Kindergarten Reflections: The Bailey Year, All Cracked Up

(Originally posted March 31, 2011)

Every now and then the sun dawns on a day that will be etched in ones brain until the end of time.  Usually those brain-etched days are reserved for a wedding, the birth of a child, a long-awaited homecoming.  Even among Kindergarten teachers, I dare say that you wouldn’t find a whole lot of brain-etching memories surrounding a room full of 5 year olds and a cooking lesson.  Not so in my collection of Kindergarten memories.  One of the days forever seared into my cerebrum, holding top honors on the list of ‘Days I will never forget if I live to be 1000,” just so happened to be on Green Day,  a mere five days into the illustrious Kindergarten school year of Miss Bailey Elizabeth Norsstrum.
As a fun school year opening theme, the Kindergarten classes would focus daily instruction and activities around a color.  Each day, children would wear the designated color as well as bring a show-and-tell to match the color of the day. On Red day, we would read about Clifford the Big Red Dog and craft festive, floppy dog ears to wear home at the end of the school day.  Blue day activities would center around the children’s literary classic, Blueberries for Sal, followed by making blueberry muffins from scratch.  Not every color day would have a big cooking activity like the muffins. That honor, bestowed on the color Green, would usually fall on Friday.  
The end of the first week of school, Green Day was celebrated by reading Dr. Seuss‘  beloved childhood text, Green Eggs and Ham.  A chorus of young, shrill voices would happily chime in unison by stories end, “I DO NOT LIKE THEM SAM I AM!!”  Well, it doesn’t take a whole lot of guessing to figure out the BIG cooking activity culminating our collective wearing of the green.  
At Denton Creek Elementary in Coppell, Texas, Room A-108 was my “home away from home” for several years.  A-108 really did seem like home in many ways…it came with its very own restroom (sometimes a bit TOO close by, but thats another blog entry…), separate carpeted and tiled areas for varying activities, a wall of useful cupboards and a large storage closet (with a mirror thoughtfully mounted inside the door for the teacher to check his appearance prior to Meet the Teacher night and Open House!), and the feather in our Coppell Kindergarten cap–the Kitchen!   Four burner cooktop, full size wall oven, double sink, and Sub-Zero refrigerator made us the envy of our non-Coppellian early childhood teachers. The kitchen opened up a world of teaching options and I did my best to make the most of it!  Making Green Eggs and Ham was just as easy as snapping our tiny 5 year old fingers…(and 4 year old fingers…)  At least it was SUPPOSED to be that easy!  
Sun rising on that Friday morning seemed no different than most.  Of course at the end of the first school week, Kindergarten teachers far and wide could be found dragging their heels, pouring a third cup of coffee, and counting the hours until that most anticipated weekend would begin.  In my case that morning, I gathered a few extra kitchen items from home for the days big cooking event.  Every year, I would have to remind myself WHAT ON EARTH WAS I THINKING when it seemed like a good idea to make GREEN EGGS AND HAM on this of all days–Friday of the first week?? But hey…it’s always turned out to be a quick, easy prep, fast clean-up and most enjoyed activity for the children.  No need to worry…this year would be like all the others.  Right?  
Wrong.  Brain, get ready to be etched, for Green Day with Bailey was about to begin!  Overall the day was mostly uneventful.  Usually by the time the fifth full day of school rolls around in Kindergarten, it is noted by tired children, a few telltale tears of tiredness (most from the children), and a teacher whose sails aren’t quite as full of wind and energy as they were on day number one!  On this particular day, no major event had transpired that would warrant an email to the teacher’s “real” home with orders to add a second bottle of wine to the fridge.  At least not yet…
In my classroom, for activities such as preparing Green Eggs and Ham, it is most important that each child have an active part in the preparation, whether stirring, pouring, monitoring cook time, etc.  With eggs on the menu–and they were not to be boiled–cracking 22 eggs was first on the recipe card.  Having been around the Kindergarten block for a few years, management of this type activity was fairly effortless.  Around a large flower shaped table, all my little kiddos peered over taller shoulders and leaned in close to have optimum viewing  and vie for a turn early in the process.  As I gave the instructions for how this egg cracking scenario would play out in our quest for Green Eggs and Ham, Bailey kept squeezing her way in and out between her classmates knowing that her rightful place was first in line to crack…an egg.  
“Bailey, please move back in your place next to Morgan.  That is where you were standing and that is where you need to be.” 
In my instructions to the class I demonstrated how each of them would carefully take the egg from the carton, and OH so gently tap, tap, tap the egg on the table and once the audible <CRACK> , Mr. Creel would quickly take the egg and finish breaking the egg out of the shell into a large mixing bowl.  Then, the great egg cracking commenced!  The silence was truly palpable as each child tapped an egg on the table, and then a collective sigh of achievement as the desired sound rang flat on the hard tabletop.  
“Bailey, cutting in front of your friends will NOT get your turn any sooner.  MOVE back to your place beside Morgan.  Look at the other children–what do you see? (Standing around table, not moving from place to place, and several quite annoyed looks from kids tired of Bailey squeezing inside personal space which was not her own.) “People,” Bailey responded.  I matter-of-factly stated, “Would you please try to stand like those people–still–next to Morgan? The next time I have to speak to you about moving ahead in line, you will find your place at the very end of the line.  Do you understand what I am saying?”  Bailey sheepishly nods her head and gives a small pout.  
*Words of note:  This is the time when most other children would cut their losses and accept the situation as is.  Not Bailey Elizabeth Norsstrum.  The human obstacles surrounding her were certainly not becoming the pawns on the chessboard of her universe as anticipated, nor was she where she aspired in the egg cracking line-up.  Bailey Elizabeth was not to be outdone!  So she squeezed, and pushed again.  Guess where that got her?   
Moving Bailey to the last spot in the line did not result in total meltdown, which I was fully expecting and began grinding the enamel from my teeth in preparation.  A pouting lip worthy of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float, crossed arms, marching feet and a huffy “Harrrrummph!”  were the dramatic effects chosen.  I think Bailey was beginning to see how life in A-108 was to play out:  when a line was drawn and she crossed it, consequences set out beforehand would follow in quick succession. Each and every time.  No kidding.  I think Bailey was beginning to see that if she lit into Tactic #6 at full tilt just now, cracking an egg for her would be but a wishful thought and nothing more.  She was absolutely correct.  
The egg cracking resumed and our large bowl began to look rather amusing with so many little yellow orbs swimming around!  Yes, there were a few orbs not completely contained as nature had intended due to a few overzealous table taps.  Yes, a few bits of shell had to be scooped out.  The biggest success was that of happy children enjoying learning, sharing and taking turns.  That made it all worthwhile! 
As Bailey slowly moved around the table, marking the last of the children to add an egg to the bowl, I began to notice the parade float lower lip had deflated somewhat, arms were fidgeting, and thankfully uncrossed, marching feet had resumed standard bouncing.  Bailey was smiling ear to ear by the time she had reached the coveted space of “NEXT IN LINE!”  The thought crossed my mind that at LEAST Bailey had the benefit of watching 21 students before her tap an egg so she was quite clear on what to do.  **Here is the place where I insert the only phrase appropriate… FAMOUS LAST WORDS. 
What happens next was so sure and swift that it can only be described as the proverbial train wreck we are helpless to stop and must watch the ensuing carnage erupt before our very eyes. 
The closer Bailey creeped toward her egg cracking turn, the wider the smile became on her face.  Why, by the time the child before her stepped away, leaving only our resident four year old with a smile as wide as a Cheshire cat, even I was smiling broadly, wistfully thinking to myself, “You know, after a few more weeks of adjusting, Bailey is going to be just…”
…and then it happened……
Literally, in the blink of an eye, before I could get the word “NOOOOOOOOO!!!!” out of my mouth, in one fell swoop Bailey took an egg from the carton, lifted it as high as her arm could reach, and WHAM!!!!!!!!  Bailey brought the egg down to the tables hard, unforgiving surface with the force of that proverbial train wreck.  No gentle tap, tap, tap… Nope, Mr. Creel would not be needed in effort to “finish” cracking Bailey’s egg.  Egg covered the front of my shirt, my pants, my right cheek.  Children in splatter range were spared no mercy from the pulverized egg.  Even the classroom wall behind me took the fall for more projectile egg innards.  I sat there with my mouth hanging open in utter disbelief at what had just happened.  BUT WAIT…THAT’S NOT ALL!!!!  Then, standing in front of me with a crumpled egg shell shedding the final drips of its former interior, Bailey bats her tiny four-almost-five year old eyelashes, (I swear I could see her trying to hold back that Cheshire feline smile!!), and says in a sheepish, though very audible voice, “My Mom and Dad don’t let me crack eggs at home….”
Really.  No kidding?  Well, let’s add your Kindergarten teacher to that list, shall we?!?
Four years old.  Green Day.  One egg.  Sam I am.  Brain freshly and forever etched.   
I wonder if applications are being accepted for greeters at Wal-Mart?      
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Kindergarten Reflections: The Bailey Year, Charm School Shock and Awe

(Originally posted March 28, 2010)

Even two weeks shy of 5 years old, Miss Bailey Elizabeth Norsstrum arrived in Kindergarten with an arsenal of Charm School Shock and Awe tactics guaranteed to wrap her new teacher around her little finger and lure unsuspecting classmates to do her bidding well into the next Millennium. Or so she thought…. why wouldn’t the quick and easy charm-getters continue to impress, or traffic stopping pull-out-the-plug, Academy Award worthy drama stints bring things back around to “Bailey’s Way”? They had up until now…

Early on, I do believe that first morning, began my introduction to Bailey’s arsenal of “coping skills,” to be compared with the progressing severity of the Richter Scale rating earthquakes.

Tactic #1– Batting eyelashes; tilting head to one side; baby talk feigning helplessness.

Tactic #2– All of the above with a big hug and “I wuv you, Mr. Creel!”

*Note: In days past, it was apparently rare that anything above #2 was needed, save the interchangeable name of said perpetrator.

Tactic #3– Pouting, lower lip extended just enough for baby talk to still be somewhat understood; a hint of eyebrows in early furrow.

Tactic #4– Pronounced Pouting, lower lip in full extension; eyebrows at full furrow; arms crossed in defiance; turning back on perpetrator/public at large, but only so much that a watchful eye might detect a foe becoming weary of the dramatic spectacle.

Tactic #5– All of Tactic #4, with words of demand bellowed through clenched jaw at full volume; tear ducts begin to well onto lower eyelids.

Tactic #6– Tears turned on full force, accompanied by wailing to denounce the total and unrelenting mistreatment from the world-at-large, throwing her lifeless body onto the floor with continuous wailing at full throttle should worse come to worse. (Worse often came to worse.)

*Note: At any time, from Tactic #3 through Tactic #6, should the party offending Miss Bailey Elizabeth Norsstrum give in, she immediately performs Tactic #2. (Batting eyelashes was later found to be difficult when Tactic #6 wailing had ensued for a lengthy period.)

Perhaps another child picked up one of the red crayons in the crayon tub, yet the ONE that she wanted. Perhaps it was time to listen to directions from the teacher and she wanted to play with the dress up clothes. Maybe it was Wednesday and she wanted it to be Saturday. Any innocuous tidbit of the day or well intentioned action of a classmate could transform our dear Bailey from a tap-dancing Shirley Temple to a green-eyed Linda Blair levitating off the bed.

Four years old.

Yes, children we had best fasten our imaginary Kindergarten safety belts. It was going to be a bumpy year.

Kindergarten Reflections: What’s in a name?

(Originaly posted March 28, 2011)

The memories from sixteen years teaching Kindergarten are more than I could ever record in any medium. There were mundane days where on the outside looking in, nothing too miraculous seemed to take place. Some days, I counted it a success if everyone made it home in one piece–including the teacher! Among those sweet sixteen, there were years where one name held the banner high and would become “The (Insert name of note here) Year.” Since beginning this blog, several of my teacher friends have asked, “When are you going to write about (Insert name of note here)?” Here, on the horns of this nomenclatural dilemma is where I have been perched.

Obviously, I cannot use the actual name of any former student, and any name I choose could not be a child’s name ever in my class. Often when teaching I would use the name “Sally” as the mythical child who would dare go or do the worst possible option in any scenario. Yet “Sally” wouldn’t fit the bill here. The name for “The (Insert name of note) Year” had to be a perfect reflection–in my mind anyway–of this dear child, down to the number of syllables in the first, middle and last name. I just couldn’t tell the stories until the ghost name was set. So, after much pondering, contemplation and consultation (Thank you, Mark Martin!), the name to fit into my Kindergarten Melodrama was set: Bailey Elizabeth Norsstrum.

Some may think that was much hulla-balloo toward writing prep. After perusing the tales of dear Bailey and her Kindergarten antics, blogged here and in the days ahead, I feel sure you will see the gravity of choosing just the right name.

A few days before the school year begins, parents would bring students to “Meet the Teacher” night, a time for both teacher and student to put a face with a name. Bailey did not a attend “Meet the Teacher”, and the years preceding had taught me to be wary of those cherubs whose parents did not feel it necessary to attend the big get-to-know-you night.” This was to be no exception.

“The Bailey Year” began on day number one of the school year. Bailey arrived holding her Mom’s hand, bouncing and giggling–thrilled beyond measure to take in all that this new adventure called Kindergarten had to offer. As with all the children, I kneeled down to be on eye level as I introduced myself. “Hello Bailey, my name is Mr. Creel and I will be your Kindergarten teacher. I’m so glad that you are going to be in my class!” Continuing to bounce and giggle, Bailey never makes eye contact with me, and her mother encourages her to tell me her name. “My name is BAILEY ELIZABETH NORSSTRUM, and I am FOUR YEARS OLD!”

My heart skipped a beat. FOUR?? Did you say FOUR years old?? Bailey’s mother quickly added, “Yes, Bailey’s 5th birthday is coming up in a couple weeks.” (In Texas, the cut off date for entering Kindergarten is the last day of August. Bailey made the cut off…but just barely.) I also found out another critical piece of information: Bailey had not attended pre-school. This was her first day of school. Any school. I was her very first teacher.

I also firmly believe that this day was another first: the first time in her Four-soon-to-be-Five years on planet Earth for Miss Bailey Elizabeth Norsstrum to hear the following word uttered from the lips of an adult… “NO.”

And so “The Bailey Year” began…the year that neither me, nor my therapist will soon forget.

The lost Georgia Peach– R.I.P.

(Originally posted December 30, 2010)

How can it be that it has been over a month since I have last posted to Facing Alabama?!?  Well, I can shed a bit of light on this nail biter for you….and for Renee Quick.  (Bless Renee’s sweet heart, she has to be one of the biggest fans of Facing Alabama, and has been about to pop an artery while patiently waiting for a new post! Thanks, Renee…your patience…and angst has not gone unnoticed!)  
 
Seeing the date of my last post, November 20, reminds me of the jumping off point for my holiday decorating season.  For beginning November 21 and continuing as I wearily type, I have been “Slinging Christmas,” non-stop ever since.  Not just for myself mind you, but for several friends, clients, and for the folks I have been working for as Personal Assistant.  First, getting all the trees, mantles, tabletops, wreaths and garlands decked, flocked, trimmed and fluffed. Then it was gift wrapping–double-stick tape, invisible seams, bows that needed individual zip codes.  Even now, my bow tying fingers are still partially numb from gripping and twisting enough ribbon to reach from here to Neptune. Now, sadly, it’s take-down time.  Two trees down, mine of course still standing proudly as if in eager anticipation of Santa’s arrival.  I dare say it will most definitely see the light of February!  As my Mother wrote in my Baby Book when I was only two years old… “Even three weeks after Christmas, Barry could not bear to take down the Christmas tree…”  Some things never change!  
 
So the new year is upon us, and I am on a mad dash!  A dear friend from my Grad school days in Tuscaloosa arrives on Friday, and it looks like a bunch of Gypsies live here.  Thank GOD Stephanie wants to see the Christmas tree in all its glory!  Of course, I couldn’t DREAM of having JUST the tree up without all the accompanying accoutrements, could I?!?!  Well of course not!!  So if you missed Christmas at your place, come on by!  Christmas is at full tilt in our house!  YAY!!  However, amidst the holiday splendor are all these troublesome stacks of this and piles of that which have been longing for a spot to feel at home for some time now.  Things too good to toss, but finding themselves in a high-rise condominium where storage is at a premium.  With Stephanie arriving on Friday, the time has come for eyes to shut tight and trash bags to open wide.  Lord, I look at the clock and it is already December 30, which means Stephanie arrives TOMORROW!!!!!!!!  All of a sudden, I am needing to find something to blot the beads of sweat that have appeared on my furrowed brow (Botox wasn’t in the budget this year…) I must away and begin the harried quest to unearth our Guest Bedroom!  
 
The following is a post I made to Facebook last year and is quite appropriate to post to Facing Alabama now.  I hope you enjoy!  I have several topics waiting in the wings that I am hoping to post in the next few days, so be on the lookout.  
 
A special note to the lost Georgia Peach:
Georgia Peach, your absence was duly noted when this years tree was decorated.  You are missed, especially among the array of Scarlett O’Hara ornaments.  Rhett says that frankly, he doesn’t give a damn if you are hanging on the branch next to him or not, so I put him on the back side of the tree!  That’ll show him!!
 
From my Facebook, February 12, 2010: 
 
It’s only ‘stuff.’  That’s what I just told Dan as he dashed into the living room after a small crash of glass and me blurting an exasperated expletive (I could say it was under my breath, but it wasn’t). As I begin packing up ornaments from the tree, (yes, I’ve REALLY started) without warning the hand-painted Georgia Peach ornament, from a New Year’s trip to Atlanta in 1990 with Rick Greenway, slipped from its ribbon onto the travertine floor. Why does it seem that when I’m already feeling melancholy, the Georgia Peach has to go and give up the ghost?  It was comforting to have someone like Dan who knows that  Barry + undecorating the tree + glass breakage = Run to living room ASAP!  True, as special as the Georgia Peach was, it did not require sedation as would be the case if the crash accompanied a few other ornaments.  
For some reason taking down the Christmas tree is a profoundly sad process…always has been for me.  Maybe that’s why it is now pushing February 13, and I had rather do most anything to avoid seeing it packed away.  I realize in the big picture of things going on in the world today, having the Georgia Peach bite the dust, is less than miniscule and inconsequential.  I guess its just that each and every one of the hundreds of ornaments that is packed on our tree every year carries its own story, and I don’t want to lose any of those stories. Even the Georgia Peach. 
But we look for the silver lining, which truly is the best gift of all- more than the memory of a New Year’s Eve trip to Hot-lanta almost twenty years ago, more than the sentimentality of a treasured piece of ‘stuff’, more than anything else- is having someone, who instantly puts together the pieces, if not literally, and is there to make sure that nothing else falls apart!  Thankfully, that is not something that will be swept up and thrown away. So, goodbye my fragile Georgia Peach.  Thank you, God, for my strong Texas Oak.

Kindergarten Thanksgiving: 5 year olds wielding knives…

(Originally posted November 20, 2010)

Allow me to explain…

Sixteen years at the helm in Kindergarten brought its share of memorable events! Twelve of those years in the Coppell ISD hold some of my fondest memories from days spent with my young students: Kindergarten Rodeo, the Teddy Bear Parade, the Valentine Tea Party. As wonderful as each of these events were in their own right, NOTHING to me held a candle to the Thanksgiving Feast!

My first year teaching in Coppell at Austin Elementary was spent in room A-108, right next door to one of the most amazing master teachers to influence so much of my teaching career. A spitfire of a lady, Cindy Brisko is a teacher who truly has Kindergarten flowing through her veins! Her knowledge of how young children learn, along with her ability to challenge and motivate her students with her spur-of-the-moment innovative teaching style continues to amaze and inspire me to this day! Visiting her classroom last year, I saw so many things in her room that had inspired and influenced my teaching over the years. I have always said that Cindy Brisko is my “Kindergarten Teaching Idol,” and I will be forever grateful for the years spent next door, learning how to REALLY teach Kindergarten!!

As mentioned above, the Thanksgiving Feast was my favorite of all Kindergarten events, and “how it’s done,” was explained in minute detail from Mrs. Brisko! I dare say that at the end of her synopsis of this event and how it was to play out, I must have been as pale as a ghost. Talk about orchestration of monumental proportion! Cindy held my hand as I jumped into the deep end of this instructional pool!

In a nutshell: Everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING for the feast would be prepared by the children. (Except the turkey!) We aren’t talking snack crackers and juice boxes here, folks! We are talking chopping vegetables, shucking corn, crushing cranberries, following recipes to make multiple Pumpkin Pies (down to beating egg whites and folding them into the pumpkin mixture at just the right moment…recipe straight from my Southern Living Bible). Children are shown how to safely use paring knives to cut the fruit and vegetables in prep for the meal, and follow instructions from beginning to end.

Yes, shocked readers, you read it correctly: Paring knives. Paring knives wielded by children in velcro light up sneakers and Garanimals mix and match separates. I thought surely Cindy must be kidding. As she told me how to model for my students safe paring knife usage, I know my brow beaded with sweat and my knees began to buckle. With vertigo setting in, my brain swirled with headlines from the evening news post-feast: “KINDERGARTEN TEACHER DISTRIBUTES DEADLY IMPLEMENTS TO 5 YEAR OLDS–ON PURPOSE!! DETAILS OF HIS DISEMBOWELMENT ON EYEWITNESS NEWS AT 10! INTERVIEWS WITH SHOCKED PARENTS TO FOLLOW ON NIGHTLINE WITH TED KOPPEL!”

Paring knives aside for a second, the entire Thanksgiving feast as outlined by Cindy was a learning experience for the children unlike any I had ever undertaken. True, it required mountains of parent help in organizing food items and cooking utensils to be sent from home, as well as an army of parent volunteers on feast day itself to assist the children in their assignments. If completed as planned, without unforeseen loss of digits or limbs, it would be a day to be remembered by all in attendance.

After meeting with Cindy, the next hurdle to be jumped was the parent meeting with Room mothers. There I got to explain to their jaw-dropped faces that yes, the children that they would barely allow to lift a sippy cup without assistance, were going to be dicing, slicing ginsu toting sous chefs one and all come feast day! Oh yeah, and I had to present this info to the Room Moms as if I knew what I was talking about and that this was actually a wonderful idea!

Moms had their marching orders: a mile-long list of food items and cooking utensils needed for feast day to be divided and conquered, and gathering a host of volunteers the likes of which would not be seen again until springtime for the Kindergarten Rodeo. (At Rodeo time they would say, “This is a piece of cake compared to Feast Day!”)

In the classroom, with Jack-o-lanterns barely off the front porch, the first class day in November would have me sharing the wondrous tale of a first Thanksgiving celebrated in 1621. Facts of the Mayflower, Pilgrims, Squanto, friendship and thankfulness laid the groundwork for the next several weeks of instruction and learning activities. To culminate our learning journey spanning the Atlantic Ocean from England to Cape Cod, we would celebrate with our very own feast day, right here in our very own classroom. Most of our projects and activities would center around preparation for our feast, from the things the children would wear to the decorations for the tables. The feast date was highlighted on the calendar and spirits were high as we all set to work!

For feast day, each child would get to choose whether they would be attending as a Pilgrim or as a Native American. Regardless of feast day role, all would make components for each wardrobe. Pilgrim hats for boys would have not buckles (a Hollywood embellishment) but braided fabric, in this case strips of colored paper wound together, glued on as a hatband. Girls would fold and make a precious little white cap to be secured with string under the chin. White puritan collars would be cut out of bulletin board paper. A swatch of Scotch tape would hold in place around young necks until hopefully the photos were taken at feast time!

Of course the showiest, and considerably more labor intensive were the clothing items prepared for the Native Americans! Vests, made from a solid color pillow case, were cut down the front, neck and armholes cut in advance by their loving teacher. No, I wouldn’t let them use fabric cutting scissors, I was saving that adventure for the paring knives…

Vests would be decorated with picture symbols using permanent markers, and then with kindergarten sized Fiskars, children could add fringe at the bottom. Lots of color and lots of “picture writing,” front AND back. (A handy paper grocery bag well placed would prevent the pictures intended for the front finding a way to the back.) Later, as we learned how cloth and animal skins were colored back in the days of Squanto, children got to crush blueberries and dye strips of muslin for later use as headbands.

Once the blueberry colored muslin strips had drip-dried, parent helpers would pull children to the hallway and assist as children selected small shells, corn and pumpkin seeds for parents to secure with hot glue. SHOCKER: NO, I did NOT give each child a hot glue gun. I mean really, did you think I was crazy?!?

Headband complete, necklaces would be made with a dried Horse apple slice (those green crinkly orbs dropped from the Bois d’Arc tree) as the base, seeds and feathers selected by each child would then be hot glued on by attentive parent helpers. For a stylish touch, the rest of the necklace would have colored macaroni strung in a mathematical pattern on each side of the embellished horse apple. As we struggled to be as authentic as possible with our wardrobe design and construction, we came to the conclusion that given the opportunity, Native Americans would certainly have used colored macaroni!

Table decorations were equally important in the feast day prep work. Placemats were decorated with handprints traced and transformed into turkeys, and big, fat pinecones were stuffed with feathers and a hand drawn head for the cutest little Pinecone turkeys you have ever seen! Seeds were even glued to the base for the turkey to dine on in those all-important “fattening up” days leading to our big classroom eat-in!

By the time the calendar told us the big day was upon us, everyone, including this teacher was ready to scream ENOUGH already with this Thanksgiving hoo-ha!! Even so, the excitement was palpable in my classroom, with feelings of a job well done even though we hadn’t even started preparing the food!!

Choosing feast attire, the Pilgrims or the N.A’s (I SO want to just type Indians, in the sake of time, but I just can’t…), would almost always find the class majority wanting to wear those vests, headbands and necklaces instead of the drab Puritan attire. And who could blame them?? Those blueberry dyed headbands alone were stylish beyond words!! However, I would usually end up bribing a few of the kids to be our token Pilgrims. That first feast year, I practically had to paint the picture of Governor William Bradford being the King of all the Pilgrims sitting in a throne of honor at that first feast just to get ONE boy into the Pilgrim get up!! (Thank you Patrick Brunson for stepping up all those years ago and being the Pilgrim of Honor!!) As a consolation prize for everyone, on the day prior to feast, the wardrobe not being worn to the feast could be worn for corndog and steak finger consumption in the school cafeteria.

Finally, after weeks of learning and hours of creating and preparation, the sacred day of feasting arrived! The day before, I stayed late moving furniture and setting up stations were little hands would mix and measure, slice and dice, stir and pour. As last minute frantic worry would hit, the early morning hours would find me raiding my home kitchen for an extra everything and loading all in my car, just in case something was forgotten in the list making or not sent in by a well meaning, yet absent minded parent. On the back counters of the classroom, bulletin board paper was ready for moms to cover tables for messy food prep, stacks of decorated pillow cases, macaroni necklaces, Pilgrim hats and pinecone turkeys were organized and ready for distribution later in the morning.

Excited children walked into a very different classroom space, with lively chatter of the morning ahead. Invariably, a few girls would arrive with long braids, slated for a role later that morning as Pocahontas. Since moms were present as students arrived, most children were goofier than usual as they played out the scenario that I was never able to figure out: WHY do responsible, independent 5 year olds, my classroom leaders, revert to behavior of a spoiled 2 year old whenever a parent steps into the classroom?? I must confess, I took great joy in squelching those dramatic little vignettes!

I must mention that our Kindergartens were blessed to have a cooktop, oven, refrigerator and double sink in each classroom which made this wonderful learning experience possible! As children would complete chopping, shucking, cutting and mixing, food would be moved to the back counter area where more volunteers would take the food prep to the next level: actual cooking and baking.

As morning requisites of “I Pledge Allegiance” and listening to morning announcements were completed, the work of the morning was at hand! I would sit on the floor with a large circle of our future Pilgrims and N.A’s and give each child their own marching orders for the hours ahead. I would also speak in an especially louder voice as I would instruct, “The parent helpers are NOT here to do your job for you!! They are here to GUIDE AND ASSIST!” My fingers were crossed that they listened…the parents as much as the students!

Then, as I pulled a cutting board, paring knife and apple from my desk and moved it to the space in front of me, skeptical parents that were busy in the background would pause to watch if I was REALLY going to teach the children how to use paring knives. I would begin emphatic syllable pronunciation as I instructed where hands should be at all times, where the sharp part of the knife should be pointed, how to cut and slice the fruit, etc. All vowed to uphold the rules of paring knife usage to their utmost ability. (Fingers again crossed…with prayers offered as reinforcement!)

Once the last reminder of IF YOU HAVE TO WIPE YOUR NOSE YOU MUST, I REPEAT, MUST GO AND WASH YOUR HANDS!! WITH SOAP!!! was given, the endless hours of instruction and preparing began to unfold around us like an opening night Ballet at the Met! Busy little hands worked dutifully measuring sugar and pumpkin, taking the helm of the hand mixer as pumpkin pies began the transformation from canned goods to dessert, crushing cranberries with blocks in repetitive cadence, and shucking corn while marveling in rapt wonder at what corn looks like outside a Del Monte can.

During this time, I would monitor the entire classroom making sure every one was on task and not being a feast prep slacker. Before you would know it, all the busy food prep was completed, pies were in the oven, and the scent of warming turkey would be wafting across the classroom. Then, RECESS!! Kids move outside for well earned running and playing while our sainted parent helpers completed the baking and cooking, as others transformed the tables into works of Thanksgiving dining beauty!

Once word came that the food was almost ready, it would be time to pass out the garments for feasting. To say the children looked adorable couldn’t even begin to describe the scene!

Then, we would move inside to the hallway and practice “The Thankful Song,” pages illustrated by the children, lyrics and tune rehearsed over and over for weeks, ready for a special giving of thanks for the bounty enjoyed by these young Pilgrims and Native Americans, present day.  As we prepared for our big entrance, children peeked into the classroom as parents lined the walls, cameras and camcorders aimed and ready.  I would lead the children into the classroom where each child would search out their self-made placemat and pinecone turkey.  Seating assignments located, all would stand straight and prepare to belt out our Thankful Song with our best singing voices! When these precious little ones sang the following words never once did we reach the songs end without ME in tears:


     There are many things I am thankful for, I can find them near and far. 
     There are many things I am thankful for let me tell you what they are:
     I’m thankful for the Earth, I’m thankful for the Sea, I’m thankful for my 
     Friends, and I’m thankful to be me!
     There are many things I am thankful for and I know I’m not alone, 
     Can you find some things you are thankful for? Can you do it on your own?
     I’m thankful for my clothes, I’m thankful for my food, I’m thankful for my 
     Pets, and I’m thankful to be me!
     There are many things I am thankful for, and I know I’m not alone, 
     There are many things I am thankful for, I can tell you on my own!
     I’m thankful for my family, I’m thankful for my school, I’m thankful for my
     TEACHER, and I’m thankful to be me!  


(Of course, the word ‘Teacher’, was sung with extra gusto and heartfelt meaning!)

Then, wiping tears from my eyes, I would remind our young feasters to thank parents for helping, and that unless they were allergic, all Pilgrims and Native Americans were to at least TRY each and every culinary offering!  Over the years I had to settle with a few only licking the slice of pumpkin pie, but hey, by that point this enforcer was worn OUT!!  I’d settle for a lick!

At feast end, I would invariably have parents admit to skepticism of how such a big event would play out, but even now, years down the road, I will still have parents talking about Kindergarten Feast Day outshining all other events of that first school year.  The students pride in their hard work– not only one morning, but in weeks of preparation could not have been more evident in each face that day!  That same pride was also surely seen in the face of this teacher watching those dear faces chomp down on an ear of corn, Pilgrim hats cocked to the side, and those melodic words being heard for the first time, “Hey, I didn’t know I liked Pumpkin Pie!”  (Those words did NOT come from the pie licker in case you were wondering!)

On feast afternoon, as I packed up my car with platters, pots and pans, food processors, and pie plates, I would always give a sigh of relief that this big day came off without a hitch.  Never in all the years of this event in my room was a finger severed or even nicked by the dreaded paring knives! Maybe I followed the directions of Mrs. Brisko just like I was taught!  

Epilogue:
There are many things I am thankful for, I can tell you that for sure!  First, for being blessed with the “job” of teaching young children in Kindergarten–the hardest job I have ever had, or will ever have–and the BEST honor of a lifetime!  Second, I am thankful for so many teachers who over time lent their experiences and knowledge to this Kindergarten teacher.  I only reached the heights I did by standing on their shoulders.  To one of those teachers, Cindy Brisko, it was her continuing inspiration and willingness to share her knowledge and ideas for exceptional teaching that became my source of greatest influence.  As I move on now to work on my doctorate in Early Childhood teacher training, I  hope that I can pass on what I have learned from Cindy and others to the next generation of Kindergarten teachers.  May they each distribute paring knives with confidence to the young sous chefs of the future!

     
Surrounded by inspiration and excellence!  Dear friends and teaching colleagues, Lex Anne Seifert, Linda Adams, Mr. Creel (Barrymore to Mrs. Brisko), my Kindergarten Teaching Idol, Cindy Brisko and Tammy Mandel, fellow member of the original Denton Creek Elementary Kindergarten team and teaching inspiration for me in her own right! 

Remembering Cherryl, telling her story (at least part of it…)

(Originally posted November 14, 2010)

For the past several years, my partner Daniel has worked for Gilda’s Club of North Texas. (Although now known as Cancer Support Community, it will always be Gilda’s to me!)  Named in memory of Gilda Radner who lost her battle with Ovarian cancer in 1989, Gilda’s Club is a haven for those living with cancer, as well as family and friends of those affected by cancer.  

 
Today was a special day at Gilda’s Club– the annual Remembrance Ceremony, where those who have lost loved ones to cancer in the past year come together to remember, honor and share the lives lost.  It was a most special time, with amazingly touching music by Resounding Harmony, stories and memories shared by family and friends, and words of comfort from my dear friend and Pastor, Kerry Sumpter Smith.  At the end of Kerry’s message, she said, “The memories of those we have lost live on when we tell their stories!”  That is why I am sitting here tonight.  
 
As friends and family members shared memories at today’s ceremony, I had not planned to speak.  Then it hit me that it was early this year that my Denton Creek Elementary Faculty family endured such a big loss with the passing of our dear friend and fellow teacher, Cherryl Sigwing.  While I cannot begin to share all of Cherryl’s story, I must share my small part.  So I stood and shared a few of my memories of Cherryl.  
 
Before I actually met Cherryl, I learned a lot about what would be the basis of my knowledge about her just by walking by her empty classroom.  My fourth year in the Coppell ISD found me moving to a different elementary in the district, Pinkerton Elementary.  My new classroom was at the end of a VERY long hallway, and the first time walking to my new room I passed the First Grade classrooms.  I glanced into all the classrooms, stopping to gaze into Cherryl’s ultra-organized room, then I peered into the room across the hallway.
 
Whoa. Wait a minute. The room across the hallway, that of Jenny Woods, was as close to a mirror image of Cherryl’s classroom as you could possibly get.  My first thought: these two teachers must REALLY get along!  I had no idea how much!  
 
I learned early on that Jenny and Cherryl were a pair of ladies who had their game, teaching First Graders, down to an exact science, and I do mean exact! The names alone, Jenny and Cherryl, one was rarely mentioned with out the other.  I must say, I was rather intimidated by them for a few years, always feeling that they were surely thinking what in the world is that guy down there doing in Kindergarten?  They were “old school,” I was this renegade-esque guy down the hall doing all this new-fangled stuff they would end up having to  correct with the next crop of First Graders I would be sending their way! 
 
As the school year progressed, Jenny and Cherryl’s classrooms would carefully and systematically evolve, yet still the mirror image of one another.  As I would pass their classrooms, I would sometimes think, “Oh, I wish they would do this or that…,”  but it wasn’t too long before this Kindergarten teacher realized he just might have been a bit too big for his britches.  Walking by Jenny Woods and Cherryl Sigwing’s classrooms provided much learning for this teacher, as much as their students. I do believe that a valuable lesson I learned from watching these two Master teachers, is “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it!”  Yes, they had their craft down to a science, and their craft worked.  For years they honed and tweaked, polished and perfected the art of teaching First Grade.  That I were as strong a Kindergarten teacher as Jenny and Cherryl were in First Grade, would be my job well done.  
 
The team- Jenny and Cherryl as teachers- was not the greatest gift they had to share with the faculties at Pinkerton and later at Denton Creek Elementaries.  The gift they shared in such a constant and shining way was that of friendship.  You didn’t have to be around them long to know that they had been friends for a long, long time.  Privileged to share lunch with them in the teacher’s lounge for years, it was so heartwarming to always watch them have lunch together. Daily they would share an Arizona iced tea, Cherryl usually splitting it between the two.  Dividing an apple or warming soup, then sharing with the other, it was always done without what seemed to be conscious action.  It was just what they did.  Apparently, lunch was only for starters. 
 
It was only over these lunch periods that I learned that Cherryl and Jenny’s families traveled together, attended each others children’s activities, and were as involved with the others family as she was her own.  Cherryl and Jenny were more like sisters than friends.  Jenny has told me that this was so very true.  I dare say they could finish each others sentences, and probably knew the other as well as she knew herself.  What a gift their friendship seemed to be to each other!
 
It was only a couple years after their retirement that Cherryl was diagnosed with  cancer of the liver.  When I heard of Cherryl’s diagnosis, my very first thought was of Jenny.  My heart certainly went out to Cherryl’s husband Rick and daughter Lauren, but my heart truly broke for Jenny.  In our lives we are lucky to have a few good friends, some of course growing closer than others over time.  To have a friendship through the years as close as that between Jenny and Cherryl, truly is a gift of a lifetime.  Whenever our close faculty group will get together for lunch, it still seems like Cherryl should be right there, splitting that Arizona iced tea with Jenny.  
 
There is so much more to Cherryl’s story than I can begin to share here.  What a precious soul she was!  The gift she gave to hundreds of First Graders, their families, her fellow teachers, family, friends, and especially to her dear friend, Jenny Woods, is immeasurable beyond words.  How blessed I was to teach down the hall from her and gain from her wisdom in teaching young children!  
 
“The memories of those lost live on when we tell their stories!”  Why don’t you share with someone today the life of someone whose memories you hold?  We all will be the richer for the telling!
 
 
This remembrance is in memory of Cherryl Sigwing and in honor of Jenny Woods.  May the knowledge I have gained from each of them continue to make me a better teacher.
 
L-R: Cherryl Sigwing, me and Jenny Woods at my going away reception at Denton Creek Elementary, 2005.

It’s never too late to say you’re sorry…

(Originally posted, November 10, 2010)

Healing is a long process. For some wounds, a Band-Aid is all that’s needed–a day or two passes, the bandage is removed and it’s not long before you have forgotten all about it. Scrapes, cuts and other injuries may require stitches and a longer recovery time. Some wounds are too big for bandages or stitches, wounds that can’t be seen. “Oh, it will be all right…”, “Have a stiff upper lip” or “Just ignore it, and they will go away.” Those words of encouragement and comfort ring hollow when YOU are the one going through Hell. Wounds to the soul take a long, long time to heal if they ever do heal.

Being “different” is a hard thing to be when you are 10, 13, 15, 18, 22. The age itself doesn’t really matter. When the message you are hearing, seeing, feeling from your peers is that you are equivalent to a Leper, worthless, unfit to co-exist in usual adolescent and teenage social groups such as Middle School or High School, or even college, it can be a literal Mount Everest of a survival challenge.

Surely in recent weeks you have heard about the growing number of our youth who have taken their lives because they couldn’t see climbing the Mount Everest before them. Many of those looking up that ominous, insurmountable challenge before them were finding out the hard way what being gay or even perceived as being gay means among some peer groups, sometimes to family members and sad to say it, the society we live in. No wonder some have opted for hanging themselves, putting a gun to their head, or searching out the nearest bridge as the best way to get away from Hell. And it is Hell. I know. I have been there.

Being bullied day in and day out, bombarded non-stop by peers, hurling awful, hurtful names at you and harassing notes being slipped into your locker. Embarrassing labels being taped on your back as you walk to your next class, being mocked by peers in clear view so there will be no mistake that you are NOT welcome–not worthy to interact with them, or anyone else for that matter.

I am a living testament to the importance of unconditional love from family during the days, weeks, months and years of the Hell detailed above. I have told my parents on more than one occasion that had it not been for the safe haven in our home, where I could feel safe–where I could be ME, that I can say with 100% certainty I would NOT be here today. Suicide was something I absolutely considered. My loving parents gave me life….twice.

The damage that is done to the psyche of a child who endures the day in day out hatred and harassment from peers is truly immeasurable. There is a part of it that never heals. Even years later, the memories are as fresh as if it had happened yesterday. I will never, ever forget the words that were spewed at me: “I don’t know how anyone could ever love you in the first place!”

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on the sofa with my partner eating some dinner. Diane Sawyer began telling of a new project being started by two gay men in response to the rash of suicides in recent months. It was entitled, “It gets better.” As the premise of the “It gets better” project was made clear, I immediately burst into tears. The message: the current Hell being endured WILL end. There is a wonderful life to be had! Middle School and High School will not last forever, as impossible as it may be to envision. IT GETS BETTER!

OH but there had been something like this lifeline being tossed out into the water when I was the one feeling as if I were going under for the last time! I will never forget my graduation from High School: May 22, 1981. A happy day? I don’t know that I could call it ‘happy,’ but there was no feeling I have ever experienced before, or in the 29 years since that was as euphoric a feeling as walking away from the place that had been a source of unending pain for 4 years. I have never felt so free, so liberated, so RESCUED. I truly felt that I HAD been rescued!

As painful as High School was, college was just as wonderful! Finally, close friends. An environment where, though conservative, I could finally SEE that THINGS WERE GETTING BETTER!!!!!

It was 20 years before I would even begin to consider returning to a reunion. 10 years? Even then, the wounds were too raw. 20 years? The thought of returning scared the living hell out of me, but I did it. I had no idea what to expect, but what do you know…people grew up. One of the first mind blowing experiences of that reunion evening was a guy from my Senior Class telling me, “You know, you went through Hell in high school. I hate that. But you’re okay.” That experience alone was worth the plane ticket!

As huge as that encounter was to me, it was nothing like what happened this past Labor Day weekend in my Facebook Inbox. What I received on Friday, September 4, 2010 was nothing short of miraculous–LESS than a once in a lifetime experience.

A bit of background before sharing my Facebook Inbox miracle: I transferred schools between the 7th and 8th grade, from a county school to a city school. In my young mind I somehow thought that if I only changed schools, everything would get better! All the name calling, the harassment would vanish and be nothing but a bad memory. How naive I was. At first, it seemed as if my wish had come true, but it was not long that it was crystal clear that I had just moved from to frying pan into the fire. One friend that I had made at the new school, one day for no apparent reason quit being my friend, no explanation, would not come within a city block of me. He never said another word to me throughout the remainder of our school years. Let me note that this person never was one of the harassers, but severed all friendship ties in no uncertain terms. That was early in 8th grade, 35 years ago.

Next year is my 30th High School Reunion. Planning is already underway, and emails are circulating keeping everybody in the loop for the big event. I happened to notice a message in my Facebook Inbox from that 8th grade classmate. Assuming it must be something related to the reunion, I then read the subject line. It stopped me dead in my tracks. It read: “Long, long overdue apology.” Although I am mentioning no names, I am reprinting the brief message he sent me.

****

Long, long over due apology
Barry,

I’m not sure where to begin this message. This really should be done in person, but I don’t want to wait any longer.

I want to apologize for the way I treated you all those many years ago. I single handedly destroyed a friendship for my own selfish reasons. You had shown me nothing but friendship up until that point and I am truly sorry for my transgressions. I have no excuses for my behavior as there are none. I hope someday you can forgive me.

I wish you nothing less than complete happiness in your life.

****

When I finished reading his note, I read it again. And again. And again. The next few hours were spent in utter disbelief. After 35 years, this classmate was apologizing to me. I thought about what to respond, and I knew I must craft the words carefully. To compose the message that follows, I stayed up that entire night, typing, thinking, leaving the computer for more time to process, more typing, more thinking. It was completed as the sun rose the following morning.

****

My reply to his message:

Hello <Name>,
I will begin just as you did… I’m not sure where to begin this message. Let me start by saying that when I saw a message from you I was certainly surprised, and assumed it must be in regard to the ’81 CHS Reunion being sent to several classmates. Then I saw the subject line, and for a moment I surely stopped breathing.

I would have sooner expected to see Publisher’s Clearing House standing outside my front door than to receive a note such as yours from anyone…ever. As I read your heartfelt words, the impact of what I was experiencing was just beginning to hit me. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to write such a note. Let me now respond to the last sentence in the second paragraph where you said, “I hope someday you can forgive me.” Well, that day is today. I forgive you. You have proven true that it’s never too late to apologize. Thank you for this apology and along with it, a gift of healing.

While those days back in eighth grade were indeed difficult, hurtful and confusing, you were certainly not the first, nor the last to feel the weight of peer pressure and the greatest need of a 13 year old–self-preservation in Middle School. In a place where being “different” meant parting your hair on the left instead of the right, finding yourself at 13 with a friend who was gay and quickly becoming the object of ridicule, choosing to flee was not at all unexpected. I do understand where you were coming from with your actions. Had the tables been turned, would I have done the same? I would like to think that I would have stood strong, but I cannot be sure I would not have retreated as well. A quote from the movie Steel Magnolias has often come to mind: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

All this being said, I believe things happen for a reason, including the experiences-yours included- I had through most of my years in school. As you may know I went on to become a school teacher, spending 16 years teaching Kindergarten. Never in a million years would I have thought I would be a teacher, returning to a place where there only seemed to be bad memories. Teaching young children is my great love and purpose in life. My years as a student in elementary, middle school and high school provided, as only living through something can do, my core mission and purpose as a teacher–Teaching children to embrace differences in ALL people. Being a good friend. Sticking up for a friend. Sticking up for yourself. Nurturing a community for learning where each child sees every other child as a unique individual who has gifts and talents to share that no other can.
Today I added another part to that mission: It’s never to late to say you’re sorry. Never.

<Name>, you have given me a place to begin healing, and I can never thank you enough for that. Your apology and request for forgiveness is something that I never, ever dreamed would be offered to me–something I never even wished for. That just doesn’t happen in today’s world. But 35 years later, you have shown that honor, doing the right thing, and making amends are better tools for healing wounds than Band-Aids.

I don’t know that you could understand the magnitude of healing your short note brought into my life, just by pressing ‘Send.’ You have given me an early birthday and Christmas gift, greater than any I could have dreamed up, right here on Facebook.

Your closing wish for me–“nothing less than complete happiness” has indeed come to fruition. Next month, on 10-10-10, I will celebrate 18 years with my partner, Daniel. Finally–peace, hope and unconditional love.

<Name>, I have no idea what the past 30 years have brought to your life, but I, too, hope that you have found complete happiness, including an extra dose of peace and great love.

With best regards,
Barry

Healing is a long process. That process has begun…

Getting my comeuppance in Wyoming

(Originally posted November 8, 2010)

To say I was born with a Silver Spoon in my mouth could not be further from the truth. Our middle class family, proudly hailing from a small Alabama town, was perfect to me: Parents who loved each other and who loved me, and a sister who would have been closer to perfect if she had been a little more like her brother. (Just kidding, Amy!!) The only silver spoons in our home were tucked carefully away in the silverware box, and I would always happily polish the little silver we had before placing each utensil on the Thanksgiving table.

I was always the self-appointed Interior Designer, Social Director and Event Coordinator in our family. Days before Thanksgiving arrived, I would be ironing our best tablecloth and napkins, folding the napkins into my favorite shape at the time: the Bishop’s hat. My Mama’s crystal glasses, each received as a wedding gift, would be hand washed and dried until they sparkled like diamonds. Careful polishing of those silver spoons was my job, along with the dinner and dessert forks, dinner knives, iced tea spoons, and the all important gravy ladle.

A fun Saturday activity for me would be dragging everything off the built-in shelves in the Den, moving it all around and giving a fresh new look. I would drag the furniture around, sending a lamp to the living room, an end table from the living room to the Den. Paintings and bric-a-brac would be pulled off the walls as I would stand and visualize a new placement for all the family treasures. Something tacky find its way into the mix since last re-do? It would discreetly “disappear” to the utility room closet.

I loved shopping, packing a picture-perfect suitcase, keeping my room all spic and span, folding all the towels to match as if they were a department store display, well, you get the picture…

Yes, I did…and do, love nice things. The arrival of the Neiman-Marcus Christmas Catalog was my fourth favorite day of the year, right behind my birthday, Christmas and Thanksgiving. After the arrival of the Official Preppy Handbook, man-made fibers were rarely seen on my body, opting for 100% cotton and a good dependable iron.

At some point, people began to assume that because I loved Neiman-Marcus, I must hold great disdain for stores a few rungs down on the shopping ladder. While not true, it has at times been a burden to bear. During my college days, my friends would revel in getting me in a situation that they KNEW would just grind my gears and “make me want to run backwards” as my Mama would say. For some, it seemed to be their personal quest to throw burrs in my saddle, but at least these were friends that truly were friends. All was in good fun. With that being the case, some of the experiences which at the time had me searching for a fresh oxygen supply, can now be met with a smile and a chuckle.
I can say that now. 26 years after IT. “IT” being the most traumatic experience of this inexperienced southern boys sheltered life. Allow me to elaborate…

As mentioned in the harrowing tale of the Big White Bus, the shocking events you are soon to read took place on one of the mission trips with the Christian Student Center from the University of North Alabama.

In 1984, our mission destination was Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Having never traveled out west, I was OH so excited to be heading to new country! The purpose of our trip was to work with members of a small church in the town, going out in the community to invite people to visit the local church. Each evening, guys from our group would be preaching a “scripturally sound” gospel lesson. Guys that did not preach would usually lead the congregation in singing at the services. Let me insert here: I don’t preach and I don’t lead singing. Period. End of story, and don’t even think of asking me again, because the answer will still be a big, fat N-O, NO. That is not where my talents lie, yet once on the road to Wyoming, the ability to produce fabulous table settings hold little value.

To say it was a sexist time when duties were dolled out was an understatement. Cooking duties for daily lunches? The girls. Loading the luggage for 25 college students each day? The guys. Hey, I pack the suitcases, not the luggage van! I would always try to have a “bathroom emergency” come luggage loading time…either that or feign stress over not having the day’s Travel Bingo boards ready for the days travel. Oops!

For several days our happy band of missionaries made the trek to Wyoming crossing state lines one by one, thinking we would NEVER see the lights of Jackson Hole. If memory holds true, I am pretty sure that one of our vans had some sort of problem in Colorado delaying our arrival in Jackson very late at night. As we drove into Jackson Hole past the Antler arches bordering the town square, I thought this would be a fun place to check out in our free time, making note of gift shops for future inspection.

Arriving at the church, we would find out which church members would be our hosts for the duration. Prayers would be fervently, yet silently offered that we would not be in a home with 17 cats or in a trailer home, propped up on cinder blocks with gunshot holes in the side, or both. Usually there would be some affluent church member that would be the jackpot for a few of our lucky Christians. There we would be, like the Miss America top ten, holding hands, waiting for our name to be called. The last was not necessarily the best and Bert Parks would not be singing “There She Is” at the end here. Stealthily, we would try and see the vehicle the different church members would be driving: late model Cadillac = good chance for clean sheets; rusted out Fairlane wagon = at LEAST 17 cats you would be knocking out of your bed for the next week.

So it was that our band of college missionaries were dispersed among the Jackson Hole brethren that evening. One family, the Clark’s announced that they would be taking 6 girls. SIX?!? That was unheard of! Yes, it did turn out that these six girls had indeed prayed the prayer of the righteous with a luxurious mountain lodge their home for the week. Well, as our tired travelers were locating luggage, being driven off into the Jackson Hole night by the two’s and six’s, we noticed a cowboy, complete with boots and hat talking all quietly in the corner with our Campus Minister and the Minister of the Jackson Hole church.

Then our Campus Minister, Tim Stafford, and the local church Minister walked over to our bunch. We noticed that Tim had somewhat of a sad look on his face. Here is why: They announced that four of us would be going to a small town to work with an even smaller church in the town of Big Piney, Wyoming. The cowboy we had seen was the preacher of the Big Piney church. Apparently, Big Piney was too far away to travel back and forth each day, so four college students, two boys and two girls would be going there for the week. To stay. Away from friends. For the entire week. In Big Piney. Wyoming. Not Jackson Hole. No kidding.

All the guys that had dutifully been preparing sermons for their appointed service must stay in Jackson Hole. Rosters were reviewed to see which pair of roommates had no sermon givers in the mix. There was only one pair of guys that fit this major qualification for late night banishment: Me (remember those famous words? ‘I don’t preach and I don’t lead singing!’ they came back to bite me) and my roommate, Dusty Wear. Dusty was scheduled to lead singing, but since he was rooming with a “Non-preacher” he got the short straw as well. Dusty had a girlfriend, Mona Gooch, one of the sweetest, kindest most gentle girls that ever graced the Earth. I think that Dusty and Mona had been boyfriend and girlfriend since they were in Nursery School, and weren’t about to be parted that night. So Mona, and her roommate, Debbie Myrick made numbers three and four of the lot picked to head off for a week in Big Piney. OH were we sad that night! Tim tried to console us and assured us that countless additional jewels were added to our crown. We were scared to death, being driven away from Jackson Hole by a cowboy…for all we knew, an axe murderer.

Well, I have to insert here that that short straw turned out to be a good thing. A VERY good thing! We had a BLAST in Big Piney, Wyoming! Our host, Rob Jones and his wife Sherry were just wonderful and showed us a week in the Wild West we would never forget! Early on, Rob figured out (I can’t imagine how) that these city slickers, especially me, could be a source of amusement. When getting ready to go to church in Big Piney for the first time, we were of course putting on our Sunday best. When Rob saw us, he started wringing his hands, saying we just couldn’t go like that wearing jackets and ties. NO ONE there would be wearing anything of that sort, more likely in jeans, boots and spurs.

Really? No kidding? But I had planned my Wyoming wardrobe for weeks! What did I have left to wear? However, we managed to tone it down a bit for church services. Difficult (mostly for me), but manageable.

One day toward the end of our trip, Rob told us that he had arranged for us to go to a working Wyoming ranch and we would be able to watch the Ranchers at a real, live, honest to goodness Cattle Branding! Talk about EXOTIC! This was WAY cool and knew that our friends back in Jackson Hole weren’t getting to do ANYTHING like this!!

Well, the day of the trip to the ranch arrived! I asked Rob that morning about the weather and what we could expect temperature wise that day. It was supposed to be pretty cool and to prepare for walking through some wet and muddy areas. He did not define ‘wet’ and ‘muddy.’ Looking back, probably a good thing.

So, I began plucking items from my Samsonite that I thought would be warm enough, and I informed him that I had the perfect shoes for wet and muddy. If I remember, I was planning to wear a long sleeve plaid shirt and jeans with my brown L.L. Bean duck shoes. All conservative pieces, so I thought. My shirt? Rob gave it the big IX-NAY…”you can’t wear that.” My L.L. Bean duck shoes, perfect for wet and mud? Rob said, “You can’t wear those. The ranchers will kill you.” I stood paralyzed. I had nothing else to pick from. My Kelly green Izod pants had already been placed on the forbidden list by Rob, and I was beginning to think they were probably going to wrap me in a bed sheet or easiest, just leave me behind.

As I stood in Rob’s home with nothing but my jeans approved by the Wyoming Federation of Ranchwear, Rob rushed to the next room to find me a shirt. I was not liking the way this situation was evolving. Rob returned with a well worn flannel shirt from his closet. I began to feel lightheaded. I had never worn flannel. Ever. I did not want to break that record.

Reluctantly, I put on the flannel shirt. I was still lightheaded, with vertigo setting in. If I had only known what lie ahead… When I tried to put on my belt, I was again informed by Rob that my belt would never do. “Wait here,” he said, and off Rob ran to the other room to return with a belt for me. I swear it had a buckle the size of Rhode Island! Lightheaded? I was beginning to hyperventilate by this point.

The belts approved for wear in the Official Preppy Handbook were either grosgrain with tiny whales or madras, take your pick. Big, brown leather western belts, with buckles requiring a zip code were not something I had ever sought for my wardrobe or placed on my body at any point in time. Until now.

There I was in my jeans, a brown and rust plaid flannel shirt, and a rust kerchief of some sort was placed around my neck and tied. It might as well have been a noose. At least the color palate would work with my L.L. Bean duck shoes: brown. Rob said, “No. The Ranchers will kill you. I’m not kidding.” I was beginning to become obstinate at this point. I was NOT going barefoot!! I had no other shoes for wet and mud! Rob said, “Wait here…” I only THOUGHT flannel and zipcoded belt buckles were the most I must endure that day. OH what a naive and foolhardy soul I was!!

Rob returned to the room with a pair of boots. I had to sit down. BOOTS?!? Boots. Rob presented me with the very first pair of boots he had owned. To say they were ‘well worn’ was the understatement of the year. There were holes in the bottom of the boots, especially the left one. HOLES!! MULTIPLE holes!! I’m talking at least two fingers could be stuck in the main left boot hole. Rob felt sure the they would fit me. He was kidding, wasn’t he?? PLEEEEEASE tell me this was all a joke…a bad dream…a nightmare… SOMEBODY!!! Wake me up!! Nobody woke me up. They just chuckled and helped put those holey boots on my feet.

Seriously, I was totally in an altered state of consciousness at that point. All those years I had tried to maintain a semblance of dignity and decorum, dressing well had been my hallmark. I was named Best Dressed in my high school Senior class! Nevertheless, I was dressed and ready for the ranch: flannel, zipcoded belt, and holey boots. I did have one sliver of pride left…under those boots, I was wearing my Ralph Lauren Polo socks! At least if I were hit by a tractor at the ranch and I arrived at the mortician, they would at least see that I was able to manage a small bit of high style on the ranch.

When we pulled up to the ranch, we were all wide-eyed, this being the first ranch trip for the four Alabama missionaries. We learned that there would be a bit of a walk to get to the corral where the cattle branding was being held. We all hauled our western clad hineys out of the car and started off for the corral. My feet were sliding all around in those boots that were at least a size too big, the cool outside air noticeable to the bottom of my left foot. Then we came to a big pasture area that we had to cross to get to the corral. WHOA!!!!! Wait a flannel covered minute!! In front of us lay what must have been the ‘wet and muddy’ afore mentioned. From the look and smell of things, this was ‘wet and muddy’ from a herd of cattle on the way to the branding. There was no getting around it.

Let us replay in our mind the state of my current footwear. Uh-huh. Holes. On the bottom of my boots. I was going to have to WALK through this muck and mire before me, and it was a long, LONG walk!! I knew that surely I would be going home with hookworm, ringworm, cooties and all manner of things requiring multiple antibiotics and transfusions. I remember thinking WHAT could I have possibly done to deserve this?!? Honestly, I was trying to make the best of this, put on a happy face and all that crap. But was I seriously expected to walk, with HOLES in my boots through this? Yes I was, and I wasn’t making any progress standing still.

I said a prayer to God, probably asking him to not hesitate and take me now. God apparently didn’t want me in this current outfit either. I couldn’t blame him one little bit. So, off I squished through the muck and mire. As best I could, I turned my left foot completely on its side, walking on my ankle, trying to keep the….okay, let’s just say it….cow shit out of my left boot. With every forward squish, I could feel more and more cow shit oozing into my boot. The right foot was not much better, but at least there was not a hole the size of a silver dollar in that boot. (Did you by chance see the movie Auntie Mame with Rosiland Russell? If you did, try and recall Mame on the day of the Fox hunt wearing her boots with the feet totally off to the side. That was me.)

Finally, we made it to the other side of the pasture of muck and mire. We were able to rest against the fence as we began to watch what was the most horrifying thing I had seen to date, even more so than my outfit. One by one, small calves were let into the corral that would be chased down and straddled by one of the ranch hands as it was de-testicled and branded on one side. I felt so sorry for the little calves, but knew this was a different world than I had EVER seen and was thanking the Lord above for my own sheltered life in natural fibers.

As the cattle branding progressed, one of the Ranch hands motioned for us to come out and help brand the calves. They HAD to be kidding! NO FRICKIN’ WAY WAS I ABOUT TO GET OUT THERE AND STRADDLE A CALF! But then the worst thing happened that could have POSSIBLY happened that day. Remember Mona? Dusty’s girlfriend? The sweetest, gentlest, kindest hearted girl you could ever dream of? Mona yelled out, “I’ll do it!”

@%#&*#$%$#!!!!!! WHAT?!? MONA ARE YOU CRAZY?!? I sat there, mouth gaping open, as we all watched sweet, gentle Mona Gooch sit down in the muck and mire and grab hold of one of that calf’s legs while it was de-testicled and branded. I felt nauseous. I knew what lie before me. If anyone but Mona had agreed to do it, I would have absolutely refused. But Mona volunteered, and then there was no turning back for the rest of us.

Everything is a bit foggy from this point on. As Mona walked back over from the branding pit, I think she said something like, “It really wasn’t that bad!” I probably gave her a look that I shouldn’t have given her, but I could not be held responsible for my actions at that point.

“Okay, I’ll go.” What the hell did I have to lose at this point? Maybe the calf would kick me senseless and put me out of my misery. Into the corral I walked, head held high feet walking upright now-both of them-and absolutely not believing the nightmare in which I had foolishly wandered. The calf was already in place, and they told me which leg I would be holding, and holding on for dear life if I knew what was good for me. I sat down in the mud/cow shit and felt yet more of the squishy mess work its way into my left boot. I grabbed hold of that poor calf’s hind leg, shut my eyes as tight as possible, turned my head, held my breath and prayed to God above, for exactly what I can’t say. It was becoming an out of body experience by this point, and I wasn’t exactly sure I wanted to return, seeing what was I was sitting in.

When we returned to Rob’s home late that day, I peeled off the layers of the western outfit of a Wyoming ranch hand. As I removed my Ralph Lauren Polo socks, I noticed something odd. Wading through the muck and mire had caused the elastic in those socks to completely disintegrate. Doesn’t that just figure. I thought to my self that wouldn’t have happened if I had worn my L.L. Bean duck shoes. I also thought that Rob was right. They WOULD have killed me if I had shown up wearing L.L. Bean duck shoes. Perhaps there is a cure for hookworm.

I’m happy to say that I survived that perilous day in 1984, and in some strange and twisted way, I guess I’m glad it all happened. Some might say I got my comeuppance that day, and I would have to agree. I can say that now, 26 years later.

When it came time to leave Wyoming, Rob gave me those boots. I still have them and treasure them like few other possessions I own. Thanks, Rob, for the boots and for the wonderful wet and muddy memories!

Memories flooding back from a walk next door: Part One

(Originally published November 4, 2010)

Surely the gift of memory is one of the most precious we are given from God. In an instant a unexpected sound, a smell, a taste can produce an avalanche of memories from our past. Heart warming, heart wrenching, bittersweet or oh so tender, events and happenings not recalled in years, now as fresh in our mind as if it had just occurred. Take this evening for example…

Earlier today I was headed off on a walk to a meeting. The weather was just too crisp and wonderful to hop on a bus, so walking shoes were the preferred traveling option. Stopping off for a drink to take with me, I happened to notice a new addition in the cooler just inside the store. A Strawberry Shortcake ice cream bar was now among the high-cal frozen treats! YUM-E!!!!! My favorite! So off I went on my walk, drink in one hand, frozen shortcake in the other. By the time I reached the next block, only the shortcake stick remained.

Tonight, yearning for a bit of sweet before bed, my thoughts wistfully turned to the new frozen treat beckoning from next door. (Yes, I know I had one just this afternoon, but hey, I’m 21…I can have another!) On went the sweater and a quick, non-stop elevator ride put me on street level and on my way to strawberry sweetness! A cool breeze outside made for such a pleasant walk, and before you knew it, I was in and out of the store and taking the first bite of my second Strawberry Shortcake ice cream bar of the day. Life was good!!

Beginning the walk back to my high-rise home, I savored each bite of my frozen shortcake. I wondered: when was the first time I had a shortcake bar? Before I could finish that thought, another crevice of my brain produced the answer, and with it came the avalanche of memory surrounding my first strawberry shortcake ice cream bar…

Growing up in Hanceville, Alabama, a wonderful little Southern hamlet, the “big-city” was a slow to arrive, especially as seen in the early 1970’s by a young boy. Going to the “city” brought wondrous opportunities for tasting what the outside world had to offer. Traveling north to Decatur, a trip there would not be complete without a meal at Shoney’s Big Boy. A Big Boy burger with their own special sauce, a side of onion rings and a piece of that miracle on a plate: Strawberry pie in that oooey, gooey strawberry sauce, covered with three inches of whipped topping. You might well imagine I looked much like that well-fed symbol of the restaurant, rotund young boy clad in red and white check overalls, licking his lips and holding high a Big Boy sandwich. We could have been twins!

Whenever we were lucky enough to go south to Birmingham (“the big, bad city” so said my mother), there is no way we would be coming home hungry. To me, Birmingham was nothing short of a culinary Disneyland! On Highway 31 just as we arrived in the big bad city, was the very first golden arches I had ever seen: McDonalds! I still remember my first taste of two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun…and the fries?!? Mmmmm, mmmm!! Surely we watched the sign change from “millions served” to “billions served” over the course of time…I certainly did my part.

If good fortune was truly on our side, a trip to Birmingham brought us to the door of a place I fell in love with while watching its commercials during Romper Room: Britling’s Cafeteria! Talk about EXOTIC! There was NOTHING like Britling’s in Hanceville or even Cullman county back then! Getting my own tray and walking down that Cafeteria line was a true walk of wonder! I would stare in amazement as I watched steam rise from the vegetables, squash croquettes and green beans almondine ready to be dished up by sweet smiling ladies in cat-eye glasses. I remember also making special note of the hairnets worn by those smiling servers, keeping each high teased bouffant from interacting with the whipped potatoes. Moving on down the cafeteria line, I encountered the mesmerizing red lights over the roast beef carving station. There, the same African-American gentleman would always be standing in a red glow, his white apron and cap appearing pink. Knife in hand, he would carve slices of roast beef and slowly drizzle the juices that became the first French words I ever learned: Au jus. I felt SO upper crust asking for the Roast Beef “au jus!”

However, the best was yet to come: God love my sweet Mother, for she never said no to me and my sister allowing us to get what HAD to be the best dessert available on planet Earth: Jello, cut in little cubes with a swirl of Cool Whip on top! There was nothing better than Jello cut in little cubes! Nothing!! Well, until it was time to go and we got to pick a sucker from the bowl next to cashier on the way out. Ah, Britling’s Cafeteria and Shoney’s! Such nice memories!

Would you look at that? Here I was on the way to tell you about my first taste of a Strawberry Shortcake ice cream bar, and off we went to Shoney’s and Britling’s…who would have thought? Tomorrow, I will again pick up this train of thought, for with the recount of Strawberry shortcake ice cream comes the most precious memories of time spent with my Daddy…being his “helper” on his egg delivery truck. Just typing those words have my eyes already a bit damp. A good nights sleep will have my typing fingers all rested to share with you the story of Daddy, me, eggs and Strawberry Shortcake ice cream.

Thank you God for the gift of memory…and for not letting me go through life looking like the Shoney’s Big Boy! AMEN!

Bringing Salvation to Barbie and Ken

(Originally posted November 2, 2010)

One of the best things about reconnecting with friends on Facebook is sharing old memories. Since memory is the second thing to go, it is so much fun when a friend reminds you of something in your OWN life that you had forgotten! So it is with my reconnection with Cyndy Hardwick, a teacher friend from Austin Elementary, the first elementary where I taught in Coppell, Texas. Cyndy made me chuckle when she recalled a story I told in the teacher lounge one day about our dear friends Barbie and Ken.

Surely you have read my earlier post entitled “A Box of Magic” where, vintage Barbie, in her black patent leather carrier arrived in my mailbox earlier this year. Barbie and I go way back you see…after getting to dress her in that Jackie Kennedy wardrobe…let’s just say my quest for Barbie and her entourage of friends was unleashed!

Left to pine for my neighbors Dream Houses and convertible Corvettes, I could only serve as Fashion Stylist Commentator from the sidelines as to which fashion ensemble would best reflect Barbie’s Coppertone tan next to that fresh Corvette paint job. Thankfully, that would not last forever…for early one mid-70’s Autumn day, came the arrival of the Holy Grail for all young children: THE SEARS & ROEBUCK CHRISTMAS WISH BOOK!!!!!

Each year my sister and I would trade The Wish Book back and forth. We would make our list for Santa, scrupulously refining and revising our choices to remain within the budget set by our Mother as what we could afford to pay Santa for our Christmas toys. There was one year in particular that my list did not waver one little bit once I made my first pass through The Wish Book pages! There were TWO things on my list that year: #1- Malibu Ken (Complete with flourescent orange square-cut swim trunks and a deep, dark Malibu tan!) #2- The all-new, never before seen Barbie Camper, with pop-out tent on the side!

Talk about a dream come true! I had always wished our family could have had a travel trailer! After the Brady Bunch went to the Grand Canyon with a pop up trailer, I could imagine no better way to see the country! (How Mike, Carol, Greg, Marcia, Peter, Jan, Bobby, Cindy, AND Alice survived in that little pop up trailer without killing each other is still a mystery to me…)

So my list was complete. Malibu Ken and the Barbie Camper. Well, okay…I also put in for Santa to bring Ken the burgundy velvet tuxedo with ruffled shirt and bow tie. I could dream couldn’t I?!?

Christmas that year was indeed wondrous with countless hours of play in the months ahead, filled with cross-country camping trips as Ken, Barbie, PJ, and that young sprite, Skipper embarked on all manner of imaginary trips!

Playing with my neighbor friends, I now had leverage!! Malibu Ken brought this young Fashion Stylist Commentator out from the sidelines and into the big league! Malibu Ken was now the HOT TICKET in the neighborhood to ride shotgun with Barbie in the Corvette Convertible and provide much needed redecorating tips for the Dream House. The plastic purple sofa HAD to GO!!!!

At this young age, I dare say I didn’t know much about the birds and the bees. However, I knew that regardless of the status of Barbie and Ken’s relationship, there was something missing. That something was Salvation.

Being raised in the Church of Christ, you learn early on that once you reached the “age of accountability,” the Lord expected you to be baptized. Now, with all this sporting about town in the Corvette, hair billowing in the wind (Barbie was the only one billowing as Malibu Ken’s hair was hard plastic and painted a most yellowish shade of sun-kissed blonde), and lounging around Barbie’s Dream House on not just the respectable first floor, but moving upstairs when no one was looking, I could not stand idly by knowing they would be doomed to eternal damnation if I didn’t do something! It was on my shoulders to bring salvation to Barbie and Ken!

I figured that I should do the baptizing all hush-hush, as my neighbors were not members of the Church of Christ. They were Lutherans and Methodists, and thought that baptism with a mere sprinkling or pouring would suffice. No, no NO! No sprinkling or pouring would save dear Barbie and Ken. Full immersion alone would insure their home among the saved!

So, one hot summer afternoon, I filled our small kiddy pool under the canopy of our carport, then stepped inside with my pants rolled up. Barbie in one hand, Malibu Ken in the other, I bent down into the foot deep water. Then, in the name of The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit, Barbie was dunked, followed in quick succession by Malibu Ken.

Thinking back, I think I even gave them a second dunk, just for good measure! Then, it was back to the Camper with the pop-up tent for more lazy summer days of play. For if that Camper were to be rockin’, it just might be Jesus knocking, and at least Barbie and Ken could rest assured that their Salvation was made sure…under the canopy of our carport in a half-filled kiddy pool, in the name of The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit.