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?"

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