Experience and Blackberry Winters

 

This 2018 spring of is the first North Carolina one for me since 1968. However, because my wife Mary Ann and I moved back this past August, we are enjoying it. The subtle changes into spring have come early it seems to me, but we, like everyone, enjoy the warmer nights and almost hot days. Regardless of the early signs, I look forward to March 20th at 12:15 PM (EDT) when the spring equinox occurs, and I can mark the true east and west of our new home making the weather vane more accurate.

In the yard of a neighbor a tulip magnolia begins to bloom. Its soft, pink flowers open a bit more each day, giving a bright glow under the dark, green canopy of pines. Off across the lake, a lone star magnolia signals spring by its white blooms, and a blazing yellow forsythia graces water’s edge not far from it. The sedum, lavender, and hydrangea that we brought from our garden in Virginia and planted in the side yard show spouts of green. I hold to hope for the transplanted coneflower that has yet to peek through the soil of its new home.  The tulip bulbs Mary Ann planted outside the dog area have thrust thick, green spikes through the pine needles, and we await their bright flowers of red to stand next to the black fence.  While the dogwoods and maples have yet to bloom, their limbs are heavy with soon to be flowers of white and pink and red.

Plants are not alone in this season of re- birth. Bird song vibrates the air and neighbors are outside cleaning winter debris from lawns and flower beds. On Lake Norman some early boaters can be seen enjoying an afternoon’s sunlight; walkers, cyclists, and runners enjoy the street running down our peninsula. It is all a glorious time, yet….

As a youngster I was warned my adults in my life about getting too excited concerning any given situation. If my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers were ahead in a game or series, I learned not to get too excited. As I grew and discovered females and fell in love more times than my years in high school, I learned to curtail too much excitement.  A bit of a hard-head, I finally mastered the control of run-away emotions sometime after college. It was a hard and long lesson, but by the time I read Stephen V. Benet’s 1933 short story, Too Early Spring, I was seasoned enough to grasp its meaning—of the story and its title.

The old folks in my young life knew. They had experience that I lacked, and their words of, “Just wait,” or “We’ll see,” or “Hold on a bit,” or many others were not cynical or stalling ones, but expressions from that wisdom gained only from experience. The old folks like Granny Susie, my grandmother, knew how to teach a young boy to whistle the call of a bob white, sharpen a knife, or make a slingshot from a dogwood fork, but they also knew the disappointment that a blackberry winter could bring as it turned bright flowers and buds into sad, brown sacs of death.

 

Social Media, Newspapers, and Facts

 

In the Charlotte Observer of February 23, 2018, Mr. Keith Larson writes a column concerning guns and violence and how we are all guilty of “finger-pointing” after the recent school massacre in Florida. He begins his argument by quoting a fellow named Chad whose post on Instagram and Facebook has been viewed by half a million people. Larson concludes his argument agreeing with Chad concerning the popular post. Both are wrong.

Chad’s post reads under two hands, one holding a rock and the other a gun: “Cain killed Abel with a rock. It’s a HEART problem, not a gun problem. Jeremiah 17:9” Larsen writes: “The social media poster, Chad, is correct. Cain killed Abel with a rock.”

The VJV Bible on my shelf reads in Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” My NIV translation has essentially the same words. Neither mention a gun or a rock. In Genesis 4:8, my KJV has: “And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.” As with the Jeremiah verse, the NIV is similar, and neither mention a rock. Both Chad and Larson are guilty of, perhaps, following church tradition, but both are absolutely guilty of spreading false information.

The Bible has had to endured misinterpretation forever, and Chad and Larson offer one more example of this unfortunate circumstance. We may assume that, because the brothers were in a field, that Cain used a stone to kill Abel, but that is not Biblical because it is not written what he used, just that he killed his brother.

As for Chad’s original post, that Larson agrees with, I have no idea what translation he  is using. In none can I find the words he quotes from Jeremiah 17:9.

Shame on Chad, Larson, the Observer, and any reader who has not checked the  facts.

Of Flowers and Vegetables

 

As often happens, the plants of a berm, when grown, are too crowded and must be removed or at least trimmed to share the space and light and air. Some weeks ago, Andrew and his workers reshaped the berm between the house next door and us. We like our neighbors Margaret and James, so the berm’s brief bareness is not a concern, and this morning I noticed the first fruits of our decision.

Going out to ride in the moisture of the morning, I saw what I thought was a male cardinal in the berm. But then I saw several male cardinals and knew that was unlikely. Looking again, I saw that the two camellias had produced several flowers that shared the bright cardinal color of the male bird.  Those flowers, draped by the rich green of their leaves, affirmed our decision to thin the berm.

Turning to the front yard for my ride, I thought of the poet Cummings and how he described this season as “mud-luscious”, and “puddle-wonderful.” I had no interest, as a seventy-one-year-old, to be involved with mud or puddles, but I grant to Cummings that he had it right. I do regret, however, that there is no “eddieandbill”, or “bettyanddisbel” yelling and playing in the near-by yards. The gleeful screams of young voices are an announcement of spring that I miss on our street.

Settling in for a slow warm-up to be followed by a hard twenty minutes of hand-cranking, I decided that it was time to visit Adam at Brawley’s and ask for his tomato plant recommendations since Mary Ann and I have decided to plant a few varieties outside the back fence, away from the dog area. While we lived in the Shenandoah Valley we had a small vegetable garden, and we will have a sort of one here, but just for a few tomato plants and perhaps one hot pepper plant.

As a boy growing up in Kannapolis, not far from Lake Norman where we now live, my mother would sometimes plant a garden. In fact, most families on the mill hill had gardens because they were a primary source of food. Corn, tomatoes, squash, lima beans, pole beans, peppers hot and green, and anything else the family enjoyed was planted, eaten while fresh, shared with neighbors, or canned for the cold winter. I still see and smell the succotash Maw-Maw Alice would serve us on some cold, January day. What we did not grow or was shared by a neighbor, came from a near-by grower or from an orchard. Those days were ones of anticipation: we weeded and watered the vegetable garden behind our little, white mill houses as we waited for that first white flower announcing a tomato or bean; we waited for the first cantaloupe or watermelon, often given to mother by a mill co-worker whose husband grew them. Oh, the early growing season was such a one of anticipation for what was coming. We were excited much like the four children in Cummings’ poem.

Today is different. This morning when I removed the blueberries and pecans from the refrigerator to mix with my yogurt-the blueberries are from Chile and the pecans from California. Both are enjoyable as are the ambrosia apples from New York state. I can eat them during the latter half of February, out of season, because of modern technology and shipping and other factors. If I want it, I can have it immediately or at least in a day or so. No more waiting. No more anticipating. No more planting. Yet, I remember, Peaches, and how mother would tell us,  as spring slowly turned into summer, that the delicious South Carolina peaches would be ripe soon and that shipments of them would be sent to our stores or available at a road-side stand; or if she could get someone to bring us some from an orchard, she would. No peach ever tasted better than that first one-the one waited for day after day.

My friend Druin tells me how the painter Haydon wrote in 1842 to the poet Wordsworth lamenting the passing of their lives and days. Haydon observes that not even the peaches are as big as in earlier days. I don’t know about the peaches of 1842 England, but the peaches, strawberries, tomatoes, blackberries, and all else of my youth, tasted better for my waiting to take  that first bite of a new season.

 

Seeing to Believe

 

Each morning I exit our back yard by going through the gate at the sidewalk. Most days I enter and exit that gate several times a day. But this morning as I went out for my early bike ride, I noticed the intricate spider webs between the gate’s rails and post. There were at least five on the gate alone and more on the fence of each side. As I began my ride, I wondered why I had never noticed them before, or if they had been present before this particular morning. Riding my warm-up, I heard cardinals, rufous-sided towhees, woodpeckers, and crows calling to each other in the dense fog. Then I knew why I had noticed the spider webs—the dew covered them with its moisture, revealing their presence to me. But, I wondered, are they there during a dry morning?

As I pumped into my third mile, wrapped by fog and bird song, I thought of our Sunday School lesson this past week. We had read and discussed the disciple Thomas, and his reaction to the news of our risen Lord. Now, you can decide whether he deserves the mantle that church tradition has placed on him. Is Thomas a doubter or just a human being? Was he any different than the other disciples or the women who followed Him?

I grant to the reader that there is a big difference between the Resurrection and spider webs on a metal gate. However, what is similar is my reaction to seeing the spider webs and Thomas wanting to see and touch the wounds of Jesus before believing. Had my reader told me yesterday when the morning was dry that the gate had several spider webs on it, I would have scoffed. Yet, in the fog they were easily seen.  So with Thomas and the others, when they saw the scars, they knew.

As I type these words and look out the window, I cannot see Lake Norman, but I know it is there. Our faith of God must be, it seems to me, like that: we must believe as if we have seen.

Cycling Troubled Children

 

During the fall of 2009, I was a long-term 6th grade substitute for a teacher who was pregnant. The students in the four classes were, overall, polite and eager to learn. Some discipline problems arose, but none too seriously. However, the recent school shooting in Florida and the news reports of the killer’s troubled past in the school, reminded me of an experience I had while substituting in that rural Virginia school system.

One day while teaching, I heard loud shouting, cursing, and noise out in the communal area for the 6th grade classes. When I looked up in surprise, one of my students said, “Oh, don’t worry, Mr. Barbee, it’s just “Earl” (a false name). When I inquired later about Earl, other teachers told me that he had a history of violent outbursts, but the assistant principal was taking care of everything. Everyone, it seemed, accepted Earl’s explosions.

Continuing to substitute in the school system, I often encountered Earl, but never had him in a class that I taught. But, his presence was felt as he would have his outbursts, be suspended for a period of days (even as a middle schooler), and return to repeat the pattern. When he entered one of the county’s high schools, I sometimes supervised him when he was in “in school suspension” for some violation. Always pleasant and engaging in those long days of sitting in an enclosed room, Earl would share with me that he just could not control his temper. Yet, once again, an assistant principal was “taking care” of the issues. Earl was a good athlete, and he loved playing football. I tried to get him to wrestle, but he refused, choosing instead to work on his football skills. Whenever I substituted at the high school and did not see him I would ask about him and be told that he had been suspended for ten days. Once he was transferred to another county high school for disciplinary reasons but was allowed back for the following football season. After he graduated, I would sometimes read his name in the local newspaper for assaulting a family member or someone else. His anger still ruled.

Nickolaus Cruz and his past are like that of Earl. Both are troubled young men who do not know how to navigate the world. And, I offer, that neither of them should have been in the public-school system because the teachers and administrators in our public schools are not trained to treat such issues as these young boys have. Earl would bash lockers, curse teachers, storm around the hallways, and frighten other students. No one, even Earl, knew when his next volcanic outburst would occur. Our teachers are trained to teach English, history, science, math, art, drama, music, and more. While they are quite good at helping students with some discipline issues, they are not equipped, nor have the time, to deal with severe problems such as those of Earl or Cruz. Such students need special help, and it must begin early. By the 6th grade, Earl had a well-earned reputation for his anger. That is a failure of his school system, and I wager that Nickolaus Cruz had a similar history.

I applaud the teachers who tried to help Nickolaus Cruz and those who tried to help Earl.  While I don’t know first-hand about school systems and their policies today, I suspect that they do as the rural one did with Earl. Too many troubled students are cycled through the school days and yearss: call a teacher an “asshole”, or “prick” or “fucking bitch” and be suspended for ten days before returning to school as if nothing happened; disobey a directive of a teacher and be suspended from school for a day or three; and on and on the cycle goes for some of  our children. Suspended from school. Return. Nothing happened, right?

It is unconscionable for our teachers, other students, or anyone to be forced to endure such behavior and vile language.  Students like Earl and Nickolaus should not be in our mainstream schools. They need special help, and I know from my experience, that most of these students can be identified in the very early years of schooling. Cycling them through school days, then years, will not help them or us. They need to be with professionals who are equipped to help them, and this will give our mainstream teachers and students the chance to do their work.

U.S.A.

 

While recently watching the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, I would hear American fans chanting U-S-A during important or dramatic times of a competition. American flags are held aloft as he chant is used to encourage our athletes and to recognize their accomplishments.  Other countries do the same, and it is in good sportsmanship.

The Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, wrote London, 1802 in that year. The sonnet is addressed to John Milton wishing he were alive in 1802 to help lead England out of its woes. Wordsworth writes that “she [England] is a fen/ Of stagnant waters;” He continues by stating, “We are selfish men;” and asks the dead Milton to “return to us again;/ And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.”

Recently I read a national newspaper columnist who also makes a plea, not to John Milton, but to all of us to maintain standards in our daily and political lives. The writer asks that elected leaders do what our mothers told us to do–“Take the high road.” Therefore, having serious and polite discourse with each other.

Sadly, the columnist could be writing in Wordsworth’s England of 1802. Her “shabby landscape” of our lives is full of selfish men and women who have ceased having civil, political discourse. Also, reading letters to the editor in our local and national newspapers, I read rude comments from writers about those they disagree with. Our elementary playground behavior from the top of our culture to the bottom has produced this “shabby landscape”, and it may prove Pogo correct.

It seems to this writer that America has lost its way. In May 2016, I saw a church sign that read: “It’s official, America has lost her mind.” Strong words for sure, and maybe not quite true. Many readers may disagree with the sign’s sentiment; many may agree with it. Some readers may agree with the yard sign that reads: “Go Trump,” some may not. Some may appreciate the media’s power, some may shudder at it. We all have opinions, and that is good. However, if our opinion(s) are formed after only reading or hearing what we want to read or hear, then I think that is problematic. Some citizens that I talk with get their news from only one of several options. A few have shared that they get “news” from their friends on Facebook.  But I see news like a meal—if we never eat our vegetables we cheat our overall health. A poet who also teaches the writing of poetry tells her students to read other poets, both the ones they like and the ones they do not like. That seems to me to be good advice. By reading or watching a variety of news sources we are eating those vegetables!

After the Battle of Lake Erie, American Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry wrote to his commander, “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” During the turmoil of the Vietnam War in the 1960’s, Walt Kelly had his comic strip character Pogo turn Perry’s words to, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  Again, like the church sign mentioned earlier, these are strong words, yet they may be an accurate description of our “shabby landscape.” Have we become our enemy?

Let’s begin to have honest discourse with each other where we not only speak civilly but hear accurately and with respect. Imagine if you have had an argument with a teenage child or your spouse or partner or best friend. The only true way to heal that gap is through honest discourse in person. Yet, how do we often attempt to heal differences—through texting, Facebook, twitter, or such. In my opinion, honest healing must take place face to face because we speak differently when the other person is present, and we can see each other’s body language. Leave the social media for trivial sharing of information such as, “Hey, I’m at the store. Do we need toilet paper, milk, or bread?”

In my readings of the Gospel Luke, Jesus shares many meals with the Pharisees, the people who violently oppose him. Yet, he often enters one of their homes to share a meal and civil discourse. The least we can do, it seems to me, is to have civil discourse with each other. A national columnist writes that “Decent people don’t have to agree. They just have to keep the world safe for decency.” Let’s be decent people and shout, “U. S. A.” not only at the Olympics but for the common good of us all.

The Constitution, Tragedies, and Grammar

 

Here we are again—another mass shooting at an American school. However, some of the pain is masked by the on-going Winter Olympics, the Russian meddling that attacks our lives, and more “news” as it occurs. Yet, seventeen more lives and that of the shooter are lost.  All, I offer, by a mis-reading of Amendment II of our Constitution. Allow me to give what I think is a more precise and intended reading of this oft mentioned part of our government.

The Founding Fathers were well-versed in Latin. Their English derived from Latin, and we need to keep that in mind as we read what they wrote. After all, what they wrote is all we have; we cannot ask any of the thirty-nine signers what he or the committee meant. So, with the Second Amendment, we need to possess knowledge of the main clauses from Latin and how they were used in English. A clause is either independent, which means it can, if written with a capital at the beginning and ending with a period, make sense. Thus, the words in bold could stand alone as a sentence. (Because of the gunfire, students hid in closets.)  However, the words in italics cannot stand alone, so they are subordinate, or dependent on the independent, or main clause.

When I write these well-known words as a sentence, they make perfect sense: “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” However, the other oft-quoted words, when written as a sentence, do not make sense: “A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State.” Why? Because it is a clause modifier that supports and explains the reason behind the independent clause which follows. So, by understanding the written words of the Founding Fathers, we see that the reason citizens are allowed to keep “Arms” is for “A well regulated Militia”, and not for any other reason.

All of us suffer from mass shooting. In my reading of The Constitution’s Amendment II, we are given the right to arms as a means for a militia which protects us all from foreign enemies. It does not give us the right to own for the purpose of killing other citizens or any other reason.

 

A Flush of Good Weather

 

 

The flush of spring-like weather over Lake Norman has opened winter-shut windows, allowed hibernators to walk, jog, or begin early lawn work, and more: a splinter of hope relished for its promise. This morning Mary Ann and I drank our coffee on the screen porch, enjoying the bird song that surrounded us. Wrapped in warm air, hot coffee, sweet conversation, and the call of  a cardinal from the near-by berm, I thought of the announcement of the weather, but most of all a memory from childhood arrived because of  the cardinal’s call.

My five siblings, mother, and I lived at 709 Applewood Street, in Shady Brook. Mother worked the second shift in one of the local cotton mills, so she was gone to work when we six came home from school.  The house had two bedrooms and no bathroom, but we had the outhouse. The house had a long, wooden staircase that led from the kitchen to the back yard. Drinking coffee and hearing the cardinal in the berm, I remembered that day some sixty years ago, and it was that set of tall steps that I walked to as I came home for lunch, invited by mother. A treat all for me because seldom did mother have the time or energy for just one of her six children. However, for some reason, she told me to walk home for lunch. My siblings would eat at school.

The day remembered was a glorious one of spring as I walked across Mr. Brindle’s field and the back yard of our neighbors, the Kidds. My memory as I came to our back yard is one of cardinals calling, and as I approached those high steps, the smell of frying bacon floated to my young sense of smell.  Mother, for her own reason, was treating me to a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich with a glass of milk and her presence. Why? My memory does not have the answer. It was not my birthday because that is in the fall and this was spring. Perhaps I had done something bad, and mother was correcting me. Or, perhaps I had done something good, but in my short eight or ten years, that was unlikely.

Parenting is difficult, and especially if you, like mother, were a divorced woman during the 1950s rearing six children on the salary of a washcloth hemmer. My memory of that lunch is one of a small frame of time when I, with excitement and anticipation, walked towards those steep, long steps to be served a rarity: a BLT and mother all to myself.

But I must ask my siblings about their special treat with mother. I know I was not alone to receive that gift.

Isolated Learning

 

Some years ago I needed to take two academic courses in order to be a certified teacher in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Commonwealth did not regard my forty years of varied levels and positions in education as adequate. So, to advance my career, I signed up for a course on curriculum with Phoenix University. After all, one of the assistant principals I worked under displayed his graduate degree diploma from Phoenix in his office. I paid my $600 and bookmarked the course site on my home computer.

The teacher was in Georgia, some students lived in Virginia, some in New Jersey, and others across the country.  I purchased the on-line books, did the required reading and learned how to do a web search, and wrote the required assignments. On a few occasions I would discuss teaching issues with a classmate, remark about another student’s post, or read a post about one of my comments. Every dialogue was over the computer. No human contact. Each of us, even the teacher, was locked in our individual sphere.

Learning is a social experience. It is best when dialogue occurs in a personal space that is shared with other learners and a teacher or a facilitator. To be isolated at a machine surrounded by others at their machine impedes a vein of learning. Too many schools are giving too much work via the computer and isolating their students from the teacher and each other. In my mind, they are missing out on a fine resource—peers and teacher.

I am not suggesting that schools return to the days of Professor Gradgrind, but I suggest that the computer is being granted too much power in the learning of our children. The computer should be treated as what it is—a tool like books, paper, pencils, and so on, but I fear it has become a tool of convenience. In the graduate course from Phoenix University that I participated in, we were required to do web searches on various topics. How much easier that was than when I was a student in graduate school years before. Then, I had to search for information by talking with a research librarian, look through books, and read. And sometimes, I discovered that what I had read was not accurate, so I began again. It was work that took time that I could not schedule at my convenience because the classes met at particular times, and the library had scheduled hours. With the Phoenix course, I could work at 2am if I wanted to, and, yes, that has some advantages for people who are single parents or work full time. I applaud those people and admire their spunk to earn three credits.  However, a full degree earned in this manner is less than one earned by having to take a class at an inconvenient time or schedule visits to a library during its hours or sit with a teacher and other students to give and gain in a discussion.

We have made, or attempt to make, so much of our modern lives a convenience. But life, like work, is a four-letter word that we have, I fear, marginalized by our attempts to make better. So much of modern life is easier than before, and I do not, on the surface, object to that. After all, I am writing this by a computer, not a quill. However, I suggest that we have gone too  much to one side in many facets of our lives, and we have given our children the impression that they can have  anything they desire. I think my friend Mark gives his wrestlers good advice when he says about life and work, “When’s the last time you go to fun?” He then uses drill and practice and, yes, videos, to teach that success comes through honest work.

Paul writes that we should “Be anxious for nothing….”, and I think his words to the Philippians are as true today as when he penned his letter. By isolating our students or ourselves behind too many screens, we shut out the world, becoming anxious, and locked in our own heads. Anxiety can only follow our aloneness.

Vain Repetitions

 

“… for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men….But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret;…” Matthew 6:5,6 (KJV)

There are news reports of a move in South Carolina by some state representatives to require prayer to be held in South Carolina public school classrooms. I don’t question the sincerity of any lawmaker who wishes that prayer was allowed in public schools. However, I do question that lawmaker’s knowledge of federal laws and theology and education.

First, the easy one: The Supreme Court, for better or worse, deemed required prayer in public schools unconstitutional. Settled.

Secondly, the verses I quote from the book of Matthew are the words of Jesus when he rebuked religious ostentation in His Sermon on the Mount. We are instructed not to make our prayers a performance for others, but a talk with His Father, a private conversation. If prayer was required in public schools, would the South Carolina government write a prayer to be used in each classroom? Would the government trust each teacher to say her own prayer? Would the prayer be required to be Christian? Could a student lead a classroom prayer? But, all these questions are already answered: any student or teacher can pray in a classroom anytime. If a student is worried about an approaching test, he can pray. Any teacher faced with an unruly student can pray to her god for guidance. Prayer, of a private and non-required kind, is allowed and practiced in classrooms all over America. Each day. Often. To require a prayer of any religion would make that type of prayer rote and trivial. Sincere prayer is private and heart-felt, not required. Honest prayer, whether of the Christian faith or some other religion, is best taught at home, where deep instruction can be given by the parents.

And last, our teachers have more than enough to do. They do not need one more interruption to the classrooms. They are teachers of math, English, history, physics, and so many other disciplines. To burden them with one more item would not help them or our children.