Archive for December 2021

That Old Thing Called Loyalty

December 30, 2021

Besides the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Baseball League, Ernie Banks played 19 seasons for the Chicago Cubs from 1953-1981. Voted the greatest Cubs player of all-time, Banks said this about loyalty:

Loyalty and friendship, which is to me the same, created all the wealth that I’ve ever thought I’d have.”

Loyalty seems to travel great distances these days to find a place willing for it to reside. I guess it’s always been that way. After all, Adam and Eve had been planted in a great place to live a fruitful and happy existence, but the lure of a piece of forbidden fruit was too much for them to resist.

Remember back to those days when you shopped at the same stores, bought the same brands, and rooted for the same teams in the good seasons and the bad? I guess I’m showing my age when I bring up a past that included those things.

How about this? Remember when a college football team would see that playing in a bowl game at the end of a season was like the hot fudge on top of vanilla ice cream? It made all those sprints, drills, and hours of preparation worth it. Well, that’s now losing its sweetness as well.

Four Ohio State football players are opting out of playing in the Rose Bowl, rather than risking injury and hindering their pro football draft potential. The Rose Bowl! Not the Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl or the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The Rose Bowl! Speaking of the Potato Bowl, Wyoming’s quarterback who was voted MVP of the game, promptly announced he was entering the Transfer Portal to play somewhere else next year.

Like I said, loyalty is finding that there’s no room in the inn. It’s a trait that is seen by most people as being admirable until it reaches a crossroads where an easy right turn with promised power and/or riches are just up ahead.

And it’s not just with athletes who have been told their value reaches to the moon. Corporations close factories that have been the lifeblood of communities. Spouses walk away from the one they said their vows to because someone else has convinced them it can be better in their arms. Christian folk trade churches like Topps baseball cards. Someone who is thought to be the best friend disappears when the road gets bumpy.

Loyalty is what we hope for in others, but when it comes to its ramifications for us we often use the excuse “That’s different!”

Simply Respect

December 22, 2021

RED HOT NOVEL SERIES LIFE LESSON: “Respect one another!”

When many of us say the word “respect”, we think of Aretha Franklin’s song titled as such. We can hear her spell the word in a commanding rhythm, R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

In my middle school world, it’s a word that is sung in the minds of administrators, teachers, students, custodians, librarians, security officers, and cafeteria workers. In other words, everyone wants to be respected, from the skinniest sixth-grader to the most weathered staff person.

Respect, however, is detoured around as if it’s a bridge that we fear will not support the weight of our vehicle. Others may view the sag in our toughness. Our “coolness” might take a hit. And so we yield to the well-trudged path of disrespect.

How does respect become the way and not the exception? Many years ago I had a professor who told us that there is a battle that goes on when two people meet each other to establish oneupmanship. Each of us wants to unconsciously have a feeling of superiority. An element in respect is the surrendering of that desire to be seen as more important, smarter, more clever, funnier, more athletic, more attractive, more with-it, and more relevant. Instead, I look for the value in the other person, the possibility of a valued relationship, and the sacredness of his being. He/she has been created in the image of God and, therefore, worthy of my respect.

Of course, I can’t really lay all of that on a middle-schooler! He will look at me like I’m an alien being, clueless of what adolescence is all about. What I can do in the classrooms I’m privileged to inhabit is be committed to establishing an environment that values the input and involvement of each student. I can foster a place where we listen to one another, agree to disagree, and agree that it’s okay to agree! I can set up a campsite where everyone has a voice, and there is an equal playing field. What happens in other places is beyond my control, but in the setting that I facilitate I have the right and responsibility to establish certain expectations for the good of everyone.

Truthfully, we live in a time where our culture has come to expect the minimizing of one another, an impatience in listening, and a scowling disrespect. I admire people, especially students, who refuse to cave into the chaos and cruel words, and live with a consistency and commitment to those three words: Respect One Another!

Because of Aretha, we can easily spell it. The challenge is showing it.

Middle School Espresso Break

December 19, 2021

On a family vacation to Italy a number of years ago, my father-in-law and I took a day to drive over to Assisi, view the cathedrals and walk the streets of the town. On the way back to where we were staying in the Tuscany area we pulled off the highway at a roadside espresso cafe. It had no tables or chairs, just a counter, like in the old western movies. We ordered two cappuccinos, spent about three minutes sipping on the small cups, and climbed back in the car for the rest of journey home.

The Christmas break for schools commenced in our community on Friday at 2:45 p.m. At 3:00, after the hallways and byways had cleared, the teachers pulled into their “roadside espresso cafe”. It’s their respite for traveling the first half of another long and uncertain school year, a welcome distraction from the fact that there are five months still to be slowly walked through.

The teachers need an Italian espresso break. I’ve heard the deep sighs of weariness and experienced the searching for wisdom in handling situations that only a Mission Impossible scriptwriter could dream up.

Alan Wolfelt, who has written extensively about grief and its effects on the grieving, has said that grief needs to be expressed in some way. Different people grieve in different ways, whether that means overeating, acting out, not sleeping, not talking, or compulsively buying unneeded items.

School kids these days have been doing a type of grieving. They’re grieving the loss of normalcy and the dependable. That is, the way school has been is no more. What they had come to expect has been blended together with the unexpected. Masks, hand sanitizer, quarantines, COVID-19 tests, social distancing, new variants and new paranoia…it’s a whole new chapter in the educational handbook.

The first half of the school journey this year has been punctuated by students acting out in unacceptable behavior, as if they ran out of common sense filters. Things have happened that would be great material for Jerry Springer episodes. Teachers at times have been more like ranchers, just trying to keep all the horses in the corral. At other times they’ve been like foster moms and dads, providing comforting words, being a dependable presence, and offering advice.

In the midst of the expectancy of the unexpected happening each school day, they’re trying desperately to teach kids math, science, social studies, language arts, art, and woodworking. It’s a Herculean task, keeping little Johnny engaged in U.S. History, when he just wants to escape to the fantasy of his iPhone video game. Or teaching Brenda about the laws of gravity when she is grieving the loss of her grandparent.

Yes, it’s time for an espresso, a pull-over, a respite, a break to rejoice in all the things that have been pushed to the side in the rush to make sure the school to-do list has been achieved.

Take a sip. Reflect. Rest. Play.

Putting Pants On The Same Way

December 15, 2021

RED HOT LIFE LESSON: Focus on the ways we are similar to one another, not how we differ.

I remember a man from a church I pastored years ago talking about his encounter with Jud Heathcoate, the Michigan State basketball coach. The two of them were on the same plane and the man said, “Hey there, Judd!” When I asked him if Jud responded, he said, “Sure! He puts his pants on the same way I do!”

That declaration that brought a chuckle to my inners then resonates even more with me in recent times. It seems to be easy, and even our nature, to focus on the ways we differ, rather than the ways we are similar. I see it every day I’m in the hallways and classrooms of our middle school. Students who might be short, chubby, not very coordinated, intelligent, talented, socially awkward, or anyone of a few hundred other boxes that might be checked on a list of differences, have students and teachers alike focus on their shortcomings and personality warts much more than their common traits and qualities.

In the first book of my Red Hot novel series, Red Hot: New Life in Fleming, I introduce two characters who are visibly different, one with thick eyeglass lenses, short hair, and short stature; and the other with bright red hair that makes him look like his head is on fire. In a small West Virginia town where no one would envision them becoming friends, they learn the value of having someone who notices how they are more alike than different.

There will always be those who feel the need to tell someone how weird, stupid, or unimportant he is. In middle schools it doesn’t take you long to figure out who the outcasts are, the kids who stay close to the walls as they down the hallway, trying to go unnoticed. Or the student who, when the teacher invites the class to work with one or two other students on the assignment, is the one who is never invited to join.

As I view the assortment of students conversing, socializing, or avoiding eye contact, I’m always impressed with the ones who seek out the marginalized and treat with respect, the ones who push the unusualness of a fellow student to the side and sees how clearly they are alike.

It’s like putting on pants. Everyone who wears pants puts them on the same way. The pants may have different designs on them, be bell bottoms, skinny jeans, or have a different designer label but…they’re all pants!

Focus on the ways we’re similar instead of trying to divide us because of our differences.

Past Wisdom For Present Success

December 11, 2021

In my Red Hot novel series, the middle school bully, Timmy Little, never seems to learn from his past mistakes and keeps finding himself facing the consequences of his bad decisions. In fact, he frequents the principal’s office so much there is a chair with his backside imprint on it.

Real life middle school is not too far removed from fiction. When I walk through the waiting area outside the offices of our assistant principals, there seem to be a few faces that frequent the area so much they should pay rent for the spots. Yes, we all make mistakes, but some people just seem to have a way of making them over and over again. Their derailed actions are like train tracks that just seem to follow the same path toward destruction each day.

In our middle school most of the classes have this thing called “re-accessing”. A student who doesn’t do well the first time on a quiz is offered an additional opportunity to correct his/her errors. On most quizzes the teacher is even able to see how much time was spent by the student answering the questions. If a student took two minutes to answer the ten questions and received a score of three out of ten, the instructor could see if the lesson of “slowing down” sunk home in the student’s den off common sense as the student re-accessed.

We either learn from our mistakes and we continue to commit them. Our past mis-steps are best used to teach us about striding with success in the present. Most students learn that, while a few can’t seem to escape the temptation of walking on the edge of the cliff that borders the office of handed-out consequences.

My daughter, an elementary school educator, was recently grieved by a tragedy that happened to one of her former students, now in his latter teen years. When she had him as a student she could see the possible troubles ahead in his future. He often made the wrong decision, but she gave him extra attention and encouraged him whenever the opportunity presented itself. After she had him as a student she would continue to greet him with smiles and hugs each day she saw him in school. When he went on to middle school she’d only see him about once a year, always giving him a hug and asking how he was doing. The other influences on his life began to take over more and more. Whether there were others who tried to steer him back in the right direction and encourage him on the right decisions, we will never know. The tragedy of his life, however, will always rumble in the sorrow of our daughter’s soul.

As an optimist I believe that deeply-entrenched tendencies always have the potential to be ironed out. Like the frozen ice of the rink scarred by the deep cuts of the skates, the Zamboni smoothes out the rough parts and returns the surface to an appealing shine. I believe the past can be used to navigate a present productive reality.

No One is Worthless! Everyone Has Value!

December 8, 2021

In my novel series, Red Hot, one of the main characters, a seventh-grader named Ethan Thomas, has no one who believes in him. His thick-lensed eyeglasses, short hair, short in height, and freckles don’t help matters. Even most of his teachers don’t believe he can be successful.

Thankfully, a new boy with bright red hair moves to Ethan’s small West Virginia town and gradually convinces Ethan that he’s not worthless and can achieve things that he didn’t think were possible. Having someone believe in him makes all the difference in the world for Ethan.

In any middle school or high school there are numerous Ethan’s trudging down the hallways, struggling with the uncertainty of their worth, their purpose. They hide in the shadows, avoid certain people who enjoy making fun of them, and count down the minutes until they can escape the corridors and classrooms again. To have someone tell a kid something different than he has always heard is a God-send. Hearing positive words in a negative environment is like a fresh spring rain on a dried-out soul.

I love speaking encouraging words into young people who had resigned themselves to the fact that they were losers, nothings, not to be seen or heard. There was one young boy last year who was not doing well in class. His absences made it difficult to connect subject matter that built from one day to the next like building blocks. And then we had a section on short stories. Each short story was followed by a discussion or a quiz, so the day was self-contained. He did well, and I told him that. He’d contribute his thoughts and opinions when we’d have a discussion. He did well on the quizzes. In other words, he had the potential to do well, to excel, to do work that was deserving of an A or a B.

Unfortunately, his family system didn’t put much value into his schoolwork or time at school. Suddenly, he’d miss a day or two and the residue from his past struggles would reappear. The doubters in his life far outweighed those who believed in him and, although he kept being reminded of his potential, the depth of his personal lack of belief was a rocky journey filled with stumbles and missed opportunities.

He’s just one example of a young person who needs the cheers of many who drown out the jeers of a few. Value is more than there ability to throw a ball well or dress like a million. It’s more than being like by a lot of people or coming from a family of prominence. Value is in anyone. It sometimes simply needs to be cultivated and uncovered.

Hallway Drama

December 4, 2021

Yesterday out middle school did the play production of “Beauty and The Beast”. It was a rousing success, filled with great performances and the little snickering moments of a middle school play. As I thought about it, the idea came to mind for another production that has potential. First there was High School Musical. Now there could be Middle School Hallway Drama.

Between classes as students stroll, roam, and occupy the school corridors, it is entertaining and revealing to watch their behavior, conversation, and avoidances. I notice the squirrel-ish sixth-graders, the beagle-ish seventh-graders, and the fowl-ish eighth-graders. It’s the school version of the animal kingdom.

There is more communication, verbal and non-verbal, in the five minutes of hallway occupation between class periods than there is in the sixty minutes of classroom instruction. Girls who refuse to say a word in class suddenly explode with a fountain of conversation, intermingled with gazing at their cell phones to see if any incredible messages have arrived in the last ten seconds. Boys assert their manhood by banging into lockers and talking about anything that is not connected to academics.

Hallway drama includes the revealing of secrets. Mr. Brown yelled at Johnny Thompson for falling asleep in class. Jimmy Green was caught cheating on the math quiz and sent to the office. He didn’t come back! Probably suspended for like a month! Judy White’s new hair style makes her resemble a ferret. The mac-and-cheese they served in the cafeteria at lunch tasted like lumpy paint.

Hallway eighth-graders are revealing of the class Casanovas and their romantic targets. Certain boys are in search of hugs from young ladies that they long to be close to…for longer periods of time! Hallway hugging may be the source of more middle school kids passing along infections than any other cause amongst their age group. There is minimal concern about breath so bad it could kill a cow as there is for the need to be embraced.

Less romantically-interested students congregate together to watch Billy Ray conquer level 368 on his cell phone video game. It’s amazing to see six boys following the action that is occurring on a screen that is 3×6 inches. Instructive tips are shared by the viewers to the gamer, as well as ridicule and laughter about gaming failed moves.

A few students actually talk to their teachers in the hallway. That is, to the teachers who aren’t in need of a five minute break from a community of adolescence. Students talk to me because they know I have a stash of Smarties available for students who deserve a few moments of sugar. I get asked questions such as, “What are we doing in class today?” Answer: Stuff. And, “Mr. Wolfe, I’m one of your favorite students, aren’t I?” Answer: “Yes. You’re in my top 500!”

Areas that are rarely visited during the five-minute passing periods are the restrooms. The urge for a student to do his/her necessary business is reserved for class time. Why waste valuable hallway time to do something as meaningless as emptying one’s bladder?

Hallway drama…or comedy reveals the kids who see the school setting as their primary social environment, the students who don’t want to be there, and the emerging teens who are trying to figure out who they are. There are tears of betrayal and rejection, and laughter caused by antics and funny sayings. There are kids rushing to get to their next classroom and others who lounge around until the last possible moment. There are fashion statement and misunderstandings, boys who have over-indulged on the Axe body spray and others who have not yet discovered what deodorant is.

Hallway drama is an experience that entertains all of the scents and causes the teaching staff to smile, frown, and shake their heads in disbelief.

Yes, this has major theatrical production possibilities!

The Gap In Athletes

December 1, 2021

The middle school girls’ basketball team that I coach began on Monday. Three days of tryouts will be followed by the posting of an 8th-grade team roster. The team that I have this year has the potential to be very good.

That’s the upside. The downside is the gap that has appeared this school year amongst athletes. Since there was a minimal amount of middle school sports in our area last year, many of our participants lost a year of skill development and game understanding. It showed during the recent 7th-grade boys’ basketball season (We play it early in our area!). In our first game three different players ran right onto the court when I told them to go into the game. They didn’t realize that you needed to go to the scorer’s table first. It looked more like a line change in hockey!

The athletes that were a part of a club basketball team last year are now a year ahead in game understanding, skills, and maturity. Sure, there are other factors like some kids are naturally more athletic and others have growth spurts or develop coordination later on. Those have always been uncontrollable factors. When Jimmy is beginning to have a five o’clock shadow in seventh grade, it usually means two things: he’s physically and athletically more developed than the others and…he ain’t getting much bigger!

However, this year’s gap made more evident by last year’s lack of opportunities has amplified the gap between those who have the resources to pay fees for their child to be on a club team and those who can’t afford such an expense. Club team fees can range from several hundred (Cheap!) to several thousand. A family with more than one child playing club ball incurs incredible expenses. In most situations the coaches of club teams are able to bring the athlete to a higher level of performance and understanding of the game.

Thus the gap!

What I’ve also noticed is a hint of arrogance that has seeped into some of the club players attitudes. It comes out as they play alongside of participants who missed that year of development. They know they’re better. Sometimes their frustration is evident as they are told to play on the same court or field as lesser-talented teammates. In some cases, their parents have told them how much better they are than the others. The child is encouraged to shoot and dribble the ball more and pass it less.

Thus, a significant challenge for me as a coach this year is helping my players understand what it means to be a team, develop the concept of teamwork, and value each of their teammates. The challenge, more evident than usual, is creating an equality among players who are unequally talented. It’s not a new situation, just one that, like a picture hanging crooked on the wall, needs to be straightened out.

And maybe, just maybe, the gap between the haves and the have-nots will be narrowed a little bit, and things more important than statistics and the won-lost record will be learned and taken to heart.