Saturday, April 25, 2015

"Listen or thy tongue will keep thee deaf."  ~  American Indian proverb

"O.K. guys, take out your English books and turn to page 216." (Groans all around…)

"What page, again, Mrs. W?"

"Page 216.  You know, the part about how to punctuate dialogue…" 

More groans, and louder ones.  And the loudest ones of all were coming from ME! I'd given the same directions 5 times that day already. 

Blast it, I thought. Now I need to give my students another test to see if they understand how to use quotation marks correctly, and that means reading 220 papers consisting of identical boring, boring sentences like: "Hello, Jane," said Tony. "Hello, Tony. How are you today?" "I'm just fine, Jane." You know the kind of sentences that live only in the standard English textbooks…  Who wrote these English textbooks anyway? Robots who never actually heard REAL LIVE PEOPLE TALK? I wondered.  Sheesh!  

But it was part of my job, and I did love teaching these kids. But these textbook sentences were soooo lame.

Well, there's a time to talk, and there's a time to not. 

"OK, class! Close those books, right NOW!"


"Girls, leave your purses under your desks! ALL of you, grab your notebooks and your pens and follow me!"

"What's wrong, Mrs. W? Where're we going?" 

"Grab your pens and notebooks, and line up at the door. We're going on "location!"


"Yeah, location! I told you that I used to live in Culver City where they used to make movies. Well, there's only so much of a movie that they can shoot on a sound stage. For the best outdoor scenes they send the crew and the actors out to the real world, and they shoot scenes there. We're going out to the REAL WORLD to hear REAL dialogue!"

"We are?"

"Yup! Now, listen to me… We are going to spy on real people saying real things, so you MUST be sneaky quiet. We are going to sneak up to a classroom with open doors, making sure that neither the teacher or the class realizes we are there. You must write down every single word you hear and identify whether it's a teacher or a student talking, and whether it's a girl or a guy. Is that clear?"

"Really? You mean REAL people talking?" asked one of the guys.

"Exactly! Now, if you hear a student whispering to someone, that counts in your dialogue, OK? Write down every single thing you hear, and when we get back to our room, you can divide up the dialogue into paragraphs, and you can put in the correct punctuation, especially quotation marks, when we get back. Oh, and you MUST be sneaky! We want to get the real way that REAL people really speak. Got it?"

I'd like to say that I thought up this way of teaching dialogue paragraphing and punctuation all by myself, but I didn't! I'd been reading a terrific book by a famous mystery writer who actually lived about 20 miles south of Anaheim, California. He'd also written an article about writing dialogue that intrigued me. He said that he would go to a MacDonald's close to a high school, buy a Coke, and settle himself into a booth just before school was out. MacDonald's would be filled with chattering high school students about 10 minutes after he'd arrived. Perfect! He would take out a notepad and copy all the conversations around him for the next hour. He said that it was the best way in the world to capture the current "buzz-words," the incomplete sentences, and the true music of live human dialogue.

Well, we could do it, too, minus MacDonald's. 

"Mrs. Waldron, do you think that writer's ever been at OUR MacDonald's across the street after OUR school was out?" asked one of the girls. 

"Well, if he was, raise your hand if YOU've ever gone to MacDonald's after school," I asked. Several, no, ALL of the hands went up. "Well, YOU might have made it into one of his books!" I told the class. A teacher uses every trick she can figure out to get her students to read, you see.

That evening I settled in to read as many of their "secret conversations" papers as I could, and they were GREAT! So true to the rhythm of the language, so true to the words that real people use when they converse. Wow! Great assignment, Terry Waldron! You ROCK, lady! I thought to myself.


And then I read the rest of the sentence, "…UNTIL YOU ARE QUIET!" yelled Mrs. Waldron…


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend.  Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."  ~  Groucho Marx

There's more to that Folk Lit class… many more things that were funny and touching and full of learning. But it's one day, close to the last day of classes that second semester, that I can never forget… It showed, again, the power of a book!

I was sitting in the Teachers' Lounge, that "off-limits-to-students" little room filled with used stuffed chairs, a thinly-stuffed, fake-leather couch, and a couple of round tables surround by uncomfortable wooden chairs that never failed to scrape the floor with screams of pain each time another teacher pulled one out to sit on… Or was it my ears that screamed at the sound of those darn wooden chairs? Teachers would grade papers or drink coffee at those tables… depending on how the day went for each of them.

I distinctly remember that I was sitting on one of the stuffed chairs, my legs tucked under me and my head resting on the arm of that chair. I was pooped! I'd just gotten back from driving over to the automated bank ATM about 3 or 4 blocks from school to get some money out of my account during my "prep" period. I had about 15 more minutes of my break to revive my energy so I could finish teaching my last two classes, and then go home and begin reading 220 essay tests, and writing my comments about each point of each essay, and then determine the final grade of each essay, to boot. But, all at once, there was a knock at the door. 

A knock on the Teachers' Lounge door means only one thing ~ "Student Calling!" That knock meant one more thing to me, though. I'd have to sit up in a teacher-like position and be the professional Mrs. Waldron, instead of "Terry"… just me, "Terry."  Drat! And since I was closest to the door, it also meant that I would have to uncoil my body, get up, and answer that darn door. Drat, again

"Hi, Mrs. Waldron. Can I talk to you privately for a minute?"

"Sure, Dave. What's the problem?"

"Well, you know that drawing that we were doing in Folk Lit… that Celtic Meander thingy that we did a month or so ago?" And I nodded. "Well, could I borrow that book that you showed us?"

"Well, Dave, I told you guys that I got it in London when I was studying there. That's the one book that I won't lend to anyone because I can never get another. I told you guys that, 'member? Sorry…"

"But, see… I'm goin' somewhere and I really need it…"

"Well, I gave you all copied handouts on how to make the weave and even how to go around corners and leave spaces in the middle… Hey, I have some copies left over.  I'll give you those…"

Now, Dave was a neat kid. I mean he was always interested in the things I was teaching, and he'd drawn some amazing Celtic Meanders when we were reading some of the Medieval literature that I'd inserted into the class that semester. He was even polite in an unassuming way, never pushy, never conniving, never fake, but never shy or afraid. He was a great kid! 

But, that book of mine unfolded the mystery of how those intricate interweavings were drawn on the pages of Medieval manuscripts by monks who could not read, but who were amazingly intricate artists with ink and brush on stretched and tanned leather. More amazing still, those monks had no pencils and erasers, no way to correct any mistakes. In fact, it took 700 years for the world to discover the actual, anti-logical, pin-prick technique that the monks had invented to make those ink-drawn weavings on true vellum made from the skin of sheep and cows. Let him take MY book home with him? NEVER! EVER! No one was going to take that book out of my grimy little hands! I mean, I liked the kid and I trusted him, but c'mon…

"Mrs. Waldron… can you come out here… just for a minute so I could talk to you… please…? I've got to tell you something…"

"Sure." And out into the corridor I went to talk privately with Dave.

"What's the real matter, Dave?"

He searched my face for a long, long time before he spoke. 

"I'm going to jail…"

"Jail? You? What happened, Dave? YOU???"

"Well, it wasn't my fault… I didn't want to tell you, but I really need that book. I'll be there for about 10 months, I guess, and if I had your book… well, at least I could draw… But it wasn't may fault, really! I was just in the car. I didn't know he was going to do that… Really, Mrs. Waldron. You gotta believe me…"

If this sounds like a bad 1930's old black-and-white movie on TV, it isn't. It really did happen just like I'm writing it.

Dave was in the car of a "friend" who drove over to "my" ATM a few blocks from school in the middle of one night, and instead of using his ATM card (which he'd never, ever had at all in the first place), his friend had decided to "break into" the ATM for the free money that was languishing there. Money ought to buy something, after all, not just sit there, sleeping.

"I TOLD him NOT to do it, Mrs. W.! I really, really did! But then there were sirens and cars and cops, and we went to jail. They let me out, but I have to go to jail as an "accessory" because I was in the car. You DO believe me, don't you? PLEASE BELIEVE ME, MRS. W! I WOULDN'T DO THAT!"

"I DO believe you, Dave. I really do… but bank-robbing isn't just nothing! Even though you didn't…"

"I know, I KNOW! But I've never been to jail or anything, but I'm going there, and I just thought that if I had your book, I could draw and not just sit there… in jail… and… … … and I have to go to JAIL, Mrs. Waldron!"

"I'm giving you the book, Dave. I'm giving you the book. In fact, if there are any others that you want, go ahead and take 'em."

So we walked up the stairs to my classroom, and I found the book just before the bell rang and gave it to Dave. He looked long and hard at me, and he said, "I'll bring this book back when I get out, Mrs. W. I promise."

And he did.

When he brought my book back, Dave told me he had decided to move to Big Bear, CA because he loved the mountains, and because his "friend" hated mountains, and they weren't friends anymore, anyway. Dave was determined to turn his life around, he said to me.

(I tried to end this story there, but I just can't! I've forever been so thankful that Dave's "friend" had never been in my class. How dumb could a kid be? That jerk of a "friend" of Dave's couldn't "break into an ATM!" C'mon… They are metal with hidden cameras and sirens attached and stuff like that. What a complete idiot the "friend" was! More to the point, the idiot had wrecked "my" ATM just enough that I had to drive 2 miles to use my bank's other ATM for the rest of the year!  Sheesh!)

And, no, I never saw Dave again, but that means that I can make up my own "happily-ever-after" ending. 

In my mind Dave moved to the mountains, met a mountain maiden, and had scads of bright-eyed little children who all loved to draw Celtic Meanders. And every single night they all roasted marshmallows in their log cabin's fireplace, right after they had helped Mom with the dishes. And they never, ever asked their Daddy why he would drive 10 miles into town to go to the bank instead of using the bank's ATM over there at the corner of the pine trees and the liquidamber trees about 1/2 a mile from their cabin!

THE END (I hope)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it."  ~ Alfred Hitchcock

Finally! I walked into the front office to pick up all the stuffings in my new faculty mailbox, and then I walked down the hall, unlocked the door of my new classroom filled with 40 chairs and my desk, and tried to steady my nerves.

Suddenly, the bell shrieked, and in they poured… seniors.  Huge, giant SENIORS! And each student coming through that door was there because he/she HATED English classes. They needed this last year of English, though, so they could graduate and be free of school... forever, they hoped. They had signed up for "Folk Lit," a class offered to seniors who needed some more time with English, but weren't going to try to pass the College Board exams. These kids just wanted OUT! But they wanted to walk across the stage on Graduation Day with a high school diploma clasped in their hands.  

"Where's Mr. Spivey?  WHERE IS HE?"

"Who are YOU!"

"Hey!  I didn't sign up for YOU, who ever you are!  Where's Spivey?"

"Sit down!" (That would be me speaking…)  "SIT DOWN!" (That would be me shouting…)  "Puuuulllleeeez, sit down… please…." (That would be me praying…)

And they finally did… sit down.

A hand went up, but the voice connected to that hand didn't wait for me to call on him.  He just yelled, "Where's Mr. Spivey? We ALL signed up for Spivey, NOT YOU… WHO EVER YOU ARE!!!"

It was the first time in my 15 years of teaching I'd ever been scared in my own classroom!  "Mr. Spivey isn't here anymore. He's in the…. you know… the monk place."

"THE 'MONK PLACE'????  WHAT'S A 'MONK PLACE?"' the biggest guy in the class shouted at me.

"You know… the place where monks go to live.  He's there, not here, anymore. He's now a monk!" I couldn't think of the word "monastery" the first time I spoke. I guess I was too scared to think…

"MR. SPIVEY IS A MONK??? ARE YOU NUTS???  HE'S THE COOLEST TEACHER IN THE WHOLE SCHOOL! HE'S NOT A MONK-TYPE!" yelled the biggest guy in class, rising up in his chair like a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex.

"It's true! I'm here because Mr. Spivey decided he wanted to be a monk in a monastery." I'd finally remembered the word for the "monk place." 

And then the class gasped, and then they were completely silent, and they began to laugh, and then I began to laugh, and then the whole classroom changed. Yup, laughter was the best medicine!

"Wait…" Another voice, this time a feminine voice, talked with her slim hand waving in the air. "Are you saying that Mr. Spivey is now a MONK? One of those guys who wear a robe and all that? A monk-guy?"

"That's what I'm saying. Mr. Spivey is now, officially, a monk in a monastery. I don't think he's in the kind where they only talk out loud once a year... a Trappist monk... but he is definately a monk now. He's not a high school teacher any more."

"What's a Trappist?  What's a Trappist, huh?"

"Well, the only thing I know about Trappist monks is that they are a group of monks who don't believe in talking.  They only spea…"


"The Trappist order of monks don't believe in talking except for one hour of one day in the whole year." The teacher in me just had to teach…

"How do you kno…"

"Hush up!  I'm teaching now…  I know because one of my Dad's best friends in high school became a Trappist monk a long time ago, and on New Year's Day, no matter what, we always waited for the phone to ring at exactly 12:00 noon. You see, my Dad's old friend had just a very few minutes to make a phone call to his parents and then one to my Dad.  It was the only time all year the monks were allowed to speak. Dad would speak to Dale for 5 minutes, and then the call was ended. 

I kind of wished that this whole class had joined the order, too! But I sure had their attention, and maybe now I could begin to teach the curriculum of the Folk Lit class…  Oops, I'd forgotten that the "Folk Lit Curriculum" didn't exist! There was no manual outlining the requirements of that class.  It was sort of a "do-it-yourself" curriculum, at least as far as the teacher was concerned, and I was happy about that. As a life-long lover of reading books of all kinds, I was in my element. 

I'd just found a wonderous book called "Weeds." Each page had a glorious drawing of a weed that is prevalent here in the U.S. On the facing page, the author had explained the uses for that weed as well as information that only a botanist would have cared about. I'd bought the book the moment I saw in the bookstore downtown. It was gorgeous and I still have it in my collection. In that book I'd found that many of the plants that we call "weeds" were purposely brought here by the pilgrims, and such folks, for specific uses. After all, there were no doctors in the days that our country was "discovered" by the European immigrants, and most women brought with them small plantings of their favorite "remedy" plants.

What does this have to do with "Folk Lit" you ask? I'd decided that this would be the first weeks of our "Folk Lit" class. Before and after school, I was busily scanning the weed population all over the Orange High School vicinity for our "Folk Lit field trips."  Some teachers needed the school to hire buses for their field trips. I, on the other hand, only needed my students to get up out of their desks and follow me out the door to the wide world of  dandelions, clover, and willow branches. 

Did you know that ALL, at least almost ALL, of the pioneer women liked to live near streams or rivers, and not only for the obvious reason… fresh water. It is also the place where willow trees live, right there on the water banks. So what? you ask… Well, I'll tell you what… They would take the branch of a willow, dry it, and then smash it into powder and give it to a sick family member. You see, willow is composed of salicylic acid. We call that aspirin! Good for nearly any pain, even now. It can even cure pimples! If only I'd known that when I was 16… But every canny pioneer woman kept a bit of dried, powdered willow in her cabin.

That was the start of a wonderful friendship between the students and the teacher. I found a book by a current-day writer who wandered through rural America and talked to people… just talked to folks. And he wrote down what they had to say about their lives far, far away from any city. "Folk Lit" became a place where students met actual people from places they would never go to. My students "conversed" with them through the pages of books.

Sometimes, to make sure the class was surprising, I'd tell the students to line up, and out we'd go to hold class outside. We'd sit in a circle on the grass by the street and we'd read out loud about people who lived their lives mostly outside. It just seemed more relevant to me. And our Principal was the best Principal I've ever taught for. Shirley knew the value of moving, of not being static in educating kids. 

Our school, in those days, had some agricultural classes right here in Orange Country, California. So when we were reading Western literature, we'd walk back to the stalls where some horses and some cows, and even some sheep were kept.  It seemed to me that the sense of smell was overlooked in education. I had read that the sense of smell is the second most important memory sense we have, next to sight. And how can you read Western literature without actually smelling a cow, I ask you?    

 Most every day that semester I heard, "Hey, Teach! Where're we going today?"

Oh, and Mr. Spivey came back one day to our high school on his "day off," I presumed. 

"How are the kids doing?"

"Fine," I said. But, more to the point, "How are YOU doing? How's the monastery?" 

And that was the first and last time I ever got to ask that question of anybody!  After all, have YOU ever asked anyone, "How's the monastery?"