Parent Power

27 08 2011

“Long, long ago when the world was young…”  Thus began my father’s bedtime stories, told in musty, hot tent trailers while we were camping.  His stories always revolved around a character he made up called Papa Scotia.  Papa Scotia was quite a character, too!  He had a passel of kids and always took them on wild adventures, doing everything exactly backward.  The fact that Daddy came up with these stories was amazing, as he was a chemist with a mind colored in black and white and read only (gasp) non-fiction.  Mama’s camping stories were more fanciful, about fire fairies and such.  I remember one story about a spoiled fairy who cried so much she turned into stone, with a trickle of fairy tears running down her that fed into a magical mountain stream.  Looking back, I can see that their inspiration came from us, a fact that sailed blissfully over my head at the time.

My parents only told my sister and me made-up stories when we were camping, since without any lights it was impossible to read.  When we were home, we always ended the day with a story, usually one from a set of books called The Junior Classics.  I have vivid memories of sitting on the sofa, Lucy on one side and I on the other, with my mother reading to us.  We read fairy tales, folk tales, myths and legends, stories about animals, heroes, and giants.  I remember looking at the page in front of her and seeing only a mixed up bunch of letters.  What magic there was in reading!

Almost six years old and deep into a book

When I started correcting my mother’s reading, she stopped reading to me as much.  Go figure.  Instead, she got us library cards, and we went to the library at least once a week.  We were given a subscription to Ranger Rick magazine and read it cover to cover several times each month.  We thought we had struck gold when my mother gave us a “Book of the Month” subscription for our birthdays.  What fun to get a hardback book in the mail that we could keep!  Those books too were read, reread, and then read again.  And yes, packrat that I am, I still have a few.  For my grandchildren.  Many many years from now. (By that time, I’ve have to explain to them what these things called “pages” are.)

The point is, from a young age, my parents modeled literacy to us.  They provided opportunities for reading.  They made relevant, interesting literature available to us.  Rarely, they gave us pointers on reading: “Don’t worry about pronouncing names right, just say it and move on.” And they gave us time.  Our days weren’t filled with scheduled activities.  We were Junior Girl Scouts and sang in the church choir.  For a couple of years my sister took piano lessons, and I played church-league basketball one year.  But for the most part we had time: time to play outside, time to explore, time to get bored and lots of time to lose ourselves in books.  More than one long rainy afternoon was spent inside my closet, into which I had pulled blankets, pillows, and a lamp, reading and reading and reading.

My parents were the best teachers I could have had, hands down.  I try to be a good teacher to my students, but I know I will never teach with the power of a parent who reads.

The Times They Are A-Changing

24 08 2011

I once had a college professor who said he could sum up all of history in two words: Things change. That really didn’t help me pass the final, but the truth of his words did stick with me. There are very few constants in this life, other than the proverbial “death and taxes.”

The beginning of a school year is chock full of change, but this year more than ever. We were starting the year off with a brand new bunch of students, which doesn’t sound too surprising, but after two years of looping with the same students we had forgotten how much of the routine had to be taught and rehearsed. The number of students in our grade level shrank, causing one of our group to have to teach at another grade level. Another challenge presented itself to us when a new student came to our door that first day who spoke not a lick of English: we’d have to change our way of teaching just to communicate with him.

Yet these were ordinary, to-be-expected changes common to the first of school year. A more momentous change was a “changing of the guard” in our school administration. In 22 years of teaching, I had only ever taught under two principals. Two days before school started, the first of these principals died after a long illness.

Mrs. Rinehart (I never could call her “Lynette”) had hired me for my first teaching job out of college. Somehow, she saw something in me that no one else did, and because of her belief in me I was able to persevere and grow as a teacher. She expected the best out of everyone, and that is what she got.

Far before anyone else, she realized the value of computers and technology in education. I remember, way back at Laurens St. Elementary, how she got a computer for every class, a TI-50. None of us knew what to do with them at first, but it was a start. She made sure from then on that we all had the latest technology and knew how to use them effectively. Today I am reminded of her legacy every time I pass the C.A.I. Lab at our school, her name by the door.

Mrs. Rinehart knew the value of motivation and learning from each other. After all of us had gone home, she would sometimes walk through the classrooms to see what was going on. I know this because several times she left notes on my desk, complimenting me on what she had seen. I kept every one of those notes and still have them to this day. We would often have faculty meetings in a different classroom each week, just so we could get ideas from each other.

Several people spoke at her funeral about how she always called them “sugar,” or “sugar-foot.” I don’t remember her using this expression, but I do remember something else she often called people: “nit wits”! She was one smart lady, and she knew her stuff. She had no patience for people in administration telling her what was best for the students in her school, when she knew quite well they were wrong. I remember her vividly calling them “nit wits.” She was quite willing to stand her ground for what she believed in, and everybody knew not to get in her way.

If Mrs. Rinehart taught me nothing else, she taught me the value of reading. Every day she told the students at our school to “read, read, read.” I took her advice to heart with my own two girls, and read to them constantly. I attribute much of their success in school to having read to them so much. So often we get caught up with complex methods, when all we really need to do is teach students the love of books and then stand back.

After staying home for eight years with my children, I came back to teach under Sharon Cagle. Trained under Mrs. Rinehart, Sharon had the same drive, setting high standards for her teachers and students in her school, and she too achieved at an extremely high level. She also continued the legacy of cutting edge technology, ensuring that we each had Smartboards and other new technology that would help us teach more effectively. She worked us hard but fairly, shot straight, and always had the students’ best interests at heart. By the end we had all been thoroughly “Cagled,” transformed into a lean, keen, teaching machine. Now she was retired and a great change was upon us as we learned the ways of a new principal.

The Sunday before school started found me out in my garden, pulling up the massive expanse of cucumber vines that had engulfed my garden during the summer months and now were wilting with an infestation of pests. The tiny seedling had looked so cute when I planted it, perky little leaves popping out of the ground with so much empty space around it. Having never had any luck with cucumbers in the past, I really didn’t expect much, but year after year of putting “Kricket Krap” compost on my garden must have made a difference. That one plant grew and grew and grew and produced so many cucumbers that I had to learn how to make pickles just to keep up. Yet when I began pulling up the plant, I quickly found that it was not just one long vine: a spider’s web of vines confronted me, with one vine branching off of another and other vines likewise branching off of it. Each new branch had put out tendrils that gripped anything in its path so that I had to pull just one at a time, unsnarling the tangles of vines. By the time I was done, there was a mountain of vines ready to be hauled off, and a wide open space in the garden, ready for the next crop to grow in the fertile soil made by the castings of oh-so-many crickets.  I doubt there will ever be another cucumber plant like that one.  Every year is a new adventure in this garden.

I’m not a big fan of change. I like routine, knowing what to expect. Yet change is inevitable, so I guess I’ll just have pull up my Big Girl Panties and get on with it. Or else I’ll really be in a pickle.

Living in the Big House

13 08 2011

I don’t know what I was thinking. I must have been crazy. (I certainly was for the duration.) Several weeks ago, I arranged for hardwood floors to be put in two rooms of our house, not realizing that the date I agreed to was the first week back at school for teachers. Not the best planning, since that first week is always a hectic one trying to get the classroom and my head ready for a brand new bunch of students.

The weekend before, my husband and I, along with a strong friend, moved all the furniture and other paraphernalia out of the master bedroom and our family room. Although I am certainly not a hoarder, I am, as many of my friends and co-workers can attest, somewhat of a packrat. My house is full of a lot of “stuff” valuable only to me: family photos, mementoes of past vacations, rocks…you get the picture. Each has a story behind it that makes it hard for me to give up. A piece of slate came from the roof of an old whiskey distillery beside the bed and breakfast that we stayed at in the Orkney Islands, the area of Scotland from which my grandfather immigrated. The Bavarian hat I purchased for only a couple Euros in Salzburg, where we happened across a yard sale (I know, right?!). The huge black travel trunk used to belong to Dr. Harnsberger, my neighbor growing up who traveled all over the world. The point is, there was a lot to move and very little space in which to move it. Somehow, we managed to clear out the two rooms. However, if someone had walked into one of the other rooms unawares, we certainly would have been contacted to be on a reality show.

All during this past week, I slept in our “Outhouse” (for background on this, read my post titled “Genius”) maneuvering my way between the sofa, recliner, and various other items that we had temporarily stored out there. My husband slept in College Daughter’s room, which likewise was stuffed full of dressers, trunks, and file cabinets. Even High School Daughter’s room was not safe from tubs of miscellaneous belongings, chests of drawers, and clothes from our closet. Although her eyes got wider and wider with each piece of furniture we brought into her room, I must say that High School Daughter bore it all well, considering. As long as she had a laptop and her bed, she was content.

There is a certain amount of sawdust involved in getting hardwood floors. The installers kept a broom handy and tried to keep everything swept up, but it wasn’t long before a thickish layer covered everything. And flies! Because the workers were constantly going in and out of the house, hoards of flies decided that inside was infinitely more comfortable than being in the heat outdoors. Every evening, when we came back from wherever we had hidden during the day, we would go on Fly Safari, armed only with fly swatter, keen eyesight, and fast reflexes. We made a huge dent in the fly population over the course of the week, a feat that should be recognized somewhere. Unfortunately, not all the flies and their innards made their way to the trashcan. It’s hard to be motivated to wipe fly guts off windows when you are crunching on a thick layer of grime.

Each day, however, progress was made, and by Thursday evening the installers swept up their mess, packed up, and pulled out of the driveway. After waiting for the floor to dry, we started putting our house back in order. Each item and piece of furniture, however, needed to be dusted and cleaned. I even cleaned out my dresser drawers, pulling out at least 20 tee shirts and other articles of clothing. All of a sudden, the drawers close all the way! Incredible! We worked late into the night, but finally had everything back in place, organized, and clean.

We used to have a picture book that I would read to the girls when they were little. It was a folktale about a man with a large family who lived in a very small house. He complained to a wise man about his dilemma and the wise man told him to bring various farm animals into the house with him. However, living with cows, goats, pigs, and chickens caused him to feel even more cramped and crabby, so he went back to the wise man. The wise man told him to take all the animals out of the house. The man did, and was surprised with how big his once small house now felt. I bring this up because, once we had all the furniture back in place in our own modest-sized house, High School Daughter looked up from her laptop and commented on how big our house now looked.

By the time I could find the camera, this was all the mess that was left.

I have no doubt that before too long, the house will fall back into its usual state of disorder, but it sure is a great feeling to have everything neat and clean. My only regret is that I don’t have any company coming to gaze upon this great event. And so, I’m issuing an invitation for all my friends to come see my beautiful, organized, dust-free house with the brand-new flooring. For the next 15 minutes.

Miss Beth

4 08 2011

It happened again, this time at the dentist’s office. “Miss Beth?” the receptionist said as she called me in. Last week it was at the doctor’s office. Nurse after nurse had called people in before me. “Catherine?” “Juanita?” “Brenda?” When it was my turn, the nurse called out, of course, “Miss Beth?” Even the grocery store cashier hands me back my credit card with a “Thank you, Miss Beth.”

Lest you think this is an age-related event, or possibly an indication of an ultra-feminine nature on my part, read on. The first time I remember being called “Miss Beth” was when I was 19. I was helping my father demolish an old building beside our church. I was sitting atop a chimney, one leg in each flue, taking it down brick by brick. Walking down the sidewalk was a guy, a classmate of mine, who greeted me with (you guessed it), “Well, hello there, Miss Beth.”

I think it’s a Southern thing, although I can’t be sure because I’ve never lived anywhere else. In The Book of Southern, it reads very clearly: Children shall call their neighbor moms “Miss + first name.” Preschool teachers and day care workers get their fair share of this as well. Elderly women (and when I say elderly I mean MUCH older than myself) often get tagged with “Miss.” It has a nice feel to it, kind of casual, friendly, and respectful all rolled up into one.

It’s not that I have anything against being called “Miss Beth.” When I taught preschool Sunday School or Vacation Bible School, all the little ones, or at least those who could talk, called me “Miss Beth.” All the kids in my neighborhood call me “Miss Beth,” and I absolutely adore that. It took two years of going to the school where I teach for my neighbor to remember to greet me in the hall with “Mrs. Eberhard” instead of “Miss Beth.” I didn’t tell her to change over, she just did. Although I’ve never seen it, somewhere it is written that teachers must be called by their last names. And yet, walking down the halls of this same school, a co-worker called out, “Hey, Miss Beth.”

Tell the truth: Do I look like a "Miss Beth"?

What I don’t get is, why me? I don’t hear other women being tagged “Miss” by their peers. Does “Beth,” being a one-syllable word, just need another syllable attached so it flows better? Or, is there something in my appearance or manner that shouts out “Miss”? Do I remind people of the main character of “Driving Miss Daisy?” Maybe it is time to color my hair. On the other hand, I kind of like the name. After all, I could be called much worse.