A good-bye, but more importantly, a THANK YOU to WA!

I’ve read a hundred or more books about lives taking abrupt turns, about dramatic endings, about sudden loss. 

I’ve even written a few books on those topics, too, and had readers email me with comments such as, “I hated that. Why did you do that to my favorite characters?”

Right now I feel like I’m living all of those stories simultaneously, and I keep waiting for the books to close and life to go back, pretending that I’m in charge of this plot.

I’m not.

And I know all of you can relate to what I’m feeling.

Today I’m cleaning out my classroom, a task I didn’t plan on doing until June 12. But on that Friday in a few weeks I anticipate moving into my new rental house in Utah–2,700 miles away from where I now sit in Maine.

(For those of you who have read my books, I went through and “patted” everything first just as Mahrree did in Edge at the beginning of Book 5.)

I always expected to be here only three years anyway. I had told my adult children living in Utah we’d return after Dad’s jaunt to the east coast. Only three years. But then we thought we could stretch it out for longer, another year or two. And then everything started going strange, and I wanted nothing more than to be back with my kids. So it turned out to be only three years after all.

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Three very fast, unforgettable years.

I expected sad good-byes this month and next, when school graduation took place June 1, and the rest of the students left by June 10th.

Today, I would have expected still four more weeks of students crowding into my slightly-too-small classroom, leaving the musky, sweaty scent of teenagers in spring that my window fan would struggle to swirl out of there each afternoon.

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I expected to give them all a little farewell speech in June where I thanked them for accepting me, entertaining me, and teaching me for the past three years. Where I told them that I had quickly grown to love them, and that they had become “my kids,” and always would be.

I never expected that Friday, March 13, would be the hurried last day, when I called out to my students who suddenly found out they wouldn’t be coming back on Monday, “Take everything home with you! We might not be back for two full weeks!”

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Unimaginable. Two whole weeks?!

But it was two whole months. And now three.

They never came back.

I had intimations of that when I did lunch duty that day in March, Friday the 13th. I had lunch duty once a week to monitor the doors, and I hated it. I usually write notes about something I needed to do, trying to ignore the noise of Lunch C.

But not on Friday, March 13. I felt God nudge my head up from my notebook and I heard a whisper, “What if today is the very last day? Your last look at the students of this school?”

Being someone who loves to entertain any plot, I played along and watched the kids that day. I tried to name each one in my head, remember their behavior in my class (I’ve had about 75% of the student body in my classes by now), I watched who they interacted with, and I smiled or cringed.

At that point of the day, none of them knew that my husband had messaged me earlier: The admins will be temporarily closing school because of the virus. They’ll announce it in the last period. Keep it quiet for now. 

I took notes, and just now I found them, still on my shelf behind my desk where I dropped them, exactly two months ago today.

My handwriting is difficult to decipher, but some of the lines read,

“What if this is my last lunchtime? I can’t swallow it. I imagined it so different, but also so grateful I got to pull this shift. I usually hate this. Today–I’m grateful for one last look, if it is the last look.”

It was the last look.  None of us would have imagined that.

Ridiculous.

I had a prom dress boutique to put together with the National Honor Society in April. We had junior prom in May, and I was asked to again announce the juniors as they entered. I was planning to have my AP students come to my house to watch “The Great Gatsby” and have a barbecue before the end of school, we had the AP Exam coming . . . (which is starting in just one hour. I’m writing this in my classroom as my kids sit at home trying to write only one essay to pass the test. It’s like putting all your eggs in one basket, then running through a forest and not dropping any . . . )

Ridiculous now to think of any of those past plans while we try to make some new, tentative ones.

I’m sitting in my classroom, one last time right now. I took down the chairs, turned on the lights, and made it seem like a regular Wednesday afternoon. My husband will call me maudlin. I call it therapeutic.

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And just now, as I’m taking pictures and saying good-bye, I’m realizing it more important to say THANK YOU!
This isn’t a time for brooding, but celebrating! 

  • Thank you, WA and students, for reminding me that I love teenagers.
  • Thank you for accepting me so readily.
  • Thank you for asking me to chaperone dances, to advise groups, to take pictures, to come to your activities, to write you letters of recommendation. It was fun. Truly, deeply, amazingly FUN!
  • Thanks for letting me dance at those dances and pep rallies, and for even playing my music and not laughing at me.
  • Thank you for such growth! For such trials! (Don’t make me name names–you know who you are, and there are several of you.)
  • Thank you for pushing me to my very limits–mentally, emotionally, and even intellectually. I didn’t know I could go that far and still survive. And then come back the next day and do it all over again. (But you have to come back, just to see if you can do it again.)
  • Thank you for your patience, for your willingness to try new things, for laughing at my lame jokes, for letting me roast you in front of the whole class. But you asked for it, because you tried to roast me first. But I never, never lose a roasting. You know that now.
  • Thank you for such life, such activity, for teaching me about “Bubs” and trucks and hunting and lobster fishing and cheering and even the darker elements of your lives. You have enriched me and sobered me.
  • Thank you for your inspiration, for showing me true resilience, patience, endurance, and determination. Many of you live difficult lives, and I wept for you and prayed for you. I will continue to do so until the end of time.
  • And thank you for letting me come back some day, because I know I will. I’ll come looking for you. And that’s when I’ll get to hug you again. And we’ll laugh and remember together.
  • Until then . . .

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I love you.

Thank you for these past three unforgettable years.

Why your kids will be fine without “schooling” for a few months; 4 myths we should toss now

We’re spiking with unnecessary anxiety that our kids are going to fall behind because of our current school mess. But as a public school teacher for the past three years, and a homeschooling mom of six kids before that, I promise that these March-June months will NOT delay your child’s learning.

Unless we push too hard.
Then we’re ruining everything.

So let’s not. Too many educators and parents are steered by myths that should be tossed out the window (and leave that window open–we need the fresh air).

Myth #1children and teenagers learn at a steady and constant rate of progression.

Reality: Kids learn just as they grow—they shoot up rapidly, then plateau, then they burst again, then rest again, and with no predictability. Growth is exhausting work—physically, mentally, and emotionally. No student is ever “on task” every single day, all the time. Even my most ambitious AP Literature students will have days where they say, “Do I have to ‘poem’ today?”

One of my daughters struggled to read, weeping daily from age five until age eight, trying to sound out even simple words. Then one day it all “clicked,” and two months later she was reading Harry Potter, finishing the entire series before she was ten. She’s now a successful college student.

Every insightful parent and teacher will tell you that they see peaks and plateaus in their kids, and even in themselves. The “steady progress” we try to impose on students has never worked across the entire gamut of students, but only for a handful of children, which makes us think that if we just push hard enough, all of the students will fall into line.

No. That’s never, ever worked. Let’s abandon that faulty premise right now. Kids need routines, yes–but don’t expect methodical progress from creatures who are fundamentally irrational and still developing. (And when hormones kick in? Oh, heavens help us all.)

Myth #2If we don’t consistently teach children, they’ll suffer. Skipping even one day will set them back.

Reality: If kids miss a day, or a week, or even a month or three, the long-term effects are negligible. Since children are learning in unpredictable stages of peaks and plateaus, nothing we as educators or parents do can change that.

When my adult children were teenagers and younger, we had a period of a couple of years where we moved four times around the country and added an eighth baby. Sometimes schooling was set aside for weeks, and even months. My kids still read books, created art, or explored the nature and history of new towns, and—with no interference from me—still learned.

Not formally, but naturally.

They chose what to discover, and that’s what they remember even years later: exploring new places and learning what they wanted to.

When we got back to “formal” learning, they were on track within a couple of weeks. How do I know? Because later these kids all entered school. Those attending public school for the first time in junior high were straight A students. Those who went to college (three skipped their senior years) all succeeded and graduated, or are on track to graduate.

Missing school, even skipping an entire year in some of my children’s cases, made no significant change to their ability to succeed.

Consider the missed time as a natural plateau, and allow kids to explore and learn naturally.

When they return in the fall, I predict most kids will be more than ready to run to the top of the peak, eager to see which of their friends are already there.

Myth #3We have to make sure they finish the curriculum for this year.

RealityCurricula are created by governmental or private entities who know nothing about your child, or, I would assert, even how children naturally develop. “Standards” are a collection of “that sounds effective” ideas that are quite often unrealistic, unnecessary, and/or just plain boring.

Kids should never be bored of education.
Learning is a natural part of their development—it’s hard-wired into their progression.
If kids are bored by “education,” we’re doing something seriously wrong.

Aristotle once said, “All [children] by nature desire knowledge.” We don’t have to force it, just allow it.

Governments and school boards set standards and teach incrementally for diagnostic and testing efforts, in an to attempt to educate large masses of students. But that’s never reflected the needs of kids, only of the evaluators.

(Blessedly, some of us get to teach in schools where the curriculum is left up to us; I’m extremely fortunate to teach at a school that says, “Do what you think would be most engaging for the students.”)

But ask any other teacher: Do you like the structured and scripted curriculum you’re directed to follow?

They will respond with, “No! I know what these kids need, because I’m with them every day. If only I could teach them what I see they really need!”

Parents concur. In fact, many parents roll their eyes at how and what their children are being taught and the homework they bring home, and wish all of that could change.

It can! Here’s our chance!

There’s no reason why the current curriculum MUST be completed. Most schools aren’t bothering with standardized testing, and many universities are waiving SAT/ACT requirements. The big testing monsters have been locked in a closet for the year.
(Here’s hoping they never get back out.)

In some regions, schools are no longer requiring grades, or aren’t penalizing students for struggling in classes, or are moving to a simple pass/fail assessment.

So while these testing and grading “monsters” have been removed from the equation, let’s truly experiment with education!

Parents, let kids learn what they want! If they want to do the homework pages, let them. If they don’t, forcing them to graph linear equations while holding their phones as hostage won’t actually teach them anything about math, but will teach them a great deal about your relationship with them.

Plato once wrote, “Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds.” And “Nothing forced into a mind will be induced to stay there.”

In other words, we can’t force learning. We never have been able to, in thousands of years.

So let’s just accept that reality and let kids explore and learn what they want to, just for a few weeks.

Myth #4—But without constant homework and assignments, students will be unproductive and lose academic ground with their peers!

RealityRemember that learning is a natural part of children’s growth. And I agree with Mark Twain that schooling often interferes with education.  Our current form of mass education has never been the best for kids.

It’s like throwing a gallon of paint in a room. It’ll cover everything, but sloppily. Some walls may feel pretty good about themselves, but the couch is wondering what just happened to it, and the lamp will want to limp off to another room to cry.

Maddeningly, our education system still believes children are simple computers which function with the right data input, although every parent and educator in the country knows otherwise. Every decade we have reforms, and every result is still more factory-line education.

Here’s the hard truth: formal education is already unproductive, and has been for a hundred years. Kids filling out worksheets at home isn’t accomplishing much, if anything. Some parents are expressing extreme frustration, and so are their kids. We’re spinning wheels in the mud, making no progress but creating huge messes.

All that some families are learning is that they hate doing homework sheets together.

(And I’m sorry, but I’m teaching my 2nd grader how to carry the one and borrow the one.)

For the past month, the tenuously-structured education system has collapsed like a poorly-played game of Giant Jenga. Some people are still frantically trying to build back up that tower into some semblance of what they knew, and as the weeks drag on, their efforts seem even sadder.

But many others are quietly taking away planks and letting their kids use the boards as see-saws or catapults or bird houses.

Conscientious administrators are stepping back and noticing that now is not the time for a heavy hand and observations, but to let teachers and parents do what they’ve always wanted to do: nurture children.

Brave teachers are setting aside formal curricula and creating projects and activities that make sense in these times, and not money for curriculum developers. Some of us have reduced by 75% what we try to teach, distilling lessons and activities to the most essential parts, and discovering just how much fluff we can carve away.

Smart parents are taking what parts of the homework sent home makes sense for their families, and are watching their children with love and open minds to perceive what they need, and what they want to learn.

Parents are sharing videos of their children joyfully doing science experiments at home, or learning to change a tire on a car, or discover what all the tools in the shed can be used for, or how to run grandma’s sewing machine, or creep around in forests looking for signs of spring.

And children—if the adults in their lives are paying attention to them—will discover that the world, while closed off in many ways, is now suddenly opened in brand new ones.

This is a huge opportunity to change everything—for us and our kids and our country.
Let’s not blow it.

(My AP Lit class of 2019, happy students on the last day of class. My 2020 class never got to take a similar picture.)

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AP Literature, gardening, and marshmallow fluff

Only two weeks into the new semester and I’ve created anxiety in my AP English Literature classes.* I’ve told them that I’m going to be ruthless, and I’m keeping my promise by deleting words, phrases, and even sentences from their essays. “Cut the fluff,” I tell them, “and give me substance.”

Delineating between the two, however, is the challenge. They send me emails of angst, unsure of what is marshmallow and what is meat. They confuse the two, and I delete and rewrite to show them what’s what. Some sweetly email me thanks for my editing. Others greet me in the morning with a crusty glare and the words, “I thought it was good, but apparently not . . .”

I love these kids. I love their anxiety, their frantic messages, their pleas for help, their apologies for mistakes, their worry that they won’t be ready for the AP Exam or college, which I tell them I’m prepping them for.

I love them because they’re demonstrating desire to improve. They want to be better, they want to do the right (write) thing, they want me to highlight their sentences and share them on the board with everyone else as a good example.

And when one of them says something insightful about a poem or a character, and I write it on the board and say, “Ooh, I hadn’t considered that,” they beam: they got it right. They surprised the teacher.

Already more than once I’ve been able to say honestly to the classes, “Oh, good job, guys–you’re getting it! You’re so smart, I love it.”

And oh, how they glow.

Then I grade their essays and show them how half their words could be deleted to make the paper twice as effective. And the glow fades a little, but I’m not worried.

It really is all about gardening: they dig deep and plant new ideas, and weed and water–and a fair amount of manure is involved–and they worry and fret that nothing may come from all of their effort.

But already I see budding that they don’t yet recognize–my cruel pruning has its purpose–and in a few months these teenagers will bloom. Oh, how they’ll bloom.

I love spring.

Zweedy words

From Book 4, The Falcon in the Barn, available in paperback and Kindle.

*And why I haven’t had time to post here. There’s a lot of prep–I’m putting all my lessons on a website for when kids are absent or need reminders–and it’s a lot of grading. Whatever I make them do, I have to grade. (Who came up with this system?! It’s a punishing cycle for all of us.)

Coming Home Will Sustain You (or, how a 50-year-old embarrassingly crashed a Homecoming dance)

This past week was Homecoming at the high school where I teach. My students who were sophomores when I first started are now seniors, and since the first week in September I’ve repeatedly heard from them, “I can’t believe this is my last [fill in the blank].” Some say it with great relief, others with great melancholy. Most feel both.

I confess I never understood the purpose of Homecoming as a high schooler. But I’ve grown sentimental in my middle-age. This week as I watched students dress up, dress down, act up, and break down, I’ve discovered why this week, which is frequently ridiculous and silly, is also a needed ritual. (You can read about my discovering the prom ritual here.)

A first-year teacher commented how the sociologist in him was intrigued to watch this week unfold. That made me wonder how future generations–anthropologists who will find our photos and artifacts–might view our rituals. For example, they may wonder what is the significance of dressing as each other.

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Or dressing so that we look like a school for lumberjacks.

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Would they discover that the cause of this flannel plaid wardrobe choice was in honor of the absent and beloved science teacher who’s currently battling cancer, and is why more than half the student body dressed as he does every day?

Homecoming week

Surely future anthropologists will not understand Meme/Vine day, because I still don’t and I live in this time period.

As for crazy sock day—well, seeing our worship of designer shoes, they may conjure up some meaning there.

But the greatest ritual at our school takes place on Friday. No, it’s not the football game—although future researchers will understand that cultural significance with such ample data available. But they may not understand why we remain in the cold wind and rain, huddling on butt-freezing metal and whimpering, “Please, just let it end!”

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No, the greatest ritual at our school is called “Field Day” although it takes place indoors away from all wet, cold fields because hey—Maine.

A variety of tasks, worthy of gladiators (or lumberjacks) and requiring great skill and bravery are set up in our gymnasium, pitting each of the four grades against each other in a melee of screaming and shouting amongst duct tape, giant marshmallows, raw eggs, sacrificed Ding-Dongs, stretched out pajamas and balloons . . .

and large ropes with gladiator trainees on either side pulling for their lives.
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Not all these things occur at once, of course, although now that I’ve written that, I could see our intrepid associate head of school (or as I now think of him, Chief Gladiator Trainer) endeavor a way to combine it all into one massive challenge.

The events are intense and bizarre. In the past, Cheetos have been sacrificed for horrific displays of prowess and beard-ness (because hey–Maine). That ritual disturbed me greatly, for I love Cheetos, and four bags were rendered completely inedible, unless you also like the taste of shaving cream, which I don’t. (Please don’t ask how I know that.) Another past event required hundreds of balls and four competitors pretending to be “hippos” which are hungry. I’d love to see a future anthropologist puzzle out the meanings to those.

However, painting one’s face is common to the beginning of these rituals, as it has been for thousands of years among hundreds of cultures.

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Dressing to identify with one’s group is also historically common, as is parading through a town together to demonstrate your position in society.

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But why? Why such ritual?

Our Chief Gladiator Trainer says he wants to build “school spirit,” which I think is code for, This will carry you, folks. (He always says “folks,” our Chief Gladiator Trainer. I can’t write anything in his voice without “folks.”)

“You will remember these days when you screamed for each other, high-fived your buddies even when they failed, gloried when they succeeded, and vowed that next year you’ll defeat the others, together. Even if you’re apart. For years, you will remember these days.

“This will carry you, folks.”

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But that’s not the end of Homecoming week, for there is a dance. The strangest ritualistic endeavor yet. Cultures have danced for thousands of years, for a variety of reasons–some rather heathenish.

That was the worry of my fellow chaperones–their first dance as new teachers. Just what are we watching for? After giving them a few ground rules (I chaperoned several dances last year), we watched them dim the lights to nearly nothing so that the Glow Dance could begin.

(Did they worship lightning bugs, future anthropologists may wonder, that they have black lights, white shirts, glowing tape on the floor, and glow sticks around their bodies? Yes, yes we do.)

I heard another one of my seniors lament, “Our last homecoming dance!” I smiled and thought, Unless you’re a teacher. My fellow chaperones discussed the music and what was trendy when they were in high school a mere ten years ago, and that’s when it hit me: aside from the Chief Gladiator Trainer who made the rounds every fifteen minutes, each of the four other chaperones were the same ages as my oldest children.

Even as I bopped a little to the music, which I didn’t understand, I realized that I’m 50–Wait, am I old?!

Yes, yes I am. I was even complaining about the music, but then again, the 27-year-olds, were also grumbling, “The stuff they’re playing these days!”

But our gladiators in training were beginning to bounce, to dance, to chant and scream the lyrics, and I grew nostalgic. My homecoming dances feel only five years ago, not over thirty. This may be their last homecoming dance, but it won’t fade from memory. 

“This will carry you, folks.”

After commenting to a fellow chaperone, “What the heck are they playing?” I posted this on Facebook:

Fusion music

Noticing that one of the students acting as DJ liked my comment, I wrote him this from across the dance floor:

ask and you shall receive

The very next song was the B-52’s “Rock Lobster.”

And there I sat, on the edge of the dance floor, with one of the greatest dance songs from the 1980’s playing.

And suddenly I thought, Folks, sometimes you get to go back to Homecoming.

Sometimes, if you’re very, very lucky, you’ll find a group of kids who don’t care that you’re over-weight, over-age, and over-ridiculous. They’ll play you “Rock Lobster.”

What I did next couldn’t be helped.

I screamed, “NO!” (meaning “YES!” of course) and I rushed on to the dance floor, forgetting my chaperoning duties to make sure girls didn’t crowd the boys’ bathroom, and I danced.

Well, I call it dancing. What others may call it, I didn’t care. For thirty seconds I thought, You can still be an out-of-control 17-year-old, no matter your age!

Then for the next thirty seconds I thought, I hope my younger chaperones know how to work the defibrillator in the office. I may need it. 

Because I was trapped. Once they saw me weirding out to “Rock Lobster,” the rest of the students circled around me and started chanting. What could I do? I had to keep going.

I had another thought: If I danced like this an hour a day, I’d be as skinny as them again. 

Then I thought, If I dance like this for another five minutes, I’ll bust a hip.

I didn’t make it to the end of “Rock Lobster.” I gave up two minutes in, but still the kids were kind and cheered me.

As I strolled back to my post, exhausted and overheated and praying both hips would keep moving, I muttered to myself, “Yeah, you can go back again, guys. Don’t worry about this being your last Homecoming. That’s the whole point of Homecoming–doing it again. Coming home again. This will sustain you, folks. This will carry you.”

Thanks, WA students. You’re seriously the best place to come home to.

(Thanks to WA Development for letting me use some of their photos, and an extra big thanks to Ryan Conley, who told me to write this [“We need an epic post about Homecoming. I’m sending you photos to use.”] and who played for me “Rock Lobster.” You’re epic.)

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Blurry photographic evidence I was dancing at Homecoming. And blurry evidence really is the best kind.

There is always hope and options; bizarrely, we don’t seem to want them.

I’m astounded at the level of ignorance people numbly accept. Never have we lived in an age with so much knowledge and data so easily accessible, yet we want very little of it.

For hundreds of years–no, for thousands of years, education was the coveted goal of nearly all people. To learn to read? Have access to a scroll? Learn beyond the basic numbers? Luxury! Some families would sacrifice all they had just to send one promising child to get an education, hoping he’d bring some of it back to share.

Now, we want only entertainment and sensationalism.
Give us crying teenagers terrified by exaggerated claims of global collapse.
Give us elderly politicians screaming about non-existent cover-ups.
Give us celebrities and journalists telling us how we’re all stupid and wrong.
But don’t give us reports of real suffering where we can help, or solid data about the actual changes in the world.

And certainly don’t give us any hope.

The high schoolers I teach are convinced the world is a horrible place to be. They want no part of it, nor do they want grow old in it. Unsurprising, many are depressed and without hope.

Decades ago I visited Washington DC for the first time and got lost in a less-desirable part of town. The person I was driving with told me to lock the car doors, that the people who lived there were “willfully dumb and dangerous.” I thought that was harsh, and said so. The person pointed out that those under-educated lived within walking distance of the greatest museums in the world, all for free. They could learn anything and discover everything, if they just exerted some effort. But they wouldn’t.

They didn’t want to know.

That was before phones and the Internet, before we could carry the world’s knowledge in our back pocket.

And still we don’t want to know.

We willingly accept only the shallowest of knowledge, and we limply accept the worst of fates. Our youth feel powerless, their only option to whine and throw tantrums at the world. They fight problems that don’t even exist, while ignoring larger issues that truly threaten to swallow them up. They’ve been given hopelessness, and actually believe it. They’ve given up their imaginations, so they can’t imagine better options. There’s little rebellion against the angst they’re handed; they just pocket it and skulk away.

I teach my students a Holocaust memoir, hoping they’ll realize that the hopelessness Gerda Weissman Klein faced was far more real than any manufactured issue-of-the-day, and not only did she survive, but thrived, just like hundreds of thousands of others, and millions of people all over the world today.

We have to flood not only the Internet but the minds of our families, friends, and youth we associate with hope, success, and optimism.

We have to tell them how many times the world was going to “end” over the past so many decades (my husband’s yearbook from the 1980s warned about the impending ice age, and how to survive it). And how none of those predictions have come true. None.

Our kids don’t know this, that we’ve been shaking our heads, rolling our eyes, and sighing heavily for fifty years at these sensational predictions. They don’t know that hope always exists all around them, and that a glorious future still awaits them.

We have to tell them! In our conversations, in our interactions, and in our social media. We have so many options and possibilities for our future, and bizarrely those options are frequently ignored.

Our laziness and easiness will destroy us long before the earth will collapse. That’s one prediction I hope I’m wrong about.

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You don’t know what’s down that road, but since even wrong roads can become right, take that road already!

In the coming weeks, many of my graduating seniors will be heading off to college, and as I’ve chatted with a few of them, it’s clear that the reality of what they’re doing–leaving rural Maine and heading out in the real, nasty world–is settling on their shoulders as easily as a Ford truck. Questions of, “Are you ready?” are met with nervous fits of giggles and a hesitant, “Yeah? No?”

Each year I take my students through Robert Frost’s, “The Road Not Taken,” and explain how the most notable lines are frequently misread:

I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

And even while it was the title of a popular self-help book for many years, “taking the road less traveled by” does not necessarily mean to “blaze your own trail” and that anything less is “unacceptable.” I’ve had students confide that they feel they have to be different from everyone else, and that following someone else’s path is somehow wrong, even if they really do want to walk in someone else’s very noble footsteps.

So I point out that the stanza begins with the ambivalent line,

I shall be telling this with a sigh

which, in most poetry, means a sigh of longing, of regret, of “what if?” Maybe the speaker wishes he hadn’t taken the “one less traveled by” when he saw two roads diverging; he may have made a mistake. Maybe the one less traveled by is NOT the correct road. But then again, maybe it is?!

And this is where many people freeze in life: trying to decide which road to take. Some may decide to turn back and not try either, while others can stand there for too long never making a choice until life or someone else forces them, which almost always leads to resentment.

I’ve heard students–and many adults–debate their decisions which seem innocuous and correct now, but what if they aren’t in the future? What if that’s the wrong road?

To that I say, SO WHAT?! GO ANYWAY!

Ok, let me calm that down a bit. As long as the path one takes doesn’t lead directly to prison, or hurting someone else, or hating one’s self, but is a carefully plotted, deliberately chosen path that should be ok, then GO! Take it! Don’t just stand there or worse, go back and try nothing!

And yes, there may be HUGE PROBLEMS down that path, but OK! LEARN FROM THEM! Embrace trials! Embrace problems! GROW!

Yes, I’ve made HUGE mistakes, some I still reel from. But I’ve also made huge compensations for those, and found myself on strange paths–well-trodden and also some less traveled by–and over my fifty years have discovered that all paths can become good. My biggest mistakes have eventually become my biggest lessons and biggest blessings. 

(I’ll admit that it took me nearly forty-nine years to finally come to that revelation, but whatever. And to my children, no, I’m not talking about any of you. And I’m not talking about your father, either.)

To everyone who hits a crossroads, who sees more than one option, who feels paralyzed to take those steps on the road where you can’t see its end, I say: GO! Just TRY IT! I’ll give you 99 to 1 odds that it’ll turn out good. Maybe not immediately, but eventually, and you’ll look back and say, “That turned out to be a decent road. It was rough at times, and the zombie attack was definitely unexpected, but I made it. And just look what I achieved along the way!”

(And by the way, The Walls in the Middle of Idumea is nearly here! My laptop took an unexpected siesta for many days, traveling down its own dark path until I could bring it home again which delayed my progress, but the book is almost ready for publishing.)

Walls meme horizontal WRONG PATHS

 

I know it’s scary; do it anyway.

This is my mantra, because I am a coward, always have been.

Yet I recently found myself sitting in Logan Airport in Boston, MA and realized I’d gotten there all by myself which, just a few years ago, would have been impossible.

I’m scared of traveling because too many things can go wrong.

I hate new things in general, like moving to new cities because I don’t know where the grocery store is, I don’t know how to set up my house, and my kids have no friends. And new states? Oh, even worse!

I dread starting new jobs because I worry my ineptitude will disappoint others.

All I’ve ever wanted is to hide in a corner and live a small, quiet life. I wanted to get married, get a house, and never go anywhere again.

To recall an old metaphor, I’m a ship most comfortable in the harbor.

Which is exactly why God shoves me out, wailing and flailing, because nothing ever happens where it’s safe.

I did get married over thirty years ago, and did get a house, and then another one, and another one, and another one . . . all together we’ve moved 15+ times (three times in eleven months’ time in 2017-2018). With every moved I clenched my muscles for months until I had boxes unpacked and figured out the new grocery stores. Understanding the new city or state could take years and I never feel completely at “home.”

We’ve also traveled all over the country, with up to eight children in tow, often camping and even flying, which means I’m constantly counting heads and bags. I once had a panic attack before taking off in a plane, and only because my husband was petting my back like a cat did I not leap to my feet and cry out, “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!” (Since that was shortly after 9/11, the incident would have likely banned me from flying.)

But I’m different now.

My anxiety is greatly diminished, my fears held in check, my confidence stronger.

Medication? Nope.
Therapy? Not really.
Living in that secure corner of the basement? Not always.

So what changed?

Just over two years ago, my husband who was working in Maine told me I needed to visit him and realize this was where we were moving to. I hadn’t flown since that panic attack years ago, and had never alone. I was so terrified that I asked some people in my neighborhood to pray with me and for me. I drove in a blizzard to the Salt Lake City airport at 5 am chanting calming ditties like, “I won’t die, I won’t die, please don’t let me die.”

And I didn’t die. I made it.

And I flew again home four days later.

But everything I worried about going wrong did: my flight out of Bangor was cancelled because of mechanical issues so I had to wait 12 hours for another plane.

Then that flight got delayed because of snow, and in Philadelphia my plane was overbooked so I volunteered to wait for another flight taking off hours later. (My itinerary was shot to heck by then anyway.) That flight went to Texas and got in late which meant I was running full tilt in Dallas/Ft. Worth trying to find my connection. My new mantra was, “Crap, I’m lost! Crap, I’m lost! Crap, I’m lost!”

But I got to my plane with a whole three minutes to spare. When I finally landed in Salt Lake City—and in more snow—it was 2 am and I was so exhausted that I stopped halfway home and pulled over in a dark road to sleep in a freezing car for an hour, all by myself.

I reached home about 26 hours later than originally planned. But I survived and netted $500 from the airline for giving up my seat. I felt strangely triumphant.

I had realized that I could face problems and actually work through them. This little ship that I am (ok, rather a tubby tug boat) made it through the storm, rather late and very tired, but successfully.

That’s when I began to notice the change: I don’t need to fear and worry during stressful situations—I need to work through and overcome them.

Running away from scary situations doesn’t work.
Running through them does.

And then we moved to Maine—our third cross-country move. The first two long-distance moves were incredibly difficult, made worse by traveling with newborns, but I learned what worked and didn’t work. In fact, this third move driving for six days was, dare I say it—enjoyable? (The youngest child was six, which made everything much easier.)

I was glad that I hadn’t avoided those earlier scarier moves. I didn’t stubbornly stay in the harbor and declare, “I’m not going!” I confess I shed tears about leaving—in the past and this most recent move—and I needed friends’ and family’s help to get going. But we eventually succeeded.

And then in 2017 I took on a new job—teaching high school.

For the first three months I kept thinking, “It’s too hard, I’m too incompetent, every day is a new surprise. My gut is in constant knots, my tachycardiac heart is at 120 bpm every day, and I’m exhausted by 7 pm, but I still have lesson plans to write. It’s going to break me.”
Then I decided, “I’ll quit over Christmas vacation—they’ll have time to find a replacement.”
Then, “I’ll quit at the semester break in January.”
Then, “I’ll quit at February break.”
Then, “I’ll quit at April break . . . Wait, the school year’s over in less than two months . . . Can I actually finish?”

I did finish. And I didn’t break.

In fact, I didn’t even flinch when they asked if I wanted to come back for the next year. I’d already been planning how to rearrange my classroom and redo lesson plans.

I didn’t run away from the stress; I ran through it.

I didn’t stay safe in the harbor; I headed out into rough seas and am surviving and even occasionally enjoying myself. (And yes, I’ve been out on a lobster boat–twice–so I’m practically an expert on the ocean, thank you very much.)

Earlier this week I headed out alone again: drove two hours, then took a bus for four hours, then flew from Boston to Philadelphia to Roanoke, VA to visit my daughter and her family.

I didn’t even start stressing about the trip until two days earlier, and even then the stress was minimal, as in, “I need to do laundry and get my husband a freezer full of meals . . . nah, he can just take the kids to McDonald’s.”

I’m still a coward, but I do what scares me anyway. I think of the scripture where God declares that He will “give unto men weakness that they may be humble . . . if they humble themselves before me . . . then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

I’ve been very weak, and God’s making me stronger.
But what if I ran away from every challenge? What if I quit too soon?
Then I’d still be a terrified, paralyzed nothing in the corner basement of my first house.

But now it’s been five states, half a dozen houses, thousands of adventures—and none of that would have happened had I stubbornly stayed in that safe harbor.
I’m still scared of the rough oceans but now I’ve also learned to enjoy them.

And I haven’t drowned yet.

And neither will you.

scary do it anyway

Quit protesting and start doing; it’s not the government’s job but ours

This week in school I taught about the rescuers during the Holocaust and WWII. (We’re reading a Holocaust memoir and I like to give my students historical context.)

We learned about Irena Sendler, who smuggled out 2,500 babies and children from the Warsaw Ghetto, and about Oskar Schindler whose list preserved the lives of 1,200 Jews.

And about Sir Nicholas Winton, who arranged for 669 children to leave Czechoslovakia for new lives in England as the Nazis closed in on Prague.

And about Gail Halvorsen, the Candy Bomber, who started a movement to bring chocolate and gum to the Germans being starved by the Soviets in Berlin in 1948.

Each of these people did something similar: They saw a problem and they INDIVIDUALLY took action. They realized that–all on their own–they could provide relief.

None of them said, “The government really should . . .” because in most of these cases, it was the government CAUSING the problems.

None of them protested or chanted slogans: they went to work instead. The same thing happen in the Civil Rights movement: yes, there were protests, but there were also many individuals taking action on their own to begin with. For example, Rosa Parks set so much in motion by deciding she was no longer going to give up her bus seat.

Also this week my 11-year-old brought home a national publication teaching elementary students about current events. As I helped her answer the questions, she could feel me bristling when I read, “There are many solutions to the problem. First, the government should . . .” My daughter got a lesson she wasn’t expecting: I spouted off for ten minutes on how the government shouldn’t do anything. It was established to keep America safe–and that was ALL it was established to do–so that everyone else could get to the business of solving each others problems.

But it seems we prefer to have someone force what we want for us, instead of doing the work ourselves.

Governments have NEVER solved problems; only individuals have. So what suffering can you alleviate, what wrong can you right, and what work can you do today? Go!

whose responsibility

Get Book 4 and the rest of the series here.

A student is raising a hand: brace yourself!

Students raising their hands during class? I used to think that was a good thing . . . for the first week of teaching. Since then I’ve discovered that what they say will be as relevant as dandruff shampoo is to Medusa.

We may be in the middle of comparing propaganda during WWII to modern day examples, or breaking down Katharine’s speech at the end of “Taming of the Shrew” when the hand shoots into the air as if some amazing insight has just hit a teenager.

But no.

“Mrs. Mercer! I just saw the Coke truck go by the window. That means it’s refilling the machines and I REALLY need a Mt. Dew to make it through the rest of the day. Can I PLEASE go get a Mt. Dew?”

The kid just finished chugging his Dunkin coffee. The last thing he needs is more caffeine. And if he falls asleep in class without his Mt. Dew, is that really such a bad thing?

Occasionally a student will have something interesting to share. Otherwise . . .

“Can I get my phone? I REALLY need to text my mom. It’s SUPER important! Like, I need to talk to her RIGHT NOW! She’s bringing me Subway for lunch and I want to change my order before she leaves.”

The hope is that their minds are on the topics, but . . .

“Mrs. Mercer, did you know that Joey and me got into a fight back in 5th grade?”
I grit my teeth at Joey and me. “And what does that have to do with identifying archetypes in this novel?”
“Nothing. Just thought you should know. I won the fight, by the way.”

That screeching noise you hear? My trains of thought, derailing a dozen times a day.

Even the sharper kids—ones who usually have something great to write or say—may surprise me with A Random Comment That Initiates Cringing (ARCTIC; these comments leave me cold).

“Mrs. Mercer! What you were saying reminds me—I need to run to the office for something.”
I heave a long, heavy sigh. “And how did my describing Odysseus’s consultation with Circe remind you that you need to run to the office? And for what?”
“I just remembered that I need to talk to guidance about my classes next semester.”
There is no one in guidance who is remotely like the witch Circe. “The next semester which doesn’t start for another two months?”
“Yeah. Can I go right now?”
Perhaps I’m Circe the witch they’re trying to get away from.

Train derailment, crash, explosion . . . I grip my whiteboard marker, the only thing that brings me back to focus as I glare at the student who looks at me oblivious that they’ve just tossed my entire buildup–now a fireball–into a gorge. Through my mind passes the desire to send the student past Scylla, the next monster we’re going to read about.

Image result for scylla in the odyssey

(Cat-scan of my brain when a student interrupts my lesson with an irrelevant comment.)

At that moment I pull out an oldy but a goody–so old they’ve never heard of it. “And what does your need to go to guidance have to do with the cost of tea in China?”

The entire class stares at me, dumbfounded.

See? I can do it to. Albuquerque. Snorkel.

While they, in confusion, try to figure out what I just said, I continue on with the discussion . . . and for my sanity ignore every hand that goes up for the next five minutes.

color of captain's eyesGet Book 1, Forest at the Edge of the World here. Free as a download, $9.25 as a paperback.

 

Books? Thinking? Are those “lit”?

[“Lit,” by the way, is the trendy way to say “cool,” or “neato, daddio.” Just typing that last one is totally not “lit”.]

These lines are what I hope none of my students will ever say about my class:

books thinking never saw before

These lines are also why I often read out loud to them, because even though they’re 10th graders, a few kids had never finished a novel until they took my class.

I worry that books and thinking are becoming as old-fashioned as typewriters and rotary phones. We rarely hear about either much anymore, and when we do it’s, “Hey, remember when we used to think about problems and read all we could before we made judgments? Or am I just remembering a time that never really existed? And am I using the word ‘lit’ correctly?”

Get Book 1, The Forest at the Edge of the World right here. It’s totally lit. (Maybe?)