Saturday, December 1, 2012

Thanksgiving Assignment

While teaching tenth-grade English, I devised a Thanksgiving writing assignment that called for each student to help decorate a large wall with two index cards telling—in no more than two printed sentences—what he was thankful for, both serious and silly. I was amazed by the students’ humorous creativity and touched by their unabashed honesty as they read their two cards to the class and then posted them on the wall in the two categories. About three decades later, the presentation that still sticks in my head was that of the timid girl who softly proclaimed her serious thanksgiving to the class: “I’m thankful that I know who my daddy is.” In the hush that followed, there were no laughs or giggles, only quiet uh huhs from several parts of the room. I loved all my students.

Today I’m still fascinated by the things people announce that they’re thankful for, and this year I’ve been very interested to read the Facebook posts of my friends in the 30 Days of Thanksgiving project--in particular, the wonderful (and serious) writings of Louise Tolbert and Patricia Monterella. They are an inspiration! Since I can’t say what they have said as well as they have said it, I’ve decided to revise my original writing assignment to include a third category: the “sorta serious” category. You know, the things that are not silly, but the things that definitely can’t be included along with family, God, health, country, and the other serious blessings we have.

Today, I’m thankful for the old things in my old house—no cracks about old people, please—particularly the old Christmas decorations, and particularly the old nativity set. (I’m also grateful for the blog format, which apparently does not require that I stay on topic, or keep to the dreaded five-paragraph formula, with specified items like introductions and conclusions; I can cheerfully segue into another topic without losing cohesion points, as long as ideas are tangentially related. Or not. Ah, the joy of an English teacher set free!)

Anyway, about the nativity set, aka manger scene, or crèche. I don’t know what happened to the one I routinely set up in my childhood years but assume that Mama threw it out when it started looking worn. I wish I still had it, no matter the condition. Nearly 50 years ago, when our boys were toddlers, we bought a boxed manger scene at Sears, and now my grandchildren put those figures out first and pack them up last when we decorate. The stable, now in bad shape, well represents the desperate status of the Holy Family. No hotel, no money, no doctor. The devotional today in Daily Guideposts is an account of Pam Kidd’s visit to a museum exhibit of classic, famous paintings of the manager scene, all showing the Holy Family garbed in fancy clothes. She questioned the necessity of a “gold-leaf Jesus” and said she missed “smelling the hay.” What a powerful statement about the significance of the humble origins of Jesus! One of my favorite Christmas songs is 4Him’s “A Strange Way to Save the World,” a song from Joseph’s perspective, emphasizing his belief that he and Mary were just ordinary people.

As my thoughts wander, I wonder. I wonder how did I get lucky enough to have so many blessings in my life. The silly and the serious. And the sorta serious.

Last random comment before posting: I’m watching the very good Alabama-Georgia game as I type and am thinking that it would be really great if they could both lose. (Yep, I’m orange and blue for life.)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

BOOKS: Ramblings with No Thesis Statement, No Conclusion, Little Coherence, and a Big Need for Hyperlinks

A book person. That’s what I’ve always been. I learned how to read early and started collecting books before I started school. During my early years, when we lived in Jacksonville, my parents would drop me at the Anniston public library and museum while they went shopping. I felt like I knew all the items in the museum on a first-name basis and, almost 70 years later, still remember its faintly musty smell. I always visited the mummies first, then wandered to the stuffed animals, the harpsichord, and my other friends and finally to My Spot among the books. I remember getting my first library card there when I was six and checking out my first Hans Christian Andersen book, The Little Mermaid, by myself. Several years ago, I was disappointed to learn that this wonderful old building in Anniston had been demolished but am pleased that the new museum still houses some of my old friends.

We moved to Auburn when I was ten, and I was thrilled to find that my father’s office was next to the college library, there was a great bookstore two blocks away, and the public library was in the same block as the bookstore. In a tiny, second-floor children’s library, I discovered Jules Verne and Agatha Christie under the supervision of a kindly woman whose name I have unfortunately forgotten. (She was such a great influence on me—you’d think I could at least remember her name!) The school librarian was Mrs. Francis, who assigned enjoyable library tasks to the new kid in town. That year I read The Robe, The Magnificent Obsession, all the Sue Barton, Student Nurse books, and a lame sport series that included Blocking Back, but I had to hide under the sheet to read Gone with the Wind with a flashlight. Unfortunately, I cried so hard at the end that my mother heard me and punished me for reading a forbidden book.

For years I collected the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and The Hardy Boys, and the less-known Five Little Peppers series. Oh, and the Miss Minerva and William Green Hill books! And of course I had the Louisa May Alcott books. Pollyanna. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Cricket: A Little Girl of the Old West. When I married and left home, Mama gave away all my books that were “cluttering up” the house. Sigh. But I've found a few of these titles in flea markets over the decades.

I love books. I love libraries and bookstores. I love the way books make my hands feel and my eyes smile. Imagine my surprise when I learned that I also love to read on my Kindle! Tired of tripping on the stack of paperbacks on my bedroom floor (because there was no more room on the shelves), I began to read books on my Kindle (first generation, October 2008) and now on my Kindle Fire. And also on the Kindle apps on my cell phone and two computers.

Visualize a laundry room. Mine is not typical. In addition to its clothes responsibilities, this fairly large room with tall ceilings has an additional function in my dilapidated old house: It is my library. The walls are covered in shelves. So when two rooms were recently remodeled and repainted, all books had to be removed from the laundry room shelves. The guys randomly threw everything in boxes, and when there were no more boxes, stacked the books throughout the house. And then covered everything in heavy white dust from sheetrock and ceramic tile.

It was a forced, perfect time to analyze which books could continue to live here. Getting rid of all college textbooks? A no-brainer. They were so outdated that they were useless, so they hit the garbage can. Cans.  And I actually had fun trashing the old curriculum and ed psych books. And statistics! I didn’t like them then, don’t need them now, wonder why I kept them so long, and then remember, oh, yeah, because it takes time and effort to make such decisions. Most of my beloved English-teacher books (anthologies and volumes on teaching composition and literature) went to the Teacher Resource Center in Columbus—two trips with the mini-van so overloaded that it wobbled. The BK (before Kindle) contemporary books went to a local charity. Boxes and boxes, outta here. Don’t even miss them. I still have too many books on the shelves, for example, too many really OLD books, not valuable but just old enough to be interesting. To me. And I haven’t even started on the shelves in the other rooms. Or the tall stack behind the door in the dining room.

Now I can check in on Amazon (is this beginning to sound like a commercial?) to see all the books I have read in recent years—well, nearly all of them. And this circuitous journey takes me to what’s on my mind today: a recent strand in my reading. (I always have several strands going at one time; for example, right now my second strand is historical fiction about medieval England.)

Within the last year, I’ve gotten into World War II, the Pacific Theater. Unbroken (sub-title: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, 2010) is amazing. It also is about much more than a battle in the Pacific Theater. When I told my brother-in-law Don about this excellent book, he recommended Flyboys (sub-title: A True Story of Courage, by James Bradley, 2003). From there, I bounced to Flags of Our Fathers (by Ron Powers and James Bradley, 2000).*

In the latter book, I met General Howlin’ Mad Smith, a person of great interest to me beyond my fascination with World War II. A historic marker ( on my property in Seale indicates his birthplace—an amusing proclamation since according to his autobiography, Coral and Brass, he was born in Hatchechubbee, a few miles down the road in Russell County. His family later moved to Seale, and he graduated from nearby Alabama Polytechnic Institute (Auburn) in 1901. He died in 1967 and left a small bequest to the Seale United Methodist Church.
*I like checking out movies that relate to my books. The title Flyboys is sometimes confused with a movie that takes place in WW I France and also The Flyboys, about two stowaways. Unbroken will soon be a movie. I have ordered a Flags of Our Fathers DVD and have Letters from Iwo Jima on my Netflix instant queue. I am currently exploring a somewhat related strand on Netflix: “Non-battle” WW II movies. Examples: Island at War (occupation of a channel island), Wish Me Luck and Charlotte Gray (British spies in France), The Aryan Couple and Sarah’s Key (Jewish persecution), and Land Girls (Women's Land Army).

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Pain of Learning New Words

Recently, I was the victim of a felon. On my right pinkie. Not the place you would generally look for a bad guy. For this Miz Word person, who delights in learning new words, to have gained a new definition of the word felon, well, I could have passed it up.  

Two weeks ago, I cut a stubborn cuticle a little too close and a couple of hours later noticed that there was an infection around the nail. The next afternoon, after teaching a SMART Board class all day and becoming very aware that something was just not right under the band-aid, I left class a little early and drove to my doctor’s office. With a great deal of concern (and interest) he inspected the back of my finger and said, “That looks like a felon.” Then he called in two other doctors to take a look and they nodded their heads, Yep, it’s a felon. He quickly arranged transportation for me to see an orthopedic surgeon, saying he couldn’t let me drive (by then I was really hurting and was a little dizzy and nauseated) and it would take too long for my son to drive to town. Wow. The surgeon gave me pain pills and scheduled emergency surgery early the next morning. At that point the pad of my finger was tight and smooth and really looked weird, and the inflection around the nail even worse. Not for the squeamish. (That’s me.)

The speed of the infection was the flag that this was a possible big problem. Fortunately, we got to the infection before the bone was damaged. I give thanks to God for my doctor, who acted so quickly, to my teaching partner, for covering the end of the class for me, and to my son, who hauled me to the operation and the not-yet-completed therapy.

And that’s why I now have nine nails and a big bandage. And why a very patient physical therapist changes the dressing every other day and tries to coerce me to bend my finger--without hollering or fainting. But I have occasionally done both. Actually. And why I have had two drug reactions, one from the antibiotic and one from the pain meds. Can you say wimp?

And the lesson is:  Clean your cuticle cutters with rubbing alcohol every time you use them. The surgeon said he sees this problem frequently after women visit nail salons. He was nice enough not to lecture me. Also, another lesson:  Learn new words, but try not to apply them to your own personal body.

Friday, May 11, 2012

What My Mother Taught Me

This post is in memory of my mother, Lucile Self Barrow, of Oneonta, Alabama, where her father was Superintendent of Education for Blount County and her mother was an elementary school principal. She was born in 1901, graduated from Huntington College in 1922, married in 1937, became a mother in 1938, and died in 1993.

When I think of Mama, I am selective about the scenes I choose. I definitely do NOT want to linger over her last years. Those scenes are not fun to remember, but Mama was a fun person. She played games, told jokes, teased, and laughed. Oh, how she laughed! A full-time homemaker, she was always there when I needed her. She worked very hard to entertain me. Although Daddy usually wanted to teach me something useful, like how to read a map, take a picture, or use a jigsaw, Mama wanted to teach me that life was fun. My childhood years were so seamlessly happy, filled with laughter, and insulated from conflict that I was shocked when I learned that my home life was not the norm.
Years later I learned that the pretty, black-haired woman who taught me and my friends how to play Hopscotch, Jacks, Snap, Old Maid, Authors, Rook, Touring, Pit, Monopoly, and Carom* was once a teacher of Latin and French, a scholar with a double major in Latin and Greek. She had a beautiful, well-trained soprano voice and enjoyed singing in the choir, but I never really thought about that when she taught me song after silly song, sometimes in the car, sometimes on the piano bench.

Mama taught me to love shopping. We went frequently to Birmingham, where Daddy would drop us off in the Parisian’s block while he went to a teachers’ meeting or to Sears to look at some new equipment for his basement carpentry shop, and we would spend many happy hours looking at clothes. (For me. I realized much later that we never shopped for her.) When I got my driver’s license--Mama didn’t drive--we traveled regularly to downtown Columbus, to Kirven’s, Kiralfy’s, Davidson’s, and Kaiser and Lillenthal’s.

My parents taught me the importance of family. They made sure that their only child had the opportunity to spend time with and get to know and love grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins on both sides of the family. Some of my favorite memories are of family gatherings.

She and Daddy together taught me to pray, read the Bible, memorize scripture, use The Upper Room for devotionals, and treasure hymns. They enjoyed the various activities of our church, particularly their Sunday School groups. From an early age I saw them reading, reading, reading: books, magazines, newspapers. I wonder how they would have assimilated blogs into their reading habits! We often sat together in the living room to listen to the comedy shows on the radio or enjoy music from our collection of 78’s. When I was in high school in the mid '50s, we got our first TV, but they still liked to use the old cabinet radio.

I’ll always be grateful for what my mother taught me. I just wish she had taught me how to cook!

*And Red Rover, Simon Says, Treasure Hunt, Canasta, Checkers, Pick-Up Sticks, Scrabble, and, although she didn’t teach me to play croquet--that was Daddy’s game--she was the one who spent countless hours with me on the croquet court. (The croquet court is a topic I will write about later.)