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

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

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

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

I’m not.

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

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

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

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

IMG_7061

Three very fast, unforgettable years.

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

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

IMG_7039

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

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

IMG_7063

Unimaginable. Two whole weeks?!

But it was two whole months. And now three.

They never came back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ridiculous.

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

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

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

IMG_7065

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

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

IMG_7058

I love you.

Thank you for these past three unforgettable years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not formally, but naturally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It can! Here’s our chance!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image may contain: 15 people, including Trish Strebel Mercer, Matyas Nachtigall, Bára Bajgarová and Uyen Nguyen, people smiling, people standing and indoor

 

AP Literature, gardening, and marshmallow fluff

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

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

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

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

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

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

And oh, how they glow.

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

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

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

I love spring.

Zweedy words

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

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

Thank a mentor today–they probably don’t realize how they’ve inspired you!

Today I sent an email to my old AP Biology teacher, Doyle Norton, who I found again four years ago. I graduated from high school in the 1980s, but Mr. Norton has influenced me as a teacher, even now. He was creative, hilarious, yet so intent about us learning the content. I was thrilled to pass the AP Biology test! Four years ago I wrote him and told him how much he meant to me. He wrote back the greatest, most enthusiastic email–typical for Mr. Norton!

Today, as I started planning for my third year of teaching AP English in a few weeks, I thought of Doyle Norton again and sent him a follow-up email. I realized I’d never told him I was an AP teacher now, too, and I thanked him profusely for his teaching style which I try to emulate (even though biology and English aren’t exactly interchangeable). I’m awaiting his response (I sure hope he’s still kicking around–he’d be in his seventies) but it felt great to say, “I’m now getting to pretend to be you!”

PICT0007

Doyle Norton, circa 1986, on a biology trip to southern California

It’s an immense responsibility to share your vision of the world with the rising generation. That vision needs to be shared carefully, honestly, fairly, and beautifully. I’m still working on that, and will for the rest of my life.

Today with the Light the World initiative is the suggestion to thank a mentor for their influence. Try it. You’ll make everyone’s day–especially your own!

control world students see

My philosophy for teaching–don’t think about it too much

This sums up my approach to teaching, especially my first year.

Now that I’m in my third year . . . no, this still rings true.

(I do think about it, really, but it’s impossible to judge just how a lesson plan is going to go. Every single day . . . impossible.)

pgoing just fine

Get the prequel The Walls in the Middle of Idumea here!

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.

On Greece, Rome, leaning against ancient temple columns, and . . . oh yeah, a new book coming soon!

To my horror I realized today that it’s been over two months since I’ve posted here. The past couple months of teaching high school–with my students taking the AP English Literature exam (scores are released this weekend–biting my knuckles), helping with Junior Prom (I got to be the MC announcing students, but I held back from using my full <announcer voice, voice . . .voice>), getting the school’s literature and arts book published (thank you, Amazon), helping students write graduation speeches (“Why aren’t you mentioning me?”), and grading finals (did they answer all the questions? Just slap a 90 on that.)–well, all that took every last minute of my days.

Then, the last day of school on June 14, my husband and I took off for sheer indulgence to celebrate our 31st wedding anniversary, since we’ve never really celebrated any of our past anniversaries beyond eating a piece of cake. We left our family, flew to Rome–just the two of us–and took a cruise to the Greek isles. It was my first passport, our first cruise, our first major trip anywhere. (People on our ship asked us if we took “practice” cruises before, and I just stared at them, not realizing that’s a thing. Matching t-shirts on cruises are also, sadly, a thing.)

Some of my students, after hearing where I was going and responding to my pictures on Facebook, said, “Man, you must be RICH to go on this trip!” (Forgetting that we’re school teachers in America.)

I replied with, “Not by any stretch. I’m working a second job for two summers to pay for it, we planned our port excursions on our own to save money, loaded up on the breakfast buffet before we left the ship so we didn’t have to eat until we got back for dinner, and for souvenirs we collected sand in test tubes and rocks off of beaches. In Rome we found a grocery store and bought local food for meals, paid only for two guided tours (Delos and the Vatican) and otherwise purchased guide books or just sidled up to other tour groups to listen in on what we were seeing in Athens, the Colosseum, Olympia, etc. We didn’t purchase the drinks package on the ship (picked up our own soda off-ship), walked for miles every day or took local buses and trains instead of taxis, and THAT’S how you afford a Mediterranean vacation!”

I never imagined I’d actually write a paragraph as I did above. Such a trip never was a possibility, only a dream. Yet it happened (after a GREAT deal of planning and saving). I’m still surprised we went through it, and that nothing horrible happened as a result. (I’m guilty of believing that if I try to do something fun, the cosmos will come back and bite me later. It still may . . .)

If you’ve read my books, it’s no secret that I borrow from ancient Greece and Rome: architecture and ruins, leadership and armies, “bread and circuses.” I’ve researched a great deal of their societies to create my own in the Forest at the Edge series.

In Book 6, Flight of the Wounded Falcon,  I gave Perrin and Mahrree experiences I’d never had (ok a little wish fulfillment in my books). I also gave them a way to remember it:

 . . . Mahrree gazed again at the large painting that nearly covered the wall in their little gathering room. For their anniversary a few weeks ago, Perrin had asked a landscape artist to create for them a painting of the ancient temple ruin where they had trekked so often.

The Shins had expected a small picture, but the artist, knowing how much they loved the site, created an immense painting of breathtaking realism of the entire area, with details and colors that left both Perrin and Mahrree speechless.

But the best part was that she had included both of them in the painting, smiling and leaning on either side of a pillar at the top of the stairs of the crumbling temple. They were only a few inches high, but even then the detail was astonishing.

They discovered later that the artist had been surreptitiously following them. Their grandchildren, in on the surprise, had found occasion to ask them to lean against things so that the artist could quickly sketch them at the correct heights. . . .

On nights like this, Mahrree stared at the painting and wished she and Perrin were at the ancient site again, as they had been dozens of times, all alone. . . .

The last time they did it was just a few weeks ago, for their 44th anniversary, just before they’d been presented with the glorious painting.

When Dave and I paid off the trip and realized we were actually going (although I kept thinking, Some disaster will strike and we won’t go; Greece will slip into the ocean, Rome will erupt in a giant volcano, I’ll get a horrible stomach flu . . .) I told my husband that all I wanted were a couple of pictures of us leaning against an old pillar. He hasn’t read the books (although I’ve used him on several covers) so he was a little confused by my request, but he was willing. (I wish you could see his, “Are you serious?” expression. After 31 years, I’ve seen it MANY times. He’s learned it’s just best to go along with things to keep me happy. That’s why we’ve been married for 31 years.)

On the island of Delos, we asked a man with a camera like mine to take our picture. (Here’s a travel hint: always find someone with a nicer camera than yours to take your picture; people with only phones have no idea what they’re doing.) The wind wasn’t too helpful, but the excitement–for me, at least–wasn’t blown away as we posed at the Temple of Isis (not the current ISIS, but an ancient one, fortunately):

Two days later we were in Olympia where the ancient Olympics were held for a thousand years, and whoa–more columns to lean against! So again I recruited a photographer, and my husband gave me that same puzzled look, then gamely leaned against another column:

IMG_2816

I see these photos from just a couple weeks ago and I still can’t believe that I was allowed to visit some amazing places. I still marvel that I’ve been allowed to have nine children, to teach high school students, to write an entire books series, to meet so many marvelous people . . . sometimes life is just too good.

No, I amend that: very frequently life is just too good. When you stop and analyze it, and realize what opportunities it gives you, it’s overwhelming. We have to sit in the grass and just whisper, “Thank you.”

Even if the cosmos does decide to come back one day and bite me in the rear because it’s my turn for a new trial, I’ll still have had all of this. Too much, and too good.

Oh, and did you notice what I put in the title about a new book? IT’S TRUE! I’ve written a prequel about the first High General Pere Shin and the servants of King Querul, and it’s nearly ready to be published! (Ok, so I had a few minutes here and there the past three months, and surprisingly I produced a new book with that time.)

I plan to release it this summer, now that my life has slowed down a little, so watch for updates and a LOT more posts about The Walls in the Middle of Idumea, a Forest at the Edge Prequel.

And no, you do NOT have needed to read the series to read the prequel. In fact, I think it’ll be a good lead-in to the rest of the series, especially since it’s only about 180 pages (not as daunting as some of my other books). So if you have any friends that have been interested in reading, tell them they can begin here!

The Walls in the Middle of Idumea–coming very, very soon!

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

 

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).

Image may contain: 6 people, people smiling, people standing

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.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing, ocean and outdoor

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.”

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing

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