we’ve been coming together via Zoom from Illinois, Kentucky, and Ohio for literature classes. And right now we’re reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

But what should be fun—a bunch of guys set free in the paradise of an uninhabited tropical island in the Pacific—turns tragic.

“What is this beast?” the boys kept asking as they read the early chapters.

I remember asking the same question in junior high when I first read the Lord of the Flies over fifty years ago. And I recall my growing horror as evil unfolded in character after character, chapter after chapter. The beast, I discovered toward the end of the book is about the evil in people.

“This isn’t only about the characters in this book,” my teacher had said all those years ago. “This is about what would happen if this class got stranded on that island.”

I recall looking sideways at my classmates. Who would be the one to throw rocks at the littluns? Who would punch a fist in Piggy’s stomach? Who would chant: Kill the pig! Cut his throat! Bash him in!? And who would push the boulder that killed Piggy?

I had no doubt that I was Piggy—me with my thick glasses, my quickness at books, and my awkwardness at a class party.

When I finished reading Lord of the Flies all those years ago, I felt I had gained a kind of grown-up sadness because I understood, really understood, that there was evil out there.

Golding’s characters have been my companions in the decades since. And they’ve taught me more about myself than I have wanted to know. Now that I’m a greying grandma, I’ve had the time to see over and over that I’m not only Piggy, I’m also Jack, who seizes power when I want things to go my way. And Roger, who enjoys hurting others, especially when they’ve hurt me first.

Too often I’ve found the beast, not by looking sideways, but by looking within.

With typical adolescent self-absorption, I glossed over this lesson in seventh grade. But I’m hoping my grandkids won’t miss it—that they will learn early on to see not only their own injuries but also the pain they inflict on others.

Even though, of course, they are perfect grandchildren!

Long Ago and Far Away

The other day, I read an ancient poem about teaching. Written nearly three millennia ago, this beautiful allegory from long ago and far away shows that people’s minds were as varied then as they are now.

The farmer knows just what to do,
    for God has given him understanding.

 A heavy sledge is never used to thresh black cumin;
    rather, it is beaten with a light stick.

A threshing wheel is never rolled on cumin;
    instead, it is beaten lightly with a flail.

Grain for bread is easily crushed,
    so he doesn’t keep on pounding it.

He threshes it under the wheels of a cart,
    but he doesn’t pulverize it.

The Lord Almighty is a wonderful teacher,
    and he gives the farmer great wisdom.


A Sandwich Artist Sets Me Straight

I like Subway sandwiches, but it took me forever to figure out how to order what I want.

“I’ll take a foot-long,” I kept trying to say. “But please cut it in two, making one side two-thirds and the other side one-third.”

This didn’t work. On road trips, I’d get blank looks—Subway after Subway.

Finally, a sandwich artist (which is what Subway calls their sandwich makers) clued me in.

“Now what exactly are you trying to do?” she asked.

I should have known better.

In education, we call this backward design—beginning with the end in mind. When people know where they’re going, they’re more likely to take the right steps. This is why I look at the pictures above recipes, why my grandchildren watch pro-scooter tricks on YouTube, and why the app I’m using to learn German gives me the pronunciation of a word before I try to say it.

Ever since the sandwich artist set me straight, I’ve been using backward design at Subway.

“My husband and I are sharing this sub,” I say. “And he wants the bigger part.”

“About right here?” they ask, their knives hovering in just the right place.

And all I need to do is nod.

My Ninety-Two-Year-Old Mother Takes on a Scammer

My ninety-two-year-old mom just took on a scammer. No longer driving and quarantining against the virus, she’s safe and snug at home. Except there’s the internet, which she doesn’t completely understand. There’s Zoom, which she’s trying to learn. And the telephone.

Yesterday, it was the telephone. When it rang, she had been tending to skinned knees and bruised hands, having just fallen while putting her garden to bed for the winter. But she pulled herself out of her chair and answered the telephone.

“Hi, Grandma,” said a voice. “This is your oldest grandchild.”

Only it didn’t sound like her oldest grandchild.

“What’s your name,” my mom asked the voice.

“Mike,” he said.

“You are not my oldest grandson,” my mom said. “And you should not talk like this.”

I would have hung up by this point, but my mom wasn’t finished.

“Let me pray for you,” she said.

As she told me this, I could picture her tightly-closed eyes and her brows in deep concentration.

“God,” she said, “I pray for this one. Help him to repent and follow you. I ask in Jesus’ name.”

And when she finished, the scammer had only one word to say: Amen.


An excerpt from my memoir YODER SCHOOL:

Most teachers at T.N. Lamb Junior High hung a paddle just inside the classroom door, the exceptions being Mrs. Anderson, who taught home economics, and Mr. Moose, who taught science. They didn’t need paddles; most kids were good in their rooms. But the other teachers needed paddles. In fact, at the beginning of each school year, they usually introduced their paddles to us right along with the curriculum. Some even named their paddles. Names like Dr. Pepper or Mr. Whooper or the Board of Education. The paddles had their names lettered across them, big and bold.

When we walked into a classroom for the first time, we’d eye up the paddle. Most were about two feet long. Miss McNutt had the worst kind of paddle, thin and skinny with holes. These paddles whistled through the air. Mr. Moose had no trouble explaining air resistance to us when he used the holey paddles as an example. We could see exactly why more holes meant more pain. 

Mr. Pollard sometimes let a kid choose between a detention and a paddling. Frank Adkins, who had a high tolerance for pain, always went for the paddling. He couldn’t see wasting a whole Saturday morning in detention. Not Harold MacDonald, though, who groaned and danced around just from the sting of catching a fly ball. Once Mr. Pollard said to Harold MacDonald, “You want one in here? Or three in the hall?” Harold chose one in the room, even though it was humiliating to stick out his rear end in front of the whole class. Mr. Williams always paddled in the hall. We couldn’t see, but we could hear. The class would go silent listening for the swats. The crack of the paddle sounded right through the walls and so did the moans. Mr. Williams usually left his door open. I was sure he did so on purpose. 

Teachers had their paddle language down. They’d say—like it was one big word:  Bendovergrabyouranklesanddon’tmove. If you moved, you’d get an additional swat. Most kids didn’t move, especially the ones who got paddled a lot. Once, though, when Mr. Pollard paddled Judy Hadley, she jumped away and the paddle hit her wrist. “I told you not to be sticking your hands back there,” he said. That swat didn’t count, so Mr. Pollard landed her another one. 

The test of a paddling was how long it took a kid to sit down again. Some kids stood at the backs of classes for the rest of the day. Most kids sat down after a period or two, but until then it pretty much felt as if their bottoms were on fire. That’s what Frank Adkins told me.

Frank Adkins also told me to quit worrying so much about paddlings. “We come prepared,” he told me. “Heck, today, when Mr. Determan gave me five in the office, I had on two pairs of gym shorts under my jeans. It didn’t hurt at all.” I didn’t believe him. He hadn’t sat down until lunch.

After a paddling, kids had to sign their names, right there on the paddle. Teachers were attached to their paddles, but they had to change them when the space was used up by the signing. Some teachers made their own paddles, since school supply companies didn’t sell them. It was a peculiar thing, but kids in woodshop often made paddles for the teachers. Frank Adkins, who had been paddled almost every week by Mr. Pollard, made a new paddle for him as a gift. And Mr. Pollard was glad to have it.

The Wringer Washer and Zoom

I’m doing what I never dreamed I would. But like many grandparents, I’ve felt a call to step up during this pandemic year. And so I’ve been homeschooling three of my out-of-state, middle-school grandsons—teaching writing and literature twice a week on Zoom.

Until now, I’ve been a holiday, cousin-week, vacation-at-the-lake kind of grandma.

“I’m glad you don’t live right beside us,” a six-year-old grandson told me once.

On a couch under a blanket and in front of a fire, we had just shared popcorn, read a book, and played a game of Trouble. And he had seemed to be almost purring. So I was bewildered.

“Why, Jesse?” I asked.

“Because it wouldn’t be special like this,” he said. “It would just be everydayish.”

“I’m glad you like this,” I said, but I felt a pang.

I had lived by my grandma. And there was something about being able to sit on a stool and talk with her as she fed towels through a wringer washer or set eggs on the grading machine or beat icing in the bowl pushed into the hollow of her lap. She didn’t stop her life for me. But in small frequent bits, she came into my life and invited me into hers.

During this pandemic our scattered family hasn’t gathered as we usually do. But with my grandchildren, I’ve become a little more everydayish. One grandchild sends me an email: Grandma, can we work together on Zoom?

And so we get on Zoom. He does a page of math while I edit a chapter of a book I’m writing. Every once in a while, we look at each other and smile. Or we set a timer for ten minutes and report on our progress when it rings.

On Zoom, I’ve listened to violin practice and read a chapter book and practiced mental math and cheered for skateboard and scooter tricks. And I’ve watched a grandchild make crepes.

The other day, my ninety-two-year old mother called me right during a Zoom literature class.

“Hey, Mom,” I said. “Try to get on Zoom and join our class.”

And she managed! So there we were—my grandchildren and their great-grandma and me together in a work-a-day way.

Everydayish, like sitting by the wringer washer—sharing small bits of our lives.

Runaway Rigs

“You don’t need guardrails,” a friend told me, “when painted lines will do.”

His imagery caught my interest.

“I’m glad enough for guardrails,” he continued. “where if you sneeze it’s a long way down. But if I’m not on a mountain, they hem me in.”

As I drive, I’ve been playing with this metaphor. What features from the street connect to the classroom? Here are a few I found:

Runaway Truck Ramps: A few weeks ago we traveled to the mountains of Western Maryland, where I was born. As always, I looked for the emergency escape route along a steep downgrade on I-68. This ramp allows a truck that has lost braking power to avoid a violent crash by dissipating energy in a controlled and relatively harmless way.

I’ve taught plenty of students who lacked emotional braking power. As dangerous as runaway rigs, they need off-ramps to slow big feelings. A quiet classroom corner, a break in the hall, an errand to the furthest part of the school, a drink of water, a stress ball, a touch on the shoulder—all these are safe ways to steer students off the road, away from people they might hurt.

Text Stops: I was intrigued with a sign I saw in New York:  It Can Wait: Text Stop in Five Miles. Just down the road, we passed a small parking area, dedicated for texting. The state was sending a clear message to drivers—there’s no excuse to take your hands off the wheel and your eyes off the road. But there was also the recognition of the need to communicate.

And this reminds me of the urgent need for students to talk. Instead of fighting this impulse, I learned to incorporate it.

“In just a couple minutes,” I’d say, “you’ll talk with a partner about a problem. So listen to the dilemma Robert Frost sets up in his poem about a snowy woods.”

When they knew they could talk in a few minutes, they were willing to listen for a few minutes.

The next time you take a road trip, have fun with this metaphor. Can you connect caution lights and speed bumps and road barriers to the classroom? What about information signs like the one I passed in Pennsylvania the other week: Entering Chesapeake Bay Watershed? Or the more ominous one: Falling Rocks? What about the stretches of wildflowers on freeway medians?

As you construct these metaphors, you’ll likely see the classroom in new and vivid ways.