Letter to a Student

20 10 2011


Dear Bela,
Yesterday you handed me an orange piece of construction paper folded to look like a hat. Covering the entire paper were words: encouraging words of love and words describing how I had, somehow, touched your life.  If ever you need proof that God is in heaven looking down on us and taking care of each of us when we need it, all you need to know is I believe your message was directed by God.  I needed that.  He knew.


You described how you love writing and the way that I teach it.  You asked where I get all those crazy ideas.  When you love to do something, that feeling is transmitted to others.  I love to write, and I’m encouraged that my love of writing shows, and I’m so glad that you share this love.  Writing gives me a way to communicate clearly the ideas that I have.  Through writing, I have the power to touch lives, to take people to places they have never been before.  Writing provides a structure to my thoughts, and I’ve always been a thinker.  The ideas for my writing and the writing we do as a class come from my experiences.  I’m always thinking, wondering, dreaming.  I get ideas out of books, out of classes I take, from other teachers, from a trip to the grocery store.  These ideas are out there, waiting for a thinker to grab ahold and tie them down to paper.  Last year, one of these ideas came to one of my students.  She saw a hole in the wall on the way to P.E.  She wondered, she thought, she wrestled with her ideas, and then she wrote a delightful story about a group of friends who fell into a portal to another world.  The ideas are there for the taking!


You wrote, on that orange piece of folded paper, about how your feelings about Social Studies have changed because of my teaching.  You said, “You…make SS, the boaring SS, sound fun.”  Bela, you could not have flattered me more, buttered me up more, or paid me a higher compliment.  I’m glad that you are learning Social Studies, but even more heartened that you are learning to love it.  You know, it’s strange: until I started to teach American history, I really didn’t have much of an interest in it.  When I was forced to learn it so well that I could teach it, I started reading other history books, books that told “the inside story,” books that gave a more personal view of what happened in our country’s past.  Reading these other books gave me the background and knowledge to teach with enthusiasm, bringing heart to our studies.  The more I read, the more I learned, the more comfortable I became with our history, until now I look back and view our past like my old grandmother, full of stories, both heartfelt and funny.  And when we know our country’s past and dwell upon its mistakes and struggles, we become better prepared to lead our country through the events of today.


You asked, in the last folded section of paper labeled “Step 4,” how I can bring myself to school every day in the face of students who throw up obstacles to my teaching and your learning.  Bela, this is truly something I struggle with every day.   I’m not a perfect teacher (all the perfect teachers become principals!).  I say things I shouldn’t.  I’m not always tactful. I push hard, sometimes too hard.  But I do care about each and every one of you kids, and every day I start fresh with the fervent hope and prayer that I will reach those students that I haven’t yet reached, that I will touch a life.  That’s why your letter meant so much to me, because yesterday I reached at least one student.  And that student is you.


Thank you, Bela, for letting God work through you.  He knew how much I needed that encouragement, as we all do at times.  And I hope I have answered your questions.

With love,

Your teacher,

Mrs. Eberhard


P.S.  Keep wearing those skull earrings!  They are awesome!

On Squids, Kids, and Praying Mantises

16 10 2011

I don’t often read political commentator Bill O’Reilly’s column in the paper, but his headline today grabbed me: Adventure in the Woods with Kids. Those three nouns–adventure, woods, and kids– are what I am all about. So I read his column as he whined about his experience trying unsuccessfully to get a group of seven children to tear themselves away from their electronics to go for a walk in the woods. He concluded with the implication that today’s children are too namby-pamby and as a result our country is going to go to hell in a handbasket.

I don’t buy it.

Let me explain.

On Friday, I spent 12 hours with a group of fifth graders on a field trip to Hunting Island. While most had been to the beach before, many had never had the experiences we had with nature that day. We explored a maritime forest, slapping hordes of apparently malnourished mosquitoes as we learned how slash pines use fire as a survival mechanism. We prodded the rotting carcass of a horseshoe crab, holding our noses as we looked at her underbelly and discovered that she was closer to a spider than a crab. Legs shaking, we climbed out onto the rim of the lighthouse and gazed upon the wide and glistening ocean panorama. We found sharks’ teeth, sand dollars, blue crabs, ghost crabs, and hermit crabs. One group of students even found a dead squid washed up on the rocks of the groin. Gross as some of these things were, the children were engrossed. They were also excited, active, and engaged. I heard more than one student declare firmly that this was the best day of their lives. I didn’t hear a single complaint.

Who wants to hold a dead crab? Pick me, pick me!

On Saturday, I participated in Dig in the Dirt Day, the annual clean-up day at our school’s Outdoor Classroom. It never ceases to amaze me that children who can’t be bribed to pick up the socks from their bedroom floor will spend two hours on a hot Saturday morning dragging away branches, pulling weeds, clipping briars, and generally having a blast. There were children there who had never used a hoe in their lives. There was also a child who could drive a tractor and explain how to start a recalcitrant weed-eater. The big hit of the day, however, was a four-inch (no lie!) praying mantis that they found. This praying mantis obligingly climbed from one hand to another as each child experienced one of nature’s most interesting assassins. Again, no complaints, just excited, active, engaged children engrossed in exploring the great outdoors.

Which is scarier, a four-inch insect, or purple fingernails?

Later that day, my weary body dragged myself over to the university, where the annual S.E.E.D. event was taking place. I told my students that after “digging in the dirt,” the next step was to plant a “SEED,” and Science Enrichment Education Day was all that. Over 3,000 children and adults participated in hundreds of hands-on science activities, making paper, building straw towers, petting alligators, and testing for radioactivity. The atmosphere was like that of a carnival as children dragged their parents from one exhibit to the next, talked with scientists of all kinds, and collected souvenirs: slime, fossils, and pipe cleaner models of neurons. And all this without a complaint or a Game Boy anywhere around.

If I had a choice between being in a climate-controlled environment with a pantry filled with snacks and a game system with enough games to keep me occupied the rest of my life, or experiencing the sweaty (or frigid) outdoors with smelly objets d’nature and danger lurking around every corner and under every rock, those who know me know where I’d be. But let’s not leave those decisions to children. If you get children outside, if you let them experience the real side of nature and our world, you will see a blooming of creative energy and interest akin to the blooming of a desert after a rainstorm.

Bill O’Reilly should stick to political commentary, because he obviously doesn’t know squat about children. You can’t love what you don’t know. You can’t know what you don’t experience. There should be no choice in the matter. It is our job as adults to give children experiences with our world. There is a place for electronics, but children don’t need much coaxing to use technology. Instead, let’s give our children real experiences with nature. Then stand back, don’t mind the dirt, and hold your nose, for as everybody knows, squids will be squids.

And next week, my students will learn another of my favorite poems:

Praying Mantis

by Mary Ann Hoberman in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children

That praying mantis over there

Is really not engaged in prayer.

That praying mantis that you see

Is really preying (with an “e”).

It preys upon the garter snake.

It preys upon the bumblebee.

It preys upon the cabbage worm,

The wasp, the fly, the moth, the flea.

(And sometimes, if its need is great,

It even preys upon its mate.)

With prey and preying both so endless,

It tends to end up rather friendless

And seldom is commended much

Except by gardeners and such.

Skateboarding Down the Mountain

9 10 2011

 My friend Deborah and I were driving back down the mountain after having spent the day exploring and hiking. The speed limit said 45, but even that was a stretch as we hugged the curves and braked around the switchbacks. Then we came up to three or four cars backed up and going about 30 mph. Braking even more, we looked ahead to see what the holdup was. There, out in front, was a guy going down the mountain. On a skateboard.

His support team was in the car just behind him, giving him enough room and protecting him from other vehicles as best they could. A beep from that car let him know it was time to let other cars pass, and the skateboarder veered off onto the shoulder of the road, jumped off the skateboard, and ran ahead a dozen steps or so until he could slow down from his own inertia. As we passed, I caught a glimpse of his face: a wide grin plastered from one side to the other.

I knew that look. It was the same grin that had stretched across my own face when I was sea-kayaking in Alaska, my little boat bobbing up and down as sea spray splashed over me. I knew that look. That grin was a mirror to a soul living life exuberantly.

I am 52 years old. As a white female, I can expect to live to be 80.8 years old, although my family history indicates that I might even add an additional ten years to that estimate. By any estimation, however, I am over half way through my life. I am, so to speak, “over the hill.” Yet I refuse to slow down, to take the easy way, to live a calm, safe life.  As long as my body allows me, I want to be the one skateboarding down the mountain, a grin plastered across my face as I race down the slope with exuberance.

And as to this “life as a hill” metaphor that has you over the hill and heading down at a certain point: I prefer to think of life as a climb to the top, which gives a whole new meaning to the following poem that I always teach my students.

How To Tell The Top Of A Hill

 by John Ciardi

The top of a hill

Is not until

The bottom is below.

And you have to stop

When you reach the top

For there’s no more UP to go.

To make it plain

Let me explain:

The one most reason why

You have to stop

When you reach the top — is:

The next step up is sky.