Sunday, May 27, 2007
Saturday, May 26, 2007
One evening back in the fall of 2004, my son accidentally bit through his bottom lip with his front teeth as he went to tackle a ball carrier playing "band football," a rough pad-less form of tackle football played by athletic band students with a jock chip on their shoulders. Living next to the school, I was immediately called and rushed him to the local emergency room for treatment. Little did we know that we'd have one of the more unusual experiences of our young lives.
(Please beware of some sensitive language. I had no choice but to use it.)
An Evening at the Emergency Room
At the emergency room this evening, I met this chubby, stubble-bearded, smelly guy who spent two and a half hours telling me his entire life story as we waited. I was there to have my son's lip stitched up after a rough play in a pick-up grudge match football game between the band and the cross country team. We had passed through the identification, triage, patient registration, and waiting room gauntlet at
About ten minutes after we arrived and after the nurse assured us for the first time that the doctor would be right out to see my son, the man popped over and just began chatting. He asked what happened, and we told him our story. Then he asked what I did for a living, and I told him that I am a teacher. He told me that the reason I have grey hair was because of them kids. I said that I probably was getting some after about twenty years in the profession. This peaked his interest, and he asked my age. After learning my age (44), this man, who looked to be about 55 to 70, told me that his wife, who was in the next stall nursing an almost broken ankle, is almost exactly my age. I learned after a few moments of patient listening that his wife was born on August 6th, and I admitted that I was born on May 15th. He then informed me that he and his wife had been together for 31 years...only married for the last 18 years. They lived 13 years in sin before that.
They have a son who is serving 5 years in the state pen for driving on a suspended license..."Well actually he got a DUI while driving on a suspended license. He said, 'Daddy, come bail me out,' but the bail was set at $35,000 and I said son I ain't gonna do it 'cause my daddy told me that if you commit the crime you haf ta do the time, besides I ain't got that kind of money." I later learned that the son's name is Peter-built, "He didn’t much care for the name, but I thought it was funny. You know his first name is Peter and his middle name is Bilt…like Bill. I named him that because that’s the truck I drove, and he was born at the end of a truck haul from
That happened when my wife and I were in
We been here all day. My mother in law had a heart attack today. She was eating a sandwich and started to turn blue so her daughter went behind her and squeezed her hard, and she snapped outta it. So we brought her here, and the doctors say she’s got congestive heart failure. Then my wife fell and broke her ankle when she was answering the door, so we’re back here again. So I've been here all day.
I got emphysema, type II diabetes, high blood pressure, and I've had my knee replaced. The doctor put this metal plate in there (showing me the vertical scar indicative of a traumatic knee surgery). Now whenever I go through a metal detector, I always get stopped, and they ask me to empty my pockets. So I do. Then I get buzzed again, and they ask me if I got some metal or something. I like to tell them that if they give me my pocketknife back, I’ll cut open my knee and pull out the metal plate so they can see it if they don’t believe me.
About a year after the surgery, I felt a stabbing pain in my knee. When my dentist x-rayed it, he found a pair of scissors in there. They was sticking me, and I knew something whaddent right. They had to open me back up and pull them out, and I had to pay fer the whole thing again. I coulda sued them right then and there, but I didn’t. But I had to pay fer the whole second surgery. They didn’t even pay fer it. It cost $65,785. I'm on disability so my Medicare and Medicaid took care of most of it. I could have gotten the job done at the VA Hospital because I'm a veteran, but I didn't want to. I spent fifteen years in the military.
I can't drive trucks anymore, because my doctor is afraid that I'll pass out at the wheel, and I guess I can understand that. But I keep my chauffer’s license up to date. I’ve got a license for every state that I drive in. That’s the way truckers do it. Sometimes I do drive though. One day this guy that I know from Clifton Forge called me up and asked me if I would drive a load for him for five thousand dollars. I told him that I wasn’t saying yes and I wasn’t saying no. But if you was to give me cash in my hand, I’d do it. He had given checks before that bounced when I got to the bank, and I wasn’t gonna let him do that again. He said ‘wait a minute,’ and he went to the bank and got the cash. I got to be careful how much money I make since I got disability. I didn’t want to go on disability but I got emphysema, type II diabetes, high blood pressure and I've had my knee replaced.
So I was driving the truck back from Clifton Forge when my friend said that he’d meet me to pay me at the liquor store. You know the one at Tower’s Mall. I told him that I ain’t buying no booze ‘cause I don’t drink because I got Type II diabetes, and I had to quit drinking. So I left there at and I was in the parking lot at Tower’s by . They had said that that truck couldn’t be driven fast, but I knew how to make it run faster, by taking apart the governor. When I got there, my friend said, ‘Man how you get here that fast in that truck?’ I told him, ‘I ain’t tellin’ you cause I got my secrets.’[grinning with his dark teeth, proud of his speed feat]
I bought me this van from this guy for $500. The guy wanted $3000, but I went over there and looked it over and started telling the guy what it had wrong with it. I told all the stuff. I told him that it had carburetor problems and needed a new module. Then I just said, ‘That’s too much money.’ And I began to walk out. A second later, he came up and tapped me on the shoulder and asked how much I would give him, and I told him, ‘$500.’ So I went out and bought the module for about $150. It runs good., but then it needed to have the master cylinder replaced, and I didn’t want it no more, so I sold it to my friend for $50.
Last week I got into a wreck. I hit this lady at an intersection, and the police gave ME the ticket. They said I didn't stop at the stop sign, and that's why I hit her. I think it was her fault. That lady wants my insurance company to pay $3,000 to fix the side of her car. I told her that I know a guy who could get the door and put it on for a couple hundred bucks. My insurance company wrote me to tell me that I don't have no insurance anymore. They said that I ain't got none. So I wrote told them that I do. You gotta have insurance when you drive a truck.
My wife and me got this Chihuahua that’s about this high [places his hand just above his knee to demonstrate dog height…this seemed a bit tall to me for a Chihuahua, but I went along with it for the sake of the story]. He’s a real good dog. He’ll bark whenever anybody comes to the door. He don’t like Black people though. [Gives the obligatory white guy checking for Black people glance] No, he don’t like Niggers. He’ll bark at and bite any damn Nigger that comes to the door. That dog though, we feed him Bets of Kibbles, I think that’s the food. He eats that stuff, but he likes my food better. If I bring home a ham sandwich or a weenie bun, I can’t even get two bites out of it before he takes it from me. Worse than that, he drinks my coffee. Ever since he was a little pup, he’s loved coffee. He drinks it all the time. It makes him real excited though and my dog doc says it’s not real good for him. I like to hold him in my arms, and he’ll just lay his head on my shoulder real cute-like. At night, he lays on the bed right between my wife and me. When I go to kiss my wife, he just growls and growls. And when she tries to kiss me, he just growls and growls. He’s got all his shots though, but I have to take him back for some more pretty soon.
I can't read or write, but I can get by. I tried to learn one time at the library but the person never came back again to help me. See this pocket watch? (nod) I was over at Happy’s Flea Market the other day going through the trash bin, and I found this pocket watch. See? (nod) It works great. And I found this wallet in there with $850 in it. I just folded up that money and stuck it right in my pocket.
My daddy died when he was eighty-one. He was driving down to Florida in his _____________ (three versions of this story were told to me...in one he drove a truck, in another he drove a 1956 Bel-Air, in the other he drove a Chevy Corsica. Each version of the story was told to completion with slight variations) and he drove straight on to
So the guy asked me if I liked football. I told him that I did, then he proceeded to tell me all about NASCAR. He then asked who I liked. I told him that I didn't like "Pretty Boy." (Everyone knows that's J. Gordon). He said, "My wife and her mamma like Gordon, right hun? Me, I don't like Junior. He whines too much. He ain't nothing like his daddy. Now I liked his daddy. He was one tough driver..." and so on for another fifteen minutes.
“My daddy used to drive for the county for 35 years. He worked hard. When we would get a big snow, my daddy would get behind the wheel and go hour after hour. He could just keep going. Sometimes they’d tell him to go home and get some sleep, but he’d just go sit in the recliner and nod off for an hour or two then go back at it. I remember one time when I was plowing the old
What do you do? You still work fer the hospital?”
“No, I’m a teacher.”
Incidentally, my son was fine. The doctor, somewhere in the midst of my friend’s life story came in and examined my son’s lip. He explained to us we had several choices for treatment. He explained that the wound was star shaped, was between one and two sonometres (I’m not sure exactly what a sonometre is, but I think he meant centimeter) wide, and that it was a tooth wound. Since it was on the borderline between mandatory sewing and optional sewing, we could either stitch it and risk infection from tooth bacteria or we could simply let it heal naturally. He suggested that we should just let it heal and swish with peroxide and water. We chose to leave.
About that time, the nurse came by and gave my son surprise tetanus shot as a going away jolt and sent us on our way. I shook the man’s dirty hand and wished him well. Then we walked out of his life.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
- The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving
The other day a friend came to me with a few pictures and movie clips of a mother bear and her three cubs out behind her house in the woods. The movies and photos were taken automatically by a wildlife camera set up to capture the invisible world that happens in front of our eyes.
As the mother investigated the scene, her babies romped in the woods, running and tackling each other, crawling over logs, and hiding under her legs. They were as carefree as the morning sun that made the trees seem afire.
Watching those clips and studying those photographs, I was transported to a time and place far in the recesses of my memory, my early bear thoughts.
When I was a young eleven year old boy, I joined the Boy Scouts and set about the business of learning valuable outdoor skills. While I had never been a foreigner in the woods, I certainly was no expert woodsman. I was great at traipsing through the leaves and looking for small critters, but I really had never spent the night alone in the wilds beyond my own backyard.
In scouts that year, I went on my first overnight camping trip to an abandoned church camp somewhere near Bennett Springs, Virginia called “Vesperlands.” Lester Burke and Art LaVoie, my scoutmasters, led the way out there. It was only a five mile hike from our home church in Roanoke, but it seemed so much longer. Once we arrived, camp was set up around the sad picnic table beside the forgotten pond. A broken dock, rotted, and failing, jutted into the still, frog-laden pond. Pup tents were pitched not too far away, within easy sight of the picnic table and Art LaVoie’s Volkswagen Bus Camper. A fire was raised, and I put my Boy Scout meal; a potato, carrot, and hunk of stew meat; into an aluminum foil pouch and tossed it onto the hot coals. Then I sat not so patiently by for the concoction to fully cook. It was all guesswork. Whenever I cooked this meal, I always pulled the foil package out too soon and had a raw meal or waited too long and charred it beyond recognition.
This was a raw evening, and I was in no mood for an incomplete meal, so I tossed it back into the fire. Meanwhile, Lester, Art, and some of the older scouts were concocting a delicious smelling stew using a Coleman Stove on the picnic table. They were certainly messy, messy chefs. Food parts were haphazardly strewn around the stew pot. Some fell to the ground to be quickly trampled by the hoards of young campers. Clean-up that evening was probably not as thorough as maybe it should have been. A few half-cleaned pots and plates were left out on the table. Half-filled metal cups of “bug juice” littered the site. Blackened foil packages from abandoned meals lay mummifying in the dying coals.
As the sun set, the mosquitoes rose from the swampy pond shore and rose into the sky with a droning buzz that seemed to pour into your skin. Getting into the relative shelter of my pup tent was paramount. I quickly climbed inside and tried to fall asleep. As evening approached Art and Lester tried to warn us that bears were known to inhabit the area and that they were very scent oriented. Just the slightest whiff of food would bring them around to investigate. In fact, Lester reported that a scout had been swallowed whole by a bear not too long before that. With the idea of wild rampaging bears invading camp forefront in my mind, I tried in vain to sleep. A lantern glow cast shadows of Lester, Art and the older scouts as they played cards at the picnic table. Being my first night alone in a tent outside my backyard, I couldn’t shake a feeling of dread.
Somehow though, I managed to succumb to a fitful, sweaty sleep on the hard packed ground. I had a root under me. There was a rock under my head. The tent seemed so stuffy and humid. Bugs banged into the side of the canvas like the percussion section of some wild symphony...
I stirred what seemed like moments later to the sound of loud clanging and banging along with a certain amount of ominous grunting. The lantern still cast a silhouetted glow on the tent wall, and I saw death quite clearly; a dim, dark, and massive shape and a couple of smaller shapes moving around the table. Crashing sounds of pots falling broke into the night. Then, just as I thought I might wet my sleeping bag, one of the shadows grew larger and larger. It seemed to be coming to my tent, and it was definitely a bear shape. I wanted to scream, but I was too afraid. My paralyzed fear was broken by a sudden invading thought…There are peanut butter crackers under my pillow…Hide them! Hide them!!! Jolted into action, I grabbed the crackers and stuffed them deep inside my bag, hoping that would be enough to disguise the scent. Still the large bear came closer and closer. I could hear her grunts and see her breath shadowed on the tent wall. She was massive, and I was so very, very small. I could hear her grunts and smell her horribly foul breath as she sniffed at my head. I knew that it was a matter of seconds before I died in my soiled sleeping bag. I knew my body would be dragged out and my limbs would be torn from me one agonizing piece at a time. I’d scream and scream as long as my head remained intact. It was just a matter of seconds…
At the instant my real nightmare was about to come to a horrific climax. I heard Art and Lester out by the picnic table. They began shouting and banging pots. I saw the shadow of my foul mouthed sniffer look up for a moment before bolting away into the darkness of black beyond the glow of my green tent canvas. I remained in my bag, shivering with fright the rest of that restless night.
& & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & &
It must have been the next year that I had my next encounter with bears. My family liked to go on a summer vacation each year. Usually we’d visit my relatives on Long Island New York, home of my father, or head to Upstate New York, home of my mother’s relatives. That year our trip took us to my Aunt Lou and Uncle Tommy’s “camp” in the Finger Lake region of New York.
Aunt Lou and Uncle Tommy were pretty hip people. Lou was my mother’s oldest sister, and frankly I was a little scared of her because she looked so old. Her husband, Tommy, was an English professor at Cornell (Rochester...can’t remember for sure). Both of them enjoyed their cigarettes and stiff drinks on the rocks. They had invited us to their cozy cabin in the dark woods on a small but beautiful lake.
Lou loved animals of all kinds. I remember being fascinated by her trained chipmunks. She’s go out on the deck with a bag of peanuts and tap the nuts on the rail one at a time. Next thing you’d know, the chipmunks would emerge from their holes all around and take the peanuts from her hand. This scary aunt taught me to feed them, too and I spent hours in wonderment. I felt like Dr. Doolittle. Aunt Lou also fed raccoons in the same manner. They’d come right up to her living room window and she’d pass them tasty treats. I feared those buggers though because they looked to have sharp bear-like claws.
On our last day there, Aunt Lou had a huge surprise in store for us. She told us that she would take us to see the bears. Based on past experience, I was more than a little skeptical; however, Aunt Lou assured us all that we’d be perfectly safe as long as we stayed in our car.
Loaded into our seven-passenger Chevy Impala Station Wagon (Black Bess), Aunt Lou directed us to the local landfill. Back then in that part of New York and around the country I suspect, many localities had open pit trash dumps. Very simply, garbage trucks would drive in and dump refuse on the ground and then drive off. Later workers driving bulldozers would come along and pile it all into huge garbage piles where it would sit and stink. As we drove in, it was like entering a most unusual bear zoo. They were everywhere on every pile of garbage. Some were rooting through. Others were gorging themselves on their new-found treasures. They looked so passive and content, not a bear-care in the world. Every need they had was easily being met. Safely tucked inside our tank, I watched and tried to imagine what it’s be like to be a bear in a dump.
Fascinating bears. Silly bears. Scary bears. You can’t buy bears anymore.
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
When you start repeating yourself, that's not a good sign. However, I've recently given out a few tomato and peppers. This guide was originally posted about this time last year.
So, You Have Some Plants
A Tomato and Pepper Plant Care Guide
Thank you for selecting my tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum)and/or pepper(Capsicum annuum) plants. With proper care, these plant(s) should provide you with hours of entertainment and enjoyment. This guide is designed to help you maximize your efforts in caring for these wonderful leafy friends.
Before You Plant
Coddle your babies. They are delicate living things at this stage. Due to the chilly weather of late, neither the tomatoes nor peppers are ready to permanently stay outdoors. You need to help them become ready. Each day for the next week, you should place your plants outside in the sun for ever increasing amounts of time. At first, find a wind sheltered location. At this stage; the wind, the rain, the cold, and the sun are the plant’s enemies. Gradually acclimate your plants to these environmental features. I’ve found that these plants like sitting under my shady maple for large chunks of the day with me putting them out for a dip in full sun several hours at a time.
You can tell that they are ready to plant when you see the main stem thicken and turn a purplish green (not always). The leaves will broaden and tend to get a darker, thicker texture.
Planting Your Plant
Be patient. Around these parts many people like to rush their tomatoes and peppers into the ground only to see them beaten down by harsh May winds and cool May temperatures. I usually check the weather and aim for planting sometime in mid to late May. I look for a stretch of weather where the temperatures will be in the 70&80’s in the day and mid-50’s to 60 at night. This usually doesn’t consistently happen until later in May around here. Beware of windy forecasts. Delicate tomatoes and peppers are no match for abusive winds.
I usually plant my babies in a rich home of compost/peat moss and soil mixed. If you’re a fertilizer kind of person, you can add a few grains of 10-10-10 all purpose fertilizer or you can add one of many organic, natural products on the market.
I usually put the plants into the ground and leave the top three to four sets of leaves above ground. Any leaves that will be underground, I strip off. If the plant is especially long (Ping Pong and a few others) you may consider the trenching method. Strip the lower leaves as I indicated then lay the tomato in the ground on its side in a trench filled with your mixtures of compost/soil. Gently bend the top of the plant in such a way that the top sets of leaves break the surface. New roots will form along the underground stem, making your plant a more powerful nutrient gatherer.
Building a small dirt moat around your plant will aid the watering process now and later in the season. Once you have your plant in the ground, water it liberally. Even if you’re a conservative, it’s important to be liberal with water.
Visit your plant often and talk with it. It’s been proven that plants that are spoken to grow stronger and more rigorously. Actually, the closer you speak to it, the better. You give off carbon dioxide and the plants think this gas from you is the best present ever. They, of course, take your gift of CO2 and convert it into healthy oxygen after they strip what they need from it. Please don’t dwell too much on the fact that your entire life, you’ve been breathing plant waste.
As your tomatoes and peppers grow, they will become more and more independent. I usually stake or surround these varieties with wire cages. The plants need support of some kind to hold the massive quantities of fruit that they will produce. Smaller ornamental pepper varieties may not need any support.
You may hear some people talk about “picking off tomato suckers.” Suckers are little shoots that grow in the space between where a leaf stem meets the main plant stem. If you don’t pick off these growths, the suckers will grow and become a satellite stem. This isn’t necessarily bad. I usually let two or three grow so that my tomato plant bushes out a bit. When you get more than that, the plant tends to put more emphasis into leaf growth than fruit growth. Obviously we’re all about fruit growth since eating tomato leaves would be very, very bad for you. I like to let some suckers get a little large, then pick them off. Then I take the picked sucker and plant it in the ground. With care and luck, it will grow into a new tomato plant. Pepper plants do not develop suckers.
Harvesting the Fruit
When they are ripe, pick them and eat them before the neighborhood skunk or groundhog get them. Skinks, groundhogs, as well as my beautiful, lovable, and annoying black chow/lab mutt love my tomatoes. They sneak in and snatch them. The wild critters tend to only take a few bites and leave the rest on the vine. The pooch tends to swallow the whole thing.
Generally the peppers tend to develop into a purple, green, or yellow color then they switch over to a red color when at their maximum ripeness. Sweet Bananas are ripe when they turn yellow. The hot peppers are really fiery when they turn red, except for Habaneras, which reaches fire hotness as a yellow fruit.
No Matter what, enjoy your plants. Revel in their beauty. Drink in their goodness. Tend them when they’re in need. From this point to its old age your new plants have wonderful surprises in store for you.*
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
A Tidy Mess
Did you know that in 1931, SCOTT® introduced to the consumer market the first paper towel for household and kitchen use, creating a whole new grocery category? I know I was surprised, too. I’m not sure why, though, because I’ve always been a ScotTissue guy.
In fact, for the last several mornings, I’ve been contemplating Scott Toilet Tissue, and it occurred to me that this company has really worked hard to stay on top of the toilet tissue heap. I’ve done a bit of research and learned quite a lot about the product and the company. Scott put out its first brand of toilet tissue in 1902 when it purchased the rights to the Waldorf toilet tissue line. From there, they grew the brand.
I was wondering the other day several things. Why do I have such brand loyalty to Scott Tissue? What makes their product attractive to the customer? How have they enhanced and marketed their product over the years? How can they continue to grow their profits in a relatively saturated market?
These were all such rich topics. So between my research and pondering, I believe I have some answers that satisfy me. Let’s look at each question specifically.
Why do I have such brand loyalty to ScotTissue?
First of all, you should know that Scott officially renamed its main product “Scott 1000 Tissue” in 1995. The old name ScotTissue was deemed to be dated. I love ScotTissue, and I have since I was old enough to enjoy grocery shopping trips with my mother. Back then before I headed off to public schools, my mother would pack me up in the car and head over to either A&P, Winn Dixie, Kroger, or Mick-Or-Mack. I was a big fan of Mick or Mack. It was a very cool store with neat cash registers and lots of meat being cut by the butcher. Plus, they always gave us S&H Green Stamps after check-out. I didn’t enjoy A&P in general; it had a funny smell. However, the A&P coffee was quite delicious smelling. Winn Dixie was a weird place, but I enjoyed going there for the “Double Cola” and for the Saturday Horse Racing game cards. We’d collect the game cards and watch the horse races on television Saturday nights at 7:30 on our hometown station. Another story for another day…
But back to toilet paper. My mother would always buy Scott toilet tissue at Mick-Or-Mack Every week, she’d toss in about five or six individually wrapped rolls into the cart. To me, they were a lot like footballs. You could toss them around and not hurt them at all. I always looked forward to picking out the toilet paper. I suppose that’s why I’m a loyal customer to this day.
What makes their product attractive to the customer?
In short, I think ScotTissue was an attractive product because the company took care to package a fine product carefully, yet unpretentiously. The outer wrap was simple yet supple, while the actual product was fit for the common man without any unnecessary frills. When you bought ScotTissue, you always knew what you were getting. There was no Mr. Whipple squeezing it, and frankly it didn’t need any bald-headed boob feeling it. By skimping on the frills, Scott was able to keep its product affordable for everyone, and with five kids to roll, my mother really appreciated that.
How have they enhanced and marketed their product over the year?
Actually, they did very little over the years to make their product sexier for the times. In 1958 their new advertising slogan was "
How can they continue to grow their profits in a relatively saturated market?
Scott is battling a green revolution these days. Cheryl Crow is advocating the use of only one square of toilet paper per movement. While I’m not sure how any sensible human can effectively manage bodily untidiness with just one square, there is little doubt that Crow has touched upon something. The untidy Crow is on the forefront of a movement of sorts that will lead to people using less tissue in the future. So the Scott marketers had to find a way to protect their earnings. This is especially important since Kimberly Clark bought the company back in 1995. Kimberly Clark leverages ScotTissue against the Proctor & Gamble powerhouse, Charmin. Mr. Whipple, though mostly silent, now works as a pawn in a colossal a marketing war.
About a year ago I noticed two small changes in the basic product. First, the paper became slightly lighter in weight. This was coupled with some alteration of the perforations that used to allow for easy tearing of the product into single use Cheryl Crow sheets. No longer was it a simple matter to tear a square. The net effect was that when selecting the product, you really couldn’t tear it effectively on the first pull, so you end up pulling more product. More product pulled directly equates to more product used and more product needed.
The second thing that Scott has done very recently is most ingenious. I’m sure you are quite familiar with the traditional cardboard center of a toilet paper roll. This piece, crafted from rough cardboard stock, has been at the center of toilet paper rolls for close to a century. It has certain weaknesses and flaws that make if lose its shape making pulling more difficult. Scott, however, has developed a new center roll for their tissue. This new center is created from a waxy smooth card stock material. It’s lighter and sturdier allowing the toilet paper roll to spin freely when pulled. That easy motion coupled with the tugging needed to rip the paper from the unit effectively forces the customer to use more paper than they intended. In the end, although they still have essentially the same product, people now go through much more product in a shorter amount of time. Again, more product pulled directly equates to more product used and more product needed.
Those are my revelations. Secretly, Scott has been messing with and modifying the traditional toilet paper roll. As they’ve been innovators throughout their history, Scott continues to clean up in an untidy business.
Friday, May 11, 2007
This evening my daughter was in the car after I picked her up at driving school. It was one of those crisp late spring evenings that visit
As we were going past the cemetery at
I paused contemplating what she had said and replied with, “Well you know they only get faster as you get older.”
“That’s because nothing ever changes for you.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say to that. I could only nod my head in agreement. Nothing ever changes for me.
In my profession, I’m now an old-timer. Half of all educators quit within five years. Most of the rest are gone by twenty years. Somehow, I’ve managed to keep myself in the game for twenty-five years. However, if you were to visit my fourth grade classroom twenty-three years ago, you may have had doubts that I’d ever make through the year. That year was a time of one of my most challenging professional confrontations.
Back in those days, I was responsible for teaching many subjects to my 28 children. I had three reading groups-one high, one average, and one low. When I worked with one group, the rest of the children were broken out into two areas: seat work at their desks and thematic centers at one of the tables in my room. Each group rotated through each section every day. In addition to
It was all I could do to juggle these eleven preparations each day, and I began to learn certain shortcuts that were not of sound pedagogy. One such trick was to short-change Health instruction. Back then there were no standards to guide you and no county curriculum. The text book was horribly boring and each year teachers tended just cover “The Human Body.” It was the same, year in and year out; never changing.
That year, however, as the third nine weeks was ending I hadn’t even cracked the Health text book the whole nine weeks. Grades were due within a couple of weeks and I knew that if I had no grades, I couldn’t legitimately give a grade. So feeling pressure, I came up with the hair-brained idea of assigning a Health project on “Safety.” Kids would have to do some research on some aspect of “Safety” and create a report and poster for a test grade.
With idea in hand, I began to pitch this idea to the kids. One of my special talents is being able to sell kids on new ideas. They always get excited about my projects. This group was no different. So in the end, I felt that I would be able to give a grade and most likely no one would be mad because this was just about the world’s easiest project ever. That’s what I thought. Reality was different however, and that never changes.
Selina (real name used on purpose) was a cute little “A” student in my class. She had dark brown eyes and long straight brown hair. Selina always dressed in traditional Brethren fashion, long hand-stitched dress with brown ankle shoes. Her mother, Frances, was one of a group of sisters who were prominent around the school. I never had met her father, but always assumed that he was a hard working man.
Our school guidance counselor had warned me about the family though. She told me that they came from up near Haneytown and Mutton Hollow and were sort of wild people. I really didn’t know what she meant by that. Later I learned that back in the 1920’s and 30’s, families were displaced from their family farms on the mountains around
In the classroom, Selina was a bit wild-eyed. She looked so innocent, but I would catch her doing some really unlady-like things to the other girls. She’d boss them and bully them. Yet she always seemed clever enough to weasel out of the worst trouble. Whenever I tried to bring these matters up with her mother, I was never able to get her to acknowledge the problem and pledge to help me straighten her daughter out.
Despite her faults, Selina was a very smart student. She read well and was in my high reading group. Her work was always done on time and generally done acceptably well ...until that Health assignment.
When the due date came for the Health project, all of the kids except for Aaron and Selina had turned in their poster and reports. Aaron was no surprise. That kid was nothing but trouble in the classroom. He simply could not find a way to sit still and stay away from shenanigans. He really got under my skin; so much so that I permanently moved him to the back corner of the classroom. I really had no clue how to handle the boy.
Selina not turning her project in, however, was a real surprise. I remember I called both of them to my desk and told them that I’d give them one more day to get it turned in without a penalty and then if it was still late, I’d have to take off a letter grade per day.
The next day, Aaron came to school with something that resembled a poster and report, but Selina came with nothing but a taunting smile.
She played this game with me for four days which by my reckoning meant that she had earned an “F.” This seemed to have no impact on her at the time. She was smart enough, I thought, to understand that this was serious business. With the nine weeks about to end and no other grades on the horizon. That grade would have to stand for her nine weeks grade. So without hesitation or realization of the consequences, I put the grade down on her report card for Health.
It didn’t take long for the fireworks to begin. Some things never change. When an “A” student without any advance warning gets an “F” on a report card, even the most mild-mannered parent will blow. I was so green back then that I didn’t understand this basic truth.
Immediately after school on the afternoon that I gave out the report cards, I received a telephone call from Frances. At first, she was restrained when she asked me how her lovely daughter had received an “F” in Health. I sensed though that all was not well for me as the conversation went on for some time, quiet pauses and tense phrases. I tried to explain to her why I had given her daughter that grade, but she would not back down from asserting (rightly so) that it wasn’t fair.
That’s when this whole story took a huge twist. As we were talking, I began hearing a loud voice in the background. The voice seemed angry and irrational. Immediately, I realized that it must be Selina’s father. He was obviously enraged and most likely drunker than a skunk. His screaming grew louder and louder as
That’s about when I decided it would be in my best interest not to share my address with Selina's father, and it would be wise to simply replace the telephone receiver on the hook.
The next morning, I was greeted by the school principal, Mr. Phillips. Don was one of the best principals with whom I’ve ever worked, and he’s a fine person to boot. It was a few years later that Don finally had had enough of parents climbing all over his back and kids being sent to the office. He got out of the profession and opened his own video rental store with his wife. They grew that business from 1985 until they sold their stores a few years ago.
Anyway, Don calmly came up to me and explained that he had a conversation with Frances the previous evening on the telephone, and she was quite upset about a grade I gave in Health. Then he listened to my justification without comment, nodding his head at appropriate times. After a moment of reflection he pronounced his subtle form of judgment upon me, “Man oh man, you know, this is a real situation you got yourself in. You really don’t want to be messing with this family, you know.”
“I know.” I interrupted.
“I think that what you’ve got to do is change that grade. I can’t make you do it, but I think your life will go a lot better if you change it. Shoot why don’t you just give her an “Incomplete” and then give her the grade she earns when she turns the project in to you? Yeah, you got to change that grade. You know?”
What he said to me at that moment clicked on a light bulb in my head. I think I must have looked like the Grinch looked when his heart began to grow. Realizations swirled around me like a morning mist. “Don’s right. Why am I doing this? It’s just a stupid Health grade that counts for almost nothing in the grand scheme of things. Plus, I really shouldn’t have been giving any grade at all.” Right there at that moment, I decided to take Don’s advice. I decided to change.
Later that morning, I called Selina to my desk. She was still flashing that smirky “I just got you screwed” smile at me, and I informed her that I was changing her grade to an “Incomplete.” Then I explained in some detail what that meant. I told her that an “I” would go on her report card and the “F” would be whited-out. Then whenever she finished the project, I’d grade it and change the “I” into the grade she earned. I explained that whenever the project was finished, I’d grade it; whether it got turned in tomorrow, the next day, the next month, the next year, or fifty years from that day. I told her (stealing a passage from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five) that “…one day fifty years from then I might be sitting inside my house and the doorbell would ring. I’d grab my cane, shuffle to the door to find you standing there with a poster and report in your hand. You’d hold them out for me to take and say ‘Here Mr. Ryder. Here’s my Health project from fourth grade.’ You’d then sit while I graded the work and then you’d hand over your report card for me to cross out the ‘I’ and replace it with a real grade.”
That afternoon, I called
It’s been twenty-three years since I learned my lesson about the importance of grades and how they can corrupt teachers and parents. I’ve been waiting twenty-three years for Selina to turn in her Health project.
Not discounting what I did that one time, nothing ever changes for me.
Music provided by Royalty Free Music.com
Sunday, May 06, 2007
Don't miss it...be sure to listen to the podcast of this story by clicking the link Baptized by Water
Baptized By Water
For a large chunk of my life, I lived in a small, rural county in Central Virginia called Greene County. Located north of
For much of its modern existence, Greene has been a sleepy, farming county; however, there have been events that have shaken the community to its core. In 1716, Governor Spotswood rode to Swift Run Gap, surveyed the expanse before him, mountain ridge and valley after mountain ridge and valley, and declared that it was all good. From that point, westward expansion crossed the mountainous divide. Remnants of the first land grants are still visible in the nifty “Octonia Stone” which marked a corner of huge tracts of land granted by Spotswood to some of his loyal troopers. The stone marks the corner of one of the eight massive land grants.
Later Greene was visited by General George Custer in the locally famous “Battle of Stanardsville” during the Civil War. Stanardsville was just about the last stage stop before you crossed Swift Run Gap and slipped into the valley. The “battle” was an attempt by Custer to disrupt supply lines. So it was an important strategic place during the war.
When the federal government decided to create the Shenandoah National Park in the late 1920’s, the end result for Greene was that close to 60 families-mountain-top farmers with rich Appalachian family histories were forcibly displaced to camp communities. One of such community, Haneytown can still be visited.
In June of 1995, much of the mountain way of life in Greene was erased by a terrible flood. A small thunderstorm sat motionless over the northern part of the county for 12 hours and dumped a torrent of rain (23 inches in the mountain community of Fletcher). Mountains liquefied and washed away the past and the present.
My story takes place not far from the site of the flood two years before that unforgettable event.
Anyone who has ever entered an isolated, rural community knows that if you weren’t born and raised there, you ain’t from there. In fact, if your mother and father weren’t from there, you’re still looked on with a quiet suspicion by some.
I began teaching elementary school in Greene in 1982. By 1993, I was known in the community and people were generally friendly to me, but I was still an outsider. That began to change after one event in the late summer of that year.
I was hanging out at school one afternoon shooting the breeze with my fellow third grade teacher, Tom E. and the school’s custodian, Cris L. Tom was a transplant from Upstate New York. He fancied himself as a self-sufficient man. In fact he and his wife lived in a teepee as they built their own log home from scratch on land they bought in Greene. Over the years teaching together, Tom and I forged an interesting friendship. He developed a love for local lore and music; plus, being seven years older than me, felt the need to share his wisdom with me. Tom was an accomplished banjo player and spent many hours out on the grassy bank beside his log cabin playing tunes with his local musical friends. Sometimes, I’d be invited to sit on the bank and listen to them play as the music bounced across the hollow (holler). Tom and I also liked to take Saturday morning hikes all around the area, especially in the nearby
Cris was a maverick. To understand him, you had to know his father. Hilton Ridge was Cris’ dad. He actually was one of
One afternoon, in a “portable classroom” outside our school, Tom and I were talking about hiking in the park. Cris, listening quietly, joined the conversation by telling us that he knew a place-not far from Ridge’s house- that was like no other place we’d ever seen. Cris then told us about the secret path to the popular
Ridge lived on the side of a mountain,
Tom and I both met Cris before dawn that morning. We were joined by a seventh grader named Alan L. In some kind of twisted family tree, Alan was related to Ridge and Cris, and he was anxious to go with us along the secret path.
Alan led the way in the pitch darkness through the woods. We had a single flashlight but I managed to trip on just about every root on the “trail.” It was sweaty work. In fact the path was rather over-grown (a polite way of saying that I could never even see any trail). So we hacked our way silently for an hour along the side of that mountain, and as the sun began to light the hollow from above, we rounded a corner and found ourselves at the bottom of the falls.
“Cris, I don’t get it. Is this the place that’s so special? I mean I’ve been swimming in the water hole at the bottom of the falls before.”
Alan grinned. He never said much.
Cris smiled and said, “This ain’t exactly where we’re going. We got to go up there,” pointing about halfway up the falls. “Let’s go.”
So with better judgment left at the bottom, Tom and I followed Cris and Alan up a goat path along the side of the falls. If I thought there was no trail before in the dark, I saw even less trail now on the steep edge of the falls. One misstep by any of us meant certain death in a tumble over boulders to the bottom. This was not to be our only brush with death that morning, merely the first.
The ground became increasingly saturated. Footing became an issue as we tried not to slide off the broken pieces of shale as we climbed higher and higher. Eventually, we were pretty much climbing on our hands and knees. Finally, about forty feet above the base of the falls, we got to a level spot. There, dead center in the falls was a narrow ledge, probably jutting about ten feet out from the face of the falls. This was the place Cris had meant to take us.
Carefully we treaded over the mossy rocks onto the ledge. The water was tumbling down a rather impressive, but narrow chute above us and hitting the ledge. I guess over the eons, the water had hit this ledge. During that time it had bored a dark hole in the ledge straight down through the rock. Since the falls came through a narrow chute above, the hole was relatively narrow, too. It was about as wide as the width between a large man’s shoulders. The water would hit the ledge and that hole, then bubble over the ledge and finish another forty foot fall to the bottom. We stood on the dry part of this ledge with the falls tumbling above and below us, and all of us felt an awe. The sun began to sneak through the trees and the light warmed the insects as they awakened from their night. This was about as independent as I’d ever been in my life, despite being with three others. I felt completely small in the universe. Somewhere about now, Cris broke the reverent silence and filled us in on this place. He said as far as he knew only locals knew of this place on the falls. He told us that if the ranger came by, we would be arrested, but he assured us that the ranger didn’t make his first round usually until a couple hours after sunrise. Cris and Alan had one more surprise for us.
Manhood. Cris and Alan were about to baptize Tom and me into the mountain manhood community. I remember Cris looking over at Alan and saying, “You ready bud?”
“Yup,” Alan replied.
Then like a monkey, Cris began scaling the falls above us. He used worn hand holds in the natural rock to hoist himself further along and up the cliff edge beside the falls. After climbing about twenty feet, he stopped with his back to the deadly 60 feet plunge to the bottom and his face kissing the moss-covered slime rocks. Tom and I watched with horror.
I remember saying, “Cris do you think you ought to be doing this?”
His reply was muffled but serious, “This is how you prove that you’re a real man around here.”
With nimbleness, belying the fact that he was a trim man about 6’3”, Cris planted his right foot on a sure hold, let go of the face of the cliff with his left hand and foot, and did a backwards pivot. He spun 180 degrees so that he was now facing the plunge. His left hand and foot found holds as he now was straddling the water chute, arms outstretched and legs spread wide as if he was modeling for Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” sketch. His face was an ear to ear grin. Then with little more than a “Watch this,” Cris let go. He folded his arms across his chest and allowed gravity to propel himself down the chute toward our ledge below. With predictable speed, he hit the hole on the ledge and disappeared inside the bowels of the falls. I still have no idea how he fit in that tiny round opening. Seconds passed like eternity. Alan looked unconcerned. Tom stared at the hole in shock. I was dumbfounded. Bubbles made their way to the surface of the hole...finally we saw movement and Cris popped back to the surface of that tiny hole. His head came up and he let out a rebel yell with his fist pumping the air as soon as it came free from the hole. He wedged himself out of the hole and onto the ledge at our feet.
The first intelligible thing he managed to say was, “Who’s next?”
I shook my head as if saying, “I’m not quite ready yet.”
Tom, however, being braver than me, stepped up and told Cris that he’d go next. Over the next few minutes, Cris coached Tom through the whole process. He told him exactly where to find each hand and foot hold. He explained the pirouette move to straddle the falls and how to avoid moss covered rocks. So bravely, Tom, a forty-three year old, began to climb the cliff, not yet a man but ready to be tested. Tom followed Cris’ direction to the letter and plunged into the hole. He, too, eventually popped to the surface with relief etched on his face.
Now the stares shifted to me. After watching two go before, I was ready. Cris coached me up, and I began to climb. The rocks were so slimy. I was worried that if I didn’t get a sure grip, I’d slide off and drop onto the hard ledge then roll over and fall another forty feet to a rocky death. Death. I was facing death as I scaled that cliff. I had a wife. I had two young children. What the heck was I doing? Why was I doing this ridiculous thing? Who really cares if you’re not accepted into some perverted “Deliverance” man club? All of these thoughts flew through my frantic mind. I tried to calm myself, however. I made it to the launch point. With a rush of bravery, I performed the maneuver to straddle the chute. Then with encouragement below, I launched myself into the abyss. The ride down was surprisingly smooth, rocks worn by generations of water history. With my arms folded on my chest, the hole rose up and grabbed me, but not before refusing to get into my line of sight until the last second. I thought for a split second that I would over-shoot the hole and be sent another 40 feet to sure messy death. My body entered the hole, and I remember glancing up to see light disappear. I sank and sank, confined to that tube of darkness. Slowly my descent was abated, and I began to slowly rise. My lungs began to ache. The only thoughts I had were instinctive survival thoughts...air...breathe...trapped...lost. Then the miracle happened. I began to see light above me. I bobbed to the surface with a rush of adrenaline. Like those who preceded me from the Spotswood days until that moment, I was baptized by water into manhood.
We slogged home. It was decided by the group that Alan had already attained manhood and since we were running the risk of being spotted by rangers, we decided to leave that spot, heading back to Ridge’s house and then home to our families. From that moment on, Cris, Ridge, Alan, and others from that community up near Mutton Hollow regarded me differently. While still not a native, I was no longer a bumbling outsider.
Thursday, May 03, 2007
Coming up Saturday is the Kentucky Derby. I'll be at my parents' house watching all of the action.
In case you didn't know, I run a couple of other blogs. One of the is called ARFTCHC. This blog will chronicle the entire Triple Crown season and beyond. May I suggest that you check out ARFTCHC.