The Memoirs of Me

28 01 2016

BethHeadI’m thinking of writing my memoir. No, not seriously. Just fantasizing. But just in case, I’ve come up with some possible titles. How’s this for starters: The Life of Beth, an Insomniac’s Cure. My life has been relatively straight-forward and uneventful. Grew up in a 50s subdivision, in a town brought to life by the Cold War. Two brothers, two sisters. Parents steady and stalwart and loving. Church on Sundays. School, college, teacher, married, two children. Not much there. Enough to put anyone to sleep

Or I could entitle my memoir, The Life of Beth in the Tails of Four Dogs. My first dog was Seiko, a Pekingese mix with a tail like a flag, until she was run over and her tail forever after dragged the ground. Tikki was my first dog as an adult. A black lab mix, her tail flew strong for 14 years. Then came Tembo, whose yellow lab mixed with something even bigger that gave her a tail that could and would clear off coffee tables in a matter of seconds. And lastly (for now anyway), Shae, the feral pit bull mix with a rope tail that whips back and forth with enough energy to power four houses. Yet the tales (tails?) told by these dogs were all be very similar: she left the house, came back “in a minute” that lasted all day, scratched me, fed me, went on a walk with me, turned out the lights and the next day repeated itself.shae on roof

How about Fifty Five Times Around the Sun? Or is it Fifty Six now? When I was a kid, I could tell you my age (or show you on my fingers) in a flash, and always add that “and a half” even if my birthday was just last week. Now, I have to do some quick mental math to figure out how old I am. Lessee, 1959 is one less than 1960, which is 40 years to 2000, plus 16 to get to 2016, plus one more year to get back to 1959, but my birthday’s not until September, so subtract a year: so 56. And a half.

Most of my adult life has been spent working half-time, a life style choice that has been made possible through the hard work of my better half, Brian. So I could call my life story: A Half of Beth. I spent my first ten years as a teacher working full-time. Just as I felt my fires burning out, it was time to start a family. For eight years I stayed home with our two girls: some of the best years of my life, so far. Then out of the blue I was invited to job-share with Danielle, a dynamic third grade teacher who wanted to be able to spend more time with her baby boy. Danielle’s up-beat personality made her a fun partner, but after working with her for a number of years, she up and moved to France. Along came Kathy, who also had two young boys and was looking for an opportunity to teach and still have a normal home-life. A talented teacher and good friend, Kathy and I enjoyed job-sharing together for quite a few years until she decided to change career directions and become a preschool director. By this time, my own girls were in college, so I didn’t have a good excuse for working half-time, but still I did one more year of job-sharing with Lisa before jumping back in full time. And after a wonderful year with the best fifth grade students ever, I jumped ship to take a job at the Ruth Patrick Science Education Center. And now, a year (and a half) later, I’m back job-sharing with a delightful partner, Susanne, who as a retired fifth grade teacher shares my love of environmental education as well as my teaching philosophy. So I’m back to working half-time, this time at a job that I describe as having all the advantages of being a grandmother: I get to do fun stuff with kids, and then sent them back home again! Working half-time has allowed me the space to spread my wings and explore my world, both physically and mentally. Not to mention, it has allowed me to maintain a modicum of sanity; anyone who knows me knows how I tend to over-do. Not everyone has the option to work half-time. I was only able to do this because my husband has a good job and isn’t motivated by big houses, fancy cars, or expensive play toys. So maybe my story shouldn’t be A Half of Beth, but Brian’s Other Half. Or maybe just Half Wit.

trampoline

My sister Marie spent many years working in foster care, trying to find parents to adopt children who needed a family and a stable home. She would often write “life books” for these children to give them a sense of who they were. I’m still writing my own life book. Not sure of the title. Still developing the plot. Still adding new characters. But I do know that it is an adventure book. And the sequel is still to come.

kayak flower





Reasons to Become a Teacher

2 02 2013

Question: What are three reasons to become a teacher?

Answer:  June, July, and August

 

This ranks up there with the oldest joke in the book (which in my case is “What time is it when the elephant sits on the fence?  Time to get a new fence.”).  We’ve all heard it, and we’ve all laughed at it, at least the first ten times.  For those not in the teaching profession, it just seems like the perfect job: you work for nine months, in which you get off around 3:00 every day and get lots of holidays thrown in, and then you have three solid months off.  It doesn’t get much easier than this, right?

Then there is reality, which is about to hit you in the face.

1. Myth: Teachers only work six hours a day.

Reality: Teacher PERFORM for six hours a day, during which they scarcely have time to go to the restroom.    Teachers spend much of their non-teaching time preparing.  I know teachers who get up at 4:00 AM to get ready for the day.  Teachers may leave school soon after the bell rings, but it is only to exchange hats for those of wife, mother, and/or chauffeur for a few hours.  As soon as those duties are done and the kids tucked away sweetly in their beds, the piles of papers to be graded and the lesson plan books come out until finally, with bleary eyes, the teacher lies down for a few hours of sleep.  And somewhere in there, the teacher must make parent contacts, either by phone or electronically.  It’s not unusual for a teacher to put in 10-12 hours a day for her job.  Those holidays feel like a sip of water when you are thirsty enough for a whole gallon.

2. Myth: Teachers get three months off in the summer.

Reality: Actually, we get ten weeks off, but let’s not quibble.  What needs to be considered is how teachers use this time.  Although I am sure there are those teachers and those summers when not a thought of school crosses the mind, those teachers/summers are few and far between.  Most teachers spend part of each summer taking classes for recertification or just to stay current.  Even when we are not taking classes, we are working on lessons for the next year.  At my school, on any given day of the summer you will find teachers working in their classrooms, preparing for the coming year.  And those two weeks before teachers have to go back feel like the circus is coming to town: teachers rushing down the hall carrying rolls of freshly laminated materials, the smell of hot glue permeating the building, and the excited chatter of teachers catching up and making plans echoing throughout the empty rooms.

3. Myth:  A few teachers are perfect.  The rest are cohorts of the devil.

Reality: Teachers, like most parents, are human. We try really hard to do our jobs well.  All the teachers I know went into Education because they liked kids and wanted to pass on a love of learning.  It becomes a life-long mission project: instead of going to a third-world country, we teach in public schools.  We love our students and treat them as our own children.  I was reminded of this recently when a fellow teacher related a story of how she fiercely shook her finger in an administrator’s face when the administrator came down unjustly on one of her students.  Yet, like everyone, we have bad days, sometimes even bad years.  Of course we make mistakes.  But please don’t post our sins on Facebook before we have a chance to tell our side of the story, or at least apologize for making a bad decision.  Herding cats is a hard job, but it’s a job we love and try our best at.

 

I feel sorry for those who work in business or for large corporations.  For the most part, they don’t get to feel that they make a difference in people’s lives every day.  Last week, I watched a former student of mine now in tenth grade lead about 75 adults in a praise dance at my church, wowing them all with her poise and passion.  Afterward, her mother came up to me, held both my hands, and with tears in her eyes thanked me for helping to turn her daughter around after a rough patch some six years earlier.   The funny thing is, I really don’t remember doing anything in particular, but that year must have made a difference for her.  Last week in a grade level meeting, one of our teachers shared a bag of Hershey’s Kisses with us that a former student’s mother had given her.  Apparently, that mother keeps this teacher supplied with Kisses, although it’s been a couple years since the child was in her class.

Teachers make a difference, and that’s the reason I keep teaching.  That, and summer break.





Ready, Set, Teach

15 08 2012

I have a couple hundred other things I need to be doing right now instead of writing this blog.  Today was the teachers’ first day back to school, well, first OFFICIAL day back, anyway.  Some of us have been working at school for a good part of the summer.  But today was the first day we HAD to be there, and it was taken up with meeting after meeting of what needs to be done and how to do it.  Only thing missing was the time to do all these things, and registration is tomorrow so I’ve got to have all my ducks in a row.  Then I got home after running to Food Lion for chocolate bars to put in treat bags for the students’ first day ( “We need S’more good readers…”) and forgetting to  stop by the bank to cash a check, to find a message that I had a church meeting this evening.  There went two more hours of my time.  I started getting dinner ready and found out that I didn’t have the main ingredient to the new recipe I was making: chickpea and fennel pasta salad.  I chose this recipe initially because I had some fennel growing in my garden for the first time and I didn’t know what to do with it.  So today I stepped outside to get it and, come to find out, my luxurious-looking plant had a root the size of my pinkie.  Certainly not big enough for the salad.  So off I went to Kroger to get some fennel, putting dinner about half an hour late.  Did I mention that I had a lot going on today?

But my trip to Kroger had an unexpected outcome.  Walking through the store, a beautiful young lady approached me with a questioning look on her face.  Did I recognize her?  Of course I did.  It was Isabel, a student who was in my class some six years ago!  And right behind her was Stella, another student from the same class.  So I stood in the bakery section, right beside the sliced Italian bread, listening as they reminisced about their time in my class.  And Stella broke out in a recitation of Jabberwocky, a poem that I had taught the class so many years ago.  And I was reminded of the effect that teachers have on their students.

But that’s not all.  Last week, as I was sitting at this computer making plans for the school year, the doorbell rang.  I assumed it was the neighbors next door, but no, when I opened the door, there stood Brian, a boy from my last year’s class (and one who reads this blog religiously).  Brian lives two blocks down, and had walked over to give me a back-to-school gift:  two apple-shaped Post-it note pads that he had picked up for me while he was shopping.    And I was reminded of the effect that teachers have on their students.

But that’s not all.  The very next day, I was working in my classroom when in walked Maggie.  Maggie was in my class two years ago and has regularly corresponded with me by mail and through notes delivered by her mother, our cafeteria manager.  Maggie had come to help me in the room and while cutting out laminated cards, she filled me in on everything happening in her life as a rising seventh grader.  And I was reminded of the effect that teachers have on their students.

And so, on the cusp of a new school year, I got the message loud and clear.  I am right where I need to be at this moment, doing just what I am doing.  As I have left my mark on these students, so too did they leave their mark on me.  And for that I will be eternally grateful.  Some may attribute the chance meeting of four former students within a week’s time as happenstance.  I know otherwise.

Yes, I have lots I need to be doing right now.  I haven’t finished my lesson plans.  I need to write down all I need to tell parents tomorrow.  I need to consolidate all my “to-do” notes to even begin to figure out what needs doing.  However, nothing is more important than thanking God for the privilege of serving Him through teaching our children.  I hear you, God.  Thank you!





Hope

31 01 2012

Although he made good grades in elementary school, he did so poorly in high school that he never graduated.  He remembered his teachers as tyrants, saying, “It’s tragic to think that such people have the power to bar a young man’s way.”  His science teacher remembered him as just another student, leaving “neither a favorable nor an unfavorable impression.”  Another teacher said that although he was gifted, he lacked self-control and was argumentative and self-opinionated.  Only one teacher was able to motivate him, a high school history professor named Dr. Poetsch.

“Even today I think back with genuine emotion on this gray-haired man who, by the fire of his words, sometimes made us forget the present; who, as if by magic, transported us into times past and, out of the millennium mists of time, transformed dry historical facts into vivid reality.  There we sat, often aflame with enthusiasm, sometimes even moved to tears…”

He wanted to be an artist, but failing to meet the entrance requirements to art school, decided that architecture was more to his liking.  When his beloved mother died of breast cancer when he was just 19, he moved to the city, living the life of a destitute vagabond for four years, taking odd jobs as he could, hunger his constant companion.  Five years later he decided to go into politics.

He was, of course, Adolf Hitler.

Which brings me to my question: What happens to these kids, these gap-toothed, smiley first graders who grow into lanky, awkward adolescents and then become the confident, ready-to-change-the-world teenagers?  Why do some head for relative obscurity while others dive into mission work or medical research or theological studies, and still others, thankfully not many, leave footprints of evil and hatred wherever they go?

Our city is in shock. We are reeling in disbelief.  In the space of less than six weeks, two police officers have been murdered.  This is Aiken, S.C., not New York City, L.A., or Atlanta!  Aiken, home of the Aiken’s Makin craft fair, horse races, and a brand new Cracker Barrel restaurant.  Surely this isn’t happening.

But it has.  On December 19, Master Officer Scotty Richardson was shot and killed by Stephon Carter, age 19, during a traffic stop, leaving behind his beloved wife and three young sons.  Then on January 28, Joshua Tremaine Jones, age 26, killed Master Corporal Sandra Rogers as she responded to a report of suspicious activity, leaving a sister and father wracked with grief and an entire police force and community stunned and shaken.  Guess I should insert the word “allegedly” somewhere in there.  This is still America, after all.

What happens to our kids?  Did Hitler’s mother look down upon her baby’s face and ever imagine him being the force behind the systematic murder of eleven million people?  Did Stephon Carter’s teachers even have an inkling of the violence he was capable of? Were there signs?  Joshua Jones’ father knew something was wrong with his son when at age 16 he stabbed his father twice.  Jones’ father spoke to the media recently, saying that his son’s behavior was “purely the work of the devil.”  Can we, should we, blame it on the devil?

Hitler had a mother who loved him.  He had a teacher who inspired him.  He had the intellect.  Many others with a lot less have gone on to give back to society in positive ways.  What happened?

It’s scary, really.  As a teacher, I touch lives on a daily basis.  I’d like to think that my influence is always a good one, but I have bad days when I lose my patience with the misbehavior, when I don’t always exhibit those behaviors that I want my students to model.  It happens.  I’m human.  But the next day I scrabble my way back, trying to be the positive model that they need and deserve.

We will probably never know where Hitler’s hatred came from or what tipped the balance for Carter and Jones toward lives of violence.  But my students, my kids?  They are the good ones, the ones that will go on to impact the world in positive ways.  I believe that.  I have to.





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.





Blueberry Summer

28 07 2011

Somehow the blueberries know.  It’s not the heat.  Here in the deep South it is hot starting in May and continues well into September.  Yet the first day of summer vacation, I go out to say hello to my bushes and somehow they knew I’d be there and all those green berries had turned blue overnight.  I know that summer vacation is coming to a close when the bushes on the side yard, the first ones to turn blue, stop producing.  And by the last day of vacation, there are only a few berries left on the back bushes.  Somehow they know.

If school-year weekends are sips of warm water, then summer vacation is a pitcher full of ice water, filled to the brim, with glistening droplets holding tight to its rounded belly.  I need summer.  I especially needed summer this year, following a school year that was tougher than most and had me wondering if it was time for another career.  It was my first year in fifth grade.  New curriculum, new ideas to develop.  Same students.  We had “looped,” with us fourth grade teachers keeping our same classes as teachers and students alike had moved up a grade.  It was an inspired idea: teachers wouldn’t have to waste time getting to know their students, students knew what to expect, and an issue of replacing fifth grade teachers who were leaving was dealt with.  We even got to stay in the same rooms, the janitor simply changing the number outside our doors. It worked well, mostly.

By the end of the year, however, things had changed.  Students were sick of each other, worse than usual since they had been with each other for two years now.  They were ready for change, a change that some felt they had been cheated out of in fifth grade and couldn’t come quickly enough as they headed to middle school.  I was tired, having spent the previous summer both in class and working on new lesson plans, and I didn’t handle the issues that arose very effectively.  I lost my sense of humor.  By the end of the year, I was completely dried out, parched and prickly.

That first day of summer vacation finally arrived.   I woke up, poured a bowl of cereal, went out to my bushes, and there they were: blue, plump berries begging me to cover my cereal with their bursts of summer succor.  Each morning would find me out there, cereal bowl in hand, swatting gnats and mosquitoes, listening to the coo of the mourning doves and the final rasps of the cicadas, brushing dewdrops off my face as I delved deeper into the bushes, feeling the promise of another hot day on the back of my neck.

So here it is, the end of July.  The bushes are slowing down, and my own pace quickens.  I’ve spent the last few days working in my classroom, hesitantly at first and then with growing purpose and interest.  I find my mind wandering to school projects, plans for fine-tuning the coming year.  Soon enough there will be no more fresh berries, no more slow summer mornings.  But I’ve gathered enough for the coming months.  I’m fully hydrated, plump and juicy as a ripe berry with good humor.  I’m ready.  This morning, I’ll stop by the school office to talk with the staff who have been working all summer, a blueberry pie in hand, so that they too can know the goodness of a blueberry summer.





The Best Gift

16 06 2011

Already it seems like the end of school was forever-ago, but only two weeks have passed since the last day of school.  That last day was filled with tears and smiles as we said good-bye to our fifth graders, most of whom we had had for two years now and all of whom were heading for middle school.  My desk was piled high with gifts: beach towels, lotions, gift cards, all the usual teacher gifts that say, “We appreciate all you’ve done.”  A warm feeling of accomplishment filled the air: in my students for having survived yet another year of school, and for me that my job with this group was done.   Yet amidst all the gifts, one stood out from the rest, although I didn’t realize it until I got home.  There under all the fancy gift wrap and pretty bags was a plain envelope, addressed To Mrs. Eberhard,  inside a story handwritten in pencil, with lots of misspellings and punctuation mistakes.  It was, quite literally, the rest of the story.

You see, about two weeks before, our class had been lined up outside the P.E. room door.  One of our students (I’ll call her Tara) noticed a hole in the cement wall and wondered why it was there.  I suggested to Tara that there was probably a story inside that hole.  Tara got that “lightbulb” look on her face, and at lunch and later at recess I noticed she was hurriedly scribbling away on a small notepad.  On the way in to class after recess, she read to me what she had written:  the start of a story about several children who had found a portal to another world in their P.E. wall.  Interesting, I thought.  Maybe next year I’ll take the kids for a walk around the school to look for stories.  Then in the bustle of wrapping up the school year, I forgot all about her story, assuming that Tara’s interest would also wane and the story would be left unfinished.

Not so.  In the envelope that last day of school, I found the rest of the story.  And it was quite a good story, too.  Her voice shone through as her characters discovered made an exciting discovery, the story built to a climax, and then loose ends were tied up.  Through it all, her sentence structure, vocabulary, and word choice were clear evidence that somehow, some way, Tara had become a writer.

When Tara had come to me at the beginning of fourth grade, her writing was basic at best.  Short, choppy sentences.  Phrases that didn’t make sense.  Between her poor handwriting and even worse spelling, many times I could not even read what she had written.  The change did not happen overnight, nor was it a simple path of me teaching her a skill and her learning and applying it.  Without realizing it, I had turned her on to reading by introducing her to American Girl books.  Her mother related to me that instead of having to drag Tara to the library and force her to read books, now she was devouring books as though they were chocolate.

Yes, I had taught her writing lessons that gave her the building blocks of writing.  Yes, I had used mentor texts to point out how authors applied their craft.  Yes, I did model each skill as I introduced it to the class.  But I would have blinders on to say that I made the change in her, that I had made her into a writer.  Tara’s transformation was the result of six years of consistent, directed teaching.  It was the result of a school media center that stocked children’s books that appealed to a variety of interests.  It was the result of former teachers maintaining an interest in their students, encouraging them to continue striving for that next level of excellence.  It was the result of a school environment that valued achievement, but at the same time valued the worth of each student, no matter how gifted each was.

No better gift can a teacher be given than evidence such as this story that she has made a difference in the life of a child.  But, if I may be critical, I must point out that the envelope was labeled incorrectly.  Instead of reading, “To Mrs. Eberhard,”  it should have said, “To Aiken Elementary.”