First Saturday

holding handsI’m sitting here at the kitchen table the first Saturday after school started this week. We had the students Thursday and Friday. What was old in May is new again in August. It is my nineteenth year of teaching elementary art in a small rural Texas school and my first days of school were good.

In the hallway the first day I saw a mom come in with her fifth grader. Mom had on what we used to call “a house dress”, big wire curlers and fuzzy house shoes. The daughter was holding her hand and grinning from ear to ear. The Granddad was carrying two bags of school supplies. They stopped and the Granddad said to me,”She said her mom couldn’t embarrass her the first day of school.” The girl laughed and posed with her mom for a selfie. As they separated and the girl walked on to the gym the mom looked like tears were close. But she also looked happy. And so did her child.

Harry Wong’s words ring in my ears. “The first days of school are so important.” As I welcomed my students this year I remember again that the first two things in their heads are, ” Am I in the right place?” and “Does she know my name?”

On the first day of school, your name is the only thing that really belongs to you. Everything else, your time, your brain, even when you eat and go to the bathroom becomes part of “the schedule”.  So to a kid, ” my name”, “my seat” and “my chair” become a big identity thing. After a couple of months of summer freedom that comes as a shock to the system.

Lots of good things happen. Like a student that brought me a cookie at Meet the Teacher night. It said something like”May your days be great and your coffee be strong.” I can’t remember exactly because I ate that sucker the first day of school. It helped.

I get to see big brothers and big sisters walk their siblings around my room and say ” I used to sit here.” And “This room looks so small, I thought it was bigger!” I even had a former student bring their child to meet me because they were going to be in my class this year. I’m getting old.

Even the challenges are somehow familiar and endearing. “No you can’t say fart.” “No, you should not make a fart noise even if you are not farting.” There is nothing in the world funnier to a fifth grader than a fart.

I had a small sixth grade class practice safety drills. As we practiced the lock down drill the mood turned quiet. They were sitting on the floor, away from windows with their backs against cabinets. I turned off the lights to show them how the room would look, “See, we can still see each other with the light coming through the cracks in the blinds.” I told them how my number one job is to keep them safe, even before teaching art. And you could see the concern in their eyes. I hate that our world has put that concern there. The one student said, “It’s ok, I’m a black belt.” Everyone laughed and came back to their seat. But I got hugs as they left the class.

And so I realize once again how precious these children are and what a privilege it is to be with them each day. It was a good start.

 

 

Aisle 2

 

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“What’s your hurry Bud?”, I think as the teenager moved around me on aisle two. I’m grocery shopping on a Tuesday at ten o’clock in the morning.  An unusual thing for me because my retired husband shops during the school year, but now I get to browse in peace during my summer break from teaching elementary school. Adults everywhere. Heaven. It’s quiet. Even the Musak is not too loud. As I look at this kid, I realize that teaching has made me watch people in a different way. I scan the expression on faces for intent, body language for the possibility of trouble.  It’s hard to stop doing that, especially in these troubled times of violence at schools. It takes time away from that twenty year commitment to control. It’s only been a week since school’s been out.

I’m assessing him now, mildly irritated, as he moves past me, going around my cart. He doesn’t look up, intent on his phone screen. Surprise. T-shirt and jeans with a baseball cap turned backwards. Short shaggy black hair. No basket for the young, he has a few items clutched loosely under his arm. Keys in the other hand. He’s in a hurry.

And coming the opposite direction up the aisle towards me is an old man. He looks in his late eighties, white-haired and composed in a starched short-sleeved shirt and khakis, with a notebook paper shopping list in one hand. He leans heavily on his grocery cart with the other hand, but his back is straight. He glances up from his list just as the teenager approaches him. ” Hey, don’t I know you?” he says to the teenager.

All my teacher sensors go off at this point. ” I can’t help it. I think, “Don’t you be rude to that sweet old man.” I’m clutching the handle of my cart, pretending to look at something beside me on the shelf, furiously hoping…for what? Courtesy? Acknowledgement from a teenager of the old? What am I going to do if…. “Breathe,” I think.

And then it happens. The teenager stops and smiles at the old man. “Why yes sir,” he says, “Don’t you go to Midwest Church? Aren’t you Mr. Preston? I’m Ben, I saw you last Sunday. How are you?” “Oh Ben, of course, I’m great, just great, say hi to your folks for me.” says the old man. ” Yes sir, you have a nice day now.” Ben says. He moves on.

I’m stopped in my tracks. It wasn’t what the teenager said, it was the way he said it. Such a simple thing. The easy respect. It was expected of him, I knew. I suddenly wanted to hug his parents, then the kid. I can see the headlines, “Former teacher arrested at grocery store for hugging complete stranger.”

As I walked on I mentally slapped my own hand. “You didn’t give him a chance, did you?” I thought. “You thought you had his number…sheeshz.”

And maybe life is as simple as that and as hard as that. People don’t always telegraph their intentions. Disrespect isn’t always tattooed on a forehead, posted on a Facebook page or exclusive to an age. And perhaps rather than paranoia and mistrust, the key is trust, family and respect. For what will we have if that is not enough? For today it is enough for me on aisle two.

I smiled at the old man as I passed him. He smiled back.

I exhaled.

Child In A Strange land

 

 

It must have been like dropping onto a new planet. He had been in America for a little over four months and he is German.  In a small Texas town of just over 16,000 people, where the largest employers are two brick plants and the public school district, he was  in fourth grade.

As he steps to my classroom doorway, I extend my hand and say hello, my name is Mrs. Strandberg, I’m your art teacher. I immediately notice his clear blue eyes and straw blond hair framing a hopeful face. He has a medium athletic build, even for a ten-year old, like a miniature rugby player and an inquisitive, engaging curiosity that beamed out from his ruddy face. His eyes light up at the Scandinavian origin of my name. I can see he thinks he’s found a European kinsman. “Are you Swedish?”, he asks in heavily accented, but perfect English. “No.” I say and register the small disappointment in his eyes. “My husband’s ancestors are from Sweden.” ” Oh.” he says, then continues, “Well you should visit there, but it is not as pretty as Denmark.” He says this without malice, to him it was simply a fact. I turn to introduce him to a room of open-mouthed fourth graders.

This was my introduction to Nikolaus (not his real name), a remarkable student whose real name was almost unpronounceable for me. “Just call me Nik.” he finally told me with an exasperated smile. Nik was born in Germany, had lived there and in Denmark and had journeyed here with his mother after she divorced. “I still have brothers and my father in Germany.” he told me matter-of-factly, “But my step-dad is great. ”

I began to look forward to his arrival each day, bursting into the room like a large and nosy puppy, full of talk. “How did you learn such good English in such a short time?”, I ask. “My mother taught me. She speaks eight languages. Don’t you speak any other languages?”, he responded, clearly feeling a little sorry for my lack. I’m reminded once again of the European custom of teaching their children different languages early in life as a necessity of living in a modern world. I wish we were that smart.  “I’m learning Japanese right now.”, he continued. ” When I grow up I want to go to Tokyo and start a business.” Nik’s curiosity is a palpable thing. He curious about the pencil sharpener, what kind of car I have, how my desk chair works with a pneumatic cylinder to raise and lower the height. His curiosity is insatiable.

I met his mother at open house that year, a slender, confident woman with a penetrating look. She spoke to Nik as if he were thirty instead of ten, clearly proud of her clever son and determined to give him the best.

But the thing that impressed me most was Nik’s ability to let criticism of his newness to the Texas culture bounce off of him.  He had a built-in confidence that was not overbearing. He knew who he was and what he was about. The other kids loved to hear him talk. He accepted the gentle teasing of his classmates about his accent with such a good-natured charm that before you knew it he was giving German lessons to the entire class and he was laughing at their Texas-twanged attempts.

Nik was a dedicated art student, but almost to a fault, critiquing his work in a running monologue, peppered with questions. “What was pastel made out of anyway? Did it come from the ground or the lab? Where could he get these in America?” This phrasing was perfect, not just Texas, mind you, it seemed all of America was open to him. In the midst of a papier-mâché dragon whose wings kept drooping he announced that his dragon was a sea serpent, and needed no wings. And why did papier-mâché smell so funny anyway?  “My sea serpent has bad-breath.”, he says.

And then, one day, just like that, he was gone. Whisked away with his mom, for a job opportunity up north. I felt a real sense of loss and kept one of his artworks pinned by my desk, a precisely drawn geometric pastel with an oriental look to it. I know that whereever he is, he is facing his world head-on, and asking questions, always questions. It makes me smile.

I hope I get to visit Tokyo one day. I have no doubt that Nik will be there, running an international conglomerate with immense enthusiasm.

Bones and Blades

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I was driving in to my teaching job last week when I came upon a dinosaur bone. Well not a real dinosaur bone, but to me it was as startling as unexpectedly having the ribcage of a brontosaurus appear on the road in front of you. It was a single blade of an industrial wind turbine making it’s way through the morning traffic in Mineral Wells, Texas. It was the scale of the thing that was almost frightening. I had never been that close to a wind turbine blade before, although I had a vague knowledge that there are multitudes of wind farms in West Texas. It was huge and an eerie bone-white. Sleek and almost unearthly in that pedestrian setting, being accompanied by trucks before and after with flashing lights as if to say, pay attention, this thing may get away from us.

windrader-474574_1920So how big was it? According to the NationalWindWatch  the blades of a G.E. 1.5 megawatt model are 116 feet long and have the vertical wind sweep of just under an acre. An acre.  My Brontosaurus comes in a sad second place with an estimated length of only 75 feet total from nose to tail.

The Next Word

HandsIt’s a funny thing about people. As I have gotten older, I’ve come to realize that very few people keep their word. I don’t mean a sacred promise, like a marriage vow,  or a “I solemnly swear to…” kind of promise that politicians seem to love saying, then go scuttling off to do whatever it is they are doing up there.

I mean just things ordinary people say they’ll do.  Like a commitment from people you do business with.

I’m writing this after watching my husband suffer through five months of the worst real estate deal in the history of mankind trying to sell a home for a relative. Before that it was negotiating the Medicaid system through a forest of questionable advice from Medicaid consultants talking through their ass.  Before that it was the purchase of a new car, which went along just great until the little ferret of a salesman realized we were not going to purchase an extended service contract. My husband asked him if the product he was selling was not manufactured well enough to hold up for the three-year, 36,000 mile warranty that came with the purchase. Crickets chirped for a moment and then we left with the car.

When I do business I try to look at the person talking and think if I can trust what they are saying. I fall into that trap every time.  Something in me knows that they are just spouting the memorized company marketing line, but I still naively try to believe.

But now more and more doing business with any company has become an arduous process. I try to research the company beforehand and look at what they have done. Always better to look at what they have done than listen to what they say they will do. I look at their Better Business Bureau file. I find out what my options are if the company does not do what they say they will. What are similar companies?

It’s exhausting, not being able to trust. What happened to the handshake and giving your word? Silly girl, that world is disappearing.

As he was making our tea this morning my husband asked me if I thought he was always going to be cynical now. I responded “Probably, but I beat you to it.”

So, very few people keep their word.

But it sure makes you value those who do.

photo CCO creative commons image