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.

IMG_758472344874_10157546432624909_206449053465051136_n

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

71851059_929896145238_40632383484985344_n

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!”

72352224_10156925639398983_7389450155700781056_oIMG_0565IMG_7653

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.
IMG_0505IMG_0509

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.

72296212_10156925632398983_4901087116764643328_o72231463_10156925636643983_5885913243607629824_oIMG_7684

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

72344228_10156925630843983_596751260141486080_oIMG_0532But will future anthropologists understand that these, below, are not really a king and queen? (And when I was helping to sash them, the king wanted the queen’s sash, and since he is the king, I started to obey and give it to him, which would have rendered his queen the new king. But then she insisted that she was the queen and wanted the queen sash. Because she was the king/queen, I had to give in. Some monarchies in history have collapsed faster than this.)
72133510_10156925627513983_7534139091277840384_o
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.”

IMG_0518

IMG_0454

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.)

Blurry evidence dance

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.

Walls meme horizontal People stupid

 

All boys have some brain damage or they’re not real boys. (or “You’re not going to believe what happened . . .”)

I have five sons, ages 7-25. All of them have some brain damage, and it happens something like this:

“Anyway, the little guy came barreling in there, and just as I stepped out, he turned and smacked right into my sword! Clanked his head, I’m sorry to report, but all little boys have to have some amount of brain damage, otherwise they aren’t real boys. And that’s how I met him.” ~The Walls in the Middle of Idumea, coming summer 2019

It starts when they’re babies and they roll into walls. On purpose. Again and again.

Then as toddlers they run into corners of tables, couches, and the walls, again. Sometimes on purpose, just to see if it will cause as much pain as before; sometimes on accident, because they’re actually running for the couch and somehow the wall got in the way.

As gradeschoolers, the brain damage occurs in too many ways to count, but here’s a short list:

  • bike crashes,
  • skateboard crashes,
  • walking crashes (they literally crash their foreheads into the driveway, and there was nothing around them to cause it, not even another brother),
  • tag-you’re-it crashes,
  • riding in a wheeled garbage can crashes (I refused to go help with that one, but got a hose instead),
  • let-me-hit-you-with-this-wheelbarrow crashes.

You get the idea.

When they’re high schoolers, brain damage occurs in more dramatic if not bizarre ways, such as falling out of 60 foot-high pine trees, or getting tossed out of a wheelchair a week after foot surgery when a friend (a teenage boy, of course) decides to entertain his temporarily invalid friend by taking him “four-wheeling” through the fields behind the house. (Fortunately the wheelchair suffered more damage than my son did. He moved to crutches sooner than he had planned.)

Then there are the real dangers: cars, boats, four-wheelers, motorcycles, walking down the street (STILL they trip over themselves and get road-rash in the oddest of ways).

And now after teaching high school for two years, I believe this even more:

Walls meme brain damag boys

I love boys, little and big, my sons and others’ sons. Their daring makes them courageous, powerful, and hilarious. My three adult sons seem to be managing all right, despite their earlier mishaps. Or maybe, because of them.

They see that they recover from their exploits, learn something useful along the way, and now have an awesome story to share.

So I cringe every time a son or a student begins a sentence with a sheepish expression and the words, “You’re not going to believe what happened . . .”

Because actually, I will.

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

Optimism, Gratitude, and Grit can together defeat fear

One of my favorite writings assignments I give my 10th graders is the “Optimism, Gratitude, and Grit” write-up. We’re reading a holocaust memoir, and we talk about the qualities the survivors had in common:
1) the ability to maintain hope and optimism;
2) a feeling of gratitude, no matter the circumstances; and
3) grit and perseverance to never give up.
I then read out loud the chapters in All But My Life detailing the Death March to Volary, Czechoslovakia, and have my students mark the novel with sticky notes whenever they encounter someone demonstrating those traits. Then they type up the lines and label each with what trait it demonstrates.

I tell them later that this was practice for their upcoming research papers, reading a text for specific details.

But I really hope it’s practice for life. They can endure nearly any trial and succeed in nearly any endeavor if they’re hopeful, grateful, and gritty. I have them take online quizzes evaluating their current levels, and explain that each of these traits can be learned and improved.

I love hearing the quiet rustles of paper as they mark another part of the text as I read, love seeing their lists and their labels, and I silently pray, “Let this leak into their brains! They’re going to need it all!”

In many parts of the country, teenagers and college students are becoming fearful snowflakes who melt at the slightest breath of trouble.

Most of my downeast Mainer kids, however, I think are a little tougher. They’re more like snowballs–packed firm and ready to fly.

Some of my students have shrugged at the book, claiming they can’t get into it because they “can’t relate.” I sincerely hope that they never do, but I worry that someday they will, too much.

And it’s then that I pray they’ll remember to always have hope, always be grateful, and never, ever give up. (That’s a much better lesson to remember than how to write a research paper.)

fear and success

Get the Forest at the Edge series here.

You can’t manipulate the educated, which is why they don’t want us educated

The entire reason for my attending a class as a grad student was to argue with the professor. She was on one side politically, I was on the other. I respected the woman immensely, but daggum, did she know how to push my buttons every week! It was like she was TRYING to make me angry!

Realizing that I was monopolizing each class by pointing out how she was wrong and debating with her for the next hour,  I shut up after the third meeting. Someone else needed to take her on, but strangely no one did.

She pulled me aside after that class and said, “What are you doing to me?! Look at the other students–they’re terrified and complacent. None of them  will ever make a peep. Don’t you realize that I pick subjects I know will rile you up? Come on! Show the rest of the class how it’s done! It’s you and me carrying this class!” Once I realized she was intentionally setting me up, the class was VERY entertaining. I remember thinking, “This is what universities are supposed to be about: an informed debate of ideas.” We rarely came to a consensus, but always realized just how close we were on so many issues.

That was 25 years ago. Ancient history. The world’s not like that anymore, sadly. Debate is stifled and opposing ideas are quashed in the name of “safety” for our fragile feelings. (

I told my college experience to my high school students this week. We’ve been talking about propaganda and logical fallacies, and I presented the quote from the most famous propagandist, Joseph Goebbels:

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it . . . It thus becomes vitally important . . . to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie.”

I was pleased to see that my students were intrigued that people could debate issues and still be friends without agreeing. My professor years ago wrote me glowing letters of recommendation when I graduated, even though we disagreed on nearly everything. We respected each other and I am still grateful to her for making me analyze everything I believed.

But today there’s no more debate, no more respect for different ideas, no more desire to discover knowledge for ourselves. If someone disagrees with us, we cut off all discourse and cry “oppression!”

We’ve stopped thinking and asking and debating, which makes us very vulnerable to those who want to do the thinking for us.  In the end, the elite will repress us. It’s happened too many times before.cant manipulate the educated

Get Book 3, The Mansions of Idumea, downloaded for free.

 

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?)

 

We spend so much in anger and it buys us nothing (Plus a HUGE sneak peek to Book 8, “The Last Day”)

They got into a fight in the cafeteria yesterday, the two boys. One was calling another a derogatory name until the victim finally punched the bully in the head during dinner.

“Did you see any problems with them yesterday? You have both of them,” my husband asked me. They are in one of my American Lit summer classes, but my students generally stare blankly at me because even though I speak English slowly and write all the words on the board, they don’t understand enough English and I don’t understand any Chinese. (I’m afraid it’s been a long three weeks for all of us.) There could have been all kinds of conversations and even threats that I missed out.

Today I observed the two boys, now sitting on opposite sides of the room when they used to sit next to each other. Supposedly one is better off than the other, one has a greater social standing than the other . . .

But I can’t tell.

Not by their clothing, not by their gadgets, not by their faces, or hair, or words.

All I see are two teenagers, and I scratch my head as to what caused one of them to have a swollen eye today.

Was it worth it? If I can’t tell any difference between them, should there be anything to fight over? Even if I could see a difference, why should that be a reason to fight?

I remember reading about a conflict in a tiny country I didn’t even know existed, and how many thousands of people over the years had died fighting over a piece of land and a notion of pride.

How tragic, I thought, that people who live and breathe and love and create and bake and laugh have to die because someone thinks something is more important than something else.

In the world-wide scheme of things, their civil war improves nothing. No one else in the world even knows about their battles, and even if they did, their war is meaningless to the rest of us.

How petty and foolish and tragic.

Then again, the majority of our battles are equally as unnecessary and as inconsequential to the world at large. We spend so much angry effort, and it buys us nothing.

It’s taken me decades to realize that I don’t have to fight. If someone insults me, my family, my heritage, my religion, my friends . . . I can walk away. The few times that I did take the bait and battled for hours or even days, I came away with nothing but more fury and frustration, and a lot of wasted time.

Perhaps there’s something enjoyable about fighting that I don’t understand. Some perverse sense of accomplishment or security or self-righteousness in being able to stomp someone into the ground, either physically or online. But what kind of accomplishment is that, to be the best bully?

I had two American students fist-fight last year, but afterward they became great friends, sitting next to each other in class and frequently writing about their “epic battle” in the rain. They both agreed it was dumb (especially since they were suspended), and that they’d never do it again, but in a strange way, it worked: they got out their aggression and an alliance was formed. They bonded by bashing each other. (I think this may only work with males because most females I know will hold a grudge forever.)

So perhaps occasionallyt a fight does work. But if that were the case all the time, our society would be the friendliest ever in history and social media wouldn’t be a war zone.

I’d rather just walk away. I’ve never once regretted leaving a fight, but I always beat myself up for joining in one, which means I suffered twice.

A voice near the front called, “Guide, what if we fight them off? Defend our lands? Why should we just let them take it all?”

Guide Zenos held his breath as many more calls of, “Let us defend ourselves!” rose up in the arena.

Several of his twelve assistants, seated on chairs to the side of the podium, looked around, startled at the sudden aggressiveness of the Salemites.

But Shem wasn’t surprised. He had long suspected this would happen. Salem had never before faced a direct threat, nor did they know how to deal with the idea of someone simply taking something. That never happened in Salem, so the natural impulse was to fight back.

But the Creator expected more from Salem.

Guide Zenos leaned forward and said, loudly, “NO.”

The arena fell into silent befuddlement.

He let his answer settle in before continuing.

“I know your desire is to not allow anyone to take your homes, but this is not the Creator’s will. Nor, you will remember, are these your homes, or your farms, or your livestock. All of it belongs to the Creator, as it always has. It is His will that you voluntarily leave Salem and retreat to safety. We’ve known this would be our fate for the past one hundred-sixty-five years, ever since Guide Pax saw this time coming. This shouldn’t be a surprise. We also know that Guide Gleace saw that no weapons of any kind should be taken—”

He couldn’t complete his sentence for the outcry that arose.

“No weapons?!” was the only phrase he could distinguish before the din grew too loud. Many were demanding to be armed, while many others were just as adamantly reminding them that was against the prophecy.

Another voice near the front shouted, “But what if this isn’t the Last Day? What if it’s just a preliminary attack? What if we have to rebuild once they leave or we destroy them?”

Shem sighed. He’d hesitated making any declaration that the Last Day was near, or ‘around the corner,’ as Mahrree had begged him to know just that morning. He didn’t feel that was his announcement to make.

But as he watched tens of thousands of Salemites, who he’d always known to be a peaceful and obedient people suddenly become agitated and even irate, he knew it was because of the spirit that came before the army of Idumea.

The Refuser’s influence was already there, stirring up those whose faith wasn’t quite as strong.

Shem said a silent prayer, asking if—

The answer came too forcefully to deny, and he had to grip the podium to remain upright. Staring down at his notes, he could no longer find his place because the words he needed to say were repeating in his head and would continue until he spoke them.

He swallowed hard and said, “The Last Day is coming. It will be upon us shortly. Very shortly.”

He didn’t shout or raise his voice. Yet the feeling of his words carried over the entire arena and stopped every tongue. The sudden silence was profound.

Just to be sure they heard him correctly, Guide Zenos said in the same clear voice, “The Last Day is coming. It will be upon us shortly. Very shortly. Defending ourselves is contrary to the Creator’s will. If we follow the admonitions of our past guides, we will be preserved to see the hand of the Creator fight this battle for us.

But,” he continued in a sharper tone, “if we insist on fighting, we will fall before the army. What’s the point of losing your lives trying to keep a house or preserve a farm? The ancient temple site is and will remain a secure site. Should any danger approach it, I have full confidence the Creator will send a way to secure it again. He has promised us, through the words of many guides, that He’ll fight our battle. The Deliverer will come before the Creator’s Destroyer. I think we’ve all heard that before, haven’t we?”

Before him on the benches, thousands of men, women, and children squirmed worriedly, restlessly.

“My dear Salemites, I’ve been in battle. It’s not romantic nor heroic. It’s terrifying. Tragic. Painful. If the Creator says He will do my fighting for me, then I happily accept His offer. Each of you would be wise to do so as well.”

A man rose to his feet. “And what if we don’t? What if we choose to fight instead?”

“Then you fight alone,” Shem warned him. “Now, I’ll do nothing to prevent you. Salem is still a free land. You may choose what you’ll do, but I promise now that those who stay to fight the army will die. You simply cannot win. Idumeans are more powerful and more desperate, and they care nothing for anyone’s lives but their own. The Creator will not help you, because if you choose to fight, you choose against His will and you forfeit His protection.”

There was considerably more squirming in his audience.

“But I also promise,” he changed his tone yet again, “that if you follow the words of the guides, if you go with your families to the ancient site, you will be in the Creator’s care. I’m not advising you to surrender to Lemuel Thorne; I’m advising you to surrender your will to the Creator. Let Him finish this for us.”

He thought it would be enough, that the choice was obvious.

But apparently several hundred Salemites, mostly men, didn’t agree.

The hardest, toughest, scariest, best year I’ve ever endured: my first year as a 10th grade teacher (plus another sneak peek into Book 8)

“You’re gonna miss me, aren’t you, Mrs. Mercer?” a student asked me yesterday.

“You big goober, of course I’m going to miss you.” But I didn’t say the first three words out loud. (At least I don’t think I did.)

But I meant I would miss him, to my surprise. Back in autumn when I thought about this last week of school, I imagined myself dancing triumphantly out the doors having conquered my first year of teaching high school.

But I don’t think I’m going to be dancing tomorrow.

I started teaching the last week of September 2017, three weeks into the year. I had no training, no prep, no syllabus, and no real idea what I was in for. I’d taught college writing for a dozen years, but that is NOT the same as 10th grade high school. Not at all.

I knew the school was desperate, or else why would they have hired me and said, “They’ve had a rough three weeks. Just . . . mom them.”

Oh, I can do that. No problem.

But these weren’t my kids—

No, scratch that.

They were MY kids.

Last summer I had the weirdest sensation that I was going to find “MY kids.” That feeling emerged between moments of despair that I was leaving the greatest neighborhood in the state of Utah, and the greatest LDS ward (church congregation) in the world, and would be driving 2700 miles to a place I didn’t know, leaving behind half my kids and all of my friends.

I shed tears daily that summer, packing up our house, driving for six days cross country, settling in an unfamiliar rental house in Maine at the end of June, trying to find new work since I shut down my Etsy shop . . .

I’d read the job listings at the high school where my husband worked and saw the posting for an English 10 teacher. I’d quit teaching college a few years ago and was looking for a new career path, but that post gnawed at me. I knew they had already hired someone, but unexpectedly the words drifted in my head, “He had better be good to MY kids. Why did they give MY kids to him?

But they’re not my kids!

Then the teacher was fired two weeks in, and an emergency substitute brought in. “She’d better be good to MY kids . . .”

But they’re not my kids!

Then I got a phone call from the school. Would I be interested in taking over as Permanent Substitute?

Finally, I get to take care of MY kids–

Who keeps saying that?!

It’s a good thing I was so naïve, because knowing what I know now, I would have turned down the offer in September. Except that I needed to find MY kids.

The first morning that I stood in front of my first English 10 class, I thought, “Ah, here are MY kids!

I knew them. Already. Names would come later, but their faces were familiar. And as I learned their stories over the course of the year, I’d think, “I already knew that somehow. Because you’re MY kids.”

The same thing happened with the next classes, and creative writing, and advisor, and AP Lit—I knew them.

And man, were they ready for me.

I mean, they were ready to push and pull and yank and try me in ways I’ve never before been tried. This has been, hands down, THE hardest, toughest, scariest, best year I’ve ever endured.

I’ve never worked so hard, read so much, researched so deeply, looked so near and far for what to do and teach and say. I’d come home at 3pm and would usually put in another 5 hours of work each night and spend my weekends trying to learn how to teach high schoolers.

Some days were great—lessons and discussions took off better than I could have hoped. (I discovered my kids really like to write on the white-board with colored markers. And get treats. They’re just big 1st graders.)

20180608_121256

Ok, more talented than mere 1st graders. I left this 10th grader’s work up for a couple of days because it was so beautiful. “On thin ice.”

But a lot of days were discouraging, and I’d think, “So I totally botched that. Why in the world did I think I could do this? Wait, wasn’t I going to find a new career besides teaching?” I had “one of those days” just last week, a they-need-to-hire-someone-else moment.

There were days when I knew I wouldn’t make it to June. The entire month of October my guts were in a knot of anxiety. I was going to fail MY kids, I just knew it.

Administrators would call me occasionally, asking how things were going. “Fine!” I’d chirrup, even though I had students much larger than me insisting I couldn’t make them work. That never happened when I taught college.

I still remember the new faculty meeting we had in November, when Mr. R. said, “We want each of you to wake up in the morning excited about teaching here!”

I don’t know if he could read the anguish in my eyes—I had just sent my first student to the office, and he was suspended for a week. I had failed MY kid.

But I smiled back, although I felt akin to drowning in the ocean, and Mr. R. was in a lifeboat peering over the edge and asking, “Doing all right?”
And I answered, “Swimmingly! No problems!”

My thumbs up would be the last anyone ever saw of me.

But somehow I got through it with the belligerent and mean and vulgar students, and the depressive boys, and the moody girls, and the ones who just wanted to hang out and talk, and the boys who showed me pictures of their trucks and lobster boats and the gadgets they were buying for the upcoming season, and the girls who told me about their horses and kittens and farms and lambs, and the kids who wrote about families breaking up, and drugs ruining lives, and alcohol wrecking another day, and all I could think was, “Oh, MY kids. Oh, my heart.”

20180613_113035

Kids, be nice! How many times I have said, “Be nice”? (And Marilyn, you ARE amazing. Can I erase this now?)

They don’t know that I prayed for them, daily. Always as a group, but frequently by name. I’d ask God how to help this boy, or that girl, or that parent. Sometimes I had such a long list to go through at night that I’d fall asleep before I finished, and would wake up thinking, “Who’d I stop on? Whoever I didn’t get to, can You help me say the right thing to them?”

One of my classes is taking a final right now, some staring glumly at the page, others writing frantically, and here I sit typing this up and trying not to get misty-eyed as I realize that after this they won’t be MY kids anymore.

20180613_095747

(Mr. R,just ignore that a certain student is wearing his baseball hat in class–again.)

They’ll be someone else’s kids in 11th grade. (Because they darn well better not fail so we’re stuck with each other again next year.) Some may still come by my room to give me updates about their lives, and maybe some will return for AP Lit (I’ve been hired to teach next year, so I guess I found my career after all). A couple even call me Mama Mercer, so task #1 is complete.

My kids will move on.

20180607_113557

Guys, you’re supposed to be WRITING about the pond, not going INTO it. Guys?

20180607_115118

Please nobody ask about the frogs. Just don’t.

Surely next year’s sophomores could never become MY kids. I mean, how many kids can I have? (Don’t answer that, because already I’m planning how to do things better for MY new kids next year.)

And yes, I’ll miss MY kids, because I had no idea how badly I wanted to be their teacher. God knew, and He’s probably smiling smugly down on me because, once again, He knows me better than I know myself. He shoved me clear across the country to fulfill a dream I forgot I had: to teach high school English. Now I just need to get a whole lot better at it.

I doubt I’ll dance out of here tomorrow once my grades are submitted. I’ll walk through silent hallways and empty parking lots, hoping I didn’t fail my kids too badly or too often, and probably quietly crying as I did last June, but for entirely different reasons.

Because, dang it, I am going to miss those goobers.

20180613_113001

You have AN awesome summer, too! (See? I failed to teach her “AN awesome”. Crud.)

SNEAK PEEK into Book 8:

Lemuel concluded that falling asleep was impossible. His mind was haunted with visions of Perrin Shin in a general’s uniform. He stood with his arms folded and that one menacing eyebrow, arched.

Behind him stood her, with her head tilted in that annoying and admonishing manner all teachers possessed that indicated, Now you’ve gone and done it.

~Book 8, The Last Day, coming Summer 2018