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A Teacher’s Lament


I said I wasn’t going to write about the tragedy at Newtown, Connecticut.  But now that Sandy Hook Elementary School has reopened, I hurt for the teachers who survived.

On that day in mid-December when I first heard about the senseless killings, I was stunned.  Just like when I turn off the TV or leave the room when a news story is about an abused child, I had to walk away.  I listened to the news periodically throughout the day and stayed busy.  I knew it would be a day, like 9/11, that I’d remember where I was and what I was doing.

A week or so later, a friend said, “Newtown must have hit you doubly hard since you were a teacher.”  We had talked about the children who wouldn’t open Christmas presents.  And we wondered how their parents and grandparents would make it through the holidays.  We ached for those who’d loss a child, whether student or teacher, on December 14th.  But my friend had the insight to allow me to bring other memories and grief to the surface.

I remember when my school first practiced lock-downs.  Fire drills and tornado drills were routine.  Lock downs weren’t.  Lock the classroom door.  Herd my students into a corner.  Pull down the shades over the windows.  If there’s time, cover the twelve-inch square window on the door.  And keep everyone in that one corner, along the same wall as the door, where someone couldn’t look through the small window and see us.  It was never said aloud – a corner where a bullet shot through the door wouldn’t hit anyone.  I huddled my 24 fourth graders into that corner and they learned the term ‘packed like sardines.’  The girls giggled and scratched each other’s noses.  The boys wiggled.  We learned the secret knock on the door that signaled ‘all clear’ and that it was okay to open the door and carry on with learning about electrical circuits.

Even after four years of retirement, I still miss visiting with teacher friends.  Laughing during a hurried lunch.  Hearing about a son’s baseball game.  A daughter’s gymnastics meet.  The funny things a grandchild said.

I can’t imagine the pain that the Sandy Hook teachers are feeling as they stand before their students.  They survived a school shooting and lost friends.  During my teaching days, our faculty lost two teachers.  Tammy to cancer.  Marcia in a car wreck.  Two young friends who should have had many more years to read aloud their favorite books to children.  Teachers who left their mark on students and fellow teachers.

Our faculty mourned together.  Questions swirled through my head and heart.  Where’s my friend who wanted to borrow the foldout book about the human skeleton to read to her class?  Where’s my friend who was planning her daughter’s wedding?

I can’t imagine the questions that haunt the teachers at Sandy Hook School as they carry on, teaching young children.  I can’t imagine the horror of a school shooting.  I ache for those teachers.

It’s a New Year……What to do?


I don’t know what to do or where to start.  It’s a new year.  And there are so many things that I want and need to do.  Knit a cap for my Colorado Grand?  Stitch pajama pants for my Grands who live across town?  Finish the quilt that Grandma Gladys started fifty years ago?  Bake bread to take to my sick friend?  Sort and throw away outdated medicines? Finish reading the book I started before Christmas?

I love new beginnings.  Mondays.  New calendars.  When I taught school, I liked the beginning of a Science unit and a new list of spelling words.  So I should welcome 2013.  But I’m frazzled with all the choices.  Clean out the kitchen cabinets?  I put clean dishes in those cabinets so where do all the crumbs come from?  Move the bed and vacuum the dust monsters?  They’re too big to be called bunnies.  If I hadn’t dropped my bookmark behind the bed, I’d never seen the monsters.  Ignorance was bliss.  Take pictures and write stories about the family heirlooms in my house?  I can’t expect my children to remember that five blue glasses belonged to Great-Grandmother Rich and that Daddy mailed the green wooden box to Mother while he was stationed in Germany during WWII.

Four years ago when I retired, I wrote a list of things to do, places to see, and people to spend time with.  I’m too big a coward to even look at that list.  But I remember that I thought I’d get back to playing the piano.  Why have a piano if no one plays it?  I’d sew dresses and rompers for my Grands; skirts for myself.  I’d exercise.  I’d throw dinner parties.  Explore the blue highways in the Upper Cumberland.  Eat lunch with friends.  Learn something new every day.

As I sit with my fingers on my computer, I create a new folder for this year’s columns.  Where We Are 2013.  Should I take time to trash and organize scattered documents in the 2012 folder?  Update my computer?  The loud buzzer on the dryer relieves my indecision.  I hang Husband’s and my shirts.  There’s the raccoon costume lying on the sewing machine by the ironing board.  Right after Halloween, I promised my Grand that I’d mend it.  It’ll only take ten minutes.  I could stitch it now.

Focus.  Make a plan, my brain says.  2013 – a chance to start new.  What should I do for the next 365 days.  Recently, I read a devotion that suggested choosing one word for a New Year’s resolution.  One word to guide each day’s choices.  Each day’s activities.   Suggested words:  courage, faith, patience, simplify, study, action, generous.  What about balance or love?

So here I am.  The beginning of a new year and I’m in a quandary.  Choices.  Lists.  Resolutions.  The phone rings.  “Gran?”  I hear the sweet voice of my seven-year-old Grand.  “Are you coming to see us today?”


Trash or Treasure


My Christmas tree is decorated just the way I like it.  Lights, red bead roping, ornaments and an angel on top.  Ornaments handed down from my parents’ Christmas tree. Ornaments that were gifts from family and friends and school children.  Ornaments made or bought for a special memory.  I can tell the story of each one.  But there are more ornaments still in the storage box.  Some not hung for years.  Enough to decorate another tree, and one tree is all I want.

“Here,” I said to Daughter as I handed her a full plastic bag.  “Take these ornaments to your house, please.  And maybe you’ll hang some on your tree.”  She held the bag in her hands.  “Wait, let me look at those again.”  I took the bag from her.  “Maybe some should be thrown away.”

Who could trash Bert and Ernie?  Handmade, from yarn, and Bert is only missing one eye.  The white crocheted snowflake has just a few yellow spots.  The ceramic angel that I painted would look pretty if someone glued her wing back on.  I can’t trash a Nativity –even a miniature plastic one. A blue Smurf probably means something to one of my children.  The shiny red apple is still pretty.  Why do I have three wooden factory-made stockings?  There’s no name or date on the back of any of them, but they’re cute.

I can’t bring myself to throw away the dozens of calico ornaments that I made in the mid-1970s.  I stitched them at night after our children had gone to bed.  Five-inch stockings and candy canes and wreaths.  Cut from yellow and red and green calico.  Two pieces of fabric zigzagged together and stuffed with polyester pillow stuffing.  Unbreakable.  The only kind of ornament that hung from our tree for several Christmases.  The years when little hands took ornaments off the tree.  And those same hands hung them back on.

I wonder where the picture is of our children when they were 3 and 5.  They were standing beside the Christmas tree and pointing to the ornaments they’d just hung.  Twelve calico ornaments hung side-by-side on the electrical wire between two lights.  Calico really isn’t in style now, but there’s a cotton fabric candy cane and wreath hanging on my tree.

Red glittery plastic bells.  I’m not trashing those.  I bought them at the Dime Store and Husband and I hung them on our very first Christmas tree.  What if I tie a narrow green ribbon through the loop of each one and write “Pop and Gran’s tree, 1969” inside the bellI’ll attach one to the bow on each of our Grand’s gifts.

So the red glittery bells are on my gift-wrapping table and every other ornament that I thought I might cull is back in the plastic bag.  I’ll give them to Daughter.  Surely she won’t throw any away.

John Stories

Sunday morning.  I stood in my closet choosing clothes for church when the phone rang.  “Susan, do you have a minute to talk?” my college roommate asked.  I sat down as she spoke.  John, her husband of 40 years, was breathing his last breaths.  John, whose doctor had just a few days before declared his heart valve replacement a great success and told him to carry on with normal life.  John, who had planned an evening out with friends to celebrate.  His passing was quick.

I first loved John because Jo Ann loved him.  She and I had shared a 10’ x 12’ dormitory room for three years at Tennessee Tech University.  Sisters by choice.  In 1972, I stood beside Jo Ann when she and John promised to love each other until parted by death.  For four days, I stood behind Jo Ann while she made difficult decisions and received condolences.  And I heard stories.

A ten-year old neighbor boy hugged Jo Ann and said, “I liked when he threw the ball with me.  I’ll miss him.”  The next-door neighbor cried as he told me that just two days before he and John had stood in their driveways.  “He hugged my girls (ages 2 and 3) and said ‘How fast can you run?’  When they ran to him, he laughed and told then they could run faster.  The girls wrapped their arms around his legs and John pretended to fall.  He made everybody laugh.”

Jan and John had an on-going joke about birds flying overhead.  John didn’t want to sit at the outside restaurant table under a tree.  Surely there was a place inside for six people to eat dinner that May evening.  Jan teased him that his bald head would be a perfect target, but she’d make sure that birds didn’t deposit anything on it.  When John turned his back to her, Jan poured water into her hand and dumped it on his head.  John stood, hollered words that his mother would’ve washed out of his mouth, and swiped his head with a cloth napkin.  His friends laughed, and John laughed loudest.

Only his generous heart surpassed John’s sense of humor.  January 1976, a snowstorm hit the Nashville area at rush hour and immediately turned roads into parking lots.  My fifteen- month-old daughter, Alicia, and I were stranded on a neighborhood street, miles away from our home on the other side of Davidson County.  After two hours, my new best friends, whose cars were parked on the snow-covered, icy street, pushed my car into a driveway and watched as I knocked on a stranger’s door.  I asked to use her phone and stay inside her warm house.  The snow finally stopped and the main roads were cleared.  John left his workplace in downtown Nashville.  He drove out of his way to rescue Alicia and me from a stranger’s house and took us to his and Jo Ann’s home.  Midnight supper never taste so good.

‘John stories,’ Jo Ann calls them.  Stories that remind me to laugh and hug.  Stories that make me happy that John was my friend.  Stories that help heal hurting hearts.





Fall’s Biggest Social Events

How about the tailgating at TTU?  Lots of food and fun.  A bounce zone for the young and young at heart.  Fathers and sons playing football.  Corn hole games.  Frisbies.  Some folk bring their own food.  Some dine on the free food and beverages that are provided by local churches and businesses.  Tech cheerleaders pump us up for the game, and my favorite, the TTU Marching Band performs.

When did tailgating begin?  The American Tailgater Association, on its website, details the history of sharing food and drink before events and says the first documented tailgate probably took place in 1861 at the Battle of Bull Run.  It states, “At the battle’s start, civilians from the Union side arrived with baskets of food and shouting, ‘Go Big Blue!’  Their efforts were a form of support and were to help encourage their side to win the commencing battle.”  The Romans ate and drank outside the Coliseum before gladiator games.  Doesn’t that fall into the broad definition of tailgating?  Surely, they shared food and spirits and talked about the upcoming sports events.

In 1869, a group of Rutgers fans and players, wearing scarlet-colored scarves as turbans, paraded before the football game between Princeton and Rutgers.  This was one of the earliest recorded celebrations before a sporting event.

There are all styles and levels of tailgating.  Tailgating was simple when we drove a big wood panel station wagon.  We lowered the tailgate, spread out a plastic tablecloth and food.  Pimento cheese sandwiches, chips, and store bought cookies.  Then came vans.  We packed chairs, coolers with drinks, upscaled to ham rolls, fancy dips for chips, and cupcakes decorated with our team’s mascot.  Or we picked up a family-pack barbeque dinner on the way to the game.

For some folks, RV tailgating is the ultimate.  As good as life gets, I’ve been told, and an event that can go on for several days.  No need to go to the game.  RVers park close to the stadium and watch the game on big screen televisions.  They relax in their comfortable chairs, eat and drink all through the game, know there’s been a big play when they hear the roar of the crowd, and maybe even the game announcer, and celebrate when their team scores on the big screen.

Football fans on the Ole Miss campus take tailgating to the extreme.  And when I tailgated in The Grove, I made a check mark on my bucket list.  Ten acres in the center of a campus shaded by oak, elm, and magnolia trees.  Thousands of fans under a sea of red, white, and blue tents.  And the table settings and fare were fit for a southern girl’s wedding reception.  Elaborate centerpieces, silver candlesticks, tablecloths, fancy hor d’oeuvres, barbecue, fried chicken, shrimp, and all the fixings.

Tailgating isn’t just about the food.  It’s getting ready for the big game.  Food, friends, and fun —what’s not to like about one of fall’s biggest social events?

Summertime…..A Good Visitor

I’m not finished with summer.  I want more warm days to play in the swimming pool.  “Watch me, Gran!”  my oldest Grand says.  He runs the length of the diving board and jumps into deep water.  “Did you see me?”  he says as soon as his mouth breaks the water’s surface.  Of course.  I applaud and promise to watch as he dives underwater to pick up a toy that lies on the bottom of the pool, four feet deep.

“Swing me around, Gran.  Really fast,” says my five-year old Grand.  She adjusts her goggles, twists the water wings on her arms, and tightens her closed mouth.  I hold her hands and rotate in a circle, around and around and around.  When I say I’m dizzy, she says, “I’m not.  I’ll throw the ball and let’s see who gets it first.”  She dog paddles and holds the floating ball high in the air.  “Did you know I can swim really good on my back?” I watch as she lies on top of the water and kicks across the pool.

“Gran, hold me.  I don’t want to get my face wet.”  My three-year-old Grand locks her legs around my waist and her arms around my neck.  As I walk into water deep enough to reach her chest, she tightens her grip.  I remind her that earlier in the summer, she put her face in the water and blew bubbles.  “I don’t want to.  You can,” she says as she buries her face in my shoulder because her big brother and sister splash water close to us.

It’s not just fun in the pool that I don’t want to end.  I’m not ready to give up late afternoon pontoon boat rides and sunsets at Center Hill Lake.  And I’ll miss my smallest bird friends.  A hummingbird feeder hangs outside my kitchen window, but now it’s time to take it down and encourage the hummers to head south.  I haven’t eaten all the locally grown watermelon and cantaloupe and yellow squash I want, and I need at least one more mess of fresh green beans.

I like hosta plants with green leaves, not wilted yellow and brown leaves.  My knockout roses are knocked out for this growing season, and the blooms of my red impatience flowers are drooping on the end of long thin stems.  I like long days with sunrise at 5:30 a.m. and sunset at 8:00 p.m.  Plus, I’m not ready to give up comfortable summer clothes – shorts, tee shirts, and flip-flops.

The backyard deck is my favorite summertime room.  It’s where I listen to the songs of night creatures and greet the day with my first cup of coffee and eat lunch with my Grands and read in the late afternoon and cook on the grill.

Just like a good guest, summer comes for a visit.  Then leaves while I’m still having fun and promises to come back.  I’ll be ready.

How Girls are Wired

Last week I visited a kindergarten class.  Two little girls sat on the floor side-by-side and stacked blocks on each side of a balance weight scale.  I watched and asked them what they liked about school.  Millie answered quickly.  “I like my two best friends.  Lydia and Lora.”  She didn’t know their last names.  Lydia said, “I like my teacher.  She’s nice.  And my two best friends.  Millie and uh……..What’s her name?”  I laughed.  It’s good to know that some things about little girls haven’t changed since I was a child.

Young children are friends and don’t know each other’s last names.  And sometimes, just like Lydia, they don’t know first names.  And it hasn’t changed that girls have best friends.  Boys have friends, but seem to run in packs.  During the twenty-five years that I taught elementary age students, and more than that as the mother of a son, I’ve never known a boy who wrote BFF (best friends forever).

According to a study reported in TIME Science and conducted by researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health and Georgia State University, girls are hardwired to care about one-on-one relationships with their best friend forever, while the brains of boys are more attuned to group dynamics and competition with other boys. (http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1911103,00.html)

I was ten when my best friend’s family moved twenty miles away and my friend went to a different school.  I cried for three nights.  Who would I sit with at lunch?  Who’d swing with me on the playground?  And who’d ask me to spend the night?  On Friday, the girl who sat behind me in my 5th grade class wore her red shirt that was just like mine, and she went home with me after school.  And the next Friday night, I stayed all night at her house.

We females latch onto a friend and declare her my BBF.  In high school, a best friend loans her glittery sweater and keeps secrets.  As maid of honor, she stands beside us when we say, “I do.”  She babysits so we can get a haircut when our days are filled with dirty diapers and play dough.  She picks up our children at school when we’re sick.  She plans our surprise 40th birthday party.  She’s the first person we call with good news.  Or bad news.

Among a listing of Truths for Mature Humans I read, “I think part of a best friend’s job should be to immediately clear your computer history when you die.”  I agree.  And I hope she cleans my bathroom and throws away the molded casserole on the bottom shelf of my refrigerator before my relatives arrive.

As Millie and Lydia grow up, I predict that they’ll have many different best friends and they’ll know their names.  First and last names.  But the names aren’t important.  What’s important is that they have a close friend for each stage of their lives.  That’s just the way girls are wired.

Facebook – Not Just for the Young

“Really, you do Facebook?” a friend asked.  Really, I do.  But I was skeptical when I first heard about social networking websites.  I thought such things were created by and for young people, not those of us who are considered over the hill.  My introduction to an online social network was listening to three young teacher friends while we ate lunch together.

“Did you see my Facebook post last night?”  Julie asked.

“No, what’d it say?”  Ann asked.

“I saw it,” said Cindy.  She turned to Ann.  “ Julie wanted to know whether she should wear her new walking shoes or her old ones when we walk after school today.”

“I’d wear the new ones.  What’d you tell her?”  Ann asked.

After listening quietly, I had to speak up.  “Wait.  I don’t understand.  Why’d you ask something like that online?  Couldn’t you all just talk to each other?”  The three laughed.  They insisted they were talking to each other.  “Is that the kind of thing people put on Facebook?”  I said.  For the rest of lunchtime, they told me what their friends had recently written and described pictures that had been posted.  I shook my head.  Some of it sounded like an old-fashion party line gossip.  But I did want to see pictures of a friend’s new house.  That was about six years and ­­­530 friends ago.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a few friend requests.  “Are you the Mrs. Ray who taught 4th grade in Sparta a long time ago?”  Von asked. He linked me to other friends who were my very first students.  Now I know about Abby’s children and grandchildren and Caroline’s success as an elementary school teacher.  Another former student is a stand-up comedian.  As a 6th grader, he shared a joke at the beginning of most school days, but he never learned the names of European countries.  I laugh every time Monty posts a picture of himself on stage at one of his shows.

I like that our daughter’s friends, girls who slept on our living room floor at slumber parties twenty years ago, let me peek into their lives.  And I’m glad that our son’s friends, now grown-ups and daddies, share pictures of their children.  Birthdays, anniversaries, and weddings – all are celebrated among FB friends.  Pleas for prayers for those who are ill circulate quickly.  Pictures of newborns, less than an hour old, announce births.

Skimming and scanning, I make my way through Facebook posts.  I’m hooked.  In fifteen minutes, I know what’s happening with friends and family who live near and far.  I skip past reposts and long quotes.  I read personal updates.  I marvel over pictures of sunsets, hummingbirds, and old barns.  I take virtual trips to Italy, the Great Smoky Mountains, and the beach.  And then I see the best pictures of all.  Pictures of my Grands.  So I linger, longer than fifteen minutes.

Yes, I do the online social networking thing.  And I’m pretty sure that the creators of Facebook never imagined how much this grandmother would appreciate their invention.

Tomatoes – So Many Ways

I simply said, “I ate one of my favorite summer lunches today. Home grown tomatoes and cucumbers with cottage cheese.” You’d thought I’d violated a chiseled–in-stone code of ethics for eating summer’s reddest fruit. Didn’t I know that plain, with a little salt, is the best way to eat a tomato? That question made me curious so I asked a few friends, “What’s your favorite way to eat summer tomatoes?” Answers varied as much as the size and shape of garden tomatoes.
Janet likes the little ones, cherry tomatoes, like the kind she picked and ate while standing in her Grandpa’s garden. Jim wants a whole meal. “Peeled, sliced, and lightly salted tomatoes. With fried taters and cornbread, and a thin slice of Vidalia onion.” Linda’s choice is a grilled tomato. Rachel bakes tomatoes pies. Drew stuffs tomatoes with tuna salad. Karen goes German with a tomato and onion salad, topped with a vinegar and olive oil dressing.
Almost everyone told me to store tomatoes on the kitchen counter, never in the refrigerator. Except Leslie, she likes tomatoes, cold, peeled, and sliced. Kathy refused to be limited to one favorite way. She said, “I love a big thick slice of tomato on bread (I’m guessing soft, white sandwich bread) with mayo and bologna. I love tomatoes with meatloaf and green beans and new potatoes. I love tomato pie. I love tomatoes in a pasta salad with fresh basil. And more.”
And there are other sandwiches. My sister-in-law, Susan said, “I like a warm just-off-the-vine-tomato between a couple of slices of bread with just a bit of salt and mayo.” Angie choice is a cheese and tomato sandwich with Miracle Whip. Sara eats a BLT, heavy on the T. Allen makes a unique sandwich: peanut butter, Miracle Whip, tomato, lettuce and onion. Jane’s tomato sandwich is open-face sprinkled with mozzarella cheese and olive oil, with homegrown basil on the side,
Many think that a straight-off-the-vine tomato, eaten hand to mouth, is best. And maybe it’s because of our raising. Brenda said she did exactly what I did. “When I was a child, I’d pick a bright red tomato in the garden. And I’d stand right there beside the tomato plant and eat it and let the juice ran down my face and hands.” Now we slice or quarter a tomato, sprinkle it with salt, and use a fork.
As a kid, Tricia ate just-picked tomatoes like she’d eat an apple. “Now, that I know how to handle a knife, I go to the extra trouble to skin them, but I still love to stand at the sink (preferably without an audience) and go to town with the salt shaker, eating tomatoes until I get full or eat all of them.” Tricia added, “My favorite way is the most basic, humble, messy way there is.”
I agree that pulling a tomato from the vine and eating it like an apple is the best way to enjoy the its flavor. That’s a snack, not lunch. And since my neighbor Ozzie just delivered a few tomatoes picked from his garden twenty minutes ago, it’s snack time.

Next week: How to preserve garden tomatoes to serve for Thanksgiving dinner.