Tag Archive | English teacher

Multi-Purpose Melodies

fullsizeoutput_2003When I was in eighth grade, our English teacher gave us the assignment to celebrate National Library Week by writing a poem about books. In general, I was a good student, and I liked to write. But I didn’t (and still don’t) like to write poetry. I complained to my mom about the stupid assignment, and she told me about a trick for writing poetry. She said, “Just make up new words to a song you like. It will turn out to be a poem.” She said the song that always worked best for her was the Stephen Foster song “Oh, Susanna.” I decided to try it, using that song. I remember I started the song with, “I went downtown the other night to get myself a book…” I think I wrote half a dozen stanzas, the teacher loved it, and I got an A. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I don’t remember the rest of the poem.

I’ve thought about that poetry-writing experience periodically throughout my life. I’m sure my mom and I aren’t the only people who know about that trick for writing a poem – or a hymn. A lot of contemporary hymn writers seem to use it, although I don’t think they use “Oh, Susanna.” A lot of them use the hymn tune called BEACH SPRING. I’m not particularly fond of the tune, although it’s okay. It’s not hard to sing. It’s just not all that pretty, in my opinion. But it must be a good tune for fitting lyrics to. One of my favorite hymns that uses this tune is “Come and Find the Quiet Center,” a hymn by Shirley Erena Murray of New Zealand. Here’s the first verse of the hymn:

Come and find the quiet center
in the crowded life we lead,
find the room for hope to enter,
find the frame where we are freed;
Clear the chaos and the clutter,
clear our eyes that we can see
all the things that really matter,
be at peace, and simply be.

Another contemporary hymn writer that has used this tune is Ruth Duck, an American theologian. Here’s the first verse of a hymn she wrote for this tune:

As a fire is meant for burning
with a bright and warming flame,
so the church is meant for mission,
giving glory to God’s name.
Not to preach our creeds or customs,
but to build a bridge of care,
we join hands across the nations,
finding neighbors everywhere.

The reason I’m thinking about “multi-purpose melodies” this week is that last weekend (Labor Day) we sang a relatively new hymn in church, one that uses one of my favorite melodies. The tune is FINLANDIA, composed in 1899 by Jean Sibelius. As a hymn tune, it is most commonly associated with “Be Still My Soul.” The hymn we sang this weekend was “This Is My Song,” a different kind of patriotic song. Verses 1 and 2 were written by American song writer Lloyd Stone. Verse 3 was written by another theologian, Georgia Harkness.

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
So hear my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

This is my prayer, O God of all earth’s kingdoms,
your kingdom come; on earth your will be done.
O God, be lifted up till all shall serve you,
and hearts united learn to live as one.
So hear my prayer, O God of all the nations;
myself I give you; let your will be done.

As I was preparing the music for church this weekend, I was reminded of another new hymn written to this tune, “When Memory Fades” by Mary Louise Bringle. Basically it’s a hymn about aging and Alzheimer’s Disease, and where God fits into this picture. Here’s the first verse:

When memory fades, and recognition falters,
when eyes we love grow dim, and minds confused,
speak to our souls of love that never alters;
speak to our hearts, by pain and fear abused.
O God of life and healing peace, empower us
with patient courage, by your grace infused.

I love all three of these hymns – Be Still My Soul, This Is My Song, and When Memory Fades – and this tune is the perfect complement to the message of each one. As I was looking for a piano arrangement of FINLANDIA to play for the offertory to subtly remind people of the opening hymn we had sung, I came across an arrangement by Anne Krentz Organ, currently the music director of a church in Chicago.  The arrangement begins with a bold phrase from FINLANDIA, which is followed by soft and tender phrase from “Jesus Loves Me.” The arrangement moves back and forth between the two hymns, phrase by phrase. Although a piano arrangement has no words, the juxtaposition of musical phrases from these hymns emphasizes the point that Jesus cares about me and loves me always – whether I’m praying to God to “still my soul,” or praying to the “God of all earth’s kingdoms” for peace, or praying for comfort “when memory fades.” God is always near – “Jesus loves me.”

I’m not sure exactly what God created when She created music, but I’m sure glad She shared the same trick with many hymn writers that my mom shared with me – that melodies are multi-purpose, and that using a tune is a great way to write a poem, or a hymn.

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Back to School – Adventures of a Former English Teacher

That's me as a brand new English teacher in the early 1970s.

That’s me as a brand new English teacher in the early 1970s.

Forty-five years ago I graduated from college as a freshly minted English teacher-to-be.  All I had to do to start teaching was find a job. Back in 1970, teaching jobs were not plentiful, but there were some to be found if you looked hard enough. I decided to look in New England. I guess I wanted a little adventure. Moving back to Wisconsin after graduating from Wheaton College near Chicago wasn’t exciting enough. New England was rich in early American history and literature. That’s where I wanted to go.

I wrote to the state department of education of each of the six New England states, and requested that they send me a list of all the schools in their state that had openings for English teachers. Connecticut was the only state that responded to my letter. They sent me a list of about a dozen schools with openings, along with contact information for the superintendent of each school. I sent letters of application to each of those schools, and arranged for a week of interviews. In my six interviews, I was considered for positions in a couple wealthy suburbs of New York City, a farming community in northwestern Connecticut, an inner-city junior high school in Bridgeport, and a mill town in eastern Connecticut. I was immediately offered a job in the inner-city school, but I turned it down. I was too scared of the environment. A couple weeks after the interviews, I was offered and accepted the position at Plainfield High School – the mill town. They had the dubious distinction of being on the bottom of the list for Connecticut in terms of how much money the school district invested per student. But I was happy. I had a teaching job, and I would have an annual salary of just over $7,000. I felt rich.

Connecticut Tourist Map

Plainfield is on the far eastern border, just north of Voluntown. The closest big city is Providence, Rhode Island, about 30 miles east.

I had a couple weeks to plan my move to Connecticut. My brother Danny and his wife Sandy who was about three months pregnant, and their 3-year-old daughter Cindy agreed to help move me. It would be a little vacation for them, and helpful for me. My dad convinced me to buy a canvas car-top carrier for my little blue Corvair. Mom and Dad let Danny drive their big Pontiac for the trip. This car had a huge trunk. On the morning we left, we packed both cars as full as they could be packed. I brought along most of my belongings: clothes, books, typewriter, clock radio, record player and record albums, a few of my mom’s dishes, and an ice chest filled with chickens that my mom had frozen for me in half-chicken size packages when my dad had butchered that year’s spring chickens. Every empty space in the trunk was filled with fresh vegetables from the garden – lots of melons, tomatoes, and beans. (Not all of the vegetables traveled real well in a hot car for over a thousand miles.)

A big Pontiac - similar to my parents' car. Lots of room in that trunk!

A big Pontiac – similar to my parents’ car. Lots of room in that trunk!

Cindy w ice cream cone - age 3

Cindy – the little traveler

I can’t remember how far we drove the first day, but we managed to keep the cars together despite the traffic. We took turns being the lead car, and it was the responsibility of the lead driver to always keep the other car in the rear-view mirror.

By about noon on the second day we were approaching Hartford. We stopped at a rest stop for Cindy to get back in the car with her parents. She had been riding with me since breakfast, and I think she was getting tired of talking to me.

We decided to drive straight through Hartford to Plainfield with me leading the way – what should have been the last hour or so of our trip. Unfortunately, reading all the expressway signs, figuring out which lane to be in with heavy fast-moving traffic on all sides, and keeping an eye on the rear-view mirror, was too big a challenge for me, and our cars got separated.

Hartford highwaysOnce I got out of the city, I drove very slowly the rest of the way to Norwich, the last city before Plainfield, hoping that Danny, Sandy, and Cindy would catch up to me. They never did. By late afternoon, I went to the police station in Norwich, explained my predicament, and they agreed to notify the state police to be on the lookout for my parents’ light green Pontiac with a Wisconsin license plate. I could even give them the license plate number – the one precaution I had taken before we left Wisconsin was to write down their number, just in case we were ever separated. I drove back and forth between Norwich and Plainfield (about 20 miles) a couple times looking for the car, but with no success. I finally checked into a motel, hoping and praying that we’d find each other in the morning.

Meanwhile, Danny and Sandy drove back to Hartford and checked into a motel there. Danny’s solution for us to get together again was to call our parents to let them know where they were, assuming that I would do the same thing, and that’s how we would find each other. It never occurred to me to call home. That would just make our parents worry. My solution had been to get help from the police. (Danny and I never did think alike. We still don’t, but we like each other anyway.)

playground swingsThe next morning, I drove to Plainfield to the school district office to get suggestions for where to start looking for an apartment. Danny and Sandy had also driven to Plainfield. They drove around the town looking for a playground. Cindy needed to wear off some of a 3-year-old’s energy. They found some swings at the elementary school, which is where the school district office was located.

Fortunately, our paths finally crossed, about 24 hours after being separated.  We shared our stories with each other. Then Danny’s first priority was for me to find a payphone to call the police and tell them to stop looking for him. And my priority was to call Mom so she could stop worrying about us.

payphoneAfter making those calls, we followed up on the apartment suggestions from the school secretary, rented an apartment that afternoon, and unloaded the cars. The next day we went shopping for furnishings – a bed and dresser, a desk and bookcase, a kitchen table and chairs, a couple pots and pans, a mixing bowl and cookie sheets.

Then Danny, Sandy, and Cindy headed back to Wisconsin, and I organized my meager belongings in my brand new apartment. My neighbors came over to introduce themselves and they invited me home with them for dinner.

A couple days later I became an English teacher at Plainfield High School. I quickly became known as one of those two new English teachers who had moved to Connecticut from “out West” – Wisconsin and California. Louise and I helped each other learn how to be teachers while we also learned how to live “out East.”

I guess times have changed a little in the last 45 years. Today, cell phones would have kept Danny and me from having such an adventure. One more reason to be thankful for our ages.

Maybe that’s why one of my favorite gospel songs is “God Will Take Care of You.”

Be not dismayed whate’er betide, God will take care of you;
Beneath His wings of love abide, God will take care of you.

Chorus:
God will take care of you, Thru ev’ry day, O’er all the way;
He will take care of you, God will take care of you.

Thru days of toil when heart doth fail, God will take care of you;
When dangers fierce your path assail, God will take care of you.
Chorus

All you may need He will provide, God will take care of you;
Nothing you ask will be denied, God will take care of you.
Chorus

No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you;
Lean, weary one, upon His breast, God will take care of you.
Chorus

Words:  Civilla D. Martin
Music:  W. Stillman Martin

God will take care of you

Lobster Fest Wisconsin Style

Forty-three years ago I ate my first lobster. I had just completed my first year as a high school English teacher in Plainfield, Connecticut. The kids were done with school, but the teachers were required to show up one more day to grade final exams and turn in semester grades. None of us teachers really wanted to be in school, but we tried to make the best of it. Under the guidance of the Home Ec. teacher we boiled live lobsters and had quite a feast. About half of the teachers knew how to eat a whole lobster, and they coached the rest of us. What a great way to end the school year!

Lobster - how to eatI’ve loved eating lobster ever since. Unfortunately, there are not many opportunities to eat fresh whole lobster in Wisconsin. Last weekend we had such an opportunity. Margaret and Don, the daughter and son-in-law of one of our former assisted living residents, invited us to join them for a Lobster Fest Wisconsin Style in Mosinee, about a 2-hour-drive north of us. A group of people from their church organize a Lobster Fest every year. This year we felt honored to be among the twenty guests.

What makes a Wisconsin Lobster Fest better than anything you’ll find in New England is the first course – a cheese and sausage plate (from a local cheese factory) served with a golden brown punch that’s a combination of apple wine, cherry wine, beer, and some other spirits. (Mim and I just tasted the punch, which was very tasty, but then switched to a white wine for the evening libation.)

mussels-pan-sauceA bowl of freshly steamed mussels came next. (Mussels are Mim’s favorite shellfish, so she couldn’t be happier!) Then came the boiled lobster, corn on the cob, and boiled potatoes.

The woman seated across the table from me had grown up in New Jersey and she generously offered tips to everyone at the table about how to twist off the lobster tail, crack open the claws, and suck out the tiniest, sweetest morsels of all from the skinny little lobster legs. Eating a whole lobster takes time. Eventually everyone finished the main course and was ready for dessert – blueberry buckle with ice cream. It was a wonderful feast.

lobster on plateAfter dinner most of the guests stayed around to help with the cleanup, sort of… Margaret wanted me to see the hostess’ baby grand piano, so we went to the music room instead of the kitchen. I sat down to play the only ocean song I could think of – “Puff the Magic Dragon.” But the hostess quickly brought me a folder of sheet music from the 1930’s and 1940’s. A few guests gathered around the piano to sing and together we assumed the responsibility of entertaining the kitchen crew with our music.

I guess that’s how a Lobster Fest Wisconsin Style ends, with everyone working together to be sure everyone feels welcome, has fun, and the work gets done.

A truly destitute man is not one without riches,
but the poor wretch who has never partaken of lobster.

I guess I would modify this anonymous quotation to say,

A truly destitute person is not one without riches,
but the poor wretch who has never participated in a Lobster Fest Wisconsin Style.

Thanks, Margaret and Don, and Jean, Melanie, Ruth, Clay, and everyone else who let us be a part of this evening. And, thanks also to the Plainfield High School Home Ec. teacher for teaching me to love lobster. Oh, and thanks to God, too, for creating lobsters, and for giving us friends so that we can have wonderful times like this together.

Don and Margaret helping Edith celebrate her 90th birthday in our home in 2011.

Don and Margaret helping Edith celebrate her 90th birthday in our home in 2011.

Grace and a Failing Grade

Grace quote with winter scene

Pastor Jeff told a quick story at the end of the church service last week. An old friend of his, a priest, had died earlier in the week. This story was told at his funeral. The priest had been an English teacher in a Catholic high school. Many years ago, one of his students came to him near the end of the school term and begged him not to give him an F. The student knew he deserved an F, but he didn’t want to have to take the class over again. He pleaded with the priest to give him a D instead. The priest responded with, “I’ll give you an A.” The student replied, “Oh no. I don’t deserve an A.” The priest replied, “You don’t deserve a D either. But if I’m going to give you a gift, I’m going to give you a good gift.” Pastor Jeff commented that the story is the best illustration of grace he’s ever heard.

“Grace” is a word with several different but related meanings. One definition that is helpful to me in understanding God’s grace comes from Tony Campolo. He was a frequent guest preacher at my church when I lived in Chicago. He says, “Grace is about us receiving from God blessings that we don’t deserve.”

Jeff’s story made the idea of grace more tangible to me last week. His story also prompted me to remember a couple incidents from the early 1970s when I was a high school English teacher. I also had students who pleaded with me to not give them an F – two of them; and academically, they both deserved F’s.

footballGary was a popular football player. He excelled on the football field, but he certainly never excelled in English. He was too busy to take the time to complete his homework assignments. About a week before the quarter ended he begged me for a D. If I gave him an F he would be kicked off the football team according to the school’s athletic policy.  I told him that if he completed his past-due homework assignments, I would give him a passing grade. The next day the football coach came to see me, to plead on behalf of the student. I repeated my offer. Gary did not complete any of his past-due homework assignments, and I gave him an F. Gary didn’t learn about grace from me, but he might have learned about it from his coach. He was not booted off the team.

F GradeDenny was a skinny little freshman. When he was in class, he was a very pleasant kid, and he was good in English. He was a good reader and a good writer. However, his attendance got progressively worse, and as a result of that, the majority of the grades in the grade book were I’s for Incomplete. I talked with him a few times throughout the term about attendance and completing his assignments, and he always said he’d try harder. Unfortunately, when it was time for me to calculate his grade, I couldn’t justify giving him anything but an F. (I wasn’t allowed to give a grade of Incomplete in that school system.) When Denny got his report card he came to see me with tears in his eyes. “Why did you flunk me? I’m good in English. Can’t you change the grade? My dad will kill me.” I felt so sorry for Denny. I really didn’t know how I could change his grade, even if I could justify it. The school’s grading system wasn’t designed to incorporate grace.

That's me as a brand new English teacher in the early 1970s.

That’s me as a brand new English teacher in the early 1970s.

These two stories happened 42 years ago – just after I had graduated from college. I was living in Connecticut where I was an English teacher for two years. I wonder whatever happened to Gary and Denny. I wonder if Gary understands the concept of grace partly because of the kindness of his coach. And I wonder if Denny ever was given the opportunity to learn about God’s grace by receiving some undeserved gift from someone else.

Besides wondering about my students, I guess I need to think about what I have learned about grace from the people in my life, and I need to thank God for bringing each of these people into my life.

Atlanta megachurch pastor Charles Stanley said it this way, “Thank the Lord for using each person as a tool in your life to deepen your insight into His grace and conform you to the image of His Son.”

Here’s my 2-cents worth on working

I guess I was a little older than this when I started working, but not much. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t work.

The earliest job I can remember having was before I started school. My Mom hired me to do two jobs – clean the bathroom and dust all the furniture in the house. Each job paid 2 cents, and each job usually took me about half an hour. (I wasn’t fast, but I was pretty thorough.) I was expected to do both jobs every Saturday morning, and I was given 4 cents for my labors.

I received a big promotion and a slight raise when I turned 5 and started kindergarten. Instead of being paid each time I cleaned the bathroom and dusted, I received a weekly allowance of a nickel. In exchange for that allowance, I was expected to clean the bathroom, dust, and do whatever other jobs my Mom occasionally asked me to do, like scour the kitchen sink, or carry the trash out to the burning pile.

A couple years later I got another promotion and a really big salary bump. My weekly allowance grew to a dollar, but I was strongly encouraged to give 10 cents to Sunday School, put 75 cents into my plastic bank to save for college, and use the remaining 15 cents for spending money. With this promotion, I was also given more responsibility. I had to do dishes every day (shared responsibility with my brother), and help with more house cleaning.

Growing up on a farm, I also was expected to do lots of other jobs, especially in the summer. My favorite job was baling hay. It was always a beautiful, warm, sunny day. I sat perched on top of the red “H” tractor, and slowly drove the tractor around the field, pulling the baler and a wagon behind. My dad stood on the wagon, pulling the bales out of the baler and stacking them on the wagon. My instructions were to steer the tractor so that the baler would pick up all the hay, and to drive smoothly enough that I didn’t throw my Dad off the wagon. (Unfortunately, that happened a few times when I stopped too abruptly or turned a corner without slowing down enough.) Other than the noisiness of the tractor and baler, and the hay dust in the air, it was a beautiful place to spend a summer afternoon.

Obviously, that’s not me on the tractor – but that’s the kind of tractor, baler, and hay wagon we had.

By the time I graduated from high school, I knew how to work. Some of it I enjoyed. Some I didn’t. In college I had a variety of jobs, from doing dishes in the dining hall, to doing clerical work in an office, to being a church organist. But my real reason for being in college was to figure out what kind of work I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and to get prepared to begin my career.

Reflecting back over the past 40+ years, I realize now that the basic premise that I would have one career in my lifetime was wrong. After college I was a high school English teacher for a couple years, then an editorial researcher for a couple more years, and then I got into business – earning an MBA and working for a large corporation in downtown Chicago. As I moved through these post-college jobs, working became mostly a means of paying my bills rather than actually doing something meaningful with my life. That was a frightening observation! If that was true, was there really any purpose to my life? The only areas of my life where I felt I was doing something that could possibly make the world a better place was in my volunteer activities – serving on the boards of a couple not-for-profit organizations.

It really wasn’t until I became self-employed – first as a business consultant, then as a B&B owner, assisted living provider, church musician, writer, and retreat coordinator – that my life calling seemed truly related to the work I did for a living.

Sr. Joan Chittister talked about finding purpose in your life work in her book, Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose, and Joy, with these words:

We need to ask ourselves again why we were born. What is it that we have that the world needs and is waiting for us to provide? That is the star we must follow to its end. Then we will not only hear the silent applause of all those who benefitted from our having lived but we will find the whole of ourselves now wholly developed, waiting for us, as well.

For some people, and for some parts of their lives, the work they do for a living is the fulfillment of their purpose in life. For these people, you might hear comments like, “he’s a born teacher” or “it’s obvious she was meant to be a pastor.”

For others, the labor they do for a living is just that, earning money to pay the bills. Doing the jobs that need to be done.  These people still have a purpose in life that God has called them to. They just don’t receive a paycheck for fulfilling their life purpose.

So, what’s my 2-cents worth on working this Labor Day weekend? Not all jobs reflect our life purpose. Some do. Some don’t. But we were all born with a life purpose. Discovering how to fulfill that purpose is the most important job of our life. Frederick Buechner gave us a clue about how to discover our purpose in his book Wishful Thinking. He said, The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.