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.

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.)
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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.)

Blurry evidence dance

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

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.

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(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.

 

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.)

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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.”

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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.

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(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.

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

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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.

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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

 

I used to think prom was a waste of time and money, but last weekend I realized why we need it (and a sneak peek to book 8)

My inner anthropologist compelled me on Saturday night to go to our high school and witness a cultural phenomenon called “walking out.” At proms in the west, this doesn’t occur. But here in Downeast Maine it’s the event of the year.

Before the prom begins, the juniors (even though all grades were invited) link arms with a friend or date and march out on a catwalk to pose for pictures. In the audience seated below, their family and friends whoop and cheer as the music plays.

It was fun to see my students all dressed up: the muck boots and hoodies swapped out for buttoned shirts and jackets. The stretchy pants and plaid tops traded for beaded gowns and updos.

prom WA taylor and kistin

And the beautifully decorated gym never smelled better—the combination of perfumes and colognes replaced the usual waves of B.O. (Then again, the dancing hadn’t yet started.)

prom picture carissa

But, according to the comments I heard around me before I left, it was all very painful.

“Seventy bobby pins! That’s what’s holding this hair up—seventy. My head’s killing me.”

“Are dresses supposed to feel like your [bahonkas] are going to fall out of them every five minutes?” (If I had my sewing machine with me, I would have taken her to my classroom and made her straps, if only to get her date to stop staring.)

“I already kicked off my shoes. I don’t care what my mom says, I know I should have worn my moccasins.” (Still the dancing hadn’t started.)

PRom pictures madelyn and andersen

“Dude, I spent an hour with a Youtube video trying to figure how to tie this tie.”
“Why didn’t you just order a clip-on from Amazon like the rest of us?”
“What’s a clip-on? Man, that would have been WAY easier.”

prommikaila and friends

“No, I can’t eat anything. My mom rented this tux from Bangor [a two-hour drive away]. She said she’d kill me if I got anything on it.”

(There was a lot of “killing me,” and my inner English teacher was chanting, Hyperbole, Hyperbole.)

Overall, the kids looked great. Girls squealed in delight at each other and their dresses and hair, boys guffawed at their friends, punched them in the shoulder, and told them they looked “sick.” (That’s a compliment, by the way. Took me only a few months to figure that out.)

Another teacher murmured to me on our way out before the dancing began, “They clean up pretty well, don’t they?”

They really did.

A few boys who barely seem awake in my class were bright-eyed and dashing. I almost didn’t recognize a few others without their trademark baseball hats (oh wait–there they are, proving anything can go with a baseball hat if you’re a Mainer boy).

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Then there was the girls who usually wear torn jeans and apathetic expressions, but were instead smiling shyly with smoky eyes and in gorgeous gowns. There were a few girls I didn’t even recognize in their glamour gear and huge grins.
(And occasional winces, because of shoes. And because of hairdos. And because of dresses which threatened to pop out strategic parts of their anatomy.)

I always thought the school had a lot of pretty girls, but that night all of them had progressed to “stunning.” And the boys were so close to “debonair” it was jarring.

I was surprised at my pride in all of them, especially when I recognized a few of my students strutting on the catwalk. (But calling out “AP LIT POWER!” would have sounded ridiculous.)

prom karli

prom isaac

I have a terrible confession to make: for years I’ve thought prom was a waste of time and money. I seconded the griping of one of my students about his date. “Her mom’s taking her all the way to Bangor to get her hair done. It’s gonna cost $200. For what?”

Exactly. All this effort, expense, fanciness—for what? Some of my own children went to prom, and I made dresses (less than $100) and helped (sort of) with hair, and hoped the dates didn’t spend too much money.

But why bother at all?

Saturday night, I knew why: to let these newly-emerging adults see what they can become.

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No, not some glamorous model on a magazine (but pink mermaid above certainly could be). But that with some effort, care, and attention, they can shine and dazzle.

Sometimes I’m given insights into people—glimpses into who they were before they were born and who they can become later in life. And it’s a good thing those glimpses are rare, because they overwhelm me. C. S. Lewis was right in that we never talk to “mere mortals:”

“There are no ordinary people. It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

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I sometimes see who my students were, and who they can become. It’s staggering. So much strength. So much potential. So much power, wrapped up in these tense bodies of anxiety and worry and worldliness. It’s good for them to see themselves—and each other—at their “best” that none of them knew existed.

To feel, just for one night, the grandeur of what may be.

No wonder their parents were there, proudly taking pictures and cheering. They have glimpses, too, I’m sure. At least they have hope. They sigh and think, “Almost there . . . almost there . . .”

prom nevin

(Uh, Nevin? It’s not “hoodie optional.”)

And as their teacher, it was good for me to see them, too. These are the moments when I think, “There’s still hope for the future. Look at these kids. Don’t despair just yet. Give them a chance to shine like this all the time.”

(NOTE: I didn’t take any of these amazing photos, but gleaned them from Facebook and emails, and my students agreed I could use them.)

[Sneak peek to Book 8: The Last Day]

Cloud Man smiled as he wiped Young Pere’s face, as if he were washing up a toddler. “Chin up. Up, up. Too bad there’s no time for a shave. You grow the most ridiculously splotchy beard. Now, behind your ears . . . And over to your forehead . . .”

Sergeant Beaved, observing the cleaning up of his prisoner, rolled his eyes and turned around in embarrassment.

Young Pere struggled to keep his face from contorting. Cloud Man was the best.

“Now close your eyes. We need to get all that dust off. Why, you’re not as tan as I thought you were. Most of that coloring is dirt. Tsk, tsk. What would you mother say? Oh, I guess we’ll find out soon enough, won’t we?”

Young Pere snorted.

“Now your hair . . . hmm. I think I have a comb somewhere. Ah, here it is! I don’t think I’ve even used this. Let me comb through this . . . It’s as if you haven’t bathed in days, Young Pere.”

“Because I haven’t, Cloudy. None of us have. We’ve been invading Salem, remember?”

“Tsk, tsk. Your hair would be better if it was shorter. Guess there was no time for a decent cut after they released you from the dungeon. We’ll just comb it up and over your ears. Now, let me look at you. Hmm. Guess we need a woman’s opinion. Do they generally consider you handsome?’

“Generally.”

“You might pass for handsome. Ruggedly handsome, since you’re not cleaned up properly—”

“Are you about finished?” Sergeant Beaved interrupted hotly. “Because I’m supposed to bringing him at any moment!”

Cloud Man nodded and patted Young Pere’s hand which still held the unlocked chain together. “I think we’re almost ready.”

~Book 8, The Last Day, coming Summer 2018

They can keep changing the rules, but we don’t have to be obedient. (Plus 3 sneak peeks into Book 8)

My 6-year-old tried to play chess with me at their school’s STEM night last week. I didn’t realize he knew the rules, and it turns out he doesn’t, because he produced a secret weapon: a 6-legged spider he’d made out of clay in his class earlier.

“This is spider-guy,” he announced. “And he can eat all of your little white guys there.”

Before I knew it, the clay creature had wiped a handful of my “white guys” off the board.20180501_182939.
So that’s how this was going to be played.

“Fine,” I said, and looked around for my secret weapon. “This is Stapler Man, and he can chomp your spider-guy.”

“Good job, Mom!” he cheered as I nudged his spider off the board, but then he plunked spider-guy back into play. “But my guy has 175 lives.”

“I see,” I said, and if he was going to change all the rules every minute, like a game of Calvin Ball in Calvin and Hobbes, so could I. “Stapler Man has 180 lives, and he’s coming after your king.”

My son sighed and said, “You can’t change the rules like that, Mom.”

“But you just did.”

He hesitated, seeing that if he turned things unfairly to his advantage, I might too. (Yeah, I’m that kind of mom.) “Let’s go see the salmon babies,” he said, and the game was over as we headed to the fish tanks.

In my sophomore English classes we’re reading All But My Life, about a 15-year-old Jewish girl who is forced into the Nazi labor camps and is one of the few who survives. Last week we read about the ever-changing rules in regards to Jews; they can’t own phones, or cars, or bikes, or even fountain pens. They have to turn over the gold, their goods, their houses. Signs go up: “Gardens only for Germans,” and “No dogs or Jews allowed.”

The rules change daily, to the advantage of the Nazis, but the Jews aren’t able to play that game back at them or they’re shot.

My students, while fascinated by the story, have asked why this “history” book is in our English curriculum. We talk about language—euphemisms, propaganda, etc.—but the class is also about thinking and analyzing.

So I’ll tell them, “This memoir isn’t only about history, but about language, about control, about the direction we’re going right now. How are you going to survive in a country where the rules are changing daily?”

We all see this—it’s no secret: the elite, in various organizations, are manipulating situations to fit what they want to have happen. It’s not about the good of the country, but the selfishness of a handful. The rest of us struggle to know if we can shift those rules again, or somehow subvert them.

In the book we’re reading, Gerda Weissmann begins to learn English on the sly, and even though she’s denied an education, her father teachers her out of the textbooks they still own in the privacy of their house. (Proving that homeschooling is for subversives.)

My parents grew up in Nazi Germany. Their families–not Jews and certainly not Nazis—realized early on Hitler was going to be disastrous for Germany. Quietly, privately, they tried to subvert the changing rules the elite imposed upon them. They had more chickens than allotted and hid them when the inspectors came; they had doctors write notes excusing their children from attending Hitler Youth; they traded cigarette and coffee rations (Mormons don’t use those) on the black market for more flour and sugar; and my great-grandfather blackmailed a Nazi recruiter who tried to secure his money for their cause. The Nazis never bothered him again.

In the Book of Mormon is a story about a group of followers of God who are oppressed by their government (Mosiah 24). They’re told they can’t pray or they’ll be executed. The people simply didn’t pray out loud, but in secret, knowing that God would still hear them. Quiet subversiveness when the rules are purposely stacked against them.

It seems almost daily that the rules are changing, that more and more laws are purposely designed to hold down one group while elevating another.

Unfair? Absolutely.

But the question is, how do we respond—individually and collectively—to the oppressive elite?

Maybe a situation is benign enough that we can pull out our own “stapler guy” and change the rules once again for more even odds.

Or maybe a problem is so grave that our defiance equates our death—politically, mentally, spiritually, or literally. That’s a much more difficult situation to manage.

But there seem to be many opportunities for outward obedience yet inward rebellion.
However, there should never, ever be quiet acceptance.

Because if we don’t even try to fight, then we’ve already given up and they win.

(Because I’m so eager to get you Book 8 “The Last Day” this summer, I’m giving you THREE sneak peeks!)

#1 Sneak Peek

“Oh yes, General.” Young Pere squinted with disdain. “That makes me want to call you ‘father.’ Hit me all you want, Thorne, but you can never change who I am or what you are. So choose the slagging canyon yourself.”

From the corner of his eye, Young Pere could see Hili beaming. But Thorne stood shocked, not used to such flagrant insubordination, and evidently didn’t know how to proceed.

Finally Thorne whispered, in as sinister a voice as he could muster, “I have one more thing to do with you, Shin. Then I will kill you myself. Nothing will give me greater pleasure. Your days are numbered, make no mistake about that!”

Young Pere nodded once, not at all intimidated. Thorne was full of unmet promises; just ask anyone he’d told he’d give a medal. He still owed Young Pere a few.

#2 Sneak Peek

Shin frowned at Sergeant Beaved. “So I’m supposed to go along with all of this?” 

“If you want to live, yes!”

“Is that what all of you do?” Shin exclaimed. “Just go along with whatever unbelievable and unlikely story preserves you for another day?”

“Yes,” Beaved said shortly. “Why not?”

“Living in lies? That doesn’t bother you?”

Beaved leaned in. “What bothers me is the idea of dying, Shin.”

“Doesn’t bother me,” he said, almost believably.

“Look, Shin, just . . .” Beaved groaned quietly. “I don’t know what the truth is myself, but I do know this: you have a chance to survive this. A small chance, getting smaller each time you open that big mouth of yours. But if I were you I’d cling to that chance, do whatever it takes to preserve your life. You can fix the lies later, if necessary, but you can’t if you’re dead.”

#3 Sneak Peek

“I’m as helpful as I know to be, Teach,” Shin said down to the man following him on the slope of the mountain.

“But one could be more helpful, Shin. Considering that Thorne has repeatedly threatened one of your security detail if you fail.”

Below him, Cloud Man bounced his head, oblivious that Thorne had threatened to bounce the vial head down the mountain if the private wouldn’t be more cooperative.

“Interesting,” Shin said as he searched for better footing. “Thorne’s so ‘noble’ as to force us to seek out Salem, and he’s so ‘noble’ that he’s also threatening one of his own soldier’s lives to do so. Perhaps I’m not that familiar with the definition of nobility. Enlighten me, Teach.”

He heard Teach moan below him again, maybe because of the question or because he was smacked by another tree branch. Hopefully both.

“Nobility. Doing that which the circumstances demand.”

“That’s it?”

“Language usage wasn’t my specialty in the university,” Teach admitted.

“What was your specialty?”

“I specialized in it all.”

Shin stifled a snort. “But not language usage?”

“Why bother? Everyone knows how to talk, don’t they?”

Shin reached for another scrubby brush. “So who decides ‘what circumstances demand’? When someone is acting in everyone’s best interests and not just out of his own selfishness?”

“Are you suggesting General Thorne is selfish?” Teach asked.

“Yes.”

The scoff behind him made Shin glance down.

Teach was aghast. “You actually admit that?”

“I said only what you’re thinking, Teach. What everyone on this hill is thinking but is too afraid to say.”

A surprising perspective of Godliness I’ve learned from teaching high school (yes, He’s still there)

They come into my room with complaints, always. It’s the nature of teenagers, and because I sit behind the desk I hear it all.

Usually they march right up to me and express how annoying, or rude, or fake, or awful someone is. It’s more important than lunch, more important than study hall, more important than catching the bus after school that I know just how wronged they were.

Sometimes they sit at a desk and vent to another student about so-and-so’s inhumanity, and because teenagers are notoriously loud, I hear all of that too.

Later, more come in and I hear the other sides of the stories—because these students are friends of the horribly offensive one or might even be the offender themselves.

And then I put together the picture based on the selected pieces dropped in front of me, and a new image emerges.

I understand many new angles, a variety of aspects.

Who’s at fault?
Well, all of them.

Who deserves retribution?
None of them.

Who deserves mercy and another chance?
Each and every last one of them.

Sometimes the students demand that I take a side, that I assure them that their anger is justified. I can’t do that, because I’ve seen the backside and know that there is plenty of blame to go around. I’ve never seen anyone wholly innocent.

I think deep down all of them see that too.

Instead, I commiserate with them, tell them I’m sorry they’re dealing with this, then . . . I leave it.

Because I realize they’re not as far apart from their enemy as they think they are. Actually, they’re so close they’re nearly side-by-side, except for this sliver of animosity wedged between them. I’m not going to try to remove that wedge because I see how close they are to resolving it themselves, and the knowledge and growth they get as they do so will be the best learning they’ll have in school.

So I watch, and on a rare occasion call an authority because a law’s being broken, but for 99% of the time I pray silently these silly teenagers get over themselves and move on.

And so far, they have been. Grudges melt away. Enemies share a pencil. Students put on suspension come back with sly smiles and ask, “I’m still your favorite student, right?” (I hesitate to answer that one, every time.)

And this, I’ve discovered, is a tiny glimpse of how God works. We wander into His heavenly room full of complaining prayers, demanding He wreak vengeance for us, tell Him how unfair and unjust life is. He smiles consolingly, wraps His comfort around us, then because He sees just how close we are to solving the problem ourselves, He steps back and lets us flail and muck about, giving us words of encouragement, but not interfering 99% of the time. He knows we’ve got this, if we’ll just calm down enough to hear His words.

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If we accept His perspective and insights, our hearts soften, our anger dissolves, and we leave with our enemies not so enemy-ish (and grateful that God didn’t smite them with a falling piano as we earlier requested).

Then He smiles and hopes that next time we’ll remember to first show a little more mercy, a little more patience, a little more love, a little more Godliness.

“He was very easy to talk to,” Versa said. “He listened to my long descriptions without any expression of surprise or dismay, as if he’d heard it all before. No judgments, no criticisms, just patient listening. Much like I imagine the Creator would listen.”

~Book 8, coming Summer 2018

weekly meme Creater easy to talk to

Book 8 teaser: Your heritage doesn’t determine your legacy, and that’s a good thing.

As a 10th grade English teacher, I learn a lot about students from their writing. I read about divorces, neglect, drug use, alcohol problems, and misery.

And I hold all of their words sacred. They’ve trusted me with them, and they could write about something easier, but they share what eats at them. They have to, before it consumes them.

My students likely don’t realize how much they’re revealing, but maybe they do. Maybe they hope someone’s paying attention when they write, “But that’s not who I want to be. I plan to be different.”

And I write back to them. “I know you’ll be different. You’re amazing already.”

They apologize for turning in work late—someone was kicked out of the house in the middle of the night, someone was taken away by the police, someone was using again, someone didn’t pay the electricity bill, an elderly guardian was afraid of the snow and didn’t want to send the child out into more danger—

I smile and say, “Whenever you can get it to me.”

“I will,” they say with determination. And they do. And it’s good.

My heart seizes nearly every day. Yesterday a student, with tears in her eyes, said, “Today’s my last day. My dad got custody again and I’m moving to his town this weekend.” Her best friend sat in the corner, weeping.

I realize I have no real problems—none at all. The ones I have are merely stubbed toes compared to the severed arteries these students walk around with, smiling bravely and vowing to be better to the world than it’s been to them.

I wish them luck. I pray silently for them, asking for inspiration as to how I can help. All I get back is, “Show them love. They need someone to love them.”

I know some people who take great pride in their heritage, brag about their legacy and ancestors, sit arrogantly on the shoulders of giants as if they climbed there all by themselves.

Then there are others who have crawled out of pits their families have dug, and they wipe themselves off and declare, “My children will never know of this place.”

I stand in awe of the second group.

Since I’ve moved to Maine last year and was asked to be a permanent substitute teacher (I love that oxymoron), I’ve taught my students probably a dozen things. In return they’ve taught me thousands.

I have a lot of catching up to do.

“I’ll remind her every day that her heritage doesn’t determine her actions. She’ll be the best beginning of a new legacy.”

~Book 8, The Last Day, coming Summer 2018

best beginning BOOK 8 teaser

To all my high school teachers 30 years ago–I’m so very, very sorry

While I was getting fingerprinted yesterday, I realized I had a lot of apologies to make.

No, I hadn’t committed any crime, except for becoming a substitute teacher for a local high school.

Which means I remembered my high school years and the way I behaved.

No, I wasn’t smoking in the east parking lot, being a vandal, or getting into an other 1980s-teen-movie troubles.

My greatest problem: I was obnoxious, with a capital O-B.

I was sweet and charming (or so I thought) and I would never, EVER shut up.

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Gee, which one might I be?

So to all my high school teachers who I interrupted with some clever quip which derailed their excellent explanations or lectures, I am very, very sorry.

I wasn’t clever–I was annoying.

We all know it, don’t bother trying to save my feelings at this point. I’m a grownup now.

PICT0016

Yeah, that girl–the “charming” one.

I did get to apologize directly to my AP Biology teacher about a year and a half ago. I found him online and thanked Doyle Norton for his wonderful lessons (I still remember the ATP Choo-Choo train). Then I wrote, “I also want to thank you for your incredible patience, especially with students like me who never shut up, trying so hard to be funny when you were trying so hard to teach us about the circulatory system.”

Generously, he responded with, “Oh, I don’t remember you being obnoxious.” I’m sure he didn’t remember me at all out of thousands of students, but I’m sure he remembered the mouthy ones, putting them all in a category which, at the end of the day, made him rub his face in exasperation.

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Dear Doyle Norton even took a busload of his biology students to southern California each Easter. Patience of a saint. Or the madness of a scientist–I’m still not sure which.

I rub MY face in exasperation just remembering what I was like 30 years ago.

So to all my teachers at Viewmont High School–I am so, so sorry. I don’t remember any of you losing patience, becoming angry, or doing anything more than smile with GREAT forbearance at me, and now that I’m your age (and older, I’m sure), I’m even more impressed with the examples you set.

I also need to apologize to my friends, particularly Heather McClure, wherever you are: you not only sat next to me in AP Biology but also AP English, the two classes where my mouth was the mouthiest. I kept up a quiet running dialogue during both classes all year long, and you so very generously, very kindly, would only smile and keep your eyes on our teachers instead of turning around and screeching at me, “SHUT UP ALREADY!”

I would have deserved it if you had.
Did you pass the AP tests?
I’ve worried about that, for 30 years now.
More apologies if you didn’t. It was completely my fault.

I’m remembering all of this as I mentally try to anticipate what substitute teaching will be like, and I’m reminded that we never fully escape our past but usually end up paying for it in some way.

I think I’m about to pay for it this fall, and now I’m praying earnestly for the same great forbearance my teachers showed to me. Because the one thing–the main thing–I remember about my teachers was their enormous kindness.

Even when there were kids mouthier than me (shock!) I remember my teachers’ patience and  . . . I guess it was love. Their concern for us was greater than their need to protect their egos. They put us first instead of themselves or their lessons.

I realize teenagers and times have changed dramatically over the past 30 years, but what hasn’t changed is that children of all ages need to feel loved, need to be treated with kindness, need to have great forbearance shown to them.

I’m praying daily now to develop those essential skills myself, and hope I’ll never have to apologize to my future students for never being kind enough. (But I probably will–I’m sorry. Again. Already.)

    Go bold, Mahrree wrote on the scrap paper late that night.
    She frowned at it.
    It should have been Go boldly, right? She got it wrong all those years ago. But that indicated going somewhere, and what she’d meant was, Be bold.
    But then it would have been, Be bold, or don’t be at all, which was far more fatalistic than she intended.
    She scowled at the paper. Things are so much simpler when one approaches them with the over-confident superiority of a teenage mind.
    Now, as an adult, she finally realized just how simplistic and incorrect her old motto had been.

~Book 1, The Forest at the Edge of the World