Category Archives: Education

A Dark and Stormy Night?

Closet Dog

 “It was a dark and stormy night.”  On my morning walk with our dog, in the aftermath of a storm that spawned two mild tornadoes near my home, I thought of Snoopy, sitting on top of his tiny dog house, typing that same line over and over.  In comic strips that never fail to make me laugh, Snoopy tries again and again to publish his stories, which all begin with the same line, only to face rejections that become increasingly rude.  In one comic strip he receives two rejection letters, and the editor tells him that the second one is for the next story he writes.

  Snoopy actually plagiarized his first line from British novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford, written in 1830, which has been much parodied to poke fun at bad writing.  It tells the story of a valiant highwayman brought before a judge who sentences him to die.  The thief escapes to America with the woman he loves—but he also learns in a convoluted plot that the judge who orders his death is actually his father and the uncle of the woman he loves.   At the beginning of the first chapter the author quotes a poem by George Crabbe, a British poet from the late 1700s:  “How would ye bear to draw your latest breath / Where all that’s wretched paves the way to death?”

  Frankly, I prefer Charles Schultz’s funny, floppy-eared dog to either of these guys.  Snoopy is forever at the mercy of a cast of children who are no different from most adults I know.  He made his first appearance in thePeanuts comic strip on the day my husband was born—October 4, 1950—and by the time I was born in 1956, Snoopy had evolved to walk upright and voice his thoughts in speech bubbles.  I grew up reading his observations about the contradictions of the human beings around him.

  That my thoughts drifted to Snoopy made me smile at my own foibles.  At work yesterday as a fierce storm approached and unable to head home until after a 2 ½ hour meeting, I made a decision completely lacking in common sense.  I decided that if I were drawing my latest breath in a wretched path to death, I didn’t want it to be in the basement of a dreary cinderblock building built before 1950—and added onto again and again like the houses built around trailers in the hills where I grew up.   Panicking, I left work just after a tornado warning was posted for other side of the county.

  Ten minutes into a 40-minute drive home, the sky turned an angry blue-black, and rain plummeted in torrents.  The blare of a new tornado warning blasted from the radio, filling the car—the path this time directly across my route home, a winding road arched with the long limbs of beautiful, aging trees.  I pulled into the parking lot of the nearest public building—a 7-11—and joined a gathering crowd as we watched a number of cars and school busses forge ahead on the road we had left.   We all stood stupidly and gazed at the storm from behind the plate glass windows that formed the front wall of the store.

  I called my husband to check the path of the storm on radar.  He told me that I was safe where I was and that I should stay there for the next 15 minutes until the warning expired.  When my fellow travelers and I left a few minutes later, the sky was a cloudy gray-blue again, and the rain had slowed to a drizzle.  In fact, the glow of the sun filtered through the rain clouds in the west at exactly the point I’d seen a rainbow a few weeks before.  I looked hopefully to the east and thanked God for protecting fools and little children on school busses.

  When I got home, my husband hugged me, and we laughed at the dog, who hides in the walk-in closet of our first-floor bedroom every time there’s a storm.  The dog bolted toward me in what we call turbo-dog mode, racing in figure-eights around us until the next clap of thunder sent him scurrying back to the closet.

  Eager to walk this morning, the dog waited by the door, wagging his tail.  It was no longer a dark and stormy night, though the clouds spit droplets at us now and then.  It occurred to me that during the storm the dog’s instinct had been exactly the opposite of us humans—he went to the safest place and stayed there.  I realized that I had done exactly the same thing as the atheist mother I wrote about in a previous blog—the woman who had panicked and outrun the storm with her toddler in the car.  And I imagine we had both done the same thing as the apostles who went out on the seas to fish even though there must have been storm clouds somewhere on the horizon.

  We’re not all that different, we humans, when life’s storms threaten to knock us about.  And sometimes the animals seem to have more sense.

  Tell me your common sense and animal sense stories.

Believe in Separation of Church and State?


Peeping through the cracks between the boards of the shed in our back yard, my brothers and I watched curiously as the small crowd gathered at our neighbors’ house.  It was Sunday evening, and it wouldn’t be long before our mother called us in for baths.

We had recently moved into the neighborhood, and we quickly discovered that one of the families next door had church services at their house where they spoke in tongues and handled poisonous snakes to demonstrate their faith.  Even in the deepest heart of the Bible Belt, this family was an oddity.

We couldn’t see inside the house once they closed the door, and our mom had forbidden us to go near the fence on that side of the yard when the services began.  Terrified of snakes, we obeyed this rule without Mom’s usual threat of telling our dad when we disobeyed.  And so we retreated to the shed on the other side of the yard, laughing and mimicking their moans, their hallelujahs, and the jerking movements of their limbs we had once glimpsed when they left the door open.

I think of this family every year on Pentecost Sunday, and while the church of my childhood didn’t speak in tongues or handle snakes, there was plenty of shouting.  The focus of that service was always on bringing sinners to repentance, so the pastor emphasized the violent wind and the tongues of fire, culminating in the threat of the sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood.

I have since learned the history of Pentecost—that it wasn’t first a Christian observance but a Jewish one.  The church I attend now calls that Pentecost of the New Testament “the birthday of the Church.”   The church is decorated with long fire-colored streamers that hang from the wooden rafters, a red scarf is draped around the cross, and the walls beneath the cross are decorated with red geraniums.  The congregants dress in red and sing songs, and there is no sermon on Pentecost Sunday.

The people in the pews are celebrating a birthday, and I go through the motions of joining them.  But my own feelings about Pentecost were shaped long ago in a backyard that exists now only in my memory.  And they were reinforced by a pastor who jumped up and down and waved his arm in the motion of an executioner’s scythe.

While my own story may be at the utmost fringes of odd, I know from the stories others have told me that many of us struggle to deal with the scars left by those who taught us the religion of our parents.  And when we see leaders in our country insisting that religion be brought into the arena of government, these are the people we see in our mind’s eye.

This, I believe, is why the recent Pew Forum shows that the number of people who do not identify themselves with any religious group is steadily rising.  And it’s why what’s happening in politics scares the hell out of me and a lot of other people.  There is something different about conservative church leaders than the leaders in the churches of my youth.

My science classes taught evolution; my church taught the Creation story.  Nobody questioned that it should be otherwise.  And while my views on faith have changed a lot since those days, I grew up believing that creation and evolution were compatible—that God was smart enough and big enough to create creatures who could change and evolve.  Both my English teachers and my church leaders saw the seven days as symbolic of human understanding about time—something we humans could grasp when we couldn’t wrap our minds around the concept time immemorial.

And while we said the Pledge of Allegiance every day, I don’t remember ever being told by a teacher to bow my head in prayer.  My youth leader taught at my high school, and while she allowed those of us who wanted to do so to have Bible study in her room at lunch, she did not use her social studies classroom to proselytize.  In fact, none of our social studies teachers ever mentioned God except in the factual study of the religions of the societies we studied.

The only exception that stands out in my memory was the opening prayer and the benediction at graduations.  This ritual rotated among the pastors in the town, and all the religions in the town were Protestant, so no one questioned the tradition.  But the prayer was always for the graduates to be safe and to find their purpose in life, not for them repent and find salvation.

Even the most extreme evangelicals I knew in my childhood honored the separation of church and state.  I wonder now how the boundaries have become so blurred.  Like those disciples on Pentecost, we all seem to be speaking different languages.  But unlike those disciples, we don’t seem to be hearing and understanding each other.

I believe it is possible—and far more productive—for individuals to allow their beliefs to inform their service to country without having to shout about them in the public arena.  Even the most fervent evangelicals of my childhood seemed to believe that, and I’m thankful to them for giving me that gift.

So can we make it work?  Let us tell our stories, in all our different tongues, until the world begins to hear and understand.

Ever Feel Like a Freak?

9th Grade

“How are you doing?” I asked a teenager this week.

In a moment of unhesitating honesty, she responded, “Well, everyone at school thinks I’m a freak.”  And then she paused.  “But I guess I’m okay.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that comment—thinking about how many times a day we casually ask about each other’s well-being.  When we ask that question, “How are you doing?” we expect to be answered in a sound bite response:  “Fine. How are you?”  The niceties are out of the way, and we can get on with our busy days.  Sometimes we get the opposite extreme of the sound bite—the lengthy complaint—the one that stops us in our busy tracks and requires us to listen and pretend empathy for a litany of maladies that makes us wish we hadn’t asked.

Mostly, though, I’ve been thinking about this teenager and about myself and my friends at her age.  With the blessing of years, I’ve understood that I was by no means the only teenager in my junior high or high school who thought others viewed me as a freak.  I was a definite late bloomer—still flat-chested and a size 12—a girls’ size 12—in ninth grade.  Extremely nearsighted, I wore thick brown eyeglasses and styled my hair in a flipped up version of my college freshman sister—only hers was longer and in the style of the time.

I was smart.  And I knew that was an advantage to a girl living in a family with an income just above the poverty level, so I worked hard to earn the monies that paid for college.  But I didn’t think my classmates considered it an advantage.  Some of the more popular boys in my class called me the Brain Trust and proclaimed proudly that they were, in contrast, the Brain Rust.  And it didn’t help that my English teacher announced to the class in the middle of the first quarter that he was going to make every test harder until he made one I’d fail.  For an entire quarter, my classmates begged me to fail intentionally before the teacher gave up.  But the stakes were too high for a girl whose only way to avoid going into debt for college was a package of scholarships and grants.

It wasn’t until the ten-year reunion of my graduating class that I started to realize that some of my classmates who I thought led charmed lives in high school had insecurities of their own.  And while there were a few who looked back at high school as the glory days, many shared stories of both the joy and the pain of being labeled in one way or another.  But still unable to look beyond my own lack of confidence, I walked away from that reunion feeling gleeful that one of the guys on the football team asked which of his classmates I was married to because he didn’t recognize me.  And another, whom I’d frequently let copy my homework in hopes that he’d ask me out, had lost all his hair and gained a lot of weight.

Twenty years after I graduated, when I returned for another reunion, I finally understood that every single one of my classmates harbored insecurities, too.  One of my classmates told a story of his own struggles and said to me that he admired my intelligence, that he thought I could have been anything I wanted to be, and that he was impressed that I’d chosen to become a teacher.

We are all complex people.  Even the people we dislike are complex people.  But we like to caricature and label them—stuff them into neat little boxes that will allow us to go on believing in our own place in the world.

Now I have the safety and distance from who I was in high school to recognize that my classmates were actually pretty amazing people in a lot of ways.  Not one of them ever harassed or tormented me outside of class when that bully English teacher abused his power.  And I’m grateful to them now in a way that I couldn’t be back then.

Almost every time I post a piece, I extend an invitation to respond in the Comment Box at the end of the blog.  Only a few of you have commented, though I know from the statistics I get from my host site that many of you are reading.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m elated to have a growing audience of readers!

But I want this site to become a place where we lift each other up by sharing our stories—where we use this growing and shrinking world of the Web to find what’s best in each of us.  I’m pretty sure that those of you who survived high school have your own stories to tell—stories that could benefit that young person out there whose circumstances are more like yours than like mine.  Please tell me a story.  Not for me but for this young teenager who took the risk of being honest—and for those who, like her, need more kindness and empathy in their world.

The Christianity of Christ

Douglass Bible

Courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Douglass Bible

On Friday we earthlings had a crashing reminder of how little of the universe we can actually control when a meteorite, estimated to be about 50 feet in diameter, slammed into a sparsely populated area of Russia.  For the first time in history, the event was captured in a multitude of videos and posted on the Internet almost immediately.

All weekend the news outlets have swirled with explanations and comparisons to past meteor hits.  The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History reported a significant uptick in the number of people visiting to view the meteorite collection.  Geologists interviewed on weekend news shows championed the importance of government funding for the study of minerals embedded in meteorites—most too small to catch the attention of anyone other than scientists.

Of course, attention also turned to the biggest rock of all—the six-mile wide asteroid that left a 150-mile crater off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago.  According to a PBS report—and most scientific studies—that unexpected chunk of space junk produced so much dust that it darkened and chilled the earth.  And when the dust settled, the greenhouse gases produced by the impact caused temperatures to sky-rocket, and the two extremes killed 70% of Earth’s plant and animal life.

At the same time that the tiny piece of rock created chaos in Russia, scientists also had their eye on another much bigger asteroid passing within 17,000 miles of Earth.  And every news outlet acknowledged that, as powerful as we human beings are, should such an event happen today, we could do nothing to stop it, just as the dinosaurs could do nothing to prevent their extinction.

Now for a worrier like me, all this hoopla could have shifted my anxiety into high gear—enough to send me over an emotional cliff.  This time, though, the event coincided with Lent, when I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what the crucifixion means for me in this life and the next. Born into an extended family of evangelicals who filled my mind with the horror of a fiery hell, I was taught that my only measure of control was complete surrender to a God of angry vengeance.

As an adult, I’ve chosen a faith that focuses more on God’s grace.  But it’s taken me a lifetime to put away the fear and anxiety of having so little control.  And now I understand that, for me, focusing so much on the afterlife robs me of the now-life—a sometimes harrowing but mostly joyful journey through an astonishing world.

Writers have been telling us this since the advent of the printed word. Harper Lee’s Miss Maudie described in To Kill a Mockingbird a group of Christians who are so preoccupied with the next world that they’ve forgotten how to live in the present world.  Emily Dickinson wrote that immortality was “So huge, so hopeless to conceive [that] / Parting is all we know of heaven, / and all we need of hell.”

And so I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll try harder to leave the afterlife to God—that I’ll think about it less and make the most of the gift of this present life.  I can no more control how much time I get to have between this known life and that other unknown life than I can change the trajectory of an asteroid that may come crashing into our planet.

But as I focus on the meaning of Lent, the example Christ set for how to live in this world, I understand that I’ve been given a pretty good model.  He broke bread and drank wine with his friends.  He allowed himself the luxury of having his tired feet anointed with expensive oil, even though self-righteous people criticized him for it.  He never forgot the least among us—doing what he could in the time he was given to make a difference for someone in need.  And he found time away from the needy crowd to center himself and commune with the Spirit.

Not a bad example, is it?  Even if you don’t share my faith.  Even if you don’t believe in the afterlife.  Even if you worry about that meteor that might come crashing into the Earth.

So come walk beside me now.  Tell me your stories of the joy of this present journey.

Creation or Evolution?

Frog on Deck

Walking in the evening dusk last summer, my husband and I disturbed the play of three young boys when our dog, smelling something in the air, began to bark furiously.  Our sheltie tugged insistently on his leash, lunging toward a bucket on the ground that had captivated the boys’ attention until we interlopers showed up.

My husband put the dog into a sit-stay, and when the dog was calm again, we apologized to the boys.

The youngest, not quite old enough to be in school yet, reached into the bucket and pulled out something between his cupped hands.  “Look what we’ve got!” he exclaimed.

He opened his hands just a sliver, and my husband smiled.  “A smelly toad,” he teased.  “Better be careful.”

“Nuh-uh,” said one of the older boys.  “It’s a frog!”  He turned to his brother.  “Show him,” he commanded.

The Keeper of the Frog opened his hands a little more.  “See,” he said, “its back feet are webbed.  It’s a frog!”

“Impressive,” I said, smiling.  We would have stayed to hear more—we live in an adjoining neighborhood, an “active adult community” that has no children except for the occasional visiting grandchild who has no reason to come out in search of other children.

But the dog was beginning to twitch, so we apologized again for his bad behavior and bid the boys farewell, grinning as we turned back to our own community.

A few days later, I wandered onto our second-story deck with my morning coffee to join my husband, who generally gets up earlier than I do on weekends.  As I came out the door, he smiled at me and pointed to the corner of the deck, where a tiny creature sat near my pot of basil.

I leaned over and peered at him.  “How the heck did he get up here?” I asked my husband.

“I guess he climbed up the bricks,” he answered.

Remembering the boys, I asked, “He’s a frog, right?”

“A tree frog, I think,” my husband answered as I went back into the house to get the camera.  And since I’m a long way from elementary school science, I also did some research later that day to find that telling the difference between a frog and a toad is a little more complex than just checking for webbed feet, since some frogs don’t have webbed feet.  I also discovered that tree frogs actually have little suction cups on their feet that allow them to climb.

The little guy—or gal, since my investigation didn’t get that far—visited us several times last summer, and our guess is that it came in search of the water we poured over the basil—not a good sign for our ecosystem, we didn’t think, considering we live next to green space that borders a protected stream.

I promptly forgot our visitor until this week, when a friend of mine who is an atheist posted on social media a picture of Darwin with the caption, “We’ll let you teach creationism in our schools when you let us teach evolution in your churches.”

And it occurred to me yet again, in what each time seems an epiphany to me, that people on those either/or extremes forget that many, many, many of us occupy the space in the middle.  I’m a Christian.  I believe in evolution.  I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive.  And I don’t see any reason to teach the biblical story of creation in a science classroom.

I’m an English teacher.  I’ve read and taught the literature that we collectively refer to as “creation stories”—some of which we refer to as “creation myths.”  I understand that many religions of the world have gone the way of myth as science has explained that we don’t need a god to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky.  And as we come to a fuller understanding of our world, scientists and theologians continue to try to explain the mystery and the complexity of a world we will never fully understand.

For now, I choose to believe in a Father-Mother God big enough to create complex creatures that can evolve as the need arises—a God too big to be boxed in by people on either side who think they know with certainty how our world came into existence.  Why shouldn’t I believe in such a God?  Do any parents ever expect that the children they birth will stay as they are at that moment when their infants slip-slide their way into this beautiful, intricate world?

I know I’m not the only person in this world who believes that contradictions can coexist and that we can, in fact, celebrate those contradictions.

So, dance with me.  Let’s strike a chord against dissonance.  Sing to me in three-part harmony.  Tell me your stories of the in-between.

Politician or Leader?

Congressman Hechler

That’s me in the middle in the white dress I made for the occasion.

Al Gore was the keynote speaker at a conference I attended in 2006, and he spoke eloquently to a group of teachers and filmmakers about the importance of educating our young people to take better care of the planet.  Having launched Current TV a few months before the conference, Gore touted the importance of connecting our students to technology and film.

Hearing a preview for Gore’s interview with Matt Lauer on The Today Showyesterday morning, I rolled my eyes, picked up my bag of books and my car key, and left my husband to watch Gore hawk his new book.  This evening I learned that Lauer spent more time skewering Gore for his decision to sell Current to Al Jazeera than talking about the book that I won’t be buying.

I grinned, pleased that the interview didn’t go as well as Gore had planned.  He called himself a “recovering politician,” but I’m not entirely convinced he isn’t setting the stage for a presidential run in 2016.  If he does, I won’t be voting for him.

I met Gore at that 2006 conference.  I had practically danced when I got an invitation to a reception after the keynote.  He said in his address that he was eager to talk with educators and filmmakers about how they were teaching young people about issues facing our country.  I watched as he spoke for about a minute with each person—longer with those who had clout at the conference.  I listened politely as he talked with people aspiring to get his attention for their projects.

When it was finally my turn, I shook his hand and introduced myself, and I didn’t get a complete sentence out of my mouth about my students.  As I talked, he looked over my shoulder at a well-known media personality on the other side of the room.  Before I finished the sentence, he said, “Well, good for you,” his feet already in motion to move past me, his hand in the air in a wave to the person over my shoulder.

I had stuck with Al Gore when most of the country thought he was an alarmist about climate change. I stuck with him after the ridicule that followed a campaign comment he made about taking the initiative in “creating the Internet.”  I stuck with him after the debacle of the 2000 election.  By 2006 he had reinvented himself, and I stuck with him as he made fun of himself on late-night shows and found other ways to advocate for the issues that mattered to him.

My mom used to say, when I tried to encourage her to vote, “What’s the use in voting one dirty bunch out and another dirty bunch in?”  I lectured her for her cynicism and badgered her until she started voting again.

But in that moment when Al Gore debunked the myth he’d created about his belief in the importance of great teachers, I understood how my mother felt.  And while I was no fan of President George W. Bush, I was glad that if someone had to lose to him, that someone was the man who had brushed aside a teacher he had claimed to value as the key to the future.  In that moment, for me, Gore ceased to be a leader and became a politician.

I still disagree with my mother about the uselessness of voting, and I think there are leaders in both parties who try every day to live up to their ideals.  But I wish that all of us could have one minute with the candidates—one unfiltered minute.  For me, it took less than a minute for Gore to destroy everything I’d ever heard about him from the media, a few seconds that didn’t even register in his brain.

And I’m glad that as a teenager, I had the opportunity to meet leaders in West Virginia who taught me that some are leaders first and politicians second.  Congressman Ken Hechler sponsored a group of students from my high school for a weekend in Washington.  Though none of us could vote, he took the time to walk around the Capitol with us and to ask each of us questions about our lives and our dreams.  He ushered us into the office of Senator Robert Byrd, who, though he was legendary, invited us to sit down in his office and talked to us about the history that surrounded us.  And after the trip, Congressman Hechler sent us all a personally signed photograph of the group from his district.

I want to believe that we still have leaders like Congressman Hechler and Senator Byrd who believe it’s important to give attention to the least among us.  Do you have stories of such leaders?  I’d love to have you share your stories in a comment.

For Whom Are You Grateful Today?

Omar Teachers

I am thinking of Percy Dillard today.  My second grade teacher, Mr. Dillard terrified me at the beginning of the school year that fall of 1963.  He wore a black glove on one hand, which I think he had injured in World War II.  As if that weren’t scary enough, he announced on the first day of school that we would have a spelling test every Friday—and that for every word we missed, we would get a lick with his long wooden paddle, which still looms large in my mind after 50 years.

For first grade, I’d had Mrs. Fenny, a chubby, friendly woman who mothered all of us.  Mr. Dillard had none of her qualities.  He was a black man, the only black teacher in my elementary school, and I only know now how unusual that was, even today—for a second grader to have a teacher who is male and black.

When I came home in tears on the first day of school, my dad thought I was afraid of him because of the color of his skin.  My father had quit school in fifth grade, and his response to my tears was this:  “That man is just the same as you and me.  But he got hisself an education.  You listen to him.”

When I protested to dad that he was scary, that he wore a black glove and planned to paddle us for every missed spelling word, my dad laughed. “Well, then, I guess you won’t be missing any spelling words this year, will you.”

And I didn’t.  Mr. Dillard became less scary each Friday, and I still remember that he told us that we were all equal in his room and that what would set us apart was how hard we worked.

That November, Mr. Dillard stood at the chalkboard, the classroom door open, when Mrs. Fenny came running to the door, tears streaming down her face, and said shrilly, “The president has been shot!”  Mr. Dillard turned slowly to face her and put the chalk down in the tray.  He stepped outside the door and closed it, and we children watched in silence as they talked.

Mr. Dillard returned, sitting heavily at his desk.  He looked at us sadly and said, “Children, our president is gone.  And we’re sending you home to be with your families.”  He watched stoically as we gathered our things and went home to watch the television coverage of the stunning loss of a leader with such promise for the future.

In the past four years, I’ve heard President Obama’s critics say that Jack Kennedy was the last great democratic leader.  But President Kennedy’s critics said much the same thing about him in the years he was in office before a tragic and early death catapulted him to the ranks of the greatest presidents.  And, thinking of that day, it’s hard for me to breathe when President Obama is surrounded by hordes of people, as he is today for the Inaugural Parade.

I wish Percy Dillard had lived to see President Obama inaugurated, but Mr. Dillard died in 2001.  I would never have called him my favorite teacher—I loved the motherly ones who told me how gifted I was.  But I feel fortunate to have spent a year in Mr. Dillard’s class.  He was the only elementary teacher I had to work hard to please.  And he taught me that effort was the great equalizer.

A few years later my dad lost his job, and my family moved to an all-white town in the next county where another coal mine was hiring.  I would not have another African-American teacher or have classes with people of other races until I got to college.  But because of Percy Dillard, I grew up knowing that diversity is a positive thing and that overcoming discrimination in all its insidious forms is essential.

Mr. Dillard, while spell-check now makes it less important never to misspell a word, I know that you taught me far more important lessons.  And I hope you’re up there somewhere today, watching, and knowing that, like President Kennedy and President Obama, you have a legacy.

Nothing to Fear?

First-year Teacher

“I don’t think there’s going to be a world in ten years,” my student said mournfully, tears welling up in her eyes.

“Yeah, me neither,” said the boy sitting in the next row, slumping a little lower than his usual slump.

My English classes had just finished reading Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, a novel published in 1957, twelve years after the United States bombed Japan to hasten the end of World War II.  Two years later, Gregory Peck starred in the movie version of the novel as the handsome American captain who had brought his nuclear submarine to the coast of Australia as the radiation fallout slowly drifted south.  In the narrative, no life remains north of the earth’s equator, and the inhabitants of Australia know that their days are numbered.

In the real world—the one my students and I inhabited in the early 1980s—humanity lived in terror, and the arms race dominated the evening news and the front pages of newspapers.  After that first class discussion, I grew to recognize the fear in some students’ eyes and the resignation in others’.  I asked my students whether they shared Shute’s view of our ultimate demise.  Few of them believed that they would grow up and fall in love—or even live long enough to go to college and pursue their dreams. I assured them our leaders would find a way to harness our power to destroy, though I was 25 years old and shared their anxiety.

Many of those students wrote arguments about banning all nuclear weapons and felt angry when their arguments, along with a growing movement in our country, fell on deaf ears.  Those students would now be almost 50, and I wonder if they ever think about those days, that novel, our discussions.  You wouldn’t find Shute’s book in most high school book rooms now.  The science is inaccurate and the story somewhat maudlin.

A nuclear weapon in the hands of our own military seemed far less dangerous in the wake of September 11, two weeks after we offered a temporary home to a 25-year-old teacher who had moved to Maryland from a small town in Illinois.  Our daughter was a sophomore in high school, the same age as the students I taught when I was 25.  By 9/11, I had been teaching almost 25 years, and I had never seen anything like the chaos of that day, when students, many of whose parents worked in D.C., found out that the Pentagon had been attacked.  There weren’t enough phones in the building for all the hysterical students and staff to make phone calls to their loved ones—so many that we couldn’t even get calls out on the jammed lines.

Just as we were learning to breathe again the following fall, October 2002, we suffered terror of another kind when, for three weeks, a sniper randomly attacked innocent people going about their lives.  Most of the attacks happened within five miles of our home.  My mother had been visiting from Richmond, and the last attack occurred the day my husband drove my mother to Fredericksburg to meet my brother from Richmond—at the very exit the sniper chose.  They sat for hours in the snarled traffic on Interstate 95 while, at home, we waited for news.

That young teacher, who had her own apartment by then, often stayed at our home during the crises of her first years in Maryland, and she wondered whether she had been wise to abandon the safety of a small town in the Midwest for the dangers of our nation’s capital.  My fears—my students’ fears—of nuclear fall-out seemed almost laughable when I looked into that young teacher’s eyes, into my daughter’s eyes, and tried to breathe deeply enough to assuage their alarm that the world had gone mad.

Today, the arms race we started is rarely fodder for the 24-hour news cycle.  Occasionally we read an article about the danger of a rogue nation, like Iran, being close to having a nuclear weapon, but, for the most part, our demons are different.  Somehow, our leaders have managed to get a grip on the fear that plagued us when I was a young adult.  We still have a nuclear arsenal, and while we worry about rogue nations, we haven’t let that fear loom so large that we are paralyzed by it.

And though September 11 has shaped our character as a nation, we have even found ways to address our vulnerability to make it less likely, though never impossible, for such an attack to happen again.

Yet, still, we fear.  We fear the next mentally ill man who will storm into a school and kill our children.  We fear radical extremists who are willing to strap bombs to their own bodies and become human explosives, decimating everyone in the crowded areas they choose for what they consider a glorious death.  We fear even our own people, citizens who feel they need assault rifles to protect themselves.

We.  I.  I am afraid, and I can scarcely breathe when I think of all the unspeakable danger that could take my children from me in butterfly’s breath.  The world is a scary place.  But the only way we can move beyond our paralyzing fear is to tackle our challenges together.  And maybe, just maybe, thirty years from now one of today’s 25-year-old teachers will be able to say, Oh, yes, I remember when my students were afraid of that.

Tell me your stories of fears that have never materialized and the joy that comes from moving beyond them.

What Is Intelligence?

College Graduation

Dad, Mom, and Me at my College Graduation

An unimaginable luxury before I left the classroom to work as a content specialist, the past few days have given me a respite while most of my colleagues returned to work.  For the first time in 35 years, I worked between Christmas and New Year’s Eve and took a vacation as teachers were returning to the classroom to prepare their students for semester exams.

But I’m not sure anyone who feels called to be a teacher can ever stop thinking about kids.  Even after five years out of the classroom, I still have school dreams—where I’m late and on my way to school in my pajamas, where I can’t find my way to the room where kids await, or where I have no control over the students I’m supposed to be teaching.

And, in the same way, I’m not sure I’ll ever stop thinking about what I’ve taught my students or what they’ve taught me.  I began teaching 35 years ago this month.  A poor kid who went to college on an aid package of scholarships, grants, and work study, I finished college in 3 ½ years, anxious to earn money and find that better life my coal miner father assured me I’d have if I got a degree.  And though I’ve worked hard, I’ve had an easier life than my parents—able to offer my daughter more opportunities than my parents were ever able to offer me, though they wanted what was best for me.

Because of this, when I think about education, I’m bothered by a climate where the contributions of people who don’t have an education are sometimes not valued.  I believe that we should offer all students a course of study that prepares them for higher education if that is the path they choose.  But I also believe that the person who repairs my car and the person who comes to my house to unclog my drain have knowledge and skills that I don’t have—skills that should be equally valued, even though they chose not to get a college degree.

Not every person who has a college degree is wise.  And not every person who has only a high school diploma, or even the person who dropped out, is unintelligent.  My husband and I laugh about the time when our plumber, a father of two daughters, gave us a very practical lesson in parenting.  He had been my husband’s former student, never interested in school but always a hard worker out of school and the person we always had confidence in when we needed a plumber.  He sat on the floor, working deftly to replace cheap, faulty pipes installed by our builder that began to spring numerous pinhole leaks as the house aged.  He talked easily as his hands worked, and we chatted about the challenges of parenting teenage girls.  I mentioned that I wished I could get my daughter to stop slamming doors, and he told us a very funny story about removing his daughter’s bedroom door from the hinges and telling her he’d replace it when she convinced him she could stop slamming it.  She stalked off to the bathroom, her younger sister on her heels, begging her not to slam the bathroom door, lest it, too, should be removed.  The next time my daughter slammed the door, we told her that if she did it again, we would use our plumber’s solution.  I don’t think she ever slammed a door again.

While that’s just a humorous anecdote in our family, I could easily tell many more important things I’ve learned from people who haven’t had the opportunities for higher education that I’ve had.  Someone once told me that we have something to teach and something to learn from every person we meet.  I learned many lessons from my father, not the least of which was the value of a college degree, though he was far from perfect and had only a fifth grade education.  And while I parent differently from my mother, I learned from her, among many other things, what it means to love unconditionally and to be strong in the face of adversity.

So how do we find a way to honor each other’s intelligence?  I’ve thought about this a lot since the presidential primary, when our president was called an intellectual snob—a president who, like me, had to work hard for his degree.  I don’t believe that was a fair assessment of a leader who wants others to have the opportunities he’s had.  But while teaching in a highly charged academic environment in the Washington suburbs, I have encountered many intellectuals who have denigrated those who don’t place the same value on a PhD.

As with most things, the answer lies at neither extreme.  How do we find a balance?  I’m not sure.  But I believe we begin by telling the stories of people from all walks of life who defy the stereotypes of what it means to be intelligent in a world of different kinds of intelligence.

So tell me those stories.

What Is a Great Teacher?

Dr. Shrewsbury

Why is it that social gatherings where a teacher is present inevitably lead to horror stories about kid-killer teachers or absurd tales about incompetent ones? Though many of us have teachers who change our lives, those are rarely the narratives we hear in our social dialogue.

Perhaps it’s because the consummate teachers consistently do great things without fanfare every day. They engage us, they lure us in, they make us love their subject through their own passion. But if asked to name one thing that teacher did, most of us have to think hard before we can point to a single moment that would do justice to the skill of a master teacher.

Dr. James B. Shrewsbury became my adviser the second semester of my freshman year.  I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I changed subjects twice before I landed in his English 102 class, the second semester of freshman composition.  He was a short, wiry man with white hair, piercing blue eyes, and a Santa-style white beard. When he was thinking hard or listening carefully, he chewed his upper lip, almost as if he were tasting his thoughts before he voiced them.

He began the class by having us read short stories and imitate the sentence styles of great writers, and for the first time I learned that I could sometimes capture beauty in the flow of a sentence.  And when we read Eudora Welty’s “A Visit of Charity,” a story about a young girl who visits a nursing home solely to get points as a Campfire Girl, I wrote a paper analyzing every literary device in the story to show how the young girl is visiting the home for all the wrong reasons.  But I entirely missed the wry humor in the story.

As the teaching assistant handed back the papers, Dr. Shrewsbury turned on the overhead and projected an essay onto the screen.  I recognized the paper, my name removed but the tight curl of the cursive distinctively my handwriting.  Dr. Shrewsbury walked us through the paper, pointing again and again to its strengths.  As he got to the end, he pointed to his closing comment—A very good first paper!  I breathed a sigh of relief…until he continued.

“But let’s look at this one word the writer used.  The writer has pointed out that the little girl isn’t really performing an act of charity, and that’s right.  But do you think this is the right word?”

Pointing to a phrase near the bottom of the first page, Dr. Shrewsbury touched his finger to the words the debauchery of Marian’s motives.  He smiled when it was clear that no one in the room, least of all the writer, knew what the word meant, and then explained that the word did indeed mean corrupt, the word the writer seemed to intend, but that it had the connotation of a dirty old man.

Chewing his upper lip, he stroked his beard and allowed himself the hint of a smile as the class laughed.  “There you have it,” he said.  “Never use a thesaurus to try to make yourself sound more intelligent.  Use it to remind yourself of words you already know.  Or take the time to learn the nuances of the word.”

Miserable, I couldn’t meet his eyes as I left the classroom.  Though he had been gentle, I had rarely received criticism on my work in high school.  It would be years before I could laughingly tell that story to my own students to prevent them, in advance, from suffering similar humiliation.

But at the end of the semester, Dr. Shrewsbury invited me to be his student assistant for his freshman composition classes.  He assured me that I was a “born teacher,” and he made me believe in myself.  After that, I signed up for every course he taught, garnering far more credits in English than were required for certification.

But how did he do that?  I don’t really remember.  The story I do remember could have been one of silent chagrin in the hands of a lesser teacher.  But Dr. Shrewsbury taught me by both word and example to find something to praise before pointing out weaknesses.  And while no teacher is ever perfect for every child, this is Dr. Shrewsbury’s legacy.

So tell me about a teacher who deserves your gratitude.  Or better yet, tell the teacher.