Archive for October 2022

Thursday Classroom Fast

October 29, 2022

In this unexpected year of teaching 8th-graders about essay construction and American History, I’ve also been doing some non-textbook instruction on how to be responsible, what it means to be a decent human being, and being a person who is willing to give.

A couple of weeks ago there were three broken pencils on my classroom floor at the end of the day. Someone, or someones, had purposely broken them. Perhaps it was meant to be a show of strength, a moment of impressive brute-ness that would shock the knee-high socks off the young lady sitting at the next desk. Or maybe it was a contest between two entitled thirteen-year-olds who believe the world should come behind them and clean up their chaos.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t happening for me! I did a mini-rant the next day to indicate my confusion about the purpose of such an act and to make the point that it was not to happen again. If it did, there would be consequences.

But you know how eighth-graders are. Some have short memories. Some of them like to test the currents, sticking their finger into a light socket and then doing it again two weeks later to see if the result is the same, kinda like a bad science experiment. So…on Wednesday morning, what did I find on the floor? A pencil broken into three parts. Someone hadn’t gotten the memo, or had buried the memory underneath their pile of meaningless meanderings.

“Tomorrow,” I announced in my most judicious voice, “we will have a Thursday fast. No food will be consumed in the classroom for the whole school day.” I held up the broken pencil pieces. “Someone left this in the back of the classroom this morning. A pencil. A broken pencil. A broken pencil that never did anything but be there to help you put your thoughts on paper. A pencil willing to have its head ground to a sharp point so you can be clear on the point you are making. A pencil whose bottom has always been there for you to erase the mistakes you’ve made. So tomorrow we will fast to signify that it is a day of classroom mourning for the loss of something that was taken from us at such a young age, barely out of the pencil box, just beginning to realize its purpose. So sad and so unnecessary.”

Some were on the verge of tears. I could not, however, discern whether the possible moistening of the eyes was about the pencil or the realization that they would not be able to consume their Ding-Dongs and beef jerky the next day. A few eyes rolled to express their displeasure in the group penalty because of the sin of one. What were they to do with all those Jolly Ranchers weighing their backpacks down? One student, half-jokingly, said I should be charged with war crimes.

But I wasn’t done making my point. The class is in the midst of analyzing and writing argumentative essays. Why not make it a teachable moment that, back in our day, used to make us cringe. Why not give them an assignment in which they could make their argument for the reason food should be allowed in the classroom? Why not have them do an “argument organizer” work sheet to help them clearly plan their flow of thought?

Some pounded their keyboards, attacking the letters to form expressive words and unpunctuated sentences. Others stared in disbelief that a broken pencil was coming back to haunt them, as if it was a bad sequel to a Halloween movie. But for some students, the best writing comes as a result of being outraged. A moratorium on Airheads has the potential to bring increased intellectual functioning.

P.S. Each day in my classroom I put a question on one of the whiteboards for students to freely comment on. Friday’s question was “If in Mr. Wolfe’s high school class he was voted “Most Likely To…”, how would you complete the statement?”

One anonymous student’s reply caused me to chuckle: “Most likely to get mad over a pencil!”

Passing It On in Passing On

October 23, 2022

Our dear friend, Janet Smith, passed away a few weeks ago. We had a long history with us, going back to when she served on the Search Committee of the First Baptist Church in Mason, Michigan, who called me to be their pastor. My “rookie pastorship” went for 15 years, 1984-1999. It was a time of learning, being extended grace and patience, and blossoming into a minister of the gospel.

Janet guided me until I was able to be a guide for her. She and another seasoned saint, Lorraine Demorest, were my first Worship Design Team. We’d meet once a month to plan out the coming Sunday services, a time of thought-provoking dialogue, punctuated with fits of laughter.

Janet, an elementary school teacher, had been mentored by others in the First Baptist family. Marie Lyons, another elementary teacher from the generation of Janet’s parents, had been that calm, wise voice who had been a guiding and shaping influence long before the age of social influencers. Marie was an authentic and real influencer. The last time I saw Marie was at an ice cream shop in Mason, and Janet was there also. The three of us enjoyed some late-night dessert together and talked about the blessings of life. Marie’s celebrated her 3rd heavenly birthday this past week.

More times than not, we are the result, the effect of the ripples on our life. That’s what resonates with me about Janet, who was who she was as result of Marie and others. A number of others, including myself, can see the handprint of Janet upon us. In her passing on she has passed on her impact.

This past summer we were blessed to have her come and stay with us here in Colorado Springs for a week. My adventures in teaching these past few years were blended in with her experiences and we laughed innumerable times about what students had said and done, failed attempts at trying to educate our students on certain subject matters, and the moments that we experienced breakthroughs. We talked about the past and the present as we took day trips to ride the Royal Gorge Train and visit Fossil Beds National Park. She shared conversations as we sipped on coffee at Starbucks and razzed each other as we played cards in the winding down hours of the evening.

And I’m sure there had been similar conversations years before that Janet had shared with Marie Lyons.

Carol and I will be flying back to Michigan for her funeral next month. In Janet’s final hours, I was able to talk with her on the phone as she neared her entrance in Glory. Her chuckle, slurred some by the pain medication, was still distinctly hers. Although I did not know it at the time, she requested that I conduct her final service of remembrance and celebration. As her longtime friend, Becky Murthum told me, “Janet, what if Bill can’t do it? Who is your second option?”, and Janet replied, “There is no second option.”

I’m honored to do it. She’s an important part of my journey. She was our kid’s babysitter when we moved to Mason. She led me as I led her. She loved Jesus, was loved by Him, and was loved by others. In her passing on she has passed on what I hope I can pass on.

Encouraging Parents About Their Discouraging Kids

October 22, 2022

Parent-Teacher Conferences are revealing times. As the familiar Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, reminds us, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight”, so it is with the parents who gather for progress reports on the kids.

For some it resembles the announcing of NCAA Basketball Tournament selections. There are the shoo-ins, the ones who know the report is going to be a thumbs-up; the ones who are borderline, could be positive or could be a disappointment; and the ones who already know it’s going to cause them to develop migraines.

As the teachers of their kids, we try to soothe the wounds in the midst of the misery and offer words of encouragement that little Johnny may not be a future president, but he also isn’t destined for Prisoner #123456.

After all, little Johnny may not understand Exponents in Math, but he does Excel in Kindness. He may rarely remember to capitalize “i”, but he understands the world doesn’t revolve around Him. The parents who are wringing their hands over his lack of academic performance are suddenly lifted out of the dark abyss of uncertainty by the story of how their emerging adolescent helped a classmate handle an incident of devastating defeat.

After all, in a few years these sons and daughters will transition from school hallways and assigned desks to a world that is depending on their character, reliability, and ability to adapt. Whereas knowing the differences between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches is important, being a good citizen is essential. The worry lines forming in parents’ faces smooth out when they hear that their kids are going to be okay. They may be challenging in some ways, but they’ll figure life out.

And then they receive the encouraging words. Their kids will be okay because they have parents who care, parents who have not given up hope that the struggles and mediocrity of the present will get refined to success and awesomeness.

It’s the students with the absentee parents or parents who don’t give a rip…those are the kids I develop worry lines over. Years later, they’re the kids that teachers, school counselors, and administrators think about and hope, in the midst of fears, that they’re okay.

Understanding Airport Announcements

October 16, 2022

I recognize that at my advanced age I may not be hearing as keenly and clearly as I used to, although I always seem to CLEARLY hear the neighbor’s dog at 5 in the morning!!! There are many excuses for not hearing well: I’m a male, I was chewing, my allergies were ramping up, I was focused on the problems of the world, and other mentally draining issues.

But– and that ‘but’ indicates that the most important reason is about to be written– announcements voiced in airport terminals are like a foreign language. Sometimes it’s as if you are in a room where half-a-dozen conversations are going on at the same time, a jumbled conglomeration of gibberish resulting in confused looks amongst the hundred people standing around trying to understand what is being said.

Last week, as our gate agent began to announce the latest delay for our flight, a louder voice boomed through the terminal corridor to remind us, in case we had forgotten, that no smoking was allowed in the terminal or the restrooms. I wondered if a cranky airport employee had discovered the volume knob and given it a half-twist clockwise. After all, we were already biting our fingernails in anticipation of when the actual updated, updated, and updated departure time was going to be. Did our latest anticipated news need to be preempted by a reminder that tobacco products were taboo?

A while later a different gate agent, three Red Bulls into the day, made a speed-reading announcement that was faster than a test car speeding down the Bonneville Flats. It was like a disclaimer sprinted through at the end of a TV commercial that has to fit into five seconds or less.

The non-smoking announcement drowned out the fact that the departure gate for our non-stop to Cincinnati had been changed from A44 to A36 to make room for another flight that was going to Cleveland. It was like the Bengals’ game being preempted by the Browns, and when was the last time the Browns were in the Super Bowl???

In a time when confusing messages seem to be proliferating faster than the rabbits in our neighborhood, airports are following the trend. News I need to hear gets drowned by the the loud drivel of the irritated. The most soft-spoken has the most important words to share, while the things we’ve heard a thousand times gets pounded into our brains.

Wouldn’t it be great to get this unexpected announcement sometime? “Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! Your Frontier Airlines is scheduled to leave on time at the very gate it says it’s departing from!”

Am I hearing things?

Class Reunion-ed

October 15, 2022

It felt a little bit like being the new kid arriving at a new school on the first day, except I walked in with my wife who has walked with me for the last 43 years. Coming back together with the men and women, who used to be the guys and young ladies, I had graduated from high school with was a “new experience in oldness.”

The last class reunion I had attended of the Ironton, Ohio Class of 1972, was 25 years ago at, coincidentally, our 25 year reunion. My family was still living in Michigan at the time, still two years away from taking the family van and possessions to Colorado Springs.

What an awesome experience it was to gather with those I had roamed the hallways with, attempted to be educated with, and circled the high school track with. Despite our advanced ages now, most of us had the remnants of our youth still rising to the surface of our faces. The waist sizes of a long-gone day had disappeared, but not our enthusiasm for being back together.

Two of our classmates wore their high school cheerleading and majorette jackets. As I stood for a picture with them, arms around each other, I said it was closest I had ever been able to get to a cheerleader and a majorette. They thought about punching me in the arm, but considered my fragileness and just hugged me instead.

Classmates who had gone to the same elementary school (Back then there were 7 of them in Ironton!) together gathered to reenact their grade school class pictures. Stories that are now golden in years were retold, hugs held onto, and two-person selfies were the thing. Two of my classmates whose wedding ceremonies I had officiated in the distant past, and who had both been standing next to me when I was saying my wedding vows, were there. I get choked up just thinking about it. It may have been 40 years since the three of us had been together.

As I had hoped, at this reunion our conversations did not dwell on achievements, popularity, and how important each person was, but rather how important relationships are, the memories of our teachers, and how blessed we are to be able to gather together. We talked of those who had passed on and the disappointment of not seeing some of our formers who hadn’t made it to the festivities. Two of our classmates had joined together in marriage about four years before. The husband of one of them had passed away. Some time after his passing the other former classmate had contacted his widowed classmate. As they told me of their journey, tears began to come to the brims of our eyes. With total sincerity, she looked at me and said, “He saved me!”

It epitomized the weekend. Two people reuniting, one in need of a hand to grasp and one willing to lift her up from the wounds of the journey.


Desks and Pretend Desks

October 1, 2022

In our middle school we have pretend desks. They became a thing a few years ago, shaped like a triangle and doubling as an ideal way for students to play cards with three people, not that we ever play cards in school.

The pretend desks are versatile, able to be maneuvered to form larger quads with four of them fitted together, or put into pairs with two desks either facing one another or side-by-side. Each desk is on wheels that can be rolled into position and then locked. They offer a bored teacher the opportunity to reconfigure a classroom in ways that leave the students confused and anxious.

The pretend desks do not have any enclosed storage area underneath, although there is a hook that no one can see, or pay attention to, underneath the pretend desk top that they can hang their backpack strap from…although no one does!

It’s difficult for pretend desk to be scratched up and graffitied, although I see the wheels spinning in a few suspect students eyes, as if they are devising a master plan of destruction. So far no one has been able to leave messages like “Billy Bob sat here!” or “Johnny and Jenny Forever!”

Pretend desks are not like the desks we had in a long ago time in uncarpeted classrooms, governed by silver-haired ladies wearing wing-tipped glass frames, toned-down dresses that no one noticed, and uncomfortable footwear.

Those desks, constructed of wood and metal were nailed to the floor to keep nicely-neat rows that communicated order, discipline, and the seriousness of education. After all, we were there to learn our ABC’s, theorems, and how to tell the difference between an adverb and an adjective. No time to waste on the dilly-dally of useless laughter and idle chatter.

Our desks were strong, like a Mayberry jail cell that kept its occupant corralled and out of circulation. We’d have to resort to slipping notes to one another if we needed to get a message to one of our classmates. We became sneaky before technology ever entered the classroom.

In elementary school, our desks had tops that opened up like a Tupperware container. We were able to store all of our earthly school possessions inside: textbooks, pencils, notebooks, crayons, and a few trinkets. We’d still lose things, but we rarely heard the words, “Someone stole my notebook!” If it was inside your desk it was as if there was a “No Trespassing” sign on it. Plus, there was that nicely-contoured groove at the top that you were able to place your pencil in.

Of course, it also allowed us to hide a few things from our teacher, who would be consumed with the teaching of how to identify a dangling participle. In the newer pretend desks with no covered space, students have made their laps and the underside of a pant leg as the go-to spots of cell phone secrecy.

I’m torn between the advantages of present flexibility of moveable pretend desks and the stoic strength of the old. My traditionalism draws me toward what was, the memories of my youth, but our pretend desks tell me of new possibilities and the potential to rethink, redo, and move ahead.

In fact, as I head over to my classroom this morning I’ll be moving pretend desks to new spots as a new week approaches. It gets me slightly excited. Just call me weird.