Tag Archive | plainfield connecticut

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

God will take care of you

The Kindness of Strangers

My college graduation picture – 1970.

In 1970 I graduated from college as a newly minted English teacher. Growing up as a Midwesterner, I had never been to New England, but I thought it would be an interesting place to live, a place with lots of history and literature to discover. I didn’t know a soul out there, but I figured I’d make some friends once I got there. So, that’s where I looked for a teaching job. I found one in Plainfield, Connecticut, a small, economically depressed town – an old textile mill town – on the eastern edge of the state.

My brother, his pregnant wife, and their three-year-old daughter helped me move out there and find an apartment. But when they left, I was completely alone, knowing no one at all.

Burt and Loretta were some of the best strangers I have ever met. They had the apartment directly under mine. On day one they invited me to eat dinner with them. They oriented me to the area and asked me to join them for their frequent picnics in the state forest. They took me out on the ocean in a small fishing boat they borrowed from friends. We spent many weekend afternoons fishing. They taught me to dig for clams, and how to steam them. I learned more from them about New England ways and regional traditions than from anyone else I met in Connecticut.

Burt, Loretta, the 3 kids, and I had just enough room in a wooden 18′ fishing boat like this. We went fishing in Long Island Sound where the ocean waters were quite calm.

Burt was an American Indian, Loretta was of Mexican descent, and they had three kids under age five. Burt worked as a part-time handyman for the apartment building in exchange for their rent, and he tried to find other odd jobs for cash wherever he could. Prior to working out this living arrangement with the apartment building owner, the five of them had lived in their car. They welcomed me, a complete stranger from a very different background, into their family.

I lived in Connecticut for two years and then decided to move back to the Midwest. I kept in touch with Burt and Loretta for a few years, but then we lost touch. I’ll never forget how these kind strangers eased my transition into living in Connecticut.

In February of 1973, I moved to Chicago. I knew a few people in the city and a few more in the suburbs, but mostly I was surrounded by literally millions of strangers. This is where I first started to think about how I should relate to strangers, to the thousands of people I would see in passing every day.

Part of my daily routine was to take the “el” to the loop for my job. There was a “bag lady” who sat on a crate outside the “el” station every morning. She reminded me a lot of my grandma. She looked like she was in her seventies. She had white hair and sparkling eyes. She wore many layers of clothing – possibly all the clothes she owned except for what was in her shopping bags. Each morning, she looked at me, gave me a big smile, and said good morning. It wasn’t just me. She greeted everyone who walked by her. I smiled back and said good morning. That was the extent of our interaction. I looked forward to seeing her every day. I liked seeing her smile at me. The daily ritual was a warm acknowledgment of our shared humanity, even if we were living very different lives.

During the years that I worked in the loop, most of my twenty years in Chicago, I tried to go for a walk during my lunch hour. Usually, I walked from my office in the Sears Tower to State Street to do some window shopping, or if it was a really nice day, I walked all the way over to Grant Park, sometimes covering up to three miles in the walk. One nice fall day, it was particularly windy. As I walked by the Plaza next to the First National Bank of Chicago, a very frail, elderly woman, slowly and cautiously came up to me and asked for help. She was afraid to walk out of the protection of the plaza to get to the bus stop, about a hundred feet away. Would I help her so that the wind wouldn’t blow her down. She needed to get to the bus to go home. I offered to get her a cab to take her home, but she insisted that she’d be okay on the bus, if I’d just help her get to it. So I helped her walk to the bus. The bus driver saw her coming, and stepped down to help her up the steps. All three of us smiled at our teamwork.

Remember when Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”? It’s recorded in Matthew 25:35. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” [NRSV] And then, in verse 40, Jesus explained, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Fortunately, a lot of people take these verses seriously. Yesterday, I decided to watch for everyday instances of people treating strangers nicely – like they would treat friends and family members. Mim and I were in Madison doing some errands. A man at the recycling center saw us dropping off some cardboard and struck up a conversation about how to get paid for recycling cardboard. A woman at the resale shop complimented us on our “clothing selection” and then asked us to let her know if we changed our mind on one sweater in particular, because she thinks her mother would like it. A woman who was giving out food samples at Costco went out of her way to help us find something that we just couldn’t find on our own. None of these acts of kindness was overwhelming, but all together, they helped make our busy day more pleasant.

That gave me an idea. I want to be more intentional about being nice to strangers. Occasionally, we hear stories about someone who pays for the person behind them in line at Starbucks. Or we see someone with a cart full of groceries who offers to let a person with just a few items go ahead of them in line. Or we see someone run ahead to open the door for a stranger carrying a big load.

It’s easy to be too busy with my own agenda to notice how I can be kind to a stranger, or to be inspired by how someone else is being kind to a stranger. Instead of being too busy, I want to take time to smile and say good morning to the bag lady again, or to whoever else God puts on my path.