Archive for September 2021

When You Can’t Taste

September 27, 2021

It’s been a strange couple of weeks. Although fully vaccinated, I tested positive for COVID and have been isolated from this, that, and the other. No Starbucks stool to sit on to craft my Words From W.W., no teaching gigs, no in-person church.

But the most intriguing aspect of the experience has been my lost of taste and smell. I can’t smell the roses and I can’t taste potato chips. I’ve stopped putting sugar in my morning coffee, because..what’s the point! I’ve minimized the dressing on my salad, because…what’s the point! I’ve taken to drinking more water and less soda, because…you guessed it…what’s the point! I’ve lost six pounds on my trail to blandness, and I’m looking at any can of food in our cupboard that I despise and considering its consummation because I won’t be able to taste it.

I hadn’t considered how my sense of taste has been so ingrained into my life experience. It’s just always been! Carol and I had hamburgers the other night because I had a hankering for one and…nothing. I popped popcorn and put so much salt on it you’d think I had stock in Morton and…nothing.

Taste draws us into the sweetness of life and the salt that hints of a seasoned existence. One doesn’t appreciate its value until it’s not there. The Food Channel loses its meaning. The mailings from Omaha Steak are inviting to the eyes, but then the reality of what is sets back in.

There’s a verse in the Bible that says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him” (Psalm 34:8).

The loss of my taste buds has brought me to a new appreciation of my taste for the Lord. On the way to dullness I’ve encountered scriptural stories such as the lame beggar laying by the Gate called Beautiful who is looking at Peter and John for a coin and the two apostles tell him that they don’t have silver or gold, but in the name of Jesus get up and walk. It was a redirection, a new beginning, that led him to a new way of looking at life, from a standing position.

This loss of taste has led me to a new longing to taste that the Lord is good and the realization that I have an appetite for a lot of things that are pseudo-tasty, the sweetness of what the world has told me is what I need. My loss of taste has made me realize the deceptions of my wantings and the urgency of my needs.

Oh, don’t kid yourself! I still have a longing for a PayDay candy bar, but then I think to myself…yes, one more time…what’s the point!

Baptist Non-verbal Swearing

September 21, 2021

I was brought up right, born into a Southern Baptist family in eastern Kentucky. We were “three-peats”! That is, we were in church Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night. Once in a while, I’d fake a cough so I could stay home on Sunday night and watch Walt Disney…back in the day when it was wholesome with Hayley Mills, Old Yeller, and Mary Poppins.

My parents never used swear words. The worst we’d hear them say would be, “Shoot!”, but having no connection to firearms. So I didn’t cuss either! Swearing was a sign of our fallen nature, and even though I was fallen I had reached and grabbed hold of the branch of purified speech on my descent.

I’m still that way. It doesn’t mean I don’t think thoughts that would resemble the words of a sailor, I just don’t say them.

However, I’ve noticed that I’m developing a toolbox of ways that I non-verbally swear at others. They’ve come as a result of driving on the same roads as NASCAR wanna-be’s and people who have come to believe that the world revolves around themselves.

For example, when that BMW sedan buzzed by me and cuts in front, I extend my left hand forward as if I’m outside the supermarket entrance and telling someone “You go ahead.” If the BMW motorist happens to look in his rearview mirror, he will see my hand extended. Outside Safeway it would be a gesture of politeness, but on Research Parkway a few blocks from our house it’s my way of silently shouting profanity. Forgive me, Lord!

Another way I’ve entered into the land of quiet expletives is when someone doesn’t stop at a four-way stop. For that transgression I extend both hands heavenward, like a Sunday morning praiser, to express my disbelief. Once in a while, the sinner whispers an apology. Other times it looks like he whispers something a bit more “earthly”!

Finally, I sometimes use the confused shaking of my head to convey ridicule. I see it quite often on the faces of Detroit Lions fans during televised games on Sundays. Their expressions of disbelief in player and coaching decisions need no words attached to them. You can read their cussing minds! I use this non-verbal swearing technique most when I’m on the sidelines coaching a basketball game. I get the eye of one of the officials and pierce him with my frown and head-shaking.

I guess you could say my lips are pure, but my mind is tainted. I have, however, stooped to the low level of saying the word “crap”!

Forgive me, Lord!

Seeing Myself in Seventh-Graders

September 16, 2021

I am 55 years removed from my year as a seventh-grader at Williamstown (WV) Junior High. That means I could get the senior citizen discount simply from the time I’ve lived SINCE seventh grade. Things were different back in 1966…and yet they weren’t much different at all.

Oh, yes, there weren’t the “devices” that kids have today. I watched an episode of The Andy Griffith Show last night where Floyd, Barney, and Andy were bemoaning all the new devices that were invading their lives. Opie walked by about that time holding a transistor radio next two his ear. “See, what did I tell ya!”, said Barney.

I wonder what they’d say today as Johnny comes to school “all hooked up” with his ear AirPds and iPhone? What would they say about the $1,000 he is displaying in order to listen to some group I’ve never heard, whose name could also be an assault on the advancement of correct spelling?

Anyway…as I survey the hallways, classrooms, and athletic fields of Timberview Middle School, I see the faint image of myself leaking through the personalities and insecurities of the students. Back in the day I was a 4’8″ skinny kid who wore eyeglasses and had a buzz haircut. That year I had been the quarterback on the Williamstown “B” Squad that was the equivalent of today’s Pop Warner competition. I was so short I couldn’t see over the offensive line. If we did a pass play, I pitched it back to Tommy Station, my fullback, who then threw the pass. My voice resembled a baby robin squealing to his mama for a worm. But I was fast!

In other words, I was a mixture of uncertainty, self-doubts, potential, and constantly being misjudged by others. You know…the kid on the playground who gets picked last when teams are chosen, but then zooming by the competition.

I walk by kids at TMS who are present-day carbon copies of that. They’d been doubted for so long by their peers and instructors that some of them have come to believe they have no talent or any possibilities for success. They’ve come to believe they are mediocre, destined to be labeled as “C” students in the classroom and standing on the sidelines of the athletic field.

I can remember my own “settling”, being convinced of the impossibilities of possibilities. I don’t remember anyone at school telling me the importance behind the subjects we were learning. They were just “filler facts” and information to make sure our lives were occupied from 8 AM to 3 PM. School was what you did, not part of shaping what you were to become.

I was one of those students who tried to go to the restroom or get a drink of water in as many classes as possible, a hall-wanderer to gain a few moments of relief from the lesson of the day about dangling participles, latitude and longitude, and subtracting a negative number from a negative number.

And so I see myself now in the kids, unsure of who they are and, in some cases, frightened of who they might become.

Saying Things That Make No Sense

September 12, 2021

In this era of masks and diminished hearing, it’s easy to reply in nonsensical ways to a comment or question directed at you. In my recent excursion into the world of seventh-grade language arts it happened to me quite often. A student would say something to me that got funneled through the translation colander on the way to my ears.

It was like this!

Student: Mr. Wolfe, can we get a little more time to work on the short story?

ME: That’s not my decision. If you want salad for lunch, go for it!

Student: Huh???

Yes, it’s probably a sign that my hearing has deteriorated a bit. Add to that a growing number of students masking up as they attend class. It always seems to be the ones who are as quiet as church mice who turn their volume down another level with their mask. It’s confusing to a senior citizen who sometimes wants to hear what he wants to hear.

That’s another angle on this communication confusion. We have a tendency to want to hear what we prefer to hear. There were a few times in my youthful years where I wanted to hear that a certain young lady was interested in me. I’d take any positive comment from her and sift it through the translation colander for what it meant. She said hello to me in the school hallway = “She’s interested!” She sat two seats over from me in chemistry class = “She wants to be close to me!” Our elbows touched in the crowded cafeteria = “Please call me!”

We have the need to hear what we’ve already decided is the right answer. It’s the ravenous hunger of our times, to not hear words correctly and rearrange the pieces accordingly.

My students would giggle and laugh as they listened to my distorted responses. I could translate “better” into “peanut butter” and “graded assignment” into “great climbing”.

Student: Mr. Wolfe, will that be our next graded assignment?

ME: I don’t know. I’ve done a climbing wall once, but I wouldn’t call it a great climb!”

Student: Huh???

And so it goes! Confused communication. Wrong ways to reword. Not hearing the truth and not wanting to hear the truth.

Now it makes me wonder what that young lady, a few decades ago, really DID say about me? Did she even know who I was? Was she saying hello to me or to a taller guy who happened to be walking behind me? All disturbing questions to ponder…so I’ll just keep thinking she was interested!

Saying Goodbye…Kinda!

September 9, 2021

Yesterday was my last day teaching/leading/corraling my seventh-grade language arts students. Divided amongst four classes, about 90 students at various levels of maturity and immaturity would descend upon me each day to engage in the “E’s”: Entertainment, Experience, Expression (creative writing), and Education. Some days, perhaps, there was more entertainment than education!

I had been asked to fill in until a new teacher could be hired. Since I’m a “pretend teacher” (pseudo instructor), I wasn’t being considered for the teaching position. I was simply acting as the rubber band around the personalities until someone with the right credentials could be located. It’s the same position that I ended up filling for the whole year in 2020-2021. I could have stayed a while longer this year, but needed to be step to the side before the ninety bundles of joy became to attached to me.

As it is, a number of them were looking at me with pleading eyes yesterday. Without putting myself on a very shaky pedestal, most of the munchkins enjoyed my classes. We learned about the importance of commas (The difference a comma can make between the meaning of “Let’s eat, Grandpa!” and “Let’s eat Grandpa!”), creative and imaginative writing, kindness in words and actions, and learning how to support opinions with reasons for those opinions.

But more than learning, my classes included rolls of Smarties, a back wall of Far Side cartoons that were arranged to spell the word “Smile”, conversation, bad puns, a daily Wolfe Wisdom saying and Trivia Question, and Beanie Babies used to indicate the student was going to the restroom.

I enjoyed it…and am glad I’m done! This morning I occupied my Starbucks stool again, last one of the right facing out toward Pikes Peak, and savored my Pike Place medium brew. Tomorrow I’ll probably get a call asking me to fill a vacancy for a day.

My teaching team threw me a “Kinda Going Not Far Away Party”, complete with balloons, chocolate cake, and card. One of the students gave me Chips Ahoy cookies, and several asked me why I’m leaving with a tone in their voice that conveyed my physical demise was about to begin.

So today, once again, I’m attacking the writing of the final book (Book 4) in my RED HOT novel series, creating the further adventures of middle-schooler Ethan Thomas and his flaming redheaded friend, Randy “Red Hot” Bowman. The previous three and a half weeks have provided me with new fodder for the fiction.

To that Ethan Thomas would probably say, “Jiminy Cricket!”

The Ethans of Life

September 5, 2021

One of the main characters in my RED HOT novel series is a middle school boy named Ethan Thomas. As Book 1 begins, the reader discovers that Ethan has thick-lensed eyeglasses, a buzz haircut, freckles, is short, and has no friends. He’s the kid that is there but nobody sees.

I developed his character out of some of my memories of middle school more than a half-century ago. I was the shortest kid in my class, had a buzz haircut, and wore glasses, although they didn’t have thick lenses. I did have friends, but always had that feeling of inadequacy as a result of my 4 foot 8 inch height in seventh-grade.

Now that I’m teaching a seventh-grade class (although I’m done this coming week), I see the Ethan’s that still side-step people walking down the hallway, the kids who long to belong but don’t quite jump over that wall with its constantly changing boundaries.

I can see it as they enter the classroom. Which students are chattering away with one another as they enter the room and which students come in with eyes lowered, unsure if someone will say something that causes them to feel smaller than they already are?

I see it as certain students stand in front of their lockers. They are the ones whose faces are almost buried inside the place that holds there possessions, hiding as best as they can from the mass of peers who crowd their space. The Ethan’s want to be noticed, and yet they have a fear that if they are noticed it will be in a demeaning sort of way.

I see them in the cafeteria sitting alone, or sitting as if they are a fenceposts between two groups of students, not a part of either groups’ conversations, just a student to indicate where one group ends and the other group begins. The Ethan’s sit there with their heads down and trying to eat their lunches in front of them that have lost their taste.

I see them in the classes where the assignment has students teaming up in groups of three or four. The Ethan’s become the filler that the teacher ends up assigning to a group. Sometimes the response from the group is positive, but sometimes a deep sigh can be heard in their acceptance of the one who has been put upon them. The Ethan’s are often afraid of contributing anything to the group out of a fear of being laughed at, even though great ideas percolate within him/her.

The thing is the Ethan’s of middle schools have the seeds of greatness, the potential to be heroes, the hearts to empathize, the imaginations to create, and the minds to figure out what needs to be done and can be done. In their loneliness amongst the masses they can make the difference between a school being just a school and a school being a great place of learning and developing life-long friendships.

Back to my growing-up days even though “growing” seemed to be the thing that eluded me. There were a few boys who made the difference for me. Mike Bowman and Terry Kopchak pulled me along with him during my 8th and 9th grade years when we lived in Zanesville, Ohio. Dave Hughes and Mike Fairchild picked me up through my last three years of high school after my family had moved to Ironton, Ohio. Those four guys made the difference. They got my face out of its locker hiding spots, made lunch a time of conversation instead of me feeling like a fencepost, and made me laugh just as much as I made them chuckle.

I pray that the Ethan’s I see everyday in our school hallways will find friends like that. Or, perhaps I should say, I hope they will be found by friends like that.

The Pressure of Rewards

September 4, 2021

A couple of years ago I was filling in for our middle school art teacher one day. My last class of the day was a group of frenzied and squealy sixth-graders, their anticipation of the closing bell causing them to resemble a New Year’s Eve countdown party. One boy got my attention because of his shoes. His shoestrings flapped up and down like the trailing tails on a kite. I was surprised his shoes could actually stay on his feet.

I said to him, “Tie your shoes!”

“Why?” he responded. “They’re just going to come untied again!”

Telling the kid, whose hair hadn’t met up with a comb for a few days, that it was why he had shoestrings, was met with eyes glazed-over by the punishment of having to be in school for the last six hours of his life. I was unrelenting in my expectation and he finally kneeled down and tied the strings as loose as they could possibly be.

I remember that encounter vividly and have thought of it often in recent times as I’ve seen a shift as a part of our cultural philosophy. It is signified by the idea that offering a reward will change a person’s actions and decisions. It’s an idea that has been around in various ways for quite some time, but has now been recreated as a way to influence the hard-to-convinced and slow-to-come-around. I remember schools would use this technique in getting students to show up for the “official count day”, the day in October when their state funding was dependent on how many students were in the building to be educated that morning. There would be ice cream, pizza for lunch, balloons, trinkets, games, throwing pies at the principal, and any other creative activity that could entice Johnny and Janey to show up. Coming because education is important for their future success was not even in the ballpark.

Whatever your thinking is about vaccinations, it seems that the same philosophical roots have been seeded into the pressure for people to be vaccinated. From May until July, Colorado was drawing a weekly winner of a million dollars of those who were getting vaccinated. National polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one-third of those who hadn’t been vaccinated would be more likely to be vaccinated if they were entered into a lottery with the chance to win a million dollars. Colorado’s officials had the mindset that dangling the possibility of becoming a millionaire would alter people’s decisions. It did not apply to those who had been the early adopters, receiving the vaccine shots back in the first few months of 2021. It only applied to those who had been hesitant, suspicious, and unconvinced. Like the long lines of people waiting to buy lottery tickets when the jackpot was around 700 million, the state thought being rewarded for being slow to come around would work. The findings were mixed as to whether it did, but the philosophy behind it was evident.

This week there was a story coming out of San Francisco, and being okayed by the California state government, of a program that rewards addicts with money, usually given in gift cards, for each week they stay clean. It’s seen as an incentive to get people clean and back on the right track.

I’ve got mixed feelings about both of the states’ initiatives. I’m just a little uneasy for trying to get people to change their minds or getting unconcerned folk to be concerned by rewarding them.

Back to the middle school culture for an analogy, when I give an assignment to a student and tell him the due date is two days from then but he doesn’t turn it in, I cringe at the thought of rewarding him if he turns the assignment in late.

I covered that sixth-grade boy’s health class a few weeks after I had him in class the first time. He came in with shoe strings flopping once again and the laces only going through one eyelet on each side of each shoe. The shoe tongues looked like they were trying to make a break for it. I told him to tie his shoes again and he offered the same resistance as he had before. The class was going outside for the period, so I told him he wouldn’t be going out until he had tied the laces. He was still fussing about my demand, when a classmate stepped up and said, “I’ll do it.” He knelt down at the boy’s feet and tied the kid’s shoes.

I’m a bit uneasy when our mindset becomes “If you stand close to me, I’ll not only tie your shoes for you, I’ll give you a new pair to slip on.”