Archive for the ‘Freedom’ category

Middle School Brainiacs and Maniacs

April 20, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                            April 20, 2019

                      

I approached the desk of the assistant principal’s secretary, who also handles athletics.

“Kristen, sometime today would you be able to print me off track rosters so we can have a copy for the bus ride today?”

“Sure! It may be a while, though. I’m behind because of all of these discipline referrals I need to type up.” To the left side of her computer a stack of papers position themselves like pancakes.

“The maniacs are alive and well!”

It happens each school year around this time. Students start thinking they’re either invincible or uncatchable. This past week a student, who I love dearly, received after-school detention for stuffing another student into a garbage can. I asked him who reported it, as in which teacher or administrator. “No one,” he replied. “It was on one of the security cameras.”

Ahhh, yes! The cameras see all! Last year…about this time!…I broke up a fight before it really started between two 7th grade boys, both muscular deficient and evidently on some kind of supplement that is able to raise their level of annoyance. One of them made a comment about the girl walking with the other boy being his girlfriend. He said it with ridicule in his voice so the other boy responded, “You wish you could even get a girlfriend!” That was it! The pocket protectors were cast to the side and they were ready to further embarrass each other, but I stepped in. And it was all on camera!

A couple of years ago…about this time…an 8th grade boy thought he would pretend to be one of the Avengers, blessed with super human gifts, and slide down the stone barrier of the staircase that separated the first flight of stairs from the second. He overcompensated too much to the right and went over the edge, dropping about six feet onto the lower steps. He wasn’t seriously injured, but paramedics had to be called to treat him for possible injuries.

My number one rule, “Don’t do stupid!” needs to be put on a banner and displayed at each of the entrances of the middle school about this time of the year. Teachers are thankful that the security cameras can’t capture the essence of their thoughts around the end of April!

Thank God there’s also the brainiacs in the midst of the student population- the kids that are guided by intelligent decisions and the quest for knowledge. I heard one young man talking to his father, a math whiz himself, and the content of their conversation…er, that is, what I heard of their conversation sounded something like this:

“But if Q is taken to the tenth power and square rooted with the negative feature of X, wouldn’t that make it supportive of the equation Y divided by Z cooked in butter and multiplied by the baking temperature of Q on the second Thursday of the month?”

“Yes, but what if X ends up being the anthesis of Y? Would that effect the judgment of Z when taking into consideration the altitude of the cake mix minus brown sugar?”

Something like that!

Brainiacs are the saviors of teachers the last six weeks or so of the school year. In a sea of “Fortnite” addicted adolescents, the brainiacs are the life raft of hope. They are the ones that teachers don’t have to worry about, the ones who still ponder the why’s and “what if’s” because they want to know, not just because they desire an “A” in the class. 

This time of year they stand out. The Office for Stupid Decisions is overpopulated! Kristen is just trying to keep up with the paperwork!

Middle School Passing Period

April 13, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                   April 13, 2019

                             

It’s like an 8:00 A.M. corridor in an O’Hare International Airport terminal…many people rushing and others in no hurry at all…people on a mission and others who look like they’ve been beaten into submission…people all put together and others who are frantic as they seem to be coming apart.

Instead of an airport terminal, however, it’s a  middle school hallway…between class periods. It’s the four minutes of bedlam where a thousand students are required to navigate slimmed down hallways to get from one classroom to the next. 

I stand with two of the awesome sixth grade teachers, Dan Ferrante and Stephanie Wilcox, against a railing watching the mixture of personalities and temperaments pass us by. 

Some use it to ask one of their teachers a quick question or to plead their case for grace.

“Ms. Wilcox!” whines one girl, as she sticks her lower lip out and speaks in a tone that conveys the world is coming to an end, “I didn’t get all of my math homework done…but it wasn’t my fault! My little brother was sick and I had to do his jobs around the house, PLUS my own!” She punctuates the agony of injustice in being the overworked child of the family with a deep sigh.

Ms. Wilcox is very understanding of the inconvenience and tells her that she will send an email to the mom to express her concern for the illness of the brother and her understanding of the daughter’s inability to complete her math assignment.

Eyes wide open greet the teacher’s response. “Oh, you don’t have to do that! He’s…he’s fine today! Our…ahhh…internet is down anyway!”

Ms. Wilcox knows the talent this student has for avoiding work. She’s heard it all before. As the student walks away she enjoys a giggle of satisfaction over the terror she has created in someone who’s been prone to be the terror!

Several eighth graders walk down the crowded hallway with their noses in their cell phones, oblivious to the mass of bodies around them. 

A couple of sixth grade boys with an obsession for looking cool walk by with AirPods in their ears, as if their social status has been elevated. AirPods are the middle school version of a high school student driving a Maserati GT Convertible to school. They think people notice! They overestimate their peer group. Little Tommy, who has so many papers sticking out of his folder that it resembles the aftermath of a tornado, notices only the obstacles in his path to science class. His coat, which he never takes off, flaps in the hallway breeze and one shoelace is untied and so loose the tongue of the shoe looks thirsty! AirPods mean as much to him as hominy grits!

A small herd of seventh grade girls roam down the way in unison. Their conversation is so fast-paced they sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. Never once do they acknowledge the three teachers. We are obstacles in the midst of their verbal jabber.

The boy I sent to the office last week passes by and I sense a scowl. He may have just spit on me…in his mind! His preference is to have the inmates run the asylum. Teachers are like prison guards. Someday he may find out from first-hand knowledge that prison guards are different!

“Mr. Wolfe, who are you subbing for today?” asks a cute sixth grade girl who still isn’t tall enough to ride the carousel merry-go-round by herself. 

“No one! I just decided to come and hang out in the hallway for a while.”

She giggles and goes on to her Language Arts classroom, not sure if I’m serious or trying to fool her. 

Another sixth grade girl. “Mr. Ferrante, do you want to read my speech?”

“Sure, but maybe at the beginning of our lunch period…unless I can read it in 15 seconds!”

There are the few who seek to take five minutes to get to their destination. They are in no hurry…with the exception of the 2:45 bell at the end of the school day. Jet propulsion empowers their feet at that point!

The crowds lessen and the teachers turn towards their classrooms. For the next 57 minutes the terminals will be quiet until the next class period’s flights begin boarding. 

Middle School Food Intake

April 10, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                 April 10, 2019

                              

“Sam, what’s this?” I pointed to the food and drink he had taken out of his backpack and placed on the desk in front of him.

“Breakfast!”

“An Arizona Ice Tea, a fruit roll-up, and a bag of cookies?” I reply with confusion etched across my face.

He nodded his head and looked at me, searching for some reason why I seemed unreasonable. I was substitute teaching in a 6th Grade class and what I didn’t realize was that the treasures now in full display mode on Sam’s desk happened to be what he had every morning in this class. Sometimes a sleeve of Ritz Crackers or chocolate-covered mini-donuts were on the menu instead of cookies, and Gummy Bears instead of a fruit roll-up, but that’s it!

“You didn’t have time to eat at home?”

“No! I never do!”

“Nutritious breakfast there, big guy!”

He smiled back at me as a Chips Ahoy disappeared into his mouth. 

Being around middle schoolers these past few years has brought back the memories of what I would consume at school when I ran the halls of Williamstown Junior High/Senior High School as a 7th grader. Back in those days, before technology took over, my parents would give me money to buy “lunch tickets”. In the school cafeteria a student handed in a lunch ticket and proceeded to have unappetizing food plopped on the tray by scowling ladies wearing hairnets. Lunch was an ordeal. There were no chefs serving fine cuisine there. In fact, the weekly menu came out ahead of time so students would know what unrecognizable food items had been placed on their trays. 

Williamstown also had candy machines in its hallways and I remember selling my lunch tickets at a discount for hard cash…er, coins to jam into the candy machine. PayDays were my lunch of choice!

When I was in high school in Ironton, Ohio we’d walk a block down the street to Smitty’s and consume Hostess Fruit Pies and Little Debbie’s.

So Sam’s breakfast of non-champions smelled of past memories and choices. What I’ve noticed is that he’s not unusual. In various classes students bring out snacks of Cheetos, Fritos, Oreos, and once in a while…a granola bar! They “snack” their way through the school day. I don’t see too many apples emerging from backpacks!

As I’m eating my salad during the lunch period a few students come into the classroom to chat and razz me. One has a fudgesicle, another ramen noodles, and the third munches from a bag of potato chips. 

“You all don’t eat lunch in the cafeteria?” I ask.

Three faces of disbelief greet the question. The cafeteria is too stressful, too confining. Bringing a bag of chips means the student doesn’t have to stand in line, and can use the 30 minutes to socialize and do whatever, ALTHOUGH I wasn’t quite sure where the fudgesicle had come from!

Cafeteria food offerings are much better than when I was a 7th grader, but many students need that high dose of sugar to satisfy their cravings. I can’t tell you how many Starbucks Frappuccino drinks I see being consumed in the first two hours of a school day. Also, there’s never a school day that goes by where a few parents don’t arrive at lunchtime with a bag from Arby’s, Chick-fil-a, or Jimmy John’s because they promised the Johnny Jim’s they’d bring them lunch that day.

The interesting thing for me is that I’ve noticed that I EAT HEALTHIER when I substitute teach. It’s usually a salad, or cottage cheese and cucumber. Don’t think too highly of me, though! I eat a light lunch so I don’t fall asleep in the afternoon classes…like I used to do in American History class back in high school! The teacher had a soothing monotone voice and the heavy non-nutritious lunch made my eyelids heavy with sleep. My understanding back in those days of our nation’s story was distorted by only catching the first 20 minutes of each class period lecture!

Perhaps the diet of many middle schoolers could explain the irrational decisions that they are prone to make…like the boy who was dared to walk into the girl’s locker room…and he did! For the next five school days after that he could eat what he wanted to…at home! Perhaps that was because of his poor eating decisions!

No…no, that’s just because he was a middle schooler! 

Preferred Line Skippers

April 6, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    April 6, 2019

                              

It was crowded, but coming from Colorado where we had just recently experienced a type of blizzard called a “bomb cyclone” we were okay with the crowds in the midst of sunny 70 degree weather. 

None of us had ever been to Universal Studios-Orlando, so we trudged the pedestrian lanes through the park together, dodging kids darting in front of us and clueless visitors who kept stopping to take family photos in the most inconvenient places.

Estimated wait times were posted in front of each attraction…30 minutes for this one, a quick 15 minute wait at that one. Our family of seven charted our course. What did we want to include in our day? What did we want the kids to experience? Where would we eat lunch and what would we eat?

And so we got in line for our first ride attraction, a 45 minute wait for an experience that was surely going to have longer lines later on in the day. We inched our way forward like kids in the elementary school lunch line.

To the side of us, however, I noticed that other people kept passing us by. It was as if they were in the express lane of the highway and we were in backed up traffic. I asked my daughter, Kecia, what the “zip-by-us” line happened to be?

“That’s for people with preferred status!”

“Preferred status?”

“You can pay an extra fee and skip the lines.”

“Oh!” I pondered the thought. I had just forked over $25 to park, paid a king’s ransom for our admission tickets, and now Universal was tempting me to join the illusion of being a part of the upper crust for another fee that bordered on extortion. 

Later on I checked to see what that extra fee would be…$10, $20? Would it be as much as the parking? 

$139.95 per person…on top of the regular admission fee of $115!
Let’s see! Let me do the math! That would be for our family of 7…ahh…$1,784.65, plus the $50 to park two vehicles…$1,834.65…plus lunch!

What does a willingness to spend $2,000 for a day at an amusement park say about us? Does it say something more about our impatience in waiting or our desire to receive preferential treatment? Or is it an indication that our culture now has an excess of impatient people who want to be pampered and made to feel special?

The fact that plenty of people strutted by our “poor man’s line” hinted that the last option may be closer to the truth than we want to admit. 

Humility did not rush by us that day at Universal. It stood to the side so it didn’t get trampled. In a crowded place it went unnoticed and disregarded. 

Such is life these days in more ways, it seems, than an amusement park!

Noisy Contributions

April 2, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                 April 2, 2019

                                     

     Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few pence.”     (Mark 12:41-42)

My friend, Ed Stucky, gave a message on Sunday about “offerings”. I always learn some “behind the scenes” stories of the Scriptures when Ed speaks, and this was no different.

When the crowds came to the temple the people would place their coin offerings in metallic containers (probably made of silver, gold, or bronze). The larger the offering the louder the noise of the coins hitting the metal. The louder the noise the more attention the giver would receive. The noise indicated the size of the contribution, and the wealthy status of the contributor.

It reminds me of the Society Page in our city newspaper’s Sunday edition. There are pictures of men in tuxedoes and women in evening gowns holding glasses of wine, with the headline “Benefit Raises $250,000 for Family Crisis Center!”

Not that raising money for a cause is a bad thing, but in Jesus’ time the rich wanted to be seen for the size of their gifts more than the generosity of their hearts. They liked to make a lot of noise!

And then there is a widow who places two small coins in! They are lost in the noise of the crowd, and she slips away unnoticed, invisible, and now poorer than poor. Jesus seems to be the only one that notices her. After all, the temple needs a lot of noisemakers to keep things going, not the slight sound of unimportant pence that make no impact! 

Jesus is impressed by what the widow has given and chosen not to keep, rather than what the rich have chosen to keep rather than give! It’s a counter-cultural thought that escapes the notice of everyone else.

It also signals a principle that gets overlooked or completely ignored. That is, it is usually the noisemakers in our culture that are visible and those who hardly are able to make a sound who become the invisible.

In saying that, it’s easy to place the focus on groups and categories of people who don’t have two coins to their name, but each of us also have people in our lives that easily become invisible. It’s easier to focus on categories of the voiceless rather than the man we see everyday sitting alone at Starbucks or the middle school student who has become invisible to her classmates.

Who makes the most noise these days? What noise SHOULD my life make?

Perhaps the forgotten prayer that needs to be whispered again is “Lord, may the noise that my life offers always be an echo of your spirit speaking to me and through me!”

Recovering From Vacation

March 31, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                 March 31, 2019

                        

Vacations are tragically funny! We long for the excitement and happiness that the advertisements seem to convey and come back home exhausted in our search for them.

Let me say this up front! The best parts about vacations are either the deepening of relationships or the experience of being embraced by peace. 

When I reflect on journeys that are the most memorable I think of being with either family or friends. The destination was secondary in importance. Memories of conversations and humorous happenings rise to the top. For example, three years ago my wife, Carol, and I took a road trip from Colorado to southern Ohio. We went to a couple of Presidential Libraries (Eisenhower and Truman) on the trip east, which were interesting, but what we’ll remember is surprising our nephew, Eric, on Sunday morning when we showed up in worship at the church he pastors In Bethalto, Illinois, and then surprising my brother at the Woodford Reserve Bourbon Distillery outside of Frankfort, Kentucky where he is a tour guide, and then being in Proctorville, Ohio for my dad’s 88th birthday celebration. Those are the moments that stand out. 

And peace! Like the sound of ocean waves as a person stands on the shore is the embracing of peace that some vacations offer. It’s the feel of a gentle breeze touching your soul, an absence of noise and clutter that allows the person to hear the whisperings of God and the beauty of silence. In our culture quiet moments are under appreciated and yet vitally important!

We returned from our most recent vacation late last night. We went to The Magic Kingdom where peace and rest are like alien creatures. Once again, the best part involved the deepening of relationships- going with our oldest daughter, son-in-law, and grandkids. The magical moments were connected to them: seeing the grandkids playing in the pool with a couple of children from Brazil and listening to how they connected across Portuguese and English language barriers, watching the personalities of the grandkids emerge in their distinctive differences, and taking long walks around the Orange County Convention Center with Carol.

The frustration of air travel, the crowds of people, the price gouging of $25 just to park at Disney, and the spike in Disney food prices were all dampers on the experience. I mean…really, do I need to pay $6.00 for an ice cream bar shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head image, or $9.00 for a plain hot dog?

So why is the Magic Kingdom so popular, so overcrowded? Perhaps it’s because many of us think there is something offered there that our lives are lacking. Or perhaps it’s the other way around…our lives are lacking and we are hoping that a visit to a place that features a castle with stardust above it will fill that void.

The other interesting thing I noticed at Disney revolved around the number of people who had their faces buried in their cell phones as they waited in line or as they walked through the park. It’s as if we want to go on a magical journey, but can’t quite let go of the world we live in.

And so we arrived home last night- actually 12:30 in the morning- to recover from the crowds and the chaos and return to the “ho-humness” of our routines. We return from vacation to our vocations remembering…not the rides and attractions, but rather the conversations and chuckles.

The chuckles, however, will end when I received my next credit card statement! It will tell me we can’t afford another vacation for a long, long while, and there’s something, like I said in the first sentence, tragically funny about that!

Privileged People and the Privilege of Money

March 16, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                          March 16, 2019

                    

A few years ago a mom was upset with me. Her son had tried out for the 7th Grade basketball team and I hadn’t chosen him. He, along with about 25 others, didn’t make the cut.

She was visibly angry.

“He played on a club basketball team!” she informed me. 

“Well, good! I’m sure there’s other opportunities for him to join into, if he wants.” It was not the answer she wanted, but it didn’t seem like an appropriate moment to give her an analysis of her son’s fundamental deficiencies- didn’t have a left hand, couldn’t shoot, and was about two steps slow on defense. 

What she was saying is that she had paid money for him to be a part of a club basketball team. Money should count for something! 

And there it was! A fundamental flaw in the understanding of what money’s purpose is. Using it to help someone hone their math skills, or perfect their singing voice, or dribble with their left hand…those are several worthy uses of a family’s finances, if they have extra funds. But this mom’s understanding of money was that it opened doors that would otherwise remain closed. Money entitled her and her son!

It painted a mindset of a person who felt privileged, a person who expected things!

We all have that mindset in some ways; maybe not with financial funds, but with similar thinking. When I wrote my first novel I figured people would be lining up for the privilege of publishing it. So far I’m still waiting…and waiting. At least, however, I did write it!

Esau felt privileged, as many other first-borns do. David felt entitled to another man’s wife. Ananias and Sapphira didn’t seem to think twice before deceiving the first church by not disclosing all of their financial information. 

Sometimes privileged people forget that they put their pants on just like the rest of us do. 

And so we shake our heads at the news of people, who have money, using it for ill gain! We mutter to ourselves, “That’s just not right!” We often ponder what would happen if we had a pot load of cash? What would happen if the monthly inflow was always more than the outflow and we wouldn’t have to fear the sudden expense of a car repair or the news that one of the kids needs to start wearing braces? We think it would be a breath of fresh air, and we inhale the dream!

Money, however, has a way of taking someone down a glittery path towards distorted reality and an elevated view of their importance. 

If a person doesn’t know who he is then he will allow money to define him. But if he knows who he is- his virtues, thoughts, and routines- whether he has financial resources or not will not matter. 

So…one mom walked away angry and disappointed. Her dream for her son’s life in basketball had been detoured by an old coach who had seen too many wanna’ be’s who never would be.