Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Teacher Choice

I was recently going through some old writings I've saved over the course of years, and I uncovered the first generation of the piece you see here. I penned the original on January 27, 1998. Now almost ten years later, I've updated the concept and expanded it somewhat. I've cleaned the original up a bit and fixed some of my more horrid grammatical errors to create this version.

The idea for Teacher Choice was born in the turbulent days during the first bout with Standards of Learning test accountability in Virginia. All over, teachers were feeling demoralized and beat upon. This was even before the United States Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, called all teacher union members terrorists. This was before the burn of the classroom wore as heavy as lead on me. This was before I abandoned the classroom in favor of a resource teaching position. How today's classroom teachers manage to remain in the classroom without losing their minds is one of the more amazing mysteries I've ever contemplated.

(Click on the title to hear this entry)

Teacher Choice

For the last few years, an up welling of popular support has been growing for the idea of “School Choice.” “Choice,” as proponents have dubbed it, is a vehicle whereby all children, no matter what socio-economic class, will have access to the best schools, the choice schools. Even though Choice plans are varied, they hinge on public funds being given to a parent for the direct and legal purpose of enrolling their child or children in the public or private school of their choice. With the entangling issues of school transportation, school plant budgeting, potential racial segregation, and school staffing in which to deal, Choice is not a very wise idea.

There is a better way. It’s called “Teacher Choice.” The basic premise is that teachers choose the students for their classes based on a free market styled application process. This conceptual plan would give parents that security and “Risk of Choosing” that they so desire while forcing dead-beat parents and teachers to get in the ball game or lose out, a very Republican idea. Here’s how it works.

In early July, the local school must open their doors for student recruitment. Parents will be allowed in to the school to complete application for their child to be placed in a specific teacher’s class for the upcoming school year. Parents will be given a choice of grade-appropriate teachers. Teachers will have a predetermined number of “slots” available to fill with students. Within a week, the teachers will gather and review the applications, looking for potential students for their upcoming classes. Interviews with selected parents/children will then be scheduled by the teachers. After the week long interview window is exhausted, teachers at each grade level/discipline must accept any students that they wish to teach the following fall. The assignment choice belongs to the teacher. Those selected students/parents will also have succeeded in getting their choice!

Those students/parents not selected during the first application round will have an opportunity the following week to reapply with their second choice for teacher. Once again, an interview process will be initiated. Teachers again will have the opportunity to accept any students they are willing to teach during the upcoming school year.

The final step in the process will be the gathering of remaining applicants into a pool of potential entrants at each grade level. The principal will review the pool and hear any appeals from parents or look at ancillary material about the applicants. The principal then will place worthy applicants randomly in grade appropriate classrooms that have space available.

Students not selected by teachers or placed by the principal will be offered remediation to assist them in learning what it takes to be selected for membership at a public school. Assuming parents/students complete the remediation program, they will be invited to reapply for admission at the school or encouraged to accept a voucher which will be equal to half the state share of funding per pupil for use at any accredited (SOL compliant) private school of their choice.

Moving public schools to a Teacher Choice model will reform Virginia and America’s public school system. Parents and teachers will quickly realize what it takes for their child to be selected. Children will be forced to put forth genuine effort in order to be accepted in to their favorite classes. Parents will be forced to initiate a drive for success in their children. Parents will be rewarded for cooperation and good-spiritedness by having their child receive premium placement. Parents and students will become more helpful, thoughtful, cooperative, and endearing.

It is to a teacher’s advantage to do an excellent job in the classroom so that she will have a more diverse applicant pool the following year. Popular, dynamic teachers will receive a wide selection of qualified applicants in which to choose. These teachers could organize and begin demanding higher pay and better benefits. While poor, undesirable teachers will receive few applicants and be forced to teach those children passed over by the excellent teachers. These misfit teachers will struggle to fill their quota and will be forced by the insanity of it all to quit or be rightly discarded by the administration for not meeting their quota.

There are some important points to remember in order for this program to work. Teachers must attempt to fill their classes from the available applicant pool or the teacher may find that her job no longer exists. For example, a teacher who only accepts five students will be deemed to have too few students and therefore will be laid-off. No teacher may accept more than the originally contracted classroom student quota. If there are more student applicants than positions available, the administration may decide to hire more teaching personnel. Curriculum details must be set at the individual schools following a general state guide or standard with no interference from local, state, or federal authorities regarding how the standards are met. All teachers must agree to the school’s curriculum but must be allowed flexibility to attain curricular goals by their own unique and insightful means.

The idea of public schools as we know them is obsolete, but the ideas of Vouchers and School Choice are fertile and ripe for evangelizing our school systems, with proper modification and balance. A program of Teacher Choice will spur students, parents, and teachers to reach deeper to affect meaningful change and reform across the field of education and society as a whole.

Stay tuned for ancillary information pieces like the Teacher Choice Flow Chart, the Synoptic, Time-Enhanced Outline, Special Information, FAQ, and Choices Within Choices: Options in Implementation.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Beauty Rage Panic Disbelief

Moah calmly lays in the cool evening grass contemplating nothing. Looking at nothing. Thinking nothing.

Listen to this entry by clicking the title

Beauty Rage Panic Disbelief

The front porch at my adopted Catawba Valley home is magnetic in the early evening. The wind gently, refreshingly stirs making my post on the cushioned rocker very inviting. Last night was no different.

Looking up from my front porch rocker.

I had finished watering the garden around 8 pm and a gathered up my harmonica and penny whistle and settled into the porch rocker to welcome the night. For about twenty minutes I played for the mountains surrounding me. Most of my tunes are my own creations. I don’t really know what they are; they just feel right to me. I’d start one and play it for a while until the mood passed then I’d sit and wait for inspiration for another tune. My whistle can vary from Celtic to Native American influences. Sometimes, just for grins, I’ll hum and whistle at the same time netting an Ian Anderson flute effect (Jethro Tull). My harmonica tunes tend toward a traditional American sound. I play several traditional tunes like “Wildwood Flower,” “Elvaton,” and “Shenandoah.” But most of my stuff on harmonica would best suit an old-fashioned country square dance.

As my music trailed off, I found myself staring into the trees and just listening to the approach of night. I’ve written about that unique time of day many times before (recently on this blog). True to form, shadows crept across the ridge and things began to be bathed in the twilight glow.

Sharply out of the normal evening chatter of birds and such, I heard a branch snap by the end of the drive in front of me. I knew from experience that this was most likely a deer coming out of hiding from the day. Over the past two weeks at my private villa, my feelings for the creatures have changed from awe at their beauty and cuteness to anger at their destructive powers. Already, deer had raided my sister-in-law’s beautiful hosta bed and ravaged it. Other perennial flowers showed the telltale signs of deer invasion, gnawed off stalks and shoots. I was determined to keep this evening visitor from another destructive attack.

The deer was very busy with clover and had no clue that I was watching every move she made from the safety of my front porch perch. I knew that in order to scare her away, I needed a weapon of some kind. Just shouting at her would have little effect other than to move her a little along the driveway. As I looked around, I saw no rocks, bricks, or heavy objects. There was a broken kitchen chair there, and I thought about tossing that at the deer, but it was too clunky. My eyes fell upon a corkscrew apparatus on the small table beside me. My brother, being a wine distribution manager, has many of the waiter-style corkscrews lying all over the place. They typically look a lot like a pocketknife with a corkscrew that unfolds, and they have a foldable bottle opener. In fact they usually have a small knife blade to assist in cutting the outer wrapping from a wine bottle.

I decided that this was my perfect weapon. It was made of heavy and hard plastic, and when I threw it at the deer, it would make an impression on the beast. Sitting there watching that monster move closer and closer to valuable flowers and plants, something inside of me snapped. I looked again at my corkscrew apparatus and unfolded the small knife blade. Suddenly a wild idea went through me…that deer wasn’t paying any attention to me and was munching around three huge boxwoods that would provide me excellent cover. The wind was blowing gently into my face, so the deer-out in the drive in front of me-wouldn’t be able to smell me. Perhaps I could take her. Maybe I could slash her, make her pay for all of the destruction she had inflicted upon my adopted home.

I carefully and silently opened the wooden porch gate and stepped onto the pea gravel walkway. I thought the crunch of my feet onto that surface would spook her, but she was oblivious. So I moved slowly and cautiously to my left and onto the driveway. Soon, the bulk of the boxwoods shielded her from me, and I felt that I could move more quickly. I crossed the drive then stealthily sneaked along, careful to keep myself shielded from the unaware doe.

Three boxwoods flank the drive as you pull in. She had walked between the first and second from the road. I moved into a position between the third and second. Now all that separated us was one huge boxwood. There had been no sign of her moving from her munching zone. No sign of recognition. I carefully peered around the bush, but I couldn’t see her. I then carefully focused through the bush and thought I caught glimpses of something brown through the green branches. So I crouched a little and brought my weapon up into an attack position. Within seconds, I would leap around the big boxwood and fire my weapon from my hand and at my evil target. I was ready. My mind was made up. I was in attack mode.

Just as I was about to leap into action, I heard the deer slam a hoof to the ground. She obviously had been startled into action. I didn’t think I had made any noise; perhaps she smelled me. It didn’t matter. Things happed in a moment. The deer instead of running away from me was running right past me. I didn’t have time to think, but my arm cocked, and I launched my weapon at her as she flew past me, missing by a wide margin. She was so fast and was past me before the corkscrew tool was even out of my hand. It settled somewhere in a tangle of weeds under a Magnolia tree. The deer flashed past me by two paces and leaped over the barbed wire fence that guarded neighbors from my brother. In her panic as she leaped, I saw her back leg get gouged by the fence, but she kept running at full speed through the field. Somehow, I had really frightened her.

I ran to get a better view of the field in which she ran to and a saw her stop about a hundred yards away and start looking down at her hind leg. Then slowly she turned away and began limping badly away from me and into the woods. I felt horrible that I had caused this fine, beautiful wild beast to become injured. She was so delicate and vulnerable as she walked into the descending night.

I turned back to the driveway and began walking back to the boxwoods to investigate exactly what she had been eating when I heard a large commotion a few paces in front of me at the end of the drive. Where, the deer’s initial limb breaking shattered the quiet of the evening, this new intrusion sounded like an explosion of noise. Then from just in front of me I witnessed a first in my life. A very large black bear bolted out from the tall grasses at the end of the drive and darted across the road away from me at full speed. He slipped past their mailbox and somehow managed to wedge his massive body through the wooden horizontally slatted cow fence immediately behind the mailbox. He looked proportionally like a mouse squeezing through a tiny crack under a door. The speed at which that bear disappeared from sight was simply amazing. It was just a flash before my eyes.

Moments later, a 4x4 truck slowed in front of the mailbox. The driver didn’t stop, but obviously he had seen the bear, too. The driver then slowly pulled away without saying anything to me. I guess I looked too stunned.

After a few moments, I rationalized that that bear was no doubt long gone. It dawned on me that the deer wasn’t spooked by me but by that bigger beast. I went down to the mailbox to see if the bear left any tracks or broken any fence panel. Then I walked a bit along the road to the nearby creek to see if I could catch another glimpse of the bear in the cow pasture there. Either he was indeed long gone or it had become too dark to spot him in the shadows which were as dark as a wolf’s mouth.

I returned to the porch and spent the remaining moments of failing light trying to convince myself that I wasn’t crazy, that I really did see a bear at the end of the driveway.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Sounds of My World

Look closely, this rock angel guards the exit of from Roanoke over Catawba Mountain. I have no idea why she sits there, but I feel comforted that she is watching over me as I pass below in my car along Route 311.



Evening quiet

The quiet is loud here. Gunfire erupts off in the woods behind the simple country house. A lonely truck takes a relaxing journey down the narrow road. Day birds are singing songs of farewell to the sun. Robins chirp.

Hummingbirds fight over the feeder before the night swallows it all. Off in the distance in the sky a plane ferries someone somewhere. Its sound trail lingers. The morning mist gave way long ago to cotton clouds, and now they die slowly away bathed in evening orange.

The mountain ridge before me darkens, casting its undulating silhouette against the orange glow sky. The chickens have gone to bed, tired from giving eggs and scratching earth. A jet cuts through the darkening sky.

The dead red riding mower looks more and more able as the deepening evening masks its tiredness. Orange contrails light the deep blue sky. A gentle creek rustles its way to somewhere; perhaps eventually that water will make it to the Gulf. Perhaps some child will capture it. Maybe someone or something will drink it.

A dog barks at the advance of night. More guns. Brown ears of an antler-less deer perk up from a pine stand in front of me. Its sudden movement destroys its perfect camouflage. Then it lowers its head a resumes munching on tasty treats. The breeze is unsettled, but unhurried. Crows echo to each other across the narrow valley floor, their calls die away as they move on. The white mailbox stands solitary sentry duty by the drive. The saw-whet owl moves out onto an upper tree limb and stares into the grasses looking for mice, moles, and voles. Venus takes to the sky shaking the sun’s grip on the world.

The quiet is loud here. The day doesn’t willingly give way. The quiet grows silent, only the creek and the night shift stay awake.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


My cousin, Michael Ryder, penned this piece in 1982 for his daughter, Kammy. He wanted her to understand why he and his wife Noani had chosen such a unique name for her. The piece is a series of memories and reflections on my Grandmother Ryder. The feelings and emotions that Mike taps in this piece are very similar to those that members of my part of the family hold so dear and close. I’ve transcribed his heart-felt writing verbatim. I hope he doesn't mind it being posted here, as I haven't been able to track him down to ask him. I'll post my own reflections of that time and place at some point in the near future. (I hope I spelled their names correctly)


She stands amidst my childhood memories as large and wide with a full face and strong arms that captured me once a year for a greeting. It was of no use to struggle as she held each of us in turn against her apron. The price of freedom, my brothers and I knew, was a large wet kiss that she bestowed upon us as a blessing.

Once a year, generally in July or August, we made the auto trek from our home in Ohio to the outer edges of Long Island, where my father was born. The long trip was always undertaken with enthusiasm that invariably degenerated to repetitive cries of “Aren’t we there yet?” and “How much farther is it?” The major attraction for my brothers and me was the beach, but I later came to appreciate more than that.

Our destination was North Haven, a small peninsula of homes and farms surrounded by waters entering the Great Peconic Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. We swam and played in those waters, and you’ve played there also. Do you remember? The two-story white farmhouse was, and still is for that matter, set away from the country road leading to the Shelter Island Ferry. The cinder and stone driveway runs between the grape arbor and the house, down to the old barn and loops back to the house. The shanty (I wonder why they never called it a shed?) sits a few paces from the back door. Behind the barn are woods that extend radially for a mile or so to the bay.

She always came out the back door to greet us. Her hair was dark when I was young, and her voice was loud and difficult to understand, for her native Polish persisted. It would normally take my brothers and me a couple of days to understand her accented words. Not that we ever carried on any lengthy discussions, for if truth be known, at that age we were a bit afraid of her. We had never been exposed to anyone like her.

She would hang a chicken by its feet and cut the major nerve center and artery under the tongue. When the blood drained, she would pluck the feathers, clean and cut the remains, and that chicken would become our dinner. For she operated a chicken farm with some 500 chickens that seemed like thousands to a six-year old. (According to my cousins, she would chop the chicken’s head off and watch the headless body jump around, but we later learned that was not true.)

There were flowers to be seen everywhere. A wide plot across the front of the house filled with large Hydrangea bushes of purple and white. Roses were there, and rose bushes were wrapped around the log fence extending down the driveway and bordering the road. Lilies of the Valley and Daisies grew along the side of the house. I remember Petunias and Peonies around the Blessed Virgin statue beside the shanty. Potted flowers grew through the winter in the large bay-windowed room that felt the mid-day and late afternoon sun. Every day she walked among the bushes nearly as tall as she. I was always amazed at the way she worked in her garden, bent at the waist with her back straight for hours at a time.

Her voice would boom out at one brother or another or me to climb down from the grape arbor, to stay away from the tractor, to stop chasing the chickens or they wouldn’t lay.

In the evenings after dinner, or when we returned from swimming, or for no special reason, she would yank open the pantry closet (the door always stuck) and return with a box of cookies in her thick, worn hands. They were never offered without a nod of approval from my mother. I had the distinct impression that she and my mother had gone through an appetite spoilage confrontation. My mother may have won that battle, but I noticed she very seldom withheld the nod.

For a number of summers we were there, she slept on the living room couch that would probably be called a studio couch these days. To go to the bathroom at night, once we graduated from the chamber pot, it was required to descend the squeaky stairs and inch past her, through a darkness we never experienced in Ohio, where street lights existed. My greatest fears, when nature forced the bathroom expedition, were in waking her or finding her dead. As I tiptoed by her, if she wasn’t snoring (in Polish, I reasoned), I would listen closely for her breathing.

Her death actually came nearly 30 years later, and she did die in her sleep. At the age of 91, she fell from a chair while changing a light bulb and broke her hip. She always worked hard at what she wanted to do and always had something that needed doing, to the extreme of fixing her roof at age 80. In the hospital, there was nothing that needed her doing, and she was old, and she rested.

She was ready to die. She would say as much in her later years as your mother and I sat across the dinner table from her or as she was bidding us farewell. Her funeral and the social trappings around it struck me as a quiet celebration of one who has overcome life. Her prepared body in the casket appeared smaller than life, and my mind reverted to other images of her-sitting in the shanty doorway sorting and packing eggs, making a fuss over any unfortunate fish that we brought back from the bay, standing at rigid attention while my father took moving pictures. (My brothers and I would try to explain to her that these were moving pictures, and we would exaggerate our motion. (I wonder, did we expect her to jump around as we did?)

In her kitchen she was quite animated and, although my mother sometimes cringed at her methods, we always considered her potato pancakes and her squash pancakes (garnished with applesauce, not syrup) as a special treat. She would stand over the old stove (it still burned coal for heat, but used gas for cooking) with the squash pancakes seeming to swim in the grease. Plate after plate would travel from the skillet to the table with the admonition, “Eat! Eat! You are growing boys!” And we would eat, eat.

The large kitchen was for years the gathering place for the family. In the evenings the adults would sit around the room, talk, and drink beer, normally Rheingold. My parents’ visit brought them together, and at times my Uncle Joe (her youngest son) and his family from Virginia were there. Always present were Uncle Stan (her middle son), Aunt Dot and their kids, Kathy, Beth, Stan John, and later, Patty. At various times other members of her daughters’ (Aunt Nellie, Aunt Jean, Aunt Steph) families were there.

She always sat in the wood armed chair by the window. Her role was largely passive as she surveyed the multiple conversations and, now and then, provided a fresh beer to someone who, in the heat of discussion, had neglected to get another. She would sometimes pass among the children with cookies.

I was always drawn to these gatherings, though certainly not out of understanding, for a great deal of the conversation was carried out in Polish, and she would take an active role in her native language.

And suddenly it was a generation later. Adults and children were gathered in the same kitchen. The Rheingold and the cookies were the same, but the conversation never went to Polish. She sat in the same wood armed chair by the window, but now her hair was white. The people were changed. I was there with your mother. Many of the other adults were the children of the past, at times my brothers and cousins and their families. Uncle Stan and Aunt Dot were still there. She would offer cookies to our children, much as we had been. You were not yet born. She would retire earlier, and the evening would end sooner or move to Uncle Stan’s. In the last years they would completely take place at Uncle Stan’s.

There was one more total family gathering in her kitchen after we buried her. We were the life that had literally sprung forth from her.

In retrospect, that next generation hadn’t arrived all that suddenly. A number of gradual changes had taken place. The chickens

Had diminished and then disappeared completely. The garden and flowers were there, but not as many. She still battled the deer for the vegetables she grew and could still be seen snapping beans on the front porch. She slowed down as she got older, but took good care of herself. She would nap two or three times a day, but when awake, she kept very active.

Your mother and I frequently visited Long Island right after we were married and living in New Jersey. Actually, it was your mother who spent a goodly amount of time with her. I would habitually rush off after dinner to Uncle Stan’s to drink, watch a ball game, or visit the American Legion, while your mother would stay and listen and talk with her. Your mother eventually chided me into staying, and I’m glad I did.

She would recall her life and the joys and trials that were a part of it. She would involve herself so deeply in the telling that tears would roll from her eyes or her voice would for a moment raise itself in historic chastisement or recounted joy. Often her tongue would tire of English and would comfortably revert to Polish in mid-sentence. Your mother would interrupt, “English, Grandma, speak English.”

She would prepare us for her recollections by offering a taste of her homemade Cherry wine. We were made to understand that only special guests were invited to share this with her. The “wine” burned all the way down, and so it should, considering its ingredients. She would squeeze cherries provided by her daughter and mix the juice with 180 proof vodka. Thus fortified, she would speak of Poland, the trip over, about her husband (my grandfather), the farm, her pride in the birth and rearing of her children with particular anecdotes of my father.

She was born in the village of Rutka, Poland, on July 21, 1884. Times were difficult in Poland, and in 1904, she made her way to the United States to join other relatives already located in Sag Harbor. She went to work at Fahys Watch case Factory (later to become Bulova). Two years later she married Alfons Ryder (the family name had been changed from Rascizewski, pronounced Raas-chee-shef-ski, when they arrived in this country) who also worked at the watch factory.

Her first child, a son, was stillborn. Her second child, a daughter, named Helen, was born in Poland, where they had returned for a visit. Alfons soon went back to Sag Harbor, but she remained in Poland for nearly 2 years. On the return trip, her daughter, Helen, contracted measles on the ship and was hospitalized when the boat docked in Philadelphia. But Helen did not recover.

She rejoined her husband in Sag Harbor, and in the following years, three children were born (your grandfather was the middle one). She had returned to work at the watch factory and then worked as a laundress for the nuns at Sacred Heart Academy boarding school. She also functioned as a midwife in the community. Around 1922, they bought some farm property across the bridge in North Haven. As three more children came, they expanded the house significantly, and the farm as well, with a few cows and horses and more and more chickens (some years, as many as 4000 chicks were hatched). Her husband, Alfons, my grandfather, died when I was very young. I don’t remember him.

Her action in replacing the wine in the cellarway signaled the end of the reminiscences and heralded the beginning of the daily dishwashing debate. She and your mother would loudly discuss who should do the dishes, and she would gracefully relinquish them to your mother each time. We all took pleasure in the battle.

She lived her own life, and the discipline of her days was of her own choosing. She arose early and absorbed the news and weather loudly (for she was hard of hearing) from the radio in the kitchen. It was difficult to sleep late in her house.

During my summer between high school and college, my friend Ed and I came from Ohio to visit. She welcomed me with the expected hug and wet kiss, but somehow she wasn’t as large as she used to be, or so it appeared. Each morning, she’d recite the weather verbatim from the radio and summarize the news. Each evening as we left the house in search of adventure, she would spout a litany of daily automobile accidents with death tolls and graphic injury descriptions to justify her admonition to drive safely.

The day we went fishing, we borrowed an old wooden handled knife, sharpened so many times the blade was razor thin. In the boat, I tossed Ed the knife. It hit the cross seat, sprung out the boat, and slowly disappeared to the bottom of the bay. Our tactic was to avoid the subject and concentrate on the fact that we surprisingly caught a couple of Blowfish.

A few days later, after dinner the evening before we were to leave, she went to the cellarway and offered us a nip of her cherry wine, and I knew we were welcome back. I did not have the opportunity to prepare Ed for the wine, and he was gaspingly impressed, truly at a loss for words. No sooner had the toast been completed than she stated, “You lost the knife.” It wasn’t a question. Before we left the next morning, we replaced the knife.

When we returned to Ohio, I overheard Ed describing her to his family in terms of respect and admiration that had yet to occur to me.

I wonder if she ever used the new knife. She couldn’t be called old-fashioned, but whatever was new had to provide some new capability, useful to her, for it to be accepted. My parents finally replaced her old triangular side opening toaster that burned both bread and fingers with a new pop-up model that automatically controlled the browning of the bread. But the new appliance offered her no advantage for with the old toaster, she knew when it was toasted to her liking, and her toughened hands withstood great heat. (She seldom used pot holders at the stove.) So the new toaster was duly packed away and properly retrieved for use only when my parents or their children visited.

She did enjoy television, but only a few selected programs with regularity-Jackie Gleason, Lawrence Welk, The People’s Choice with Cleo the talking beagle, I Love Lucy (probably the same episodes you’ve seen), and, of course, the news. She particularly trusted Walter Cronkite.

She was a proud practical woman. My father, upon leaving, would always give her a check or some cash. As a matter of course, when we began visiting with regularity, I would attempt to leave anywhere from 5 to 20 dollars with her. There was always a battle, sometimes short, other times long, and I occasionally lost or had to compromise. It was her position that I was just starting a family and had a need for the money. It was only when she had a specific use for the money that she gave in quickly.

Her existence was simple, and she had few needs. Once she became too old to go to Mass every Sunday, the priest would bring her communion every 2 weeks. She was about the only house call her doctor continued to make, every 2 weeks for a shot and pills that aided in circulation and eased her arthritic pain. Her daughter, Nellie, would do most of her food shopping, and one or another of her son Stan’s family would look in on her each day. She stated many times the priorities in her daily life-first came God, second the doctor, and third her daily can of beer. If the weather permitted, a portion of each afternoon was spent on the front porch overlooking her flowers with her rosary in one hand and her Rheingold in the other.

Other times she could be found on the front porch, currying her cat. When I was young, in addition to chickens, cows, and horses, there were always two or three dogs and uncountable cats that lived in the barn. As the years passed, the number of animals dwindled until only one cat remained. Polly was a wild barn cat that tolerated no human other than her. For years, I never caught the slightest glimpse of that cat, until a morning when I arose remarkably early from the beer binge of the night before. As I was entering the far doorway of the kitchen, I saw a black fur ball leap from her arms and roll, or so it seemed, across the linoleum and down the steep steps to the coal bin.

Polly was small with long, black fur and a bushy tail, as large as the rest of her, that would have made a squirrel proud. The long hair tangled in the bushes of the woods, and Polly would sit patiently in her lap as she combed out the burrs with gentleness that belied the ruggedness of her appearance and the arthritic awkwardness of her hands. On one visit, we rather thoughtlessly and disastrously brought our cat along. One morning we observed many ugly black and blue welts on her arms. There had been a cat confrontation, and she was the loser. On each subsequent visit, she would inquire as to the health of our cat and remark that it was good that we left it at home.

Over the years, we became very comfortable there. Our conversations with her were sometimes repetitive and sometimes uncomfortable as she honestly relived the emotions she had felt in all her life toward the people around her. We came to know her well and were welcome from the traditional wet kiss greeting, now being barely tolerated in turn by your brother, Chris, to the equally ritualistic farewell.

The strong hug and kiss would be followed by a command to God to bless us (I never quite considered it a request). There were normally tears in her eyes, and there had always been tears in my mother’s eyes as we piled into the car, circled the backyard loop, and passed by her waving her handkerchief. I must confess that scene occasionally blurred my vision, which I dutifully hid from my brothers. The pattern of departure persisted from one generation to the next with one additional form. After her God bless and our reciprocal plea, we would indicate that we would see her again. Her response was that she might not be here next time, but she always was, until the last time.

You never knew her. In fact, I didn’t know her fully two-thirds of her life, and your mother knew her even less. She wasn’t special in the eyes of the world, but she was special to us. She had a character, an aura, that carried her toward her purposes, that allowed her to more than survive the difficulties that attack life. I believe that she was true to herself, a phrase that is sometimes distorted. I mean it in a positive sense of fulfillment and understanding of self that dispels any self incrimination of a life wasted.

It is that inner strength that we wished you in giving you her name. If your brother had been a girl, he would have had your name. Your mother first made the suggestion. I had always thought it was unfair to burden a child with another’s name, but we agreed that this was somehow different.

It is a unique name that means flower in Polish and does allow a simple nickname. We hoped to allow you the option with your more conventional middle name, should the other become a problem for you.

Our intent was not to burden you with an ideal, for her life was not spectacular, outstanding, or even unique. But it appeared to be a success. We wish you that inner strength that both demands and allows more than simple survival, not in the perception of others, but by your own measure. But wishing doesn’t make it so.

For ourselves, in addition to the beauty of the name, we enjoyed the public testimony of our respect for her, and the private pleasure of informing her of our decision. Actually, we had some difficulty in making her understand, but she was pleased with the thought.

Her last summer, the summer after you were born, we made our annual trek to Long Island from Columbus, Ohio, where we were then living. And she called you Kumcha, her childhood name and wondered why you had no hair as yet.

On that visit, I took the picture that has always resided on your dresser or our dresser or on the wall of your room. She is sitting on her front porch in the old green metal chair, dressed in a flannel shirt over her long brown dress. Your brother Chris is standing at her side, and she is holding you on her apron-covered lap.

In celebration of our marriage, she presented your mother and me with her statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It now stands on the highest shelf of your closet where it will safely remain until you pass through your awkward stage.

Whenever she went to Mass or on other special occasions, around her neck she would wear her heart-shaped locket that had been a gift from my parents a long time ago. My mother now has that locket and will one day present it to you.

Addendum: Mike and his wife live near Chicago. Their kids are all grown now, but I've lost track of their doings. Kammy is over 30 now, but I haven't seen her since our 1995 Giles County Virginia reunion. Mike's brother Steve lives in Alabama while his brother Joe lives in New Jersey with his father (Uncle Tony). Tony, now about 94 years old, recently moved from his Massillon, Ohio house and in with Joe. Mike's mother, Aunt Bea, passed away several years ago now. Others mentioned in the story were Kamila's sons and daughters. Of them, only Tony, Jean, and my father, Joe, remain with us. Uncle Stan's wife, Dot still lives next to the family farm in her house with her son Stan John. My Aunt Jean bought the farm from the family after grandma passed away and has lived there ever since. Her son Bud built a house in the field between Grandma's and Uncle Stan's place, but Bud has since sold the house and moved away. The great woods surrounding the farm all the way to the bay a mile away have all been "developed" with pricey McMansions...no not McMansions...Real Mansions. North Haven is a playground for the Hampton/Sag Harbor elite. I guess you really can't go back to a simpler time, except in your mind and your blog.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Taking Care of Moses

Moses is a Patriot

My brother and his family are out of country for another ten days or so. While they are gone, I am spending my days and nights taking care of their house, garden, dogs, cat, and chickens.

Moses is the big baby of the family. He's a large Rottweiler (spell check wants to use the word 'Potboiler.' I have no idea why) word with lupus. Moses plods around looking for his routine to be matched. He gets his medicine in peanut butter globs. He gets three dog biscuits when he goes out on the line. He likes to go out to go to the bathroom and stay in the house to snooze, although he will snooze about anywhere. If you leave the bathroom door open when you are sitting in the facility, he will come right up to you, tower over your head, and stare at you. With his big rott face inches from yours, it's easy to get repeated doses of his wonderfully doggie breath as you sit in captive fashion.

Moah is Moses' MinnieMe. He's a black dog that looks a little like a bottle-nosed porpoise. He's always smiling as if he's going to turn on you as soon as you turn your back. Whenever I turn around, Moah is staring at me. Sometimes Moah will get excited when I put the red leash on him. Apparently in his world, that means something good, but I'm not sure exactly what that is.

Rosie is a high strung scared German Shepherd mix. Whenever a person approaches, her tan body slinks away in cold fear. I learned though that when things are very quiet, she will put on a loving face and that worried face will disappear. In those times, she will come up to me and lick my hand in return for petting.

The jet black cat, Cocoa, makes her prescience known from time to time. She seems quite lovable and doesn't seem to have any displeasing cat habits. She eats in a sheltered contraption in the kitchen. It kind is like a squirrel-proof feeder home-designed to ward away dogs.

The chickens are quite interactive. The three of them range around the yard during the day and I shut them in their coop at night. So far, they've given me five eggs in three days. Sometimes it seems like they are talking to me.

While my brother does have DirectTV, I can't for the life of me figure out their Juno password, so I can't even dial-up from their house. Effectively, I'm in the cyber-dark. With my main diversion taken from me, you'd think that I'd now have time to write. Sadly, however, there always seems to be something to do with the boys. Perhaps once I settle in to their routine a bit more, I can settle down to write some really profound words.

Until then...this is what you get.

Moah Waits on Me

Rosie Just a Little Worried

Cocoa, My 5:45 am Alarm Clock

Moses Relaxes on a Couch

PS I'm not really sure of the sex of Moah (SHE) and Cocoa (???). So they may be She's or He's. I'll find out today and post that tantalizing bit of trivia.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Attack of Ralph

As many of you know, my name is Thom Ryder, and I am a teacher in Roanoke County, Virginia. I’ve spent a quarter of a century in the classroom mostly in grades three through five. Over the last two school years, I’ve become an Instructional Technology Resource Teacher (ITRT). In parallel to that career, I have been a member and active supporter of my local education associations as well as the Virginia Education Association (VEA) and the National Education Association (NEA). Several times in the past, I’ve served on executive boards of my locals or president. Currently, I’m beginning my first term as president of the Roanoke County Education Association. (My ITRT training alerts me that I’ve shared way too much personal information…but I don’t care!)

Back in late March, members of our political action committee began to mull over potentially endorsing candidates in the upcoming state senatorial race in our area. VEA and our local are very careful to separate our political activities from our regular association activities. Any recommendation of endorsement would then be carried before the regular VEA-PAC body for consideration and debate before decisions by that body would be made. Endorsed VEA-PAC candidates would then receive a $1000 contribution to their campaign fund and ancillary material sent out to PAC members (not every VEA member is a PAC member).

In accordance with customary procedure, I, as acting Chairman of RCEA-PAC, sent an official VEA questionnaire to the two known candidates (both Republican). A Democrat had recently announced his bid to run for the position, but we had no information on him at that time. (Frankly, I suspect that wouldn’t have altered our final recommendation.) It was explained to both that we’d like to meet with them privately to discuss their written answers to the questions.

Republican Ralph Smith was the first to reply, and he sent this amazing letter.

Dear Mr. Ryder:

Thank you for thinking of me regarding the VEA’s endorsement process for the 22nd Senatorial District. I wish to submit to you and the VEA the following statement regarding my views on education.

I have long realized the importance of education to individuals and to the broader community. Educators have an important responsibility to prepare our young people for their roles as participating citizens and for their successful entry into the world of work. This recognition of education’s role in preparing our students is the very reason I support quality education for every single student in Virginia.

As a public servant, I feel it is incumbent on me to insure that the Commonwealth will partner with parents and support them with meaningful opportunities for and involvement in their children’s education. Every child has individual needs regarding the way he/she learns. The state’s role is to assist parents in finding the right match for their child(ren).

Virginia has been blessed with many fine schools at all levels of learning—elementary, middle school, high school, undergraduate and graduate. It has also been blessed with excellent public, private, parochial and home schools. I believe our future can best be served when we support parents in finding what works best for their child.

In the future, I hope we can work together to promote the highest quality education for ALL of Virginia’s students.


Ralph Smith

P.S. My campaign manager, Steve Mabry, is a past president of the Roanoke Education Association and a past vice president of the VEA.

Hopefully, you’ll notice several key things in his letter buried in the friendly letter-speak. First, Mr. Smith refused to meet with us. He refused to participate in the process. I suppose that some of those he caters to would jump up and down and cheer him for that, but I find it very sad when a person running for elected office will not sit down for a discussion with a group of people who care very deeply about one our areas most important issues, education.

Mr. Smith also spent considerable time in his letter crafting and refining his position on vouchers/ school choice. He made it quite apparent from what he wrote that he favors using tax payers money to support private schools. VEA is steadfastly opposed to this misguided idea. Very few on Mr. Smith’s side ever delve in to the financial impact of vouchers/tuition tax credits on public schools. The reality is that in an era when state and federal funding for public schools have not kept pace with the demands of the high stakes Federal accountability program, local school divisions have been forced to shoulder an increasing burden for public schools. Funding private schools would mean the erosion of more money from that finite resource. That would mean an even larger burden on local school systems.

Mr. Smith’s liberal position on the giveaway of taxpayers’ money to private schools coupled with his refusal to fill out our questionnaire and meet with our committee made him an automatic disqualifier.

Along the same time, Senator Brandon Bell (Republican) took the time to fill out our questionnaire and set up a discussion time. Along that same stretch, the tragedy at Virginia Tech occurred and we were forced to reschedule our first meeting. We ended up meeting Friday April 20, 2007.

We’ve known Senator Bell for many years now. He’s served three terms in the state senate at different times. While we’ve never endorsed him before, we’ve always found that we could have discussions with him on issues. I’ve always appreciated his thoughtful responses to our questions in the past and at our April 20 meeting, he was no different.

The VEA has several key issues of interest which include vouchers/tuition tax credits, teacher retirement fund, teacher salary, and fully funding the Standards of Quality (formula devised by the state to fund essential education staff, services, and programs). On these issues, Brandon and our committee had a thorough discussions.

On the issue of vouchers, Mr. Bell said that he does give limited support to voucher/tuition tax credit programs. This, of course is in opposition to the VEA position on the issue. Mr. Bell, however, was able to discuss specific situations where he believed that tuition tax credits made sense. He then listened carefully and respectfully to our problems with such programs. After our discussion on the topic, although I still disagreed with him, I still respected him and vice versa. It seemed to me at that moment that what’s missing in the political world today is this honest discussion. Instead we are left with discussion that immediately devolves into personal attacks.

On the issue of teacher retirement fund, Brandon was solidly in support of our position. Teachers in Virginia contribute to a retirement system (VRS) each year as part of their benefit package. In addition, the state kicks in a dose of cash on our behalf. With all state employees and teachers vested in the program, VRS holds a huge pot of money that is set aside for its employees. Many people would like to get their hands on that money stream. The system is currently set up as a “Defined Benefit System.” With VRS guaranteeing a defined benefit to retirees, they can make choices on how to develop their own personal risk accounts to supplement. In conjunction with Social Security and personal, individual retirement accounts, an employee can develop a reasonable retirement portfolio as long as they can count on VRS’ defined benefit. Mr. Bell, a financial planner, understands the logic and passion behind our support for the current VRS system. He is also aware that there are others who see VRS money as a tempting funding stream. These people want flip the program and turn it in to a “Defined Contribution Program.” Who sets the contribution level? Can that be monkeyed with by politicians? Can I count on it? We prefer to label this unwanted intrusion into our future financial plans as a virus attacking our VRS system hoping to morph it in to a “Personal Risk Account” program.

On the issue of teacher salary, Brandon Bell was in favor of raising salaries, but we had a frank discussion looking at the issue from all angles. He spoke of the “never attainable goal” of meeting a national average. We countered with the fact that most localities in his district were about $8,000 below the state average teacher salary and even further below the national average.

On the issue of SOQ funding, Mr. Bell solidly supported full funding. You can’t just mandate a program yet not provide the financial resources to help it succeed.

So in the end, I believe that Mr. Bell and our committee would agree that we certainly do not agree on everything, but we very much enjoy the opportunity for honest discussion. That’s more important to me than any policy stance; it’s a bedrock principle in our democracy.

Things were quiet after our endorsement recommendation of Senator Brandon Bell was approved by VEA-PAC. However, in the last week, things began to heat up from Mr. Smith.

Let me tell you a little more about Mr. Smith. I do not like him. I find his political stances nonsensical and his tactics repulsive and abrasive. Mr. Smith is a wealthy businessman from Roanoke City (I think he ran a sandblasting business). He ruled the city for several years as Mayor. He lived for many years in Roanoke’s most famous mansion, Rockledge, which is located right on the money side of Mill Mountain-just under the star. When he was thrown out of the city council, he promptly sold Rockledge and moved to Botetourt County. Since then, he’s been filling his war chest with his millions and now has launched his bid to carpetbag a state senatorial seat. No, I do not like Ralph Smith. I like him even less after his recent attack ads surfaced. Here’s an example…

E-News from Ralph Smith

June 6, 2007 VOTE JUNE 12!

Campaign Web Page


Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet. white shirt

The primary election will take place on Tuesday, June 12, 2007 at ALL polling precincts within the 22nd District.

Please mark the date on your calendar, NOW.

Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet. Convention

Politics as Usual

You already know that the liberal Virginia Education Association (VEA) has endorsed Ralph Smith's opponent for voting with them "83 percent of the time" and for having his doors always open to their lobbyists.

Most conservatives believe there is no greater threat to educational choice and reform than the liberal VEA.

In case you needed proof:

They're now urging all their Democrat members to vote in OUR Republican primary!

The VEA has sent out a postcard to all its Democrat members in our district asking them to vote in the Republican Primary. "We need Brandon Bell in Richmond!" the VEA president says. Why? "To secure our funding needs."

"Cast a party-blind vote even if you're in the other party!" the VEA urges all Democrats.

The VEA goes on to quote their "good friend" John Chichester as encouraging the opposition to cross over and vote in the Republican Primary: "I encourage people to go in there, and if they want you to sign something sign whatever you want, and in the general election, do what you want to do." (Translation: "Lie if you have to. Your word means nothing.")

So, a liberal special interest group quotes a liberal Republican telling the opposition to lie if they have to in order to support my opponent, who has recently taken to calling himself "our conservative senator."

Remember, Bell wanted a general primary instead of a closed party meeting, and now you know the rest of the story.

This is the "politics as usual" nonsense we need to end.

Please spread the word. And vote Ralph Smith on Tuesday.

Paid for and authorized by Ralph Smith Senate Committee.

It’s hard to refute all of the charges Ralph makes against Virginians in his ad, but I’ll try.

  1. Ralph Smith must not know the law. Anyone is allowed to vote in any primary in Virginia. That’s the law.
  2. What does Ralph Smith have against being “party blind”? Is he such a neo-conservative clone that he can’t fathom reasons why people might want to consider people from many political parties?
  3. Senator John Chichester (Republican) is a good friend. He helped VEA forge a coalition of Republicans and Democrats to break a funding logjam a couple of years ago to push Virginia toward full funding of the SOQ? What does Ralph have against kids?
  4. (Translation: "Lie if you have to. Your word means nothing.") I’m not a lawyer, but that sure sounds like a libelous statement to me.
  5. So, a liberal special interest group quotes a liberal Republican telling the opposition to lie if they have to in order to support my opponent, who has recently taken to calling himself "our conservative senator."

I don’t like even writing such slimy words. If I had received such an attack ad from ANY candidate, that would be a signal for me to NEVER cast a vote for the person sending that message.

So if you need even another reason to not vote for Mr. Smith, consider what Mr. Bell’s campaign manager sent me the other day.

You probably knew he [Smith] commented at a recent AARP debate that he would not support maintaining defined benefit for VRS. He specifically said that tax dollars should not go to benefits for retired teachers.

I was very pleased to see how Mr. Bell responded to Mr. Smith’s attacks. It seems so very obvious to me who the true leader is of the two candidates.

A Desperate Campaign

As many of you have heard on the radio, read over email or seen in the mail, Ralph Smith has launched a last minute, desperate attempt to mislead the voters about my record. Election day is next Tuesday and my opponent's sense of desperation has clearly intensified. He has even resorted to name calling, referring to me as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Legitimate debate is healthy; however, the actions taken by my opponent are embarrassing. We deserve better than this.

Please see these last minute, negative attacks for what there are: A desperate politician who is willing to say or do anything to get elected. I am glad my daughter is too little to wonder why Mr. Smith is calling her daddy a monster.

A Failed Record on Education

In his most recent email attack, my opponent has criticized my record on education. Specifically, he has referred to the fact that I have received the endorsement of the Virginia Education Association. Yes, the VEA has endorsed my candidacy--though this is the first time in a total of four races for the Senate. Does this mean I agree with the VEA on every issue? It does not. I have always been a strong supporter of home schooling and school choice. My record in the Senate proves this. While the VEA and I disagree on some of these issues, they are even more concerned about my opponent's record on public education in Roanoke City.

Mr. Smith presided over a school system that was literally crumbling at his feet. He did nothing to stop it. In the last year of Mr. Smith's term, the graduation rate in Roanoke City was only 63%. That is an embarrassing 19% below the statewide average. 19%! In the year following Smith's tenure, the accreditation rate was an abysmal 52%. That's right. Only half of Roanoke City schools were fully accredited. This stands in stark contrast to the 84% of schools fully accredited in the 22nd Senate District.

As you can see, our public school teachers have much to fear when it comes to Mr. Smith's record on education. My record on education however, both public and private, is one I can be proud of. I wish I could say the same for my opponent.

Send A Message

The best way to send the message to Mr. Smith that these last minute, negative smear campaigns do not work, is to come out and vote in the Republican primary this Tuesday, June 12th. Join me on Tuesday in sending that message.

I plan to join Brandon and vote tomorrow. If you live in my district, I hope you will, too.