A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Category: On My Family

Reading The Road as a father, vulnerable to McCarthy’s probing tension

I remember enjoying Life Is Beautiful while in college: the quirky Roberto Benigni created a character I’d hope to be, and the peek into one story struck me as a poignant way to capture the tragedy of the broader genocide that was the Holcaust. At least, that’s how I remember thinking about it, and the positive memories are why I assigned my sophomores to watch it fifteen years later when I was out of class for some meetings.

They didn’t finish the film with the sub and I had to show the last 30 or 40 minutes or so when I returned. It did not go well for me. Within five minutes of hitting play my stomach was tied. When we finally reached the scene where little Joshua hides in the junction box and his father is taken away and shot, I left the room, afraid I’d throw up. What was different from my college experience? Becoming a father had made the movie unwatchable.

I wonder, as I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with my students, if they can comprehend this fatherly perspective, or are they as clueless to the gut-level connection as I was the first time I watched Life Is Beautiful? The first time I read The Road I withheld any positive acclaim until the end, muttering to McCarthy with every page, “Do not do this. If you do this, I will hate this book like no other.” I never had to utter to myself what “this” was any more than McCarthy’s narrator has to explain what is on the man’s mind: “He watched the boy sleeping. Can you do it? When the time comes? Can you?” (29). I knew with the first mention of “it” what McCarthy meant. The pit in my stomach, the one that drops into place the moment I read a sentence of The Road, told me what “it” was.

The pit, or whatever it is that leaves me on the edge of sickness and threatens to push me off it, arises particularly from the juxtaposition of the father’s knowing watchfulness and the boy’s sweet peacefulness, which we see immediately in the novel. For example, with the pistol out and ready, the man sees the same sweet sleeping idiosyncrasies any parent sees from their child: “He just sat watching the boy sleep. He’d pulled away his mask in the night and it was buried somewhere in the blankets” (5). The boy’s sleep prevents him from seeing what consumes his father: “He watched the boy and he looked out through the trees toward the road. This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road now it was day” (5). And when the boy wakes the two elements crash:

The boy turned in the blankets. Then he opened his eyes. Hi, Papa, he said.

I’m right here.

I know. (5)

The tender boy sees his father and greets him, a moment in which any father would want to bask and respond in reciprocal tenderness–that is to say, it’s a moment where I would, so I assume any father would as well–but instead he answers by assuring his son that he is watching, that he is here, because that is what consumes him and how he must express his love. It is sad that it must be this way, but it works, for the boy’s response acknowledges his understanding and trust in his father. He knows his father is there, he doesn’t have to be told.

What a pang such tension brings me as a father. I know what it is to watch over my sleeping son, his face relaxed, his body vulnerable. Yet the joy of my looking at him arises from the contrast of his sleeping self with the buoyant energy that fills our home when he’s awake. Like the father in The Road, I see him as my charge, my “warrant,” but to me this is a responsibility within my grasp. It’s a duty of character development and moral guidance, not a task of raw survival and violent protection. In my gut I know no extremes exist to my willingness to protect him, but I need not imagine such circumstances, let alone plan for them or expect them.

This book is a long metal pole McCarthy has probed inside me, and with it he is pressing the nerve endings of my fatherly spirit. That nerve is central to what it means, to what it feels, to be a father, and even when aware of the novel’s ending, I find myself muttering, “Don’t press me too hard, McCarthy. If you rupture that nerve, I’ll never forgive you.”

 

An Ancient Greek Drama, written for first and second graders

For a little unit on Greek history that my wife is teaching at our homeschool co-op, I have written a small play. I like to claim that it’s the best new ancient Greek play in centuries–after all, it seems like forever since Sophocles has come out with a new script–but I won’t defend that claim in court. I have chopped the chorus’s lines into parts, because I thought having first and second graders read five sentences in unison seemed like a pointless challenge, and I have obviously taken a few harmless liberties with the story of Oedipus. The students have already created their own Greek theatre masks, which they’ll wear while performing the play. I hope they enjoy it!

Parts

  • Queen of Thebes
  • Messenger to the Queen
  • Oedipus
  • Dead man
  • Chorus of three individual

Chorus enters.

Chorus:  O, woe are we!

Chorus 1: Our king is dead!

Chorus 2: Our city of Thebes is trapped!

Chorus 3: The Sphinx will not leave us alone!

Chorus: O, woe are we!

Enter Queen, followed by messenger.

Queen: Has anyone come today to save us?

Messenger: A young man has come to solve the Riddle of the Sphinx, my queen.

Queen: Does he look smart?

Messenger: No, my queen – he looks proud, but not smart. (Messenger exits.)

Queen: Four men have perished for answering the Sphinx incorrectly, will this be the fifth?

Messenger: (dragging body) My queen another has perished. (lays body on stage)

Queen: Five now!

Messenger: But my queen another man has come. He travels alone, but speaks boldly and cunningly to the  Sphinx.

Queen: Go, watch him and tell me what happens. And take this man away, as the sphinx will want to eat him.

(Messenger exits, dragging the body.)

Chorus: Could this be the one?

Chorus 1: If he solves the riddle, the city will be free!

Chorus 2: If he solves the riddle, he will marry the queen!

Chorus 3: If he solve the riddle, he will be our new king!

Chorus: Could this be the one?

Enter Messenger.

Messenger: My Queen! He has done it! He has solved the riddle and the Sphinx is gone!

Queen: O! O joy!

(Enter Oedipus)

Oedipus: My queen, your city is free.

Queen: O, hero who are you, and how have you done this? What was the riddle, for the Sphinx never allowed us to hear.

Oedipus: My Queen, I am Oedipus, I come from far away, across the mountains. The sphinx said to me, What animal walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?

Queen: What a difficult riddle!

Chorus: How challenging!

Queen: What did you say?

Oedipus: I told the Sphinx the answer was simple, Man!

Queen: A man!

Chorus: A man!

Messenger: A man! But how is that so?

Oedipus: A man, as a babe, crawls on all fours. When grown he walks on two, and when old, he uses a cane to walk on three.

Queen: Brilliant!

Messenger: The words of a genius!

Chorus: The words of a King!

(Oedipus and Queen walk off stage side by side.)

Chorus: And so the city is free!

Chorus 1: Oedipus is our new king!

Chorus 2: Where he came from, we don’t know.

Chorus 3: Someday, we will find out.

Chorus: But today, our city is free.

Called to Adopt: Our Growth into a New Ministry

We had barely removed our third child from the hospital’s bakery warmer before someone first asked us the question: “Are you done?” It became the stock question, following on the heels of “What’s his name?” and “How old is he?” We naturally developed a stock answer: if we did have another child, we’d probably adopt. The reality was that neither my wife nor I had really considered adoption. The answer had less to do with adoption and more to do with answering a casual question quickly. No one ever followed it up with inquiries about adoption; perhaps they detected our lack of interest.

Yet even without much desire we knew God was bigger than our imaginations, and we always knew if more children were in his plan for us, he could grow in us a heart for adoption.

I’m no farmer, but by watching my wife garden a bit I have learned the clarity of one thing: if you want a seed to thrive, you have to prepare good soil, and in our yard that requires lots of additives. Looking back on our lives I can see how God prepared the soil for a seed he wanted to plant. Our pastor had preached convincingly on the sermon on the mount, reminding us of the importance of storing our treasures in Heaven. He’d also impressed in us a lesson from the book of Ruth about Naomi, who acted with confident initiative because she knew God’s heart even when she could not know God’s plan. Such insight encouraged our faith and increased our confidence that God in and of himself is sufficient for us and that he is eager for us to move boldly in faith.

With such enrichment of faith occurring, we reacted differently when we encountered the concept of adoption. To stay with the metaphor, our soil was receiving sufficient additives that it could accept and nourish a seed.

Such a seed dropped when I had been reading some things with the kids that caused me to wonder about adoption. It came from out of as close to nowhere as something can come and I didn’t explore deeply, yet the thought that adoption would be a good thing lingered.

For my wife, the seed dropped when she met a woman at a local coffee shop who was adopting a baby from Ethiopia. My wife heard her whole story and came home affected by the experience. We talked about it together but did not decide on anything–it’s not like the clouds opened up and we suddenly sold a car in order to adopt.

We did pray about it, though, and after some time I admitted to my wife that the more I thought about adoption, the more it made sense. That metaphorical seed had sprouted.

For me, the sense it made arose from the gospel, which suddenly struck me as an explicit story of adoption. It seemed like every time I returned to consider the gospel, which is just about every time one opens the Bible, I faced the idea of adoption.

Meanwhile, my wife was doing her own survey of scripture, a survey not of the imagery of adoption but of the practical call to it. The thing that got to us most powerfully was what we read from Deuteronomy (10:17-18), a statement of identification that God gives to the people of Israel as Moses descends from Mount Sinai with the second set of tablets showing the 10 commandments.

He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.

Essentially, this is the first thing he mentions to make people know the kind of action they can expect of God. The implication is that we know who God is when we realize he executes justice for the fatherless and the widow.

It is one thing to say the Gospel is explained through adoption. It is another to realize that God loves these fatherless children so much that caring for them is the most significant and exemplary action he takes. In fact, sometimes he’s not even called God, but “Father of the fatherless” (e.g. Ps. 68:5). In our thinking verses like this moved adoption from a powerfully explanatory metaphor to a compellingly tangible example of God’s personality and heart.

Then we discovered more than the example. In the verses where we found many of these references, God commanded the Israelites to care for the sojourners (or aliens, depending on the translation) because “you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” In our ears this echoed other responsive commands, like forgive because you have been forgiven, and love because he loved you first, and we began to feel that burden of response with adoption. We are adopted–what would our response be to that act of caring mercy?

For us, we knew that what we were really considering was adoption: extending our arms and welcoming to our life a child in need of a home. As a response to the Gospel, as a reaction to God’s personality, this is what we needed to do.

There are other reasons why adoption makes sense for our family. Family is very important to us– we’ve committed to living off one income, I am committed to being home in the evenings, and we spend our time primarily with one another. Our best ministry, then, is to expand that family structure where we minister best. Yet ultimately these kinds of things are traits, not calls. These things give us confidence that we are fit for what we are doing; they’re not the call itself. The call comes from our understanding of the Gospel of Christ and the heart of God. The one who has made us children of God and defines himself as the father to the fatherless wants us to defend the cause of the orphan, and we are convinced that adopting a little one is the perfect way to respond to his call.

And now we pray that the Lord will bless us with the grace we will need as we respond to his calling.

Thanks for reading.

———–

What My Family Can Teach My Bureaucracy

On a Friday afternoon few things can cure the sunken feeling of a long week like time with my family can. Tonight we made popcorn and cauliflower for dinner, eating the cauliflower at the kitchen counter and then reconvening in the living room for popcorn and the original version of The Parent Trap. Our three year old climbed into my lap for the show, and with my feet out-stretched on the ottoman, I couldn’t have asked for more.

There is much one could say about the idyllic arrangements of one’s family. The very structure strikes me as the closest we come as people to a perfect arrangement. We know each other so well, we love each other so much, and we’re so committed to living our lives together, that we are able to relate to one another more effectively than any other relationship. I am speaking, of course, of the arrangement and the intended consequences of it, not of the broken situations with which we are all familiar.

I think about this because, for me, it’s been a long week at work. I got worked up again, which essentially means I butted up against what I consider to be effects of bureaucracy, and I had a hard time calming down or “letting it go.” A few hours after work, bathed in constant prayer for peace and with my family so clearly helping me to calm down, it occurs to me that the family is essentially the opposite of a bureaucracy. It’s as pure an antonym as I can think of.

Take a simple situation with my son as an example. You see, we are a family that insists upon first-time obedience. That is, if I ask one of my children to do something, I expect them to do it the first time I mention it. I don’t count to three, and I don’t allow them to ignore me and then have me not bother to enforce what I said. One of the most important ways this effects my parenting is that I am very careful about what I tell them to do. If I don’t really mean for them to do something, I do not tell them to do it. I have found this to be freeing for them, because they don’t have to play games guessing whether I really mean it this time.

When my son gets up in the morning and we hang out, he is always too noisy and is always in danger of waking up his sisters before they need to be awake. As a parent who expects first time obedience, if I tell him to be quiet, he should be quiet. But in this case, I know my son well enough to know how difficult such a task would be. The boy is a noise box. I’ll say, “Remember to be quiet,” and he’ll whisper really quietly for about 10 seconds. After a minute, his whispers are up to a normal person’s full volume, and then a minute after that he’ll overturn a box of Legos, having what appears to be no idea that “quiet” means doing things differently not only with our voices, but with our toys too.

Thus, instead of issuing one-time orders in this situation and demanding morning-long obedience, I teach him morning after morning what it means to be quiet; I remind him that the girls are “still asleep” if it has been a while, since their rest is clearly not the first thing on his mind; and along the way I ask him to do a few things that are clear and which he can reasonably obey without any problem.

We have a standard for our family, the standard of first time obedience, but we know our children so well and care for them so much that we are able to examine the fuller situation and apply the standard in a way that honors our son and produces the results we ultimately want. In this case, the result is that our son is learning to be considerate of his sisters and play quietly until they are awake. And by issuing the “orders” carefully, I uphold our standard of obedience.

It seems to me that the ability of a parent (and really, any family members) to take the person into consideration is the big difference between a family and a bureaucracy. I realize considering a bureaucracy next to a family seems almost unreasonable–how can it compete, when it has seemingly no common purpose to a family? Yet I’d say the purposes are not that far apart in some ways, and the way the two different entities approach their duties lends an insight into how we might improve our work in bureaucracies.

Education, of course, is a bureaucracy. Even a small school falls under the authority of its district, which falls under the state department of education, which falls under the national DOE. And as with anything else involving public money, the the departments of education fall ultimately under legislative authority at each level. Someone a couple layers up says something needs to be done in a particular way, and as the idea trickles down the hierarchy it loses its original context and transmutes into a dictate and a mandate.

The loss of that original context and intention in each idea reminds me quite a bit of my reading about knowledge management. In the field of knowledge management, the idea exists that knowledge ultimately cannot be detached from a knower. Thus, if we wish to share knowledge through an organization, we will find that we cannot simply record the knowledge in a data form and pass that data along as knowledge. Once detached from the knower, it loses something important.

The bigger the bureaucracy, then, the easier it is for that knowledge to be detached from the knower, and once it moves away from the original knower, it seems to become something else–a dictate, a mandate, or some other word we have heard before.

Some of this may be due to the telephone-game concept, where the message changes at each level. A colleague of mine pointed this out to me this week. At the top of the chain, an individual we’ll call a Level A worker uses research to make an informed decision about what teachers should attempt to do in their classrooms, perhaps a particular practice. That Level A worker teaches some Level B workers about the research and the practice and asks the Level B workers to pass it down to Level C and make sure that Level C workers are implementing the important practice. Level B then turns to Level C and says, “Do the practice,” and the research and underpinning philosophy behind it has disappeared along the way. Thus, the knowledge the Level A worker wanted to pass along is lost.

It seems to me that this is why so often a top level worker steps in and calms things down after a change or mandate has moved through a system and created a ruckus. The mandate moved through apart from the knower, and the knowledge was not communicated until that knower addressed the effected workers him or herself.

Yet knowledge moving down is not the only direction where we must be concerned in a bureaucracy. In a family, that anti-bureaucracy, I have a need to pass knowledge down to my children just as a manager has a need to pass knowledge down to those he’s supervising, but that is not where the communication stops. My children are not a batch of inanimate receptors. They are dynamic persons with unique needs, goals, and skills. In learning about them and evaluating them, it is crucial that I do not attempt to pry their knowledge from its context.

I might say that one of my children lacks skills with abstraction. Her sister tried to spell a word for her to give her a secret clue that we were going to eat ice cream (otherwise Little Brother would have known and not eaten his dinner) and she refused to attempt to picture the letters in her head. My analysis that she lacks abstraction skills might be accurate, but it would also be unfair not to consider the person who is not abstracting. That child was barely five years old at the time, meaning that such abstraction might be too tricky for her stage of development. She could have read the words if written, however, so perhaps she simply did not like the game and didn’t want to play along–a very likely scenario considering this particular child of ours. Those factors make me unwilling to draw judgment on her abilities with abstract thinking just yet. I value my daughter in this way by considering her, the knower, and her knowledge together. Ultimately, it is valuing the person that is important.

A week or two ago a friend of mine related an incident in the news. He said that a principal of a school in New Hampshire had confiscated a flag from a student because it could be used as a weapon. This friend likely heard the news on a conservative talk show, which I am guessing means the story was framed under the idea that schools are unpatriotic. While I understood why someone would interpret the story in such a way (considering the pledge of allegiance lawsuits of a few years back), I immediately interpreted the story in a different way.

My first reaction was to figure that the principal in question was just like the thousands of principals all across our country who are trying to do their jobs and enforce the rules that have been given. Ultimately, a serious portion of their job is to enforce rules–they are much closer to referees than coaches, if one wanted to make an analogy for their work. Yet it sounded to me like this principal was doing precisely what a bureaucracy does that a family can avoid–he did not seem to consider the person as much as he considered the rule, the mandate, or the standard. It did not matter if the boy had been bringing the flag to honor his dad who had been deployed six months to the day, the rule was the rule and while on school grounds he couldn’t possess something that could be used as a weapon. (I should emphasize that I have not read the actual news event and don’t know why the principal took the flag–it’s not really the point of what I’m saying.)

Without considering the person and the context, the authority dishonors that person and, in a sense, dehumanizes him or her. I use de-humanize intentionally, because the exchange considers less of the human and more of the external conformation to the rule or formula for acceptable behavior.

Mandates and rules are big deals and I do not mean to dismiss them, especially when management’s primary responsibilities are to ensure that such regulations are being followed. Yet when regulating, managers must remember they are regulating people, not mandates. Unfortunately, it takes a good deal of courage for a principal or manager to view the person instead of simply viewing the mandate. It is courage that will reap dividends, however, because such an approach not only honors people, but more effectively reveals the truth of a situation.

Say a teacher is showing a lot of movies in a class. The principal has noticed this pattern after walking through the department a few times and is confident that the teacher has exceeded an appropriate quantity. How should that principal then address the situation? One way would be to write a note informing the teacher that films are not a central part of her curriculum standards and she needs to stop showing them. Another would be to wait until the teacher’s evaluation comes up and mention it then. Either of those options would enforce the rule, but both approaches seem a bit detached and do not particularly honor the person. Additionally, though the teacher might stop showing movies, it is unknown whether that teacher has improved her practice by not showing them or simply inserted an alternative waste of time that is harder for the principal to detect.

Another approach might be to open a conversation with that teacher about the films and find out why the teacher has been showing so many. Such a conversation might reveal that the teacher has been overwhelmed with papers to grade and has found that showing a movie prevented students from creating more papers that added to her pile; or perhaps she did not value the literature curriculum particularly and decided to show movies as the primary method for teaching story. These cases would present vastly different situations. In the first one, the teacher doesn’t need a reprimand but rather some mentoring about how to balance and manage student paperwork; in the second, the teacher has a philosophical approach that might be inconsistent with the goals of the subject being taught, which could lead to a parting of company. Either way, the person is honored in the exchange and the truth is discovered.

A bureaucracy’s greatest weakness is its impersonality. Too often at work I find myself referring to Orwell’s 1984 and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, finding that the “This is the way it is, it’s what the rules are and it’s our job to follow them, no matter how strange they seem” approach to my work is similar to the mentality of those who flourished in Oceania and the Soviet Union. When I encounter frustrations, things I believe to be wrong, I should just chill-out, play the game, jump through the hoop, and then those above me will leave me alone and I can live a nice, mellow existence.

Perhaps that’s what I should do, but I just am not ready to live that mellow existence. I get worked up about the bureaucracy at work and holler against it like I’m the last Who in Whoville, desperate for someone to hear me. I am convinced that it is possible for someone to hear me, too. In the Soviet Union, the giant system was the work of dictators. Here, we do not live in a dictatorship, and I am hopeful that somewhere up there in the levels above me, people work who have the courage to blink their eyes and break out of the trance of bureaucracy, people who have the courage to consider the person before the mandate.

After all, those people above me have families. That means they know how to work with people and value them as the humans they are. Perhaps they just need someone to remind them.

Thanks for reading.

A Story for Her Birthday

Note: The following is a story I wrote for my daughter’s seventh birthday. It is so full of inside jokes and caricatures of people in our family that I don’t know if it could possibly make sense to anyone else. So be it. I thought I’d share it anyway, if just to encourage others to do something similar for their own families.

Chapter 1 – Gramma’s flower fascination leads to trouble

On a fine but rainy spring day in South Dakota, Gramma G– was babysitting her three wonderfully wild grandchildren. She had taken them out for a walk when they passed by a field of wildflowers.

“Oh, look!” bubbled Gramma. “Wild iris! And Queen Anne’s Lace, and oh, I forget what this one is but we’ll have to pick some and look it up in the flower book when we return.” The children happily followed Gramma through the field, but were shocked at what happened when Gramma saw a flower she’d never seen before.

“Oh, my. Isn’t this one pretty?” she declared upon seeing a strange and exotic flower, different from all the other flowers in the field. “I think I’ll have to pick it and look it up tooooooooooooooo!”

She never finished her sentence, because the moment she grabbed the stem of the flower, the ground beneath her opened up and she fell inside. Before the children could utter a cry, a chariot pulled by a team of black horses flew out of the hole and into the sky. Gramma was in the chariot, calling for help, but the chariot flew so fast the children could do nothing but watch her as her form grew smaller and smaller in the distance and finally disappeared.

“What do we do?” the two girls cried.

“Where did Gramma go?” the little boy questioned.

With their faces contorted in dramatic expressions of pain, the children sprinted back to their house, finding that their parents had returned. In sadness, they told the story about what had happened to Gramma.

“This is impossible!” their father declared as soon as he heard what had happened, and as he said it he ran from the room. The children looked at one another with confusion, for it certainly appeared to be possible. After all, if it weren’t possible, wouldn’t Gramma be here with them? Whatever the case, their father returned with a book and opened it up to a story called, “The Pomegranate Seed.”

“See here,” he explained. “When we read about the pomegranate seed in Tanglewood Tales, the ground opened up and Persephone disappeared. This can mean only one thing. Your gramma accidentally picked the flower that was meant to catch Persephone! Hades has captured her and taken her away! You have to go and rescue her!”

“We have to rescue her!” the children cried in unison, jumping up and down with excitement.

They have to rescue her?” their mother exclaimed. “Why don’t we go rescue her?”

“Well, we’re too old, of course. And even if we weren’t, our birthdays aren’t soon enough. To rescue a human who has been captured by a mythical character, you have to have secret powers, and you only get secret powers on your first 10 birthdays. After that, you’re too old and you can only give advice to people who can get those secret powers. Thankfully the kids each have birthdays approaching, so they should be able to accomplish the mission. Hey, you kids ought to get ready. What do you think you’ll need?”

“Pack packs!” shouted S–, and he ran from the room.

The Wonder Book! I’ll get it!” A– said breathlessly, and off she sprinted down the hallway.

“I think I’ll need the yellow book, so I can know all I there is to know about Greek myths,” E– declared thoughtfully, and off she strutted to the bookcase.

Within minutes each child had a backpack full of Gramma-rescuing necessities, including every book they owned about Greek mythology, Interstate battery flashlights, a wad of tissues, a small purse with a handful of craft feathers stuffed inside, a book about trains, and a copy of Treasure Island.

“Trains? Treasure Island?” E– asked when she saw them in S–’s backpack. “We’re hiking to fight Hades, not riding a train to battle pirates.”

“No!” S– declared with vehemence. “I’m Long John Silver!” and with that declaration he bent his leg at the knee and hopped around the room to prove that his point was undebatable. Changing the subject quickly before they left, their father knelt before them to share one last bit of advice.

“On your journey, you need to know what your secret powers are and when you can use them,” he explained. “You can only use them on your birthday. On the other days, you’ll have to use your wits and bravery to continue on the journey. A–, yours is first, and on your birthday you’ll be granted King Midas’s golden touch. Do not fear–your golden touch will be under your control; you can choose what you want to turn to gold, unlike Midas. E–, your birthday is next, and on it you’ll have the power of Hermes, which means you’ll have the wit to weasel out of any tough situation, as well as the power to fly like the wind. S–, your birthday is last, and you’ll have the charm of Orpheus’s song. When you sing, all hearers will be entranced, and they’ll allow you to do whatever you wish.”

“No!” he declared. “I’m Long John Silver!” and he bent his leg again and hopped to clarify his position on the matter.

“Okay, okay,” his father said, even as he turned to the girls and mouthed out the truth. “Orpheus’s song!” The girls giggled, hugged their parents, and set out on their journey to rescue Gramma.

Chapter 2 – A– touches everything with the Golden Touch

The children walked and walked for seven whole minutes before they realized how difficult their journey was going to be.

“My legs are tired.” A– said.

“Will you carry me?” S– asked E–.

“Think of Gramma. We’ve got to rescue her!” E– responded, and at the mention of Gramma everyone’s spirits lifted and they continued to walk.

Day after day they walked, through mysteriously dark woods, over rushing rivers, and across rocky mountain tops. Then, one day they emerged from a clump of trees to a glade where the sun shone softly on the leaves. It was a relieving sight, and the children ran to the sunshine.

It was an unfortunate move, however, because the glade was a trap. The leaves beneath the children’s feet gave way and they fell into a deep hole, falling down, down, down. As they fell, E– sang to her siblings, “Oh my goodness, oh my soul! There goes Alice down the hoooooooooole!” With a splat, they landed at the bottom and could see light 200 feet above them. They searched the walls for a ladder, but nothing presented itself. The only thing to climb was the branch of a tree, far too flimsy to support their weight if they tried to climb it.

“I just . . . I just . . .“ A– began to explain. “I just want to get out of this hole!”

S– sucked his thumb quietly, and with no prospect of escape that day, the children went to sleep.

When they woke up, E– took out her calendar, which she’d borrowed from Gramma’s purse that Gramma had left at their house before looking for wildflowers.

“A–! It’s your birthday!”

“The golden touch!” A– squealed with delight, and she began touching everything in the hole. Things grew brighter in a hurry as she touched the dark mud walls and all the rocks. Most importantly, however, she touched the tree branch, and when it turned to gold it gained the strength needed to support the children’s weight. They climbed out of the hole and resumed their journey.

It was an eventful day as A– delighted in the golden touch. She changed a grasshopper to gold, as well as many trees and rocks. One time she wasn’t paying attention and turned a cheese quesadilla to gold right before taking a bite. Oops.

Then as the children walked over a little hill and into a field, they saw something they wished they hadn’t seen: growing from the ground all across the field were strange helmet-like forms. Then, the helmets were followed by heads and spears and swords and soldiers in full armor. It was the field of the dragon’s teeth! Thinking fast, E– grabbed a rock and went to throw it into the mass of soldiers, but before she could, S– held out his finger and shouted, “I shoot them! Peeeww!”

At the noise, the army of soldiers turned and saw the children, and they began to run right at them, wielding their swords and spears.

“Oh, no, A–!” E– yelled. “Use your golden touch!”

“No thank you, E–!” A– yelled, but as she did so a soldier reached her and she stuck out her hand to protect herself. The hand brushed the soldier’s knee, and he fell to the ground, made completely of gold. When A– saw how easy it was to turn the soldiers to gold, she changed her mind about using the golden touch. She began to sprint wildly through the ranks of the army, slapping high fives to all the soldiers and dropping them down in hunks of useless gold.

That night the children found a nice place to sleep on pillows of gold (“Sorry E–. I didn’t mean to turn your pillow to gold.”), happy to have survived a day of danger and to have continued on their journey to save Gramma.

Chapter 3 – E–’s uses more than just the wit of Quicksilver

For the next month the children trudged across the land, asking every passerby if he or she had seen Gramma. They talked to many interesting people, including an old hag who was selling apples, and though she tried to foist one on the children, they thought it best not to accept her offer. On another day a violent storm blew through and they had to hide in a nearby cave to stay safe. As they watched the storm from their safe spot, they were sure they saw a house blow by on the top of a twisting tornado, but they couldn’t really be sure.

Then, at the end of that month of traveling, they came to a narrow pathway through a mountain cleft. They entered the pathway because it was the only way to proceed, but the further they went, the darker it became, until finally they could not see their hands when they held them out in front of their faces.

“I know!” A– said. “Our flashlights!” And in a wink, all three children were giggling and shining their flashlights up their noses and into each other’s mouths.

“Do you think we should use them to keep walking?” E– asked after five minutes of enjoyment. Her siblings agreed, and they walked on through the dark passageway. Soon, they heard a strange noise emitting from the tunnel ahead. It was an odd cry, kind of like the moo of a cow, but also like the sound of a person whose tongue has gone numb.

They stopped to listen to the muttered cry for a minute or two when E– remembered she’d heard about this place. She took a book out of her backpack, and using her flashlight, found the story of the minotaur. Sure enough, that half-bull half-man lived in a dark maze, and here they were in such a place, about to encounter that horrible beast!

“I am going to shoot the cow!” S– announced when he heard there was a cow ahead, but E– hushed him quickly, lest the minotaur attack like the army of the dragon’s teeth had. Thinking but for a moment, and realizing it was now her birthday, E– concocted a plan. She removed her sparkly purse from her bag, dumped the colorful craft feathers into the pack, and pulled on the edges of the purse’s opening. For some reason, it stretched further than it should have.

“What are you doing, E–?” A– asked.

“I’ve got Hermes power on my birthday,” E– explained. “So that must mean I have his magic purse, just like the one Perseus used to store the Gorgon’s head. I’m going to hide you inside this purse now!” And with that she stuck the purse over A–’s and S–’s heads before they could protest being stuck inside it.

Looking to her feet, she noticed for the first time that her purple shoes had wings on them today, and when she wiggled them a tad, she began to float. Shining her flashlight ahead, she flew like the wind through the twists of the tunnel, zooming right over the head of the fuming minotaur, who snorted with rage when he smelled E–’s hot-box scent but could not reach her.

The rest of the day was a whirlwind, quite literally, as E– enjoyed flying like like Grampa. They circled the Earth twice, stopping for a moment to see the view from the top of Mount Olympus (they asked if anyone had seen Gramma, but since Hades never goes to Olympus, no one had talked to him to know he’d taken her), and passing by Pegasus and Bellerophone. Pegasus wanted to race, and though Bellerophone tried to bow out when he spotted Hermes’s shoes, the race continued, and E– won. Pegasus was impressed and he and Bellerophone promised to help her whenever she’d need a hand in the future.

That night the children laid themselves to rest on the golden fleece, which they borrowed from Jason as he returned from his quest.

Chapter 4 – S– proves that he’s Long John Silver

For the next two days the children trekked through the snow of the high mountains. On the third day they reached the entrance to a large cave. They peeked inside one at a time and each reported with breathless excitment and fear what they saw.

“It’s Gramma! She’s tied to the wall!” said A–.

“It’s the big eyed beast!” said S–.

“Hades must have left her here when he realized she doesn’t like pomegranates!” said E–.

“What are we going to do?!” said A–, as tears began to well up in her eyes.

“I know!” began E– joyfully. “It’s S–’s birthday, and he has the power of Orpheus’s song! All he has to do is go inside and sing, and the beast will untie Gramma for us!” Turning to S–, she continued, “S–, go inside and sing something. Sing I Heard It through the Grapevine or Daisy Daisy!”

“No!” S– snapped. “I’m Long John Silver!” And with that he drew his leg up at the knee and hopped around the corner, right into the open mouth of the cave. The moment the big eyed beast saw S– hopping into his cave, he snorted smoke and flame from his nose. He roared a terrible roar, and gnashed his terrible teeth, and showed his terrible claws, and began to rush at S–, determined to eat him in one gulp.

“Noo, S–!” the girls both shouted, unable to stop their tears. But S– showed no fear. He looked up at the rushing beast with determination in his eyes.

“I shoot the big-eyed beast!” he said shortly, and then he raised his finger and released one well aimed round. Pewwww.

The beast fell in a heap before the children, and S– led them in a celebratory dance of ring around the rosey, ashes ashes, they all fall down. Within moments, they untied Gramma (cutting the rope with the nail clippers that S– had apparently hidden in A–’s back pack three months earlier) and called to their new friend Pegasus, who flew them all home even faster than Grampa’s plane could have.

At home, everyone hugged for a whole day, they were so happy to be back together. Then they sat at the dinner table and discovered that their mother had placed three birthday cakes there, one for each of them, since they had not been home to eat them on their birthdays. With smiles as big as Zeus’s lightning bolts, they ate them all up.

The End.

Making Use of a Public Treasure: The Library

Sometimes I stop and consider with gratitude how amazing the library is.

Consider for a moment what it would be like if the idea of a library had not yet surfaced. Then what would happen if an organization put forth the idea of a library and attempted to push it into existence?

I can’t imagine publishing companies would like the idea. “You mean,” they might begin, “you’re going to let your entire town share just one copy of that book?” Such an idea would strike them as ludicrous. It would cut into profits and greatly reduce writers’ compensation by eliminating dozens of potential buyers. It’s understandable how a library would stand for something bad in the eyes of those trying to build a business model around selling books instead of lending them, so thankfully the idea has been around longer than anyone’s ability to outlaw it.

I am no business expert, so as tempting as it might be to survey ideas for adapting the library concept in a digital age, I am not going to attempt to do so. Instead, I feel compelled simply to remember how important a library is.

I should admit that we have a great library in my town and that our family often has between 20 and 50 books checked out at a time. Currently we hold in a few piles by the door most of the juvenile collection about the solar system, and I suggest for purchase likely about six books a year that the library either gets for me through inter-library loan or actually purchases for its own collection. Further, they are the source of all but one audio book I have heard in the last two years (and that is a substantial number).

All this occurred to me today when I read Charles Simic’s article, “A Country without Libraries.” Simic ultimately makes a point about reading a codex, the paper books, but the points that resounded greater with me were the ones that touched our ability to peruse and taste items we would normally never consume:

I remember the sense of awe I felt as a teenager when I realized I could roam among the shelves, take down any book I wanted, examine it at my leisure at one of the library tables, and if it struck my fancy, bring it home. Not just some thriller or serious novel, but also big art books and recordings of everything from jazz to operas and symphonies.

I would never buy a 19 inch tall book about Van Gogh or trains, but I sure would check it out of the library for a few weeks. Neither would I be able to expose my children to Italy the way a huge pile of books and Rick Steeves travel videos could (and did). As I see the way my children and I explore and experience the library, I realize how intimate a piece our library is in the framework of their education, to their exposure to the world. Thus, my favorite line from Simic’s article:

I still can’t get over the generosity of the taxpayers of Oak Park. It’s not that I started out life being interested in everything; it was spending time in my local, extraordinarily well-stacked public library that made me so.

The more I hang around the library, the more I want to read, the more I want to learn. I want to check out a stack of books each time I go there, and when I get home I secretly evaluate my schedule to see if I can eek out a few more minutes of time to read. I can’t, but I want to try, because the library always has something else I want to read next.

Thanks for reading.

What if Your Preschoolers Named All Your Children?

My mom has been mailing boxes of books to us recently as her retirement is leaving her with no place for the collection amassed in her classroom. We received two boxes today (they included two collections of folk tales I’m eager to crack open) and their remains were still scattered about the house at dinner time. While sitting at the table, my eye caught a crumpled article from her local paper; I read it and found it so intriguing I went digging for the page of the paper containing the continued portion. I found it, grateful that my mom used the entire front section of the paper for packing. The article introduced me to meet Gail DeMasi, a wonderful New Hampshire woman with 14 children.  Says the article,

She knows some people will think she’s crazy for having 14 kids. She knows they’ll think that’s the only thing worth learning about her, and they’ll feel justified judging her based on only that.

She knows this because it’s happened before, dozens of times. What she would say to every person who made a snide comment at the grocery store might shock them more than the size of the DeMasi clan: Come to dinner.

I adore DeMasi’s response. I’m going to pack it away and use it when someone has a judgmental or doubtful expression about our family’s choice to pursue our kids’ education at home, or to have lots of children. It deflects the criticism and invites relationship, something I would hope to do but something I know I’d fail at if not prepared with some generous response.

After reading the article I turned to A–, our four-year old, and asked her what she’d think if we had 14 children. I explained, “We’d have to get 11 more, you know! That’s a lot.”  She nodded while chewing her bread and butter, and I suggested that we begin thinking of names for all these kids. That sounded like a good idea to her, and S–, the two-year old, chipped in as well. E–, our six-year old, and Mommy were out of the house for AWANA, so their input was missing. I will write the list as we wrote it at the table, in the order we thought of them. Our literary influences become apparent by the end, and I’ll leave you to guess the one the two-year old contributed.

  1. E —
  2. A—
  3. S–
  4. Miriam
  5. God
  6. Sampson
  7. Ruth
  8. Joel
  9. Paul
  10. Laura
  11. Lucy
  12. Peter
  13. Edmund
  14. Susan

Thanks for reading.