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

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

The semester in which Mahrree Shin suddenly became my mentor

I haven’t been too active on my blog since September, as I’ve mentioned before, because I was offered to teach 10th grade English at a local high school when a teacher suddenly had to leave.

The strange thing is, I’d forgotten that I’d given up on the idea of teaching a couple of years ago. Burned out by grading and freshman college students’ attitudes, (“Wait, college is hard?! No one told me college would be hard!”) I had pursued a small business and my writing.

Then why was I suddenly agreeing to teach high school in a matter of days?!

I still don’t know why, except that, strangely, I really, really wanted to.

The adjustment has been immense—working full-time, learning how to teach high schoolers, reading their novels rapidly to be two days’ ahead of them. I’ve never worked harder in my entire life. I’ve never been so drained and depleted and exhausted.

And, shockingly, I’ve loved it.

Well, most of it.

Because there’s 2nd period.

Everyone at this school of 400 students and teachers knows about my 2nd period. A senior that I have in 4th period stopped by last week to turn in something, glanced at the back row of boys I teach, and exclaimed, “Whoa—you’ve got ALL of the rotten ones!”

Yes, yes I do. Out of 20 students, 17 are boys. One-fourth are retaking the class because last year’s teacher failed them (and yes, I’ve heard all about THAT injustice from them repeatedly). A couple are retaking English 10 for the third time. They’re juniors who are feeling a bit panicked.

As you might imagine they have attitudes. Disrespectful, bitter, bratty, insolent—yep, I’ve got the full gamut. This has always been my biggest nightmare: a classroom where half of the students are the school’s known bullies.

And, for the strangest of reasons, I love each one of them.

No, it’s not a strange reason, really; it’s an absolute gift. The first day I faced them—and I had been warned about them by the assistant head of school, the head of the English department, and their current substitute teacher—I gazed over their scowls and cynicism, and I was filled inexplicably, wholly, with love for them.

Realize, this is NOT my nature. I can be rather nasty and cynical myself, as anyone whose read my books can attest. But not right then, and not since then. I was filled with pure love.

It wasn’t my love, but God’s love for them. I felt at that moment such a profound sense of, These are my children, and they need someone to care for them. This is your task, and here’s how I feel about them.

Staggering. Absolutely staggering.

I never before realized how immensely God loves each of His children–even the rotten ones. So much so that He’ll send anyone He can find to help them.

weekly meme Not too far gone

He’ll use anyone willing. Even me, as inadequate and unprepared as I am.

The head of the department had suggested that what these kids needed most was someone to “mom” them, and since I have nine kids she assumed I knew how to do that.

I didn’t, but God does. And daily He’s tutored me in what to do when someone acts up; when a student etches poorly drawn male anatomy into the desk; when another student wanders the classroom in search of the garbage can to toss his breakfast sandwich into from fifteen feet away (the sandwiches tend to fall apart in flight, just fyi); when a frequent-failure, who is failing yet again, lays down on the floor and announces that he’s no longer writing but is listening, so keep talking and don’t mind him when he starts snoring; when another student, smelling strongly of marijuana that he claims is his parents’, looks at me with his bloodshot eyes and hazy expression and says, “What was the assignment again?”  

And I’ve been tutored as to how to handle the other half of the class which is frustrated with the ding-dongs on the back row and yell, “She told us eight friggin’ [at least, I think he shouted friggin’] times what we’re doing! I counted! Shut up and listen for once!”

And I’ve been channeling Mahrree Shin, when she was teaching the delinquents of Edge. When I first drafted books 3 and 4 and described Mahrree’s experiences with her troubled students, I borrowed examples from friends who taught, and also my limited experience in once teaching English composition to the auto shop students at a local community college. They, too, were insolent and boorish. The college had thought that teaching them a humanities class might instill in them some humanity. That’s material for another post, but I’m happy to report I did have some success with them.

But that was long ago, and these are very different boys. And nearly every day I’ve thought, “What would Mahrree do?”

I’ve been taking her advice, which is also the Creator’s advice:

I never yell, although many of my front half of the class have told me to shout at the back half. “Just let them have it!”

But I never felt that was right; Mahrree never lost her temper. She’d stand in front of the class, smiling sweetly (sanctimoniously?) while waiting for the noise-makers to lose some steam. She’d stare at the worst ones intently until they squirmed and blurted, “What?! What do you want?!”

“To begin class. Are you now ready for me to talk?”

“Yeah, talk already! You’re creeping me out!”

Mahrree would never lose her cool, even when a handful of boys, upon hearing they could throw away their homework, crumpled the pages into balls and started hucking them, a dozen at a time, toward the garbage can. No, Mahrree would critique their terrible shots, exclaim loudly that she’s glad none of them are on the basketball team (while knowing that two of them were) because they couldn’t make a shot to save their lives. Then she’d pick up the balls of paper and chuck them back at the boys, demonstrating how to properly hit a target.

Mahrree wouldn’t insist on absolute silence or obedience, knowing that these boys trapped in her classroom were counting down the minutes until they could break free and run home to their four-wheelers, or their lobster boats, or their shotguns which beckoned them all day long. She’d play games in the class with vocabulary words, knowing that the teachers on either side of her classroom were forgiving of their volume because, “It’s 2nd period,” and even their students know about Mrs. Mercer’s 2nd period.

Mahrree would bring in the occasional treats, feeding them pomegranate seeds when they discussed Persephone and Hades, giving them “bird poop” cereal mix when we discussed Poe’s “The Raven,” and tossing Smarties to the students who won the last round of vocabulary Bingo.

Mahrree would worry about the students’ need to be heard, to be engaged, to feel like their 80 minutes in the classroom wasn’t an exercise in frustration.

Mahrree wouldn’t care about her ego, or her students’ lack of respect, because she knows she’s there for them, not for herself. It’s about the kids; it’s never about her.

Mahrree, by the way, is NOT like me in the least bit.

But she’s been tutoring me; God has been teaching me–daily, hourly, and every minute–how to cope.

And I’ve never learned more about teaching, about myself, and about God’s love for every one of his children—EVERY last one of them.

Mahrree would, however, count down the days until the semester was over. That, we have in common.

Eight days. Eight.

And I suspect that right after I do my Happy Dance on January 12th, I’ll shed a few tears as well, because this mom will have lost a lot of her children who she learned to love.

Because God showed me how much He loves them.

(By the way, Book 7, The Soldier in the Middle of the World? I’ve nearly finished proofing it. It’s coming, friends–it really is!)

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.

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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

My kids are high school dropouts, and I couldn’t be happier about it

My 17-year-old daughter has been awarded an academic scholarship to the university she’s attending this fall.

But she wasn’t mentioned in the assembly the high school held last week honoring scholarship recipients.

She’s leaving high school with a 3.9 GPA, but she won’t receive any honors.

She quietly walked away from school yesterday, and didn’t even attend graduation (she was working at Little Caesar’s to earn money for housing in September).

Why?

Because she’s not a senior in high school; she’s only a junior. And, like her two older sisters, she’s decided she’s done with the drama and tension of high school life. She’s skipping her senior year and heading straight for college.

Without a high school diploma, without even a GED.

And I love seeing the look of shock on the faces of our friends and neighbors when they hear that I now have five—FIVE—high school dropouts.

“But . . . but . . . they HAVE to have a diploma!”

No, they don’t.

“But . . . but . . . if they don’t graduate, they can’t get into college!”

Not a single university of the four that my kids have applied to has asked for a high school diploma. None of them.

“But . . . but . . .  they need transcripts showing they completed four years of schooling! How do you get around that?”

Easily. Our kids are part home-schooled, part public-schooled. I make transcripts for my children based on what they’ve studied since 9th grade, couple that with the grades they get from their high school courses, and send that to the universities. The admissions offices accept the documents, no questions.

“But . . . but . . . isn’t that illegal?”

Teaching my kids at home? Recording their scores? Nope. And there’s nothing illegal about dropping out of school.

“But . . . but . . . how do colleges accept them?”

Three little letters: ACT.

That test is designed to demonstrate how well a student may succeed in college. Four of my five kids scored in the high 20s and low 30s on their ACTs, and that was good enough for college. One child, who has struggled with some learning disabilities, didn’t score as well, but he’s been accepted to two state schools anyway.

Because college isn’t that hard to get into.

Seriously.

Every state has university systems with “open enrollment.” Essentially it means that if you have a heartbeat and a bank account, you can try a year of college. Having taught at these schools, I realized that this prevailing notion is a good one: maybe someone wasn’t top of his class in high school, but maturity, focus, and time works in favor for a lot of people. Just give them a shot at college. If they don’t succeed after a year, they’re put on probation, but most likely drop out on their own to pursue something else.

Several years ago, my oldest daughter scored the magic number on her ACT to be accepted into Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. She had taken the test early as a 15-year-old, only so that we could gauge where her homeschooling had taken her.

I stared in shock at her score, then was surprised even more when she said, “Can’t I just go to college now? What’s the point of doing more high school?”

I had no answer for her except, “I guess you could go early . . .” She started her freshman year of college when she should have been at her senior year of high school.

My second daughter, not to be outdone by her sister in anything ever, also took the ACT early, and to her delight scored one point higher. She was attending our local high school part-time, and when her guidance counselor brought her in to choose courses for the next year, she told her, “I’m not coming back; I’m heading to college instead.”

The guidance counselor called me that day. “I don’t think that’s a good idea for your daughter to skip her final year. Most kids aren’t mature enough to move away to college at 17. Most kids really struggle.”

I answered, “Most kids aren’t my kids. I evaluate each individually, and my daughter is ready to leave, just as her older sister, who has a 4.0 at BYU right now.”

Where are my two daughters now? My oldest is completing her master’s degree in archaeology. She’s been published a few times, was the head TA for anthropology for many years, directing 20+ TAs who taught freshman anthropology, and is completing her thesis, despite having a toddler at home and another baby on the way.

my kids are high school dropouts

As my oldest daughter, Madison, received announcements of high school graduations, complete with dramatic photos, we decided to do our own photo shoot of her dropping out. (She’s holding a root beer bottle, by the way). Four years later she graduated as valedictorian of her class at BYU-Provo. Now she’s married, a mom, and finishing her master’s thesis. Not bad for a “dropout.”

 

My second daughter earned her associates’ degree with a 3.95, went on an LDS mission to Edmonton, Canada for eighteen months, and now is finishing her first year at BYU’s very competitive nursing program. She hopes to become a labor-and-delivery nurse, and eventually a certified midwife.

I think they were mature enough to leave high school, just as their little sister is.

Now, if you’ve done the math you’ll see I said FIVE high school dropouts, and I’ve mentioned only three so far.

I have two sons who also dropped out, but they went through their senior years. Almost.

My oldest son, who has learning disabilities and struggled like his dad to learn to read and write, took schooling slower and finished his high school courses with a 3.8 GPA. Seeing him earn As in English astonished me. Then he quit school, without a diploma.

Then he went to the oil fields of North Dakota.

Then he went on a LDS mission to Pittsburgh, PA for two years.

Then he went into the army reserves and trained in petroleum testing, where he was honored for earning the highest scores. IMG_5690

And now he’s going to college. He’s starting later than most freshmen, but with a wealth of maturity and experience behind him, and with eagerness that a lot of college freshmen, who are burned out from high school, don’t possess. 

I’ve had a few acquaintances surprised by this, too.

“But . . . but . . . he’s getting kind of late start, isn’t he?”

No. He’s only 22. I used to teach evening courses at a community college where half of my students were older than me. It’s never too late to start.

“But . . . but . . . students will be younger than him.”

So what? We’ve been programmed by our many years of public schooling to think that everyone should be the same age in the same grade. But once you get to college, you realize that your classes–if you’re lucky–are populated by a microcosm of the world: people of all ages and backgrounds and even countries.

My son’s starting college in a very smart way: with no debt. He knows he’s not getting scholarships like his sisters, but the army’s helping him pay for school, and he’ll eventually leave with money in the bank, not debts to his name. He’s learned from his parents that student loan debt is a killer.

And what about my other son? He dropped out a little bit early. He left before his third trimester of school. 050

Yep, right in the middle of it all, he waved good-bye and walked away.

He figured, what more could he get out of high school in one more trimester? Nothing, really. He wanted to get to serving as a missionary for the LDS church.

While the LDS church wants its missionaries to complete high school and graduate (the minimum age to serve for boys is 18), I pointed out to our local leadership that none of my kids graduated because they are home-schooled, and my son had been 18 since the beginning of the school year.

Our congregational bishop, a teacher at the high school who had my sons in his classes, scratched his head at my argument. Then, knowing me and our family too well, said, “All right. I guess we can submit his papers and see that the church says.”

By April of his senior year, my son was already serving an LDS mission in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He missed all the graduation parties, just like his sister has, but he doesn’t care. He’s already moved on to real life.

I have four more children who will also likely make me proud by being high school dropouts. I’m not proud that they “dropped out,” but that they made decisions for themselves as to what they wanted to do with their lives.

My husband and I haven’t told any of them what we expect of them. I have, however, told them I want them to try at least one year of college, just to see if it’s for them. I want them to have that experience of learning from various people—even the liberally-minded, to help challenge and strengthen our conservative beliefs. When they do that year of college, and where, and how, is entirely up to them.

Back to my latest high school dropout. When she came home from high school for the last time, I asked her, “Any regrets? I heard your friends saying how much they’ll miss you next year, how they wished you’d stay.”

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All of my kids do things differently, like making a prom dress skirt out of storm trooper fabric.

Oh, if you could have seen her eyes rolling. Like planets falling out of orbit.

“No!” she declared. “I am done! Let’s get on to real life!” Then she pulled out her tablet, with yet another recipe on it, and headed to the kitchen where she’s been experimenting with meals she can make after a day of college classes.

She’s moving on when she’s ready to, not when some random bureaucrat declares her “mature enough.”

She, like my other children, is making choices for her life, based upon her needs.

I love having a house of rebels.

“Let’s hope there are still a few rebellious ‘teenaged’ souls out there,” Mahrree whispered to Perrin.

“Besides us, I mean.”  

~Book 2, Soldier at the Door

(Book 5 is published and available! Get Safety Assured Leaving East of Medicetti at Amazon, Smashwords, or here on “Start reading the books!“)