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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Kansas Tags and Sleeping Bags

It was my third summer as a part of Julie’s family. We’d traveled together before (to Colorado and Charleston), but we were about to embark on what would be our longest road trip ever in a vehicle I will never forget.

To this day, I love spending time with Julie's folks and two sisters who are now married with grown kids. That summer, it was just the six of us. We traveled from Kansas to Michigan, to Niagara Falls, to New York City, to Philadelphia, to Washington DC, and back to Kansas, camping all the way—except in New York City.

Oh, how I wish I had a picture of my father-in-law’s 1974 Dodge pick-up truck with its over-the-top camper. (It was “over the top” in every sense of the word.) Compared to my childhood camping experiences, this was The Ritz on wheels (in a Kansas-sorta way). [That's not it in the picture. Theirs was a sort of bronze color.]

You don’t see many of these boxy, truck campers anymore. They appealed to hard-working folks (e.g. farmers, ranchers, small-church pastors—and my father-in-law is all three) who loved that their go-anywhere-do-anything pick-up could be transformed into an RV. Box-campers were eventually replaced by “fifth-wheel” trailers, which utilize the truck with more style.

Style is a word that could not be attached to this camper—just about anything else could be attached, and we proved it in the summer of 1982. Strapped on top was a Webber grill and small hibachi; tied to the cargo ladder were three aluminum lawn chairs. Sticking out the back was a window air conditioner that went through a hole in the rear door. And welded underneath was an extra axle with smaller wheels to help share the load. This extra pair of wheels only touched ground when the camper pressed the truck down, which in turn raised the front up. Dad's conestoga was "good to go."

As we began our road trip that June morning, the whole rig lumbered down the gravel two-track driveway like a stout man giving a stouter man a piggy-back ride.

The truck camper slept six in a pinch—or should I say in a squeeze? (two over the cab, two on the bench seat that pulled out, and two on the dinette that collapsed into a bed). Julie's dad rigged the back entrance door to hold a “window” air conditioner. It those cozy quarters it was a real life-saver, but the weight of the AC unit made it impossible to open the door, so we put it in place only after the last person came in at night. Once we were settled in, the cool air lulled us to sleep, and since the only way out was crawling through the window to the cab, there was no “bathroom” traffic at night to wake us up.

By day, we rotated drivers and seats every few hours. It was a large cab-and-a-half, with fold down seats behind the front bench. Two extra passengers could sit knee-to-knee behind the split bench. We also rode in the camper, of course. It was a great way to travel and "bond" at 60 MPH.

After spending some time with my family in Michigan, we cut across Canada to Niagara Falls, crossing into Sarnia, Ontario at Port Huron's Blue Water Bridge. National security was nothing like the world we now live in. Entering Canada was so common for my family back then that we used to do it just to buy cheaper gas, but this was my father-in-law's first time. Everything was going fine until....

Dad pulled a gun on the customs agent.

At customs, we answered the same old questions the border guards have been asking all my life, which end with “Any fire arms?” I had forgotten to warn my father-in-law about that question. He is a pastor in rural Kansas, where vermin and rattle snakes can really mess up a day of choppin' wood. In that part of the country it's common for pick-up trucks to have rifles in the back window or (in this case) a small .22 caliber pistol under the driver’s seat.

So Dad reached down with a smile and pulled out a revolver. “I’ve got this ol’ pea shooter, but it’s not loaded.” [The ammo was in the glove box.] The agent’s jaw dropped. Evidently in all his years in the booth, he had never had anyone tell the truth and actually show a weapon.

“Sir, put down the gun. Or here… give it to me. No better yet…keep it in the car and drive over here to the office.” Other than that initial stammering, the officer was calm and in charge without a hint of over-reaction. Far from the lanes of pausing traffic, the officer secreted the gun inside. About ten minutes later, he came back with a heavy paper bag folded over many times.

“Look, Mister,” he said, “We’re not allowed to let you into the country with a gun, but since you’re not coming back to the U.S. via this office we’ve no choice but to give you this bag and instruct you not to open it until you get to New York State. Do not discuss this bag or its unknown contents with anyone in Canada—and by all means... do not load it.”

Dad thanked him kindly and we went on our way through Ontario. A couple hours later we could see the rising mist of the falls and breathed a sigh of relief as we crossed another bridge back into the U.S.. Our outlaw day was over—or so we thought.

Unfortunately, Dad made a wrong turn at the end of the bridge and we were somehow heading back to Canada. There was no way to turn around without going through customs again. I knew my father-in-law to be a man of integrity (a good quality for a life-long pastor), and I knew he would wrestle with not telling about the gun. I reminded him that he had promised the Sarnia office that he would not tell anyone in Canada about the bag’s contents. He agreed that his promise trumped the question we would be asked by this Niagara customs officer. And besides, he did not look in the bag. For all we knew, he had a baked potato under his seat.

There were two Mounties on horseback beside the booth. As much as Dad McNabb admires horses, he tried not to look at them. “They're probably just here to impress the tourists,” I said, but we all got a little nervous as the questions began through the rolled-down window. My father tried to pre-empt them with a short explanation.

“We’re actually coming through from Canada not going into Canada. We made a wrong turn and ended up in this lane. We’ll be turning around right there and going back into the U.S.”

“That happens quite often, Sir, but I have to ask these questions just the same.”

Dad nodded… answered the questions…and kept his promise. We crossed back to New York without incident, but coming that close to being busted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police made us feel like drug-mules waiting to pass balloons.

We took an hour to stroll "The Honeymoon Capital of the World" with my in-laws and then continued on to New York City.

A college friend of Julie’s sister Melanie—I'll call him Bill—had invited her to visit for a few days, and we were to be at his house by late evening. They weren’t quite “dating,” but it was an awkwardly undefined relationship. She didn’t want to visit him by herself (which basically defines her side of the deal), but she thought it would be fun to go see him with the whole family. This entire trip was designed around these three days in New York City.

We knew that Bill was a successful CPA—with accounts of some impressive clients like Billy Joel, and we had reason to believe that he and his parents lived in a nice home. What we didn’t know was that they lived in a very upscale area of Long Island, and we failed to consider the full meaning of the term “gated community” until our truck entered the soft glow of ornate street lamps beside a guard house designed to keep "riff raff" out of this cloistered world.

We rolled to a stop like lost Okies who didn’t know east from west. (If you’ve never read The Grapes of Wrath and don’t know about the Okies' exodus to California, think Beverly Hillbillies and you’ll get the general idea.

“Come in,” said the gatekeeper. “You must be the Wagner's friends. We’ve been expecting you. I’ll show you where to park your truck after you unload your things.”

It's been said that “the surest test of your manners is how you treat those who have none.” There’s a lot of truth in that. (The same can be said about "social status" and education and religion.) I’m not suggesting that our truck-load of weary travelers had no social grace at all, but at that hour in that rig, we definitely looked like country bumpkins. In spite of this, we were given the red-carpet treatment from the moment we arrived. Bill and his folks were our gracious hosts for three days of non-camping. (They even took us out to a fine German restaurant to help Julie and I celebrate our second wedding anniversary.)

Bill knew NYC like the back of his hand. From Wall Street to Ellis Island—from Grand Central Station to Time’s Square—from Saks on Fifth to Broadway—from the Empire State Building to the World Trade Center. We saw it all on the fast track with no wrong turns.

And then when it was time to go, we “loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly…Hills that is…swimming pools…movie stars.” Actually we loaded up the truck and continued on our camping trip down to the Washington D.C. area. We camped somewhere near Annapolis and Chesapeake Bay and took the Metro in to the sights each day.

One night, the campground "ranger" came to our site and told Dad he had a call from Kansas. One of his parishioners had died. He flew home to do the funeral and then flew back on our last day, just in time to pack up. I don’t remember much about the trip back to Kansas. Maybe it's because this was the same summer Julie and I moved to Waterloo, Iowa, and once the sights out east had been seen we set our sights on a new chapter of our lives—a book actually... It turned out to be eighteen chapters long.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

French Vanilla

I was reading the can of pop my daughter wanted me to try a couple days ago. It was one of these local “marketing mixes” Pepsi is testing called: Wild Cherry and French Vanilla Pepsi. The taste was less striking than the adjectives used to describe the flavors.

Pepsi evidently uses wild cherries as opposed to the tame cherries Coke uses in Cherry Coke—the kind grown in neat little cherry orchards all in a row. Imagine how much harder it is for Pepsi to make its product with wild cherries gathered randomly from hill and dale. Perhaps they've sub-contracted veteran Scout Masters with a walkie-talkie cell phones who hike around with their boys: “Ah, yea, Boss. Troupe 156 just found a couple more wild cherry trees in Essex Township. I’m sending the GPS coordinates. That’s nine so far this weekend, but I’m not sure how we’re gunna keep up if this Wild Cherry flavor catches on. Over.”

This savage cherry flavor is then thrown into the can with the savoir-faire of French Vanilla. The clash practically guarantees taste-bud entertainment in every swig. It's wrestlemania for the mouth! ("Savoir Faire eez everywhere!" )

But I digress.... What I really wanted to discuss is French Vanilla? I love vanilla. I love the smell of vanilla. My mom says she and her girlfriends used to put a dab of vanilla behind their ears like expensive perfume during the Depression and WWII years. But what I'm wondering about was when did the word vanilla lose its cachet and begin needing the word "French." We now hear the term French vanilla all the time. Is it from France? Something tells me “no.” I’ll be right back.

Okay, I just did a Google Search on "French vanilla." The first listing was Wikipedia. Evidently, vanilla comes from the beans of an orchid native to Mexico. The secret of growing this unique plant was traded to other countries by the Spanish Conquistadors. Not such a good trade. It turns out that Mexico is now a small-time producer of Vanilla compared to Madagascar, the world’s leading producer, cranking out 3 million metric tons of vanilla beans per year—fifteen times what Mexico produces.

The island-nation of Madagascar is so dependent on vanilla production that when the world’s biggest consumer of vanilla extract went to a substitute flavor in 1985, Madagascar’s economy crashed. Good thing the corporate consumer changed its mind and went back to its original recipe. Who was the company? Why Coca-Cola, of course. No one was madder about “New Coke” than the people of Madagascar. All’s well that ends well.

This is fascinating stuff, but since France has nothing to do with the production or origin of vanilla, where does the French part come from? Wikipeda explains that, too: “The term French vanilla is often used to designate preparations that actually have a strong vanilla aroma, and possibly contain vanilla grains, but originates from the French style of making ice cream custard base with vanilla beans, cream, and egg yolks.”

Aha! The French part has to do with ice cream. I knew that! I really did, but you’ll have to read the story below to know whether or not to believe me.

Etched Memories

As the Mike Curb Congregation used to sing, "all my life’s a circle." Google, which took me to all the info above in two minutes, recently announced that it will be building its new home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It just so happens that Ann Arbor is the place I first heard the term French vanilla. It was the summer of 1970.

I know what you’re thinking: “How could you possibly know the time and place you first heard such a common term? Aren’t you supposed to reserve that ‘I’ll never forget where I was’ stuff for life-changing, historical events?”

I do see your point: On November 22, 1963 my 2nd grade classmates and I came in from afternoon recess to Mrs. Schoen’s room. We were told to put our heads on the desk and listen to the Radio over the PA. President Kennedy’s had just been shot and killed. I was in grad school on March 30, 1981, standing in the Fine Arts blue-diamond marquis foyer when I heard that President Reagan had been shot. On January 26, 1986, I was collecting journals from my senior English class when we were told that the Space Shuttle Challenger had blown up during take off. And I was visiting with a missionary in my office about an exchange student’s visa when we were told a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. (We went right on talking, thinking it was a small, private craft. A few moments later the second plane hit and the world changed.)

Compared to those events, the following day of my life should have passed forgotten, but I tend to remember "firsts."

As I said, it was in the summer of 1970. My friend Dave Sanborn invited me to spend the night at his house. We listened to music on the radio until who knows when. I remember discussing whether the female vocalist was pronouncing “Indianapolis” correctly in her version of “Little Green Apples.” (Instead of saying “Indian-apolis,” she was saying “Indiana-polis” and it sounded odd to us.) The next morning we had french toast for breakfast and then went with his father to the University of Michigan two hours away. This was my first time ever on the U of M campus. (His father was a band teacher and was taking a summer class there.)

We passed time at the Museum of Natural History. At noon, we met his father for lunch at a campus cafeteria. (I had never tried chicken-a-la-king before. It sounded French—not bad once you pick out the little red things.) On the way home, Mr. Sanborn treated us to some ice cream at Baskin-Robin’s 31 Flavors. (Mom often served ice cream as dessert at home, but I had never been to such a place.) I was overwhelmed with the choices—one for every day of the month. Strange flavors like pink bubble gum and “Lunar Cheese Cake” (commemorating man’s first steps on the moon from the previous year).

Dave got a double scoop combo. His father did the same. They stood their licking away at their cones, offering me suggestions as I tried to make up my mind. I smiled nervously as I paced in front of the glass counter staring at all the colors and reading the unfamiliar names.

It was on that day, at the age of fourteen, that I first learned of my aversion to the unknown (picking out the red things in chicken-a-la-king should have been a hint). I'm just not much of a risk taker. With the ice cream world staring me in the face, one word jumped out of my mouth to quell my indecision: “Vanilla.”

The young lady reached her scoop into the freezer and said,
French Vanilla or New York Vanilla?”

“Are you kidding?" I gasped, “Don’t you have just plain ol’ vanilla?”
I looked at my friend and his father who were still shocked that I had spurned twenty-nine other flavors. Their smiles did not hide that they were eager to head home.

Random and irrelevant criteria flooded my mind: French Vanilla was yellow; New York was white. Miss White taught us French in 3rd Grade. France had the Eiffel Tower; New York had the Empire State building; it also had the Yankees. I didn't like the Yankees, but I did like Niagara Falls. I'd already had two French meals that day. Maybe I should I go for the trifecta. A line was forming behind me. The server looked at her watch.

I shouted to myself, Which one? Think, Man! I looked up at the girl, and with all the bravado of a high stakes roller betting the farm on seven, I said. . .“I'll have a scoop of each.”

My friends nodded their approval with sympathetic smiles, but the sighs from hungry patrons behind me made the moment feel a little bit like a pat on the back for fourth place.

My family laughed when they heard it took me five minutes to decide on vanilla—and even then it was a split decision! For over 35 years, they have not let me live it down.

I must admit... I still tend to play it safe with my taste buds, but I no longer pick at my food. And when it comes to making decisions, I pause to consider the pros and cons without being double-minded. Before taking action, I tend to "measure twice and cut once" as the ol' time carpenters used to say. And I take solace in the song from the old VanCamp's commercial ..."Simple pleasures are the best—all the little things that make you smile and grow...all the things you know..."

I thoroughly enjoyed both scoops that afternoon, and after all these years, I'm still pretty much a vanilla kind of guy.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Wireless Was Down. Thanks, Abu!

If it looks as though I haven’t written for two weeks, I have but our wireless router was not working so my thoughts were trapped on my laptop.

I tried all the usual “power cycle” steps and finally called tech support and after 15 minutes of listening a recorded voice telling me how important my call was, I was eventually greeted by a kind-but-difficult-to-understand voice (India? Pakistan?). I have no idea how to type in his dialect. It was his inflection and pace more than pronunciation. His sentences unfolded like flat bolts of cloth on a counter--lilting up with each roll.

Believe me, it was a tough way to learn computer jargon. The good news is that after about twenty minutes of “could you repeat that please,” my WAN plug was in the right port and the WLAN light came on. My laptop has wireless again. Thank you, Abu!

So the August entries below were written on the days indicated but posted after Abu's help. I need to go set up camp at Muskegon State Park so it may take a day or so to cut and paste my belated posts. (My explaining this, of course, helps create the illusion that people read this blog and miss it when it doesn't have at least one post a week.)

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Most Pleasant Sound

I was writing early this morning (posted below) about how our living room has become more and more a "parlor" through the years. It's generally a quiet room, but as I'm writing there is a most pleasant exception. Not the finch (though he is singing beautifullyalong). No, the most pleasant sound in the room is when our youngest daughter Natalie is playing the piano.

She's sitting at the old Acrosonic piano that her grandmother (Julie's mom) gave us in the late Eighties. Her Grandpa McNabb brought it all the way from Kansas in the back of a pick-up truck (the same truck we once drove through New York City loaded up like the Beverly Hillbillies—but that’s another story.) Julie’s mom played that Acrosonic when they were little girls. It’s the same piano Julie learned on when she took. (“Learned on when she took” is the way they say it in Kansas.)

This beautiful old piano came with nostalgia whispering from every faded scratch and chipped key, and we've added an additional generation of memories. Julie claims she "doesn't play" anymore. (She does but not publicly—just for pleasure—she's quite good.) Fifteen years ago, Natalie's older two older sisters sat on that very bench playing tunes like “French Children’s Song” and “The Little Flower Girl of Paris.” They still sit and play them when they think no one is listening—they're such simple, beautiful melodies they make my eyes water. I confess; the same thing is happening now.

Natalie is playing “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” from Phantom of the Opera. That song is often meaningful to me, but hearing it sung in her airy child-like voice is very moving. Natalie's piano skills have advanced remarkably since she started three summers ago. What’s wonderful about her playing is that she does it for the joy of doing it—sometimes for hours. We never have to tell her to “practice.” She has lots of friends and is very social, but one of her friends is music.

Most of the time, kids “take piano,” but sometimes piano takes a kid. That’s how it is with her.

She is gifted—by that I don’t mean that she has been endowed with a rare talent that the world must hear. She’s not a prodigy. (That kind of giftedness becomes one's life without necessarily enhancing it. It's as different as a cinnamon tree is from cinnamon toast.) She's gifted in that she has learned the language of music easily. [Thank you, Marcia, Angela, and Sheri.] Her fingers follow her mind with little effort; her voice joins in because… it can’t help it; and time passes at the piano with no care to be elsewhere. In that sense she has a gift. She is often oblivious to the fact that anyone is listening. Right now she seems unaware that I'm ten feet away in my wing-back recliner... listening.

She is very much a David to this King Saul when my mind lets go the burdens of the day.

No TV in the Parlor

I’m sitting in our “parlor”—we don’t call it that, of course, but that would’ve been its name a hundred years ago. (Today people would call it a “living room,” but we do most of our living in the family room one level down.)

This room is deliberately missing something. Since the first home we owned over twenty years ago, we have never put a television in the living room. As a result, it seems that the furnishings and details keep going further and further back in time. It’s become a parlor—not 100% Victorian yet—but the doily-count far exceeds the number of things that plug in (8 to 4).

I would describe the décor as “early Edison,” that era between the Roosevelts (Teddy and Franklin D.) when there were still touches of “Victorian” décor under the modern additions that slowly became a part of American homes through the Twenties, Great Depression and WWII. Early Edison is a middle-class look of frugal elegance—built on a foundation of old things too good to pitch mixed with new things “saved up for.” Not until the post-war prosperity was the transition to modern décor complete. The capstone of the new era was a square piece of furniture called the television.

If you ever doubt that TV changed the parlor to a living room, watch Avalon, a generational family story built around the recurrence of two American holidays (Thanksgiving and July 4th). One of that film's themes shows how the advent of television replaced “family stories” with a more general scheduled narrative of news and nonsense that changed the way we eat, think, and interact with those around us. While we became more connected nationally, we became less familiar at home. Television started out as a something that brought the family together (primarily because there was only one in the house and you all had to agree on what to watch), but Avalon illustrates how it ultimately isolates (as seen in the nursing home scene near the end of the film). I like that movie. It has created a catch phrase for my siblings. Whenever one of is late for a gathering, he says, "You cut da Toikey?" (Now you'll have to rent it to see why.)

I guess that’s why this room is a TV-free zone. It’s a place for visiting, reading, and writing. (I do nearly all my writing here—especially family narratives.) It’s a quiet room with a few pleasant exceptions: There is a large Victorian aviary in the corner where a finch sings a pleasant tune. It’s when the keys of my laptop sound like sleet on a winter window that he sings.
There is another exception to the quiet. I’ll write about that this evening (in the post above this one).

Monday, August 07, 2006

Kings Brass Still Going Strong

We went to a Kings Brass concert with friends in Grand Haven last night. They always sound great, but this was an especially crisp performance from the whole group. Afterwards we went to a sidewalk cafe and talked until around 11:00. (Sorry, Jay and Julie, the time just flew. That was fun.)

I’ve been to countless Kings Brass concerts through the years. Tim Zim and I grew up in the same youth group. In junior high, a few of us guys would spend the night at the Zimmerman’s—they had an HO racecar track that kept us entertained. In the morning, Mrs. Z would serve yogurt with breakfast. I had never heard of yogurt at the time. This wasn’t Dannon or Yoplait. I think it was home-made. (They had been missionaries to Sweden and brought that healthy menu item back with them.) His folks were always so hospitable.)

Later on in high school, Tim and I played on the same basketball team. In fact, I have a scar in the middle of my tongue from a head-on collision Tim and I had in the old gymnasium of Calvary of Roseville. When we weren’t playing basketball, Tim and his brothers Bruce and Don would play trumpet trios in church. When Don went off to college, our friend Bob J. joined them as I recall. Bob will be rejoining them in next week's concert at Roseville.

Eventually, we were all in college together. One summer in the late 1970’s, we returned to Michigan and Tim put together trumpet ensemble made up mostly of guys from our church. It was a big hit. My little brother Jim was in on those early years of King’s Brass—he was the youngest member ever as I recall. For about five years my parents became part of the Kings Brass entourage, and whenever we were home from Iowa, we’d tag along, too. One of the first Kings Brass albums was called “All Day Sunday” because that’s what they did every Sunday through the summer. It was like one big happy family. Good times. Hard to believe that was more than twenty years ago. It was great to see Tim still going strong last night—and better than ever!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

To the Class of '86

After 26 years as a Christian high school teacher/administrator, I can honestly say that “school memories” are one of the greatest rewards of my ministry and career.

A few weeks ago the WRBA Class of ’86 met in Waterloo, Iowa, for their 20th Year Reunion. I wish I could have been there. (I would have reminded you of the time Steve D. and Jeff E. made a video tape of two GI Joes break dancing to Chukka Khan. This would have been the same year they did the Martin Short, “Ed Grimmly” routine and the year Jeff E. looked so studly in a Miami Vice, Don Johnson, white outfit at Jr. Sr. Banquet.)

I just finished reading the brief “bios.” It was a great read. They’re all over the place—form California (Hi, Kevin) to Washington DC (Hi, Becky); and from up in Alaska (Hi, Julie. Say “Hi” “to Dean.) to Texas (HI, Sue and Jeff). And some of the lucky ones (and I mean that) are still right there in the beautiful heartland of Iowa. This post is to Class of ‘86 specifically (but also to all former students in general). Everyone else is, of course, welcome to read.

Julie K. sent me your bios. As I read what each of you wrote, I could hear your voices. I hope you can hear mine now. I’m just going to “talk” and see where this goes. That rarely happened in my classroom [ha ha], so I know you’ll indulge me. Just picture me up at that yellow metal lectern on wheels smiling toward you.

The problem with that picture is that from my view, you guys are still the kids in your senior pictures. You’re forever frozen at that age in my mind. (Even though I’ve seen some of you now and then through the years, collectively as the Class of ’86, you’re frozen in time.) I took out the 1986 WRBA yearbook when I got this email and came across a picture of a mustached man wearing glasses with frames the size of two Tupperware lids. Who is that guy? My name was under his picture. I guess it’s me. What were we thinking in the “80’s”? Some of you may be looking at my picture now (with a beard) thinking “What are you thinking now, Mr. K?” Actually, I’ve had this beard since 1994, the year I directed Fiddler on the Roof.

Did you notice what I did just then? I confirmed the time of an event in my mind by remembering what play we did that year. I catch myself doing that all the time. My WRBA memories are mentally stored like books on a library shelf in chronological order from left to right. For instance, you guys were freshmen when we first came to WRBA for the 82-83 school year. That winter we did You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (which was also the play we did our last year in Waterloo, 2000. Julie directed it.). You were sophomores when we did You Can’t Take it With You; Juniors for Cheaper by the Dozen; and seniors when we did Our Town in the main auditorium.

Our Town stands out for two reasons: one, it was the only play I ever performed in as the director' and two, it included some remarkable performances from your class, including some great first-time performances by Becky O. and Staci S (and wasn't Lynn W. in the wedding scene?). I also liked our use of the song, “One More Hour.” It still tugs at my heartstrings. (We also used "Title Song." Both can be heard here.) I’ve enjoyed all the plays we did those 18 years in Iowa and learned tons from directing each of them, but Our Town has probably had the most lasting effect on my thinking about life and love. You’ll see elements of it in this post from last spring (Lemonjellos) and this more serious post from when Julie had her open-heart surgery (the Ache of Joy).

The difference between being a high school teacher for two decades and a high school student for four years is obvious—you students move on. You graduate and continue in the stream of life. The teacher stays there and does the same wonderful thing with the next batch of lives God brings along. It’s kind of like working at the locks on the Mississippi River (or the Sioux Locks here in Michigan’s U.P.). The lock masters know the water there well. They know and recognize the ships (or barges). They walk along side and shout from shore to deck and get to know each other. They do their best to ensure safe “passage,” and then the ship (the class) moves on. It is the nature of the ship and the river itself to move on. The lock master’s role is limited to a specific time of entrance, passage, and departure.

Looking back on 26 years of working with high schoolers would feel a little like tending a lock if it weren’t for something that goes much deeper: the human dynamic; the relationship; the fact that lives make indelible marks on each other. What else can explain that after twenty years since “passing through the locks” both parties, (teacher and class) still treasure the experience, still recall the countless conversations and interactions and get together for reunions?

Is it because the shared “passage” was perfect? Oh, my no. I was a green teacher when we met—with only three years of classroom experience. You were the first class I had for all four years of high-school (from freshman to senior year). I was young. Think of it this way….You are now at least twelve years older than I was when I became your teacher. When you think of it like that, it seems like there should be a law that says school teachers must be 40 or older to enter a classroom; they must live life as an adult for at least twenty years before trying to “apply life’s lessons” to a piece of literature.

I’m less concerned about what I said about literature, or speaking, or writing... than what I said about life in general. Case in point: I don’t think Brent A. will mind my sharing this. Do you remember the time in a class discussion that I said that a certain famous pastor of a certain California “cathedral” made of glass “seemed more like a wizard than a pastor to me.” Brent, you were right to correct me for that un-called-for comment, and you did so kindly. To paraphrase Pig Pen’s best line, “Sort of makes [me] want to treat [you] with a little respect, huh?” (You were a great Pig Pen.) That’s just one small example. I can only imagine how many other misguided remarks I may have said in class and how many times a more mature teacher could have prevented pointless exchanges.

You’re all old enough now to realize what a delicate (and wonderful) interchange of words we call “the classroom.” As you recall those years in my classroom or on stage with me, I trust there are more fond memories than bad, more winks than winces. It’s true for me. When you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that God enables teachers and students to learn from each other and to bond as teacher-to-student friends in real time. And I think we did that back then. I hope that after twenty years the fond memories have crystallized into something we can now hold up to the light and say, “Wasn’t that beautiful.”

A Teacher’s IOU

I owe you
not in dollars and cents
(though, in a way, that’s true).
I owe you
I owe you in the sense that
every day every dayevery day
we meet,
and I say, “Listen…”
and at the various levels which you do,
I owe you
for it’s a costly thing
to be paid ATTENTION
a single time more than I’ve earned it.
Open eyes and ears keep book—
and surely after all this time
I owe you
Not just in dollars and in sense,
but in reflections
..........reflections...of Him who created
time and space and you and me
and mixedtheminto… NOW…
which we occupy together.

He holds the true account,
and His grace provides the balance
I owe you….

written in 1986 to the Class of ‘86
© Copyright 2007, TK, Patterns of Ink

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