Prairie View

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

On this snow-day break from school I finished reading our school-wide literature selection for next month, A Tale of Two Cities. The opening words "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. . . . " have leaped beyond the cliche category for me and now call to mind images from the story--of imperious noblemen forcing peasants to pull their carts, and offer their women for the entertainment of any lord who desired it, of widespread starvation, and subsistence on foraged grass and leaves when food ran out. Meanwhile, others lived in unimaginable luxury in opulent homes–fortress-like castles actually–built with the labor and taxation of the poor.

Set against the background of the French Revolution in the late 1700s and restive England at that time, Dickens reveals the horror that often erupts when one group of people inflicts prolonged suffering on others. In the brutal turnabout that occurred in France, the oppressed eventually became the oppressors. Peasants, who had seen their countrymen slaughtered at the guillotine, later hauled nobles and kings and queens by the cartload to the beheading machine.

In Dickens’s tale, the people who try hard to do what is honorable and right suffer as surely as those who care only for luxury, power, and revenge. Lately, I’ve heard too many true stories about people who are, right now, in similar dire straits to shrug off the story as being one more overly melodramatic story, although in literary terms, melodramatic certainly applies. For this reason, perhaps, having read the story leaves me feeling melancholy. It probably doesn’t help that two of our sons are traveling today–one en route home from Bangladesh where he embarked this morning on a 36 hour trip, exhausted, and with a fever. Our second son left at midnight for a 20-hour drive to Pennsylvania, trying to outrun a snowstorm on his heels. These are not epic concerns, in the greater scheme of things, but I feel vaguely concerned anyway.

Right now, in Kenya, long regarded as the showcase for democracy in Africa, people we know and love are mostly confined to their compound while the countryside around them erupts in chaos and violence. Many Christian friends have sought refuge in their quarters while their own homes went up in smoke and people around them died. Finally, some of them have traveled by bus to their tribal homelands eight or nine hours away, where they hope there will be safety in numbers. A few unfortunate married couples have had to separate because they are of different tribes and are not both safe in the same place. The buses, even with police escorts, are hazardous. On a recent Saturday, five out of seventeen were torched, and some of the passengers were killed.

All this happened after a Kikuyu president refused to give his position to a Luo candidate who apparently had more election votes than he did. As I understand it, television cameras trained on the “vote counting house” recorded successive updates as the count progressed, showing the Luo candidate with a substantial lead. Then, still in view of the TV cameras, government soldiers arrived. Very shortly, an announcement from the “counting house” declared the incumbent Kikuyu to have won the election. What a travesty! Understandably, but tragically, the Luos have revolted, and the Kikuyus have struck back. . . . The miserable story continues. Wherever a majority of either tribe exists, the minority is in grave danger. Things have gone very quickly from the best of times to the worst of times.

In Orissa state of Northeast India, where individuals from our church help support about 20 pastors, Hindu opposition has made life very dangerous for Christians recently. My brother Lowell and others have gone there regularly in the past number of years to provide teaching and encouragement. Their group leader has visited here and preached in our church. He is a very devout man, gifted and educated. In this area a number of years ago, Graham Staines and his two young sons, died (ten years ago?) when a mob set fire to the vehicle where they had gone to sleep when guests needed their beds. I’m not sure if these people have ever known the best of times, and perhaps this is not the worst of times, but the inner peace of Christian faith clearly costs these people dearly.

The "cliche" could apply as well to the time of the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland and Germany around 1520. It was a glorious and heady time of rediscovering the power of the Word of God. Grebel, Mantz, and Blaurock led many in a rediscovery of what it meant to live a Christ-like life. Vision, fervor, and resolve flourished. Then the worst of times intruded. Their trusted early leader and mentor, Zwingli, later led out in persecuting the Anabaptists, who did not have the will of the city councils of the Swiss Confederation at their disposal. In Germany, Luther denounced the Anabaptists as heretics. People who joined the Anabaptist movement were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Even so, the numbers grew.

Last week, I worked on tracing the male immigrant ancestor of my eight great grandparents. They arrived in this country from those unwelcoming Swiss cantons and German territories in a span of years from about 1730 to 1860–from six to ten generations ago. My ancestors in faith and blood endured varying degrees of suffering for more than 200 years. The worst of times went on and on for them.

How do people survive unalterable and unbearable circumstances like this?

Perhaps they did as I have sought to do recently again in the face of my own perplexities and disappointments. Each day I seek to learn more of what is right and act accordingly. I try not to over-process every option and possibility, and then I offer things to God again to dispose of as He sees fit. It’s a small resolve for small crises. I hope if big crises come my way I will find, as others before me have, bigger resolve for bigger crises. Even if I someday face the worst of times, I want to get to the end with my faith intact, whether that end is sooner or later. And then, in the final and ultimate sense, the best of times will commence.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Polished Public Speaker

In today's student-planned 30-minute Friday afternoon activity, I was randomly assigned the topic "Adam and Eve" as the subject for a one-minute impromptu speech. My brain was not fully engaged and my effort was totally uninspired. I mumbled and stumbled and said nothing at all and stopped in relief in mid-sentence when the timer went off.

After I got back to my seat, Tim and David, who planned the event, were both very pleased with my performance. "Mrs. I, you're the champion!"

"What do you mean?" I asked, in lackluster disbelief."

"We're counting the 'ums' and you had eleven! Don't tell Mr. Schrock, though. No one's supposed to know what we're doing."

For the remaining speeches, I couldn't help noticing every "um," which Tim also dutifully noted with a mark on his paper. (I also noticed "like" and "and," but Tim seemed to take scant notice.)

Mr. Schrock spoke wisely and well on "music and singing," with a disappointing scarcity of "ums." John got a real charge out of his subject: "electricity." Heidi talked in a steady flow of words about "boys," specifically the two who dreamed up the idea of having everyone give a one-minute speech on random subjects such as "boys." Seth talked on "sewing" and Elaine on "pasta." (Her mom had to start breaking up the spaghetti in order to break up the "inhaling" contests, which made spaghetti a lot less fun.) To everyone's great amusement, the other Tim and Kevin did as they were instructed: "If you can't think of anything to say, you have to stay up there and move your mouth till the minute is up."

To their credit, everyone who drew "Britney Spears" asked for relief before they started because they knew nothing about her. (Now that one I could have talked about--nothing good, but I could have at least listed what the popular press has reported about her. I probably ought to be ashamed.)

The final tally had the girls uttering an average of more than five "ums" for every one-minute speech. The boys had one-point-something. The top three scorers were announced and applauded--all girls, with me leading the pack. It was not a proud moment, but I gamely raised my hand--too lazy to take a bow--when my name was read.

In the flurry of everyone doing their cleaning projects later, I overheard Tim's delighted voice from the kitchen: "What was so funny was that Mrs. I had more than anyone else, and she's a polished public speaker." Hearing that, it was my turn to be amused. First, the "compliment" was altogether astonishing, and I am undeserving of it. That made me laugh with affection for my generous students. Also, I was amused because I know very well that Tim is not an accomplished evaluator of the "polish-level" of public speakers. So my ego can not justifiably gain any girth from the kind remark. The context provides a perfect mix of warm fuzzy feelings and cold, clear reality.

And please, if, like, someone hears me, um, go on and on meaninglessly about Adam and Eve, just put me out of my misery. If you will do that, I'll be happy to fore go my championship status and the subsequent accolades. Anonymous onlooker is a role that suits me just fine, thank you very much.

Quote for the Day 1/25/08

If you ever need to work on cutting 1/2 mile of hedge trees (a.k.a. Osage Orange trees) and you really don't want to do it because you're losing money on the project, here are some of the ways you could convey that:

Shane (Yesterday, when it was bitterly cold): On a scale of 1-10, my motivation is at 0. No. Wait. That's the temperature.


Shane (Today, when it's cold AND windy.) I'm struggling with inspiration issues.

Me: How long will it take to finish this job?

Shane: Way too long.


Grant (with affected cheerfulness): Well, are you ready for gusts to 28 today?


Shane (heading for the sofa, to Grant, after having eaten his own breakfast): I don't know why, but I can't keep my eyes open. Wake me after you've eaten.


At school, over lunch, when Jared was rhapsodizing about being in Costa Rica, and sucking the juice from one orange after another, after making a hole in the surface. . . . Steven made a comment about the probable effects of this on the digestive system, and then, in a show of deference to me, sitting right between them--

Steven: TMI--Mrs. I. Hey--That rhymes!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Quote for the Day 1/22/08

While making German potato salad with the German language class:

Ryan and Jared: We need 1 cup of water for our recipe and we forgot to bring it. Can we go home and get some?

Me: You are so pathetic.


Ryan (to the other students): We asked . . . and she said we were pathetic, and that hurt my feelings.

Me: Silly questions get silly answers.

(And yes, I did hear the conjecture in the kitchen about the next blog's contents.)


For today's Merit Party, Mr. Schrock orchestrated the playing of a game with underlying lessons about good and bad ways of relating to other people. Ahead of time he made five hats out of newspaper. He also prepared ten signs to be placed on the hats. After he had solicited and gotten 10 volunteers, he divided them into two teams of five. By turns, each team lined up on chairs at the front. Other students sat in a group facing them. Then he gave the team an assignment. One team was to plan a youth activity, and later, the other team planned a student chapel.

When the first five students were situated, he placed a labeled hat on the head of each team member. The person wearing the hat could not see the label on his own hat. However, he could see all the other team members' hats, and he was to follow the instructions accordingly. Then the planning discussion began, and each team member was to try to discern what their own label said, based on how the others were treating him or her. The next team later followed the same sequence.

Here are the labels as I recall them:

Treat me like a child.
Treat me like a leader.
Be kind to me.
Turn away when I talk.
Interrupt me.

Laugh when I say something.
Ignore my input.
Encourage my input.
Contradict me.

After some time of conversing, Mr. Schrock stopped the conversation and had each team member try to guess aloud what their hat said. If they couldn't guess, the game went on a little longer and everyone tried hard to make it even more obvious by how they treated the puzzled team member. For example, the "child" was told that he would probably have to have his mother bring him to the youth activity since he was too young to drive.

The game was great fun, but it was easy to see how un-fun it would be to be treated in real life like some of these students were being treated in jest.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Quote for the Day 1/21/08

At a family gathering, when the conversation turned to the hazardous things people have done on hayrides, riding on truck beds, etc., surprisingly, without loss of life or limb. . . .

Rhoda (recounting a time when she and her children clambered onto the back of the pickup her husband Myron was preparing to drive): I had my one foot on the bumper and my other foot halfway over the top of the tailgate when he took off. And you know, when your one foot is up like that, there's just not a whole lot there for you.

Me or Someone Else: What happened?

Rhoda: I tumbled backwards onto the ground. Myron thought everyone was already on, and he took off slowly and just left me behind.

Lowell: At least you had the foresight to do that where the neighbors could see you.

Rhoda: That's right. One of our neighbors was coming along on a bike and saw everything. She was pretty worried and got to see my laughing and crying. . . .


At the teacher's gathering on Saturday:

Lowell (donning a mammoth pair of yellow, plastic-framed sunglasses, roughly a foot across--one of a series he tried on for the audience, illustrating how we look at truth and life through "world view" lenses): Now this pair has not been as carefully fitted as some. . . .

A whale of an understatement.


Tonight Lowell and Judy and Joseph brought over their aquarium fish for us to take care of while they spend the next five weeks with Judy's parents in Costa Rica. One of the fish appeared more dead than alive. Lowell's explanation:

"He dived out onto the dining room floor while Joey was moving him into the jar. It looks like he didn't quite get acclimated in time."

Another understatement.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Disintipating* CDs

Last Friday, while I was busy supervising the learning center and Holli was typing away in the next room with the door open, I suddenly heard, in rapid succession, a bang, a clatter, and a squeal. I promptly investigated.

"What happened?" I asked Holli, who had scooted away from her computer.

"I don't know. I think maybe the CD exploded. I was just typing away."

"That's what it sounded like, but I didn't know that could happen."

"Shall I open the CD drawer?"

"Sure. If it works."

Holli pressed the button and the drawer opened to reveal fragments of Mavis Beacon's smiling face scattered among the pieces of the label-covered CD. Hardly any of the pieces were bigger than my thumbnail.

"We'd better unplug it. Who knows where all those pieces went?"

I dismissed Holli from her makeup typing lesson.

"When the CD explodes you don't have to do the lesson?" she asked, smiling, on her way out to the basketball game in progress.

Our principal looked at it later and removed the CD drive from the CPU case (I don't know the proper name for this.) He shook it and more CD pieces rained down. Then he took it apart and got it thoroughly cleared out. After it was back in the case, he started it up again and inserted another Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing CD.

"It's working," he said. "No it isn't. I'm not sure what we've got here."

Now you know. CDs can spontaneously self-destruct. And whenever it's a typing program CD, you get to skip the lesson for the day, if it happens while you're using it.

*Disintipate is a word coined by a former hay-crew coworker of my brother Caleb's--someone whose speaking vocabulary and cognitive function sometimes experienced a bit of dissonance, with occasionally delightful results like the word "disintipate.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Warm Glow or Charred Residue?

Today was a day for basking in the warm glow that comes from seeing your passions affirmed by others. It happened at the third Midwinter Teacher's Gathering organized by members of our church community. People attended from neighboring churches--Old Order Amish to conference Conservative, other conservative Mennonite communities in Kansas (Maranatha to Old Colony), and from Oklahoma and Iowa as well. In this part of the country, where Mennonite communities are separated by at least a three-hour drive, we've learned to value the opportunity to interact, even though we are at widely varied places on the Mennonite spectrum.

These gatherings were the brainchild of staff members from Pilgrim Christian Grade School. The meetings have provided inspiration and help for a growing number of participants each year. This year, I heard that almost 100 had registered before today, and my estimate of the number of actual attendees is a good bit higher than that.

From our local church, quite a few homeschool parents attended, along with interested young people, school board members, and anyone who cared to come for whatever reason. My father and my sister Linda attended, even though they are not teachers or the parents of students. They lent support to my brother Lowell's general session on Building on a Solid Foundation and my workshop on Teaching Writing in the Elementary grades.

One of the main presenters the first year was Wes _________ who had taught for a number of years in the local Amish school. Sadly, his outstanding teaching career was cut short when he and his wife began to pursue international adoption, and the agency they worked with would not consider their application till they had a better income. That prompted a move to construction as a means of earning a living. This year he helped plan the program and conducted one of the workshops, so his experience and competence are still being put to good use.

The only person to have two general sessions this year was Arlyn __________, who taught at one time in the same school where I teach. He substituted several times there this year. But for most of the past number of years--nine all together--he taught in Brooklyn, New York. His final presentation, on teacher burnout, helped crystallize for me something I've been pondering for at least the past six years.

I believe our schools would be well-served by mandatory one-year breaks for teachers after every six-year teaching interval. The word I use for this break is "Sabbatical" in the Old Testament tradition of repeating cycles of work and rest every seven years. This cycle may not be the only pattern that would work. But, in the absence of compelling logic for a different cycle, I think the seven-year cycle is a reasonable choice.

Arlyn said there was a time, only three and one-half years ago, when he could not imagine himself ever doing anything except teaching. Now, he can't imagine ever going back. He told me privately earlier that he wonders now if he might still be teaching if he had taken a break earlier, even before he realized he was headed toward burnout. As he feels now, his lifetime teaching quota is all used up.

He appealed to teachers to take various measures to keep from repeating the scenario he experienced. And he admonished board members to think about the fact that those who are the most passionate and visionary are the most likely to burn out, if no one plans wisely to keep it from happening. The cost of losing this kind of staff member, for any reason, is too high.

Arlyn also made reference in passing to his sister Jana, who is an MD currently at home and away from her duties in El Salvador. She's here to recover from disabling symptoms of burnout, but kindly offered to talk to anyone in today's crowd who would like to talk.

I could weep for "War Veterans" like Arlyn, Jana, and Wes, whose one-time passions are not part of their every day activities right now--not because they were incapable or because their services were not needed, but because the job was too big, and relief was too slow in coming. In Wes's case, the pay was too low.

In the New Testament era of freely offered grace, I wish Christians could extend grace a bit more freely to each other, in the form of offered rest perhaps, especially to those who do "people work" day after day after day, and who get weary in a way that can't be alleviated by a good night's rest. Perhaps one of the best ways to do that would be to return to a pattern set in the days of the Old Testament law, when rest from tilling the land was mandatory every seventh year. Compared to our currently common customs, that "legalism" could be liberating.

In this chapter of my teaching career, I hope I have the wisdom to act wisely before the warm glow I felt today erupts in a conflagration that progresses to a heap of charred residue. Could "warm glow" really end up as "burn out?" What I heard today makes me think it's happened to others, and I can't assume that it could not happen to me.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Mennonite Game: Classroom Version

Last Friday, in Anabaptist History class, I attempted an educational-relationship version of the Mennonite Game. Instead of pointing out what teachers and students shared bloodlines, however, on the chalkboard I traced the patterns showing what teachers taught what students. I told the students this was an attempt to bring a human scale to the world of scholarship on Reformation Era history.

I started with Roland Bainton, a longtime professor at Yale University. Off to the side at the end of an arrow, I listed Dr. Brad A. Gregory, some of whose Teaching Company lectures on the History of Christianity in the Reformation Era we will be listening to in class. Gregory referenced Bainton’s book on Martin Luther: Here I Stand. I quoted from that book by Bainton something I remembered from having read the book in college. Bainton said: “Luther’s treatment of the Anabaptists is one of the great blots on his character.”

Under Bainton's name, at the end of a down arrow, I listed Fred Belk, who was my history teacher at Sterling College, a Presbyterian school. Belk was a student of Bainton’s at Yale. Belk wrote the book The Great Trek, the story about a group of Mennonites who traveled, at great hardship, on foot or in wagons, across much of the territory occupied by the U.S.S.R., to Mongolia where they believed Christ would return soon. I have an autographed copy of Dr. Belk’s book. For my students, I quoted something I remember Dr. Belk saying in class: “The Anabaptists were by far the most Christian of the Reformation Era groups.”

At the bottom of another down arrow, I wrote “Me” because I was Dr. Belk’s student.

At this point, Jared came to the rescue for me and everyone else in the class when he raised his hand and said, “Could you add one more arrow and then put my name up there?”

“Absolutely!” I exclaimed in delight, and, as everyone laughed, I added one more entry that included everyone in the class: “Students.”

Perfect. I wish I had thought of it myself.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Quote for the Day 1/8/08

When I was three or four years old, after church, coming to stand next to my father as he visited with others--

Dad (Pausing in his visiting) : What do you want?

Me (Probably feeling shy) : Nothing.

Dad: You won't be able to find that here.

Perry Lee, who is famous in these parts for his astounding memory, told me this story in the presence of my composition class.


Today, while I stayed at school with the four students who had not earned the field trip--

Telephone rings.

Me: Pilgrim High School. This is Miriam.

Ryan: Mrs. I, some of us are disagreeing about whether it's Cara-BEE-un or Kuh-RIB-ee-un. We decided to ask you.

Me: Well, I've heard it both ways. Just a minute. I'll look it up.

(Pause. Shuffling of pages.)

Me: It's either way.

Ryan: OK. Thank you.

I can only imagine what that particular field trip lunch time argument was all about.

P.S. Those (all three girls and one guy) who stayed behind had a good time. I was unsustainably lenient with them, and asked them not to brag to the other students about anything they were allowed to do. Tomorrow must be business-as-usual, after all.


Yesterday, in the first Anabaptist History class session of the year:

Me: At the end of your study guide, there may be a Questions for Discussion section. I want you to write something down for each of these questions, so that you'll have something to contribute in class. (Slight pause.) Come to think of it, I can't quite imagine this class not having anything to contribute to a discussion.

(General laughter.)

This year's juniors have a reputation for being more opinionated and talkative than average. At least they're good sports about being reminded of it.

I think there are good times ahead.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Stand and Sing

Last Sunday at the dinner table, with both his and Joel's girlfriends (Dorcas and Hilda) present:

Shane: How come none of you stood today at church when I did?

Me: Did you stand too? All I saw were Hans and Benji.

Shane: Oh yeah. . . . I had an almost irresistible urge to turn around and wave before I sat down.

This was one of those funny moments that sometimes intrude on the most formal of occasions. The person in charge, near the end of the service, when we usually stand for the benediction after a final song said, "Let's sing," and then sat down.

A few young men sitting near the front heard instead, "Let's stand," so they did, but only briefly--until they figured out that, except for the song leader, they were the only ones standing. It was long enough, however, for everyone else to have a moment of self-doubt: Did I misunderstand . . . . ? What a relief to be able to chuckle instead at others having misunderstood.

If Shane had done "the wave" I'm not sure if anyone would have recovered in time to help sing the final song.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Quote for the Day 1/4/08

At 7:53 AM today, before another day of cutting posts from a hedge row:

Shane: Let's go. We're a half hour late. This is unacceptable.

Grant (hopefully): Fire me.

Shane: No. I'm just going to make your work later.

On New Year's Day, Shane worked for several hours before we left for Sterling and our annual tradition of celebrating the New Year with Japanese food with Hiromi's sister's family. At the edge of the wheat field, on top, everything was frozen hard, but underneath, the ground was very mushy, making it difficult to get traction. "Well, I almost rolled the Mustang," (skid steer) he informed us nonchalantly while we were wrapping the gyoza for our feast.

He plans to leave on Sunday for a two week session at Faith Builders in PA, so getting out of the tree row all the posts that are cut is high on his priority list. He needs the money to pay for the trip and the school session.

The wind chill on Wednesday was four below zero when they cut wood. High winds yesterday hampered the effort. The ice/snow/mud mixture underfoot is not pleasant to work in. The person who had agreed to take the firewood for a specified price stopped by the other day and said he doesn't think he can do it after all, unless he can get it for $20.00 a half cord. I think he's figuring out what Shane figured out recently when he said:

Shane: This is definitely the last year I'm cutting firewood. I can figure out lots of easier ways to not make money. Besides, when I got done with those ways, I'll still have a back left.

I think he should consider simply charging what it takes to cover his costs, along with a decent hourly wage. With heating fuel prices rising as they are, firewood prices can still be a competitive alternative, even with a price increase.

Shane got up this morning muttering about his stupid phone alarm. Last Friday morning he had set it for 3:30 AM when he wanted to leave to push snow off parking lots in Hutchinson. This Friday morning, it was still set for 3:30, and he didn't realize the problem till he was standing upright trying to wake up. When he recognized his mistake, he gratefully went back to bed, only to be summoned again by the alarm clock ringing at 3:35, his backup plan for getting up last week. At least he knew what had happened this time, so he took care of it quickly and went back to sleep. Then, during the night, his phone decided to reset itself to the eastern time zone (perhaps in anticipation of his planned travels :), so it rang again at 6:00, our time, instead of 7:00 as it was supposed to do. At 7:00, after three false alarms, he finally got up, and then got out the door a half hour late, thanks to Grant's deliberate getting-ready pace.

Someday he'll see these things as small problems, easy to solve or compensate for. But for the present, they are unwelcome complications.