BOY MEETS DREAM – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.


Dream.001It is 4:30 AM Mountain Daylight Time on August 7, 1962, the fifth day of our 10-day family vacation in Rocky Mountain National Park. The tiny camper trailer in which Dad, Mom, Pamela, my mastiff sidekick Major, and I are sleeping rests in the park’s Moraine campground, 785-miles from my hometown, Corydon, Iowa. The campsite, shrouded in silence, alit by a big moon and star-filled sky, is the perfect place for a boy like me to dream about the day ahead.

A beam of moonlight, slipping through the front window of the trailer, interrupts my dream. It pushes me out of bed. Prods me to grab warm clothes. Tells me to be quiet as I do. Then pulls Major and me out the trailer door into the chilly night. There, standing on rock-strewn ground, I shiver while pulling on my jeans, putting on socks, lacing up boots, sliding into a thick warm sweater, and giving Major a good morning pat on his massive head.

Dressed, but still cold, I head to Beaver Meadows, a mile away, with Major by my side. Trying to shake off the cold, I walk fast. The big moon and bright stars help me navigate the rocky trail. As I walk, the dream that the moonbeam interrupted, returns. In it, I am hiking a section of the park’s 355 miles of trails, following a stream to its source. I am wildly alive. Like the animals—moose, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, bear, fox, bobcat, marmot, beaver, trout, and hundreds of birds—harmoniously living here in this 265,769-acre wilderness.

Reaching Beaver Meadows, I climb atop a big, windswept rock. Here, alone in the silence, breathing the fresh, crisp, pine-scented mountain air, I think about the dream I did not get to finish. I think about the way I am in the dream and how I am back home. That here, in the vast, broad, expansiveness of the park I am a solitary figure, a speck of dust in the Universe. I have no hometown expectations. I am not the minister’s son. The unspoken pain from Pamela’s terminal illness that permeates my family subsides here. In this sanctuary, alone in myself, for the first time I think about myself and who I am becoming.dream 1 .001Sitting in Beaver Meadow, under the stars and moon, Major by my side, I think about the soulfulness I feel here in the park. How four days ago, a ranger who was staffing the fire tower on top of Twin Sisters Mountain helped me understand the cycle of life at play here.

How three days ago, during an 11-mile drive up the narrow and curvy Old Fall River Road I saw things in Dad, Mom, Pamela, Major, and myself that I had never seen before. That Dad focuses on the road ahead. Pamela relishes the few thrills that enter her fragile life. And Major just does what he does best—drool and sleep. Mom, well, as the station wagon struggles up Fall River Road, I see that she worries about it overheating, Dad’s driving, and our safety. I notice that she gives her worries to prayer. In this case, while peering past the edge of the road at the raging river far below. Me? While I respect Dad’s driving, Pamela’s thrill seeking, and Major being Major, the credit for us, and the car, getting up the rugged road to Fall River Pass, I give that to Mom and the power of prayer.

Two days ago, at Mills Lake—surrounded by the Keyboard of the Winds, 13,497-foot Pagoda Mountain, 13,579-foot Chiefs Head Peak, and 12,668-foot Thatchtop Mountain—I was a small boy in a big place. Yesterday, while hiking to Fern Lake, surrounded by pine trees and beautiful vistas, thinking about the previous days, I concluded that only a loving God could create this place, a sanctuary full of grace and beauty for everyone and everything that calls it home. In this place I can hear my heart speak to me. I feel at home.dream 1 .002The sun peaking over the mountains interrupts my reverie. Off in the distance, an elk bugles. A nearby owl contributes a deep, melodic who, who, hoot, then another, and another. The elk bugles, again, and again. The Owl hoots. Major pulls up close to me. Looking skyward he releases a slow soulful howl. After a bit, my own heartbeat keeping rhythm, the bugles, hoots, and howls of the unlikely trio form a tune that only I can recognize.dream 1 .003A meteor streaking across the sky brings the much-appreciated and heartfelt serenade to a stop. As the meteor reaches its apogee, the North Star, catches my eye. Reminding me to launch a birthday dream. Without hesitation, with my eyes tightly closed, digging deeply into my soul, bringing forth every ounce of power within me, I offer my birthday dream to the universe. In the quietness of the park, on the rock, Major by my side, I vow to hold fast to my dream.

On this trip to Heartland, a memory of a long ago family vacation to Rocky Mountain National Park reminds me about the power of place. How, in the park a ranger, a car ride up a steep mountain road, an afternoon at a mountain-circled lake, and a hike to Fern Lake help me feel and understand things that I never would have felt or understood back home in Iowa. Moreover, that where a person is indelibly effects who he becomes.

On a deeper level, the memory that greets me in Heartland is about me being a dreamer who works to bring dreams to life by carrying them in my heart. About learning that dreams make my heart beat stronger. Now, with the perspective of time I see that the dream I met that birthday morning, atop the rock, was no ordinary dream. Fifty four years later, I am still working to bring it to life.

My dreamwork is a soulful path. Most often I walk the path alone. Sometimes, as with Major, a companion walks the path with me. When that happens I do my best to cherish and honor my dream-companion. On rare occasions a star, or moonbeam, shows me the way. Alone or with others, remembrances of where and how I met my dream give me strength to stay the course and dream other dreams.

* Dreams by Langston Hughes


Note: This is the 24nd post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

MY WAILING WALL – The Sacred Places Series

Since the earliest times, people have ascribed sacred significance to certain places. Such places—whether human made or naturally occurring—typically inspire awe, and often invoke devotion and respect. Not surprisingly many of these places are revered and well known. There are some places, however, that are less known, even hidden. They await discovery. Here I pay homage to a place that has sacred meaning for me.

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In Jerusalem, at the heart of the Old City is a large open-air plaza. Tens of thousands of people—pilgrims, worshipers, and tourists—come here every day. Today, Wednesday, April 21, 2010, I join their number.

Standing on the plaza, I look to the Western Wall at the far end. I think about the Wall’s sacredness. How Herod the Great had it built in 19 BC to enclose and support the Second Temple. About the destruction of the temple a few decades later and how Jews now gather here, and have done so for centuries, to lament the loss of the temple, and pray for its return. As I hear the worshippers’ lamentations emanating from near the wall, I understand the Wailing Wall.

Crossing the plaza, I approach the Wall. Looking up at it strains my neck. Just think, I say to myself, what I see is an eighth of the Wall’s original length of 1600 feet. What would my neck feel like looking at a wall that size?

Limestone blocks, each atop and beside another, comprise the wall. Most weigh between 2 to 7 tons. A few weigh more. One weighs over 500 tons. All have carefully-chiseled borders. At the margin, the border of each block measures between 2 to 8 inches wide and one half-inch deep, a subtle tribute to the wall builders’ skills.

Closer, a large open area abutting the Western Wall functions as an open-air synagogue. It is a site of constant prayers by worshippers, and has been for centuries. Per tradition, a long wooden fence separates men from women. Undeterred, people stand on chairs to watch the happenings on the other side.

A hundred, probably more, mostly bearded, mostly black-frocked men, each wearing a hat, wait in line for a turn to pray at the wall. Donning a hat, I, beardless and in blue jeans, get in line with them. As I do, my right hand touches the slip of paper in my right pants pocket.

The paper has been with me for eight days. Since the taxi ride to the airport in Atlanta, on the plane trip to Tel Aviv, while conducting business in Tel Aviv, on the plane trip to Istanbul for more business, then to Jerusalem, again for business, and now here at the Wall, as I stand in line to pray. Before leaving Atlanta, while prepping for the trip, I read that worshipers stuff pieces of paper with prayers on them into the Wall’s crack. That weekly, prayers are gathered and buried in a 2,000-year-old cemetery on the Mount of Olives. I understand that, at the Wall, every prayer is an eternal prayer.

Squeezing the paper, I give thanks for the tradition of prayers in the cracks of the Wall. Then, when my turn comes, I step up to the Wall. Its ancient massiveness humbles me. I take the piece of paper from my pocket. Fold it in half. Then fold it in half again. Facing the Wall, leaning in, my face touching limestone, I reach up high. Getting up on my tiptoes, I reach higher still. There, in a crack, beside a clump of grass growing from the wall, very carefully I place the paper in the crack.

Pushing it, as far as I possibly can push it into the crack, I feel the universe accept my prayer. It connects with me. I am at peace, whole, and complete. My tiptoes relax, arms come down, and I lean away from the Wall.

wallWalking along the Wall, pieces of paper are in its every crack, I think about the thousands and thousands of prayers offered here and the people who offered them. I hope with all my heart that when they walked away they knew, like I know, that our prayers are in God’s hands. Departing the wall, I leave my prayer, there, resting in those hands.

Now, looking back, I understand that none of us are supposed to walk a solitary and lonely path. God walks with us. He reveals many paths, some less travelled, to the same destination. And he gives us the power to attract people to walk with us as we do the work that he desires us to do. I have come to learn that as I do my work, answers to my prayers often are more about what I need rather than expect or want. Knowing that I am not alone, I have capacity to courageously accept what comes my way.

That day my reason for stepping up to the Wall was a very dear person, our love, and my destiny. The long coming and quite unanticipated answer to the prayer that I put on a piece of paper to stick in the Wall, requires that I face my demons, eliminate barriers, and overcome adversities. That now is the time I must step up to my destiny, and do so, trusting that the intended way forward will find me. And know that when fear and doubts arise, the Wall is there for me.

Each of our lives offers us many reasons to step up to the Wall. What are yours? Is today the day?

Mark


Note: This is the third post in the Sacred Places series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

FAITH IN MY FATHER – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.

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It is Sunday morning in Corydon Iowa. The bells atop the United Methodist Church are sending forth one final plea for townsfolk to come worship. No one comes forth. All now occupy a church pew. They came earlier.

Patrick and I stand in the narthex. White cottas over black cassocks adorn us. Our hands hold long two-pronged poles. On each, in one prong there is a taper that we use to light the altar candles. When the press of the organist’s fingers on the organ’s keys let loose a mighty flourish, the Congregants stand, and then sing.fathers faith 1Patrick and I step into the nave. As we head down the aisle toward the altar, the choir follows us—two columns, one column behind him, and one behind me. In unison, right left, we step forward. Each step we take, every choir member replicates. As we proceed, behind us, two by two the choir members enter the nave. Two by two they progress down the aisle. With each new couple entering the nave, the volume of singing increases slightly.fathers faith 2Midway to the altar, I glimpse at the Wayne Dietz family. Next to them are the Millers, Carolyn and Kenneth Willey, and the Frizzells. Over there is my teacher, Mrs. Nelson, her husband Lloyd, and son Lloyd Jr. Up ahead, are Pearl McMurray, Corydon’s mayor, and Bennie Hughes, editor of the Times Republican. Mrs. Bains, with no one near her, stands alone. Even though the sanctuary is full, and everyone is singing, their energy is low.faith 4As Patrick and I go up the steps to the altar, the choir members behind Patrick proceed to the choir loft left of the altar. Those behind me go to the one on the right. Patrick and I go forward to the altar.

At the altar, Patrick and I bow to each other, then bow to the cross, and then lights the candles on the altar. Then, pivoting crisply, Patrick turns to the left and I to the right. In tight sequence, we light each candle in our respective candelabra array.

As we light the candles, choir members continue to enter the nave, two by two, and march down the aisle. With the entry of each new pair, the volume of singing increases a wee bit, however, the passion remains low.

Candles lit, Patrick and I go stand by our seats near the lectern. There I start to sing. Our collective offering to God lacks oomph. As the hymn drags on, I look around. Mom and Pamela are in the front pew. Mom gives up a wink, and Pamela flashes a big-sister smile. They and I, listening to the pitiful singing, know what comes next.

I watch the last choir-couple enter the nave. Behind them, Reverend Mark E. Weston steps into the entryway. Wavy black hair, combed back, dressed in a black robe with purple piping, holding a hymnal in his right hand and a bible under left arm Reverend Weston is the epitome of an evangelist. I see him lick his lips, inhale deeply, wait for a note, and then start singing.

Standing in the entryway, his voice is steady, strong, and pure. His volume is low. Upon entering the nave it slowly rises. As it does, the beat of the music picks up. The organist plays faster. The congregants stand straighter, dig deeper, and sing louder.fathers faith 3Midway to the altar, the Reverend’s voice is strong, pure, and full on. The congregants and organist can barely keep up. I see him nod to the mayor, smile at my teacher, and reach out and touch Mrs. Bains. When at the last pew, he pauses to kiss my mom. At the steps to the altar, the entire congregation is feeling God’s spirit.

After bowing to God at the altar, the Reverend, heads to the lectern. When he comes by me, he stops, bends down, and says, “Mark Edward, you can do this.” To which I reply, “Yes Dad, I can.”

On this trip to Heartland, a memory of a Sunday morning long ago awaits my arrival. It is about a time my father used his powers of attraction to fill a church with townsfolk seeking sustenance and salvation. How his God-given talents met their needs, lifted their voices, and touched their souls. The memory reminds me that personal power is for helping, not harming, and for serving others not self.

From the vantage point of the present, I now see how on that Sunday my father taught me how to inspire, motivate, and serve people. That his processional to the altar put me on a path of serving others, providing advice, and helping them press on when all seems lost. Along the path, I learned to be humble when in positions of power and to focus on the greater good rather than personal aspirations.

My father’s faith is within me. It is why I offer myself to the universe, and stand ready to share my gifts (which do not include singing) with whomever comes forth. I welcome them in his honor and do so with deep gratitude. Yes, Dad, I can. I am your son.faith 5

Mark Edward


Note: This is the 23nd post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

TEACHING PROBLEMS (And How to Solve Them) – The Shift Paradigm Series


coexist.001If you teach, you know isolation. It seeks you out at school. You cannot elude it.

Look at your school’s schedule. See how it allocates most of your time to students and precious little for teachers. Think about the meetings you attend, professional development you receive, and technology you use. See that they ignore the everyday realities you face. Do not help you teach better. Isolate you.

Think about the school building in which you work. See that its classrooms are isolation chambers for teachers. See that there are no places in the building for you to work collaboratively with other teachers. That the places where you most often encounter teachers are the lunchroom and bathroom. Neither place is suited for collaboration. Neither are places you want to spend much time.

The isolation you experience at school results from the paradigm to which the field of education adheres. Its beliefs, goals, practices, processes, tools, and values drive what happens at school. They affect the work you do there and how you do it. To see why isolation seeks you out, you must understand the paradigm.

The paradigm that guides the field of education assigns great value to standardized school days, unidirectional meetings, institutional not personal development, and classroom-only buildings. It commits students to age groups, teachers to levels and subjects, and both to buildings and classrooms. A teacher teaches a set of students in a classroom. There she is singularly responsible for how and what students learn. Every other teacher, each in a classroom, is singularly responsible for her or his students’ learning and performance on achievement tests and other academic measures.

The design and organization of your school—schedule, meetings, professional development, technology, and building—reflect the responsibility that teachers have for student learning. It supports them meeting that responsibility but prevents them from working collaboratively with other teachers. And, if they try to work together, they encounter difficulties. It makes you and other teachers co-exist. Co-existence is the source of your isolation.

Teachers who co-exist do their core work alone, all the time, never together. For instance, when one designs a complete lesson—pedagogical approach, strategy, materials, and rubric—other teachers do not benefit from her efforts. Similarly, when a teacher delivers instruction, she cannot share what she learns from her delivery with others. Such duplication of efforts and disconnection of core work is why your workload is so high. It is why you have neither time nor energy to teach well. It is why teachers burnout. Why the field of education cannot reform itself. And why you feel so isolated.

This is the teaching problem. To solve it you must stop co-existing with teachers and start co-evolving with them. This involves establishing mutual goals, fostering a common professional language, and developing a shared commitment to specific educational practices for doing core-work. It requires that you reciprocally engage with goals using the practices to which you are committed.

When feedback guides your efforts, over time, formal processes for conducting core work emerge. The processes refine themselves using ongoing feedback. Refinements give rise to efficiencies. Collaboration increases. Duplicative efforts go away. The quality of your instruction increases. You workload diminishes. More students learn more and better than ever before. And you never ever feel isolated.

The changes in the school are visible. Times, processes, and spaces for teachers to co-evolve replace isolation. Meetings and professional development, once the bane of your existence are essential to you and other teachers as you pursue shared goals. The common language you use makes for easy and joyful work. As evidenced by you benefiting when a teacher learns or creates something, and vice versa.

Sounds wonderful. Yes, co-evolving, done well, is wonderful. Teachers teach better. Students learn more. Schools improve. And isolation goes away.

Achieving co-evolution via normal approaches, at the scale of a school or beyond, is challenging. Getting to co-evolution—establishing goals, fostering common language, committing to specific practices, and using feedback—places great demands on the interpersonal skills of teachers. Leaving the relative comfort of co-existence for the promise of co-evolution creates turbulence. Navigating it requires much time and stamina. Few groups of teachers have capacity for doing this work.

Technology is the best hope for teachers wanting to co-evolve. Not the technology that you now use. It mostly complicates things. The best hope for co-evolution is a new genre of technology transforms interpersonal processes into technological ones.

This type of technology emerges naturally when teachers work reciprocally to achieve shared goals. The feedback that informs their core work causes processes to emerge. The processes, and subsequent feedback, make obvious the technological tools that teachers need. Processes previously handled interpersonally (e.g. feedback) become software enabled. When the design and delivery of high quality instruction is software enabled, designs and delivery become better and both continuously improve. Over time, the tools come to comprise a ToolKit for teachers.

A set of pilot schools, equipped with a prototype ToolKit, report about quick shifts from co-existence to co-evolution. Their design better lessons, deliver higher quality instruction, experience lower workloads, and re-teach lessons less often. Not surprisingly, students in the schools are more engaged in their learning and performing better on achievement tests. Moreover, meetings at the schools are more productive, professional development there is more meaningful, and collaboration, not isolation is the norm.

As a teacher, you know that, as Ken Blanchard says, “None of us is as smart as all of us.” You also know how difficult it is to be smart together while co-existing. What you may not know, but should know, is that paradigms serve their adherents. You and I can create a new paradigm for education. And that doing so with our fellow teachers requires that we co-evolve. It is time we demand the tools to help make this happen. Let’s end the isolation.

Mark


Note: This is the sixth post in the Shift Paradigm series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

BE PREPARED – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.

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The moon is in its rightful place in the sky, when the members of Boy Scout Troop 137 and I arrive at Camp Wapello. While we search for our campsite, I think of all the scouts who have gathered here since the camp’s founding in 1932. As we unload our gear in the dark, I try to envision what awaits me at the Annual Fall Jamboree of the Tall Corn Council that starts tomorrow. This being my first jamboree, I cannot. Nonetheless I know something memorable is about happen.

Our troop leader, wanting us to win the Jamboree’s Best Campsite award and the trophy that comes with it, stretches a 180-foot rope, in an L-shape, on the ground. Along it, he places, at ten-foot intervals, one bag with a tent in it. Eighteen boys, eighteen tents. Fifteen-feet outward from the elbow of the L, he places a stone. A campfire goes there. A flagpole goes at one end of the L. My tent goes at the other.

I unfurl my tent. Then crawl on the dewy vegetation that covers the ground, to square my tent to the rope and make it perpendicular to the tent that stands next to it. I stretch out the tent’s guy ropes and secure each with a tent peg. I crawl into the tent, where I stand up the rear and front poles. When I peg the front and rear guy ropes, my tent is finally up. I will be my shelter for the next two nights.

Dirty and sweating, rather than soil my shorts, I wipe my hands on nearby plants and then dry my face. Next up, I roll the ground cloth from the rear to the front of the tent, crawling on the ground vegetation as I do. Then I unroll my sleeping bag. After which, I bring my gear—backpack, hatchet, compass, food, utensils, and the Boy Scout Handbook— inside.

When the leader says that the site set up meets his approval, I head to the campfire. I am eager for the scary stories, tales of adventure, popcorn, and s’mores. I take a place by the roaring fire, savor a gooey s’more, and partake in the heartwarming fellowship that comes with boys being boys.

A while later, a gentle breeze encourages me to lie back on the ground. I look up at the stars. There is Sagittarius, the archer, the V of Andromeda, and the dipper Ursa, with her North Star. Oh my, did the North Star just wink at me? I think so.

As the fire burns down, I bid my fellow scouts good night, and head to my tent for some much needed sleep. Glancing skyward, the North Star tells me to dream big dreams. She really does.

In the tent, tucked away in a sleeping bag, I listen to the sounds of the night. I hear leaves rustle as a night wind sneaks through the trees. The ooo-eee-ooo-eee of thousands of chirping cicadas and katydids serenade me from the treetops. Off in the distance, a wise old owl tells me that, yes, she does give a hoot.

The sound of fingernails scratching skin inside the tent, interrupt the woodlands sounds outside it. I itch. My legs, my arms— I am in such misery. The more I scratch, the more I itch. And the more I itch, the more I scratch.

I want to fall asleep, but cannot. I am too busy scratching my legs, arms, and now my stomach. I want to listen night wind, cicadas, katydids, and the owl but my mind is unrelentingly focused the itches I must scratch. Oh no, my face, now my face is itching.

To prevent myself from scratching I clinch my hands together. Squeezing them tightly to stifle my instinctive urge to scratch. My hands ache for morning. I hope I live that long.

Sitting outside my tent, with eyes sore from lack of sleep and campfire smoke, I watch the sun rise slowly. In the breaking I look at the skin on my legs, arms, stomach, and face. It is red, swollen, and raw. Oozing blisters cover me.

Desperate, I grab my Boy Scout Handbook. The relief I seek must be somewhere in its often read pages. There, under poisonous plants, is a picture of the ooziness that covers my body. Next to it a picture of poison Ivy. Reading on, the handbook says to wash the afflicted area with soap and water. Where is the nearest shower? Words that have never before crossed my lips

Rubbing alcohol, calamine lotion, and frequent showers get me through the day and night. Thank you handbook! Reading further, I learn that Poison Ivy is the most common poisonous plant in the United States. That the oily sap in its leaves, stems, and roots is the source of my irritation and itching.

I look at the picture of Poison Ivy, under it, “leaves of three, let them be.” Then look around me. Leaves of three are everywhere. Oh how I wish that I had let them be. Next time, I will Be Prepared.

On this trip to Heartland, a memory of my first, and most memorable Boy Scout Jamboree awaits my arrival. It is a fascinating juxtaposition of the joy of a boy in the woods with other boys and the itchy-hell that he unwittingly encounters while setting up his tent. In the darkness of that fateful night before my jamboree, the darkness of my knowledge about the woodland world puts me in danger. Though the shower and lotion provide relief, the oozing sores that take months to heal, and the scars they leave behind are painful reminders to Be Prepared.

Over the years I have come to understand that I can never be too prepared. Despite my best preparations, there will always be circumstances beyond my control. As was the case of the jamboree, where I thought I was prepared, but the darkness of the night, prevented me from seeing the Poison Ivy upon which I was pitching my tent. Further, my limited knowledge prevented me from even recognizing that possibility.

I now understand that the best way for me to prepare for the worlds into which I step and the lives I encounter there is acknowledge each as splendorous and all as having poisons and risks. I must see them for what they are and call them by their true names. By honoring them in this way, whatever adversity befalls me, I am ready.

Mark


Note: This is the 22nd post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

THE KISS – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.

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“Mark E, be sure to wash behind your ears,” Pamela says. It is Saturday, late afternoon, in Corydon, Iowa. Normally I bathe before bed, but this is not a normal Saturday. Dad and Mom will soon leave for a two-day Chautauqua retreat in Centerville, Iowa. Mom’s friend Francine is going with them. Her niece Julie, from Ontario, is staying here tonight. I am getting ready for Julie. Ears clean, bath done, I dry off, dress, brush my teeth, and comb my hair. This is so not like me.

In the kitchen, at the table, Dad, between mouthfuls of dinner, admonishes me to “do what Pamela says.” And Mom, being a mom, says, “remember your manners…be a gentleman.” Pamela takes all this in then says, “Is that cologne I smell, Mark E.” Swallowing hard, I search for an answer…

Knock! Knock! They are here, THANK GOD. Mom hurriedly deals with the dishes. Dad and Pamela head to the front door. I hang back.

“Come in, come on in,” Dad says to Francine. “My don’t you and Julie look pretty.” Standing off to the side, is Julie—curls, bauble and bows, pink dress, white blouse, and pink Mary Janes. My jaw drops. The Julie, who pals around with me at the farm and reservoir while wearing jeans and Buster Browns, is a princess.

Dad, Mom, and Francine say everything that must be said and then say it again before they head off to their Chautauqua. From the living room window we watch them leave. The second the car exits the driveway, upstairs I go. There, I grab every spare blanket, comforter, and quilt I can find. I bring them all to the living room, where I stack them neatly.

Watching me scurry about, Pamela says, “What’re you doing?” My “blanket fort” response causes her to smile and Julie to giggle. When I remind them that, “A Boy Scout is always prepared” they start laughing. They now know that tomorrow we build a fort.

“Okay, the fort will have to wait. It’s movie time. Let’s go,” Pamela says. Dutifully fulfilling her responsibilities, she gets Julie and me out the door and shepherds us downtown—Julie on her left side, me on the right.

At the movie theatre, I stand tall before the ticket window, and say, “Three please!” Inside, I squeeze through a row to get us three seats down front. Pamela, and Julie follow. Reaching the seats, we sit—left, center, right—Julie, Pamela, and me.

Lights come down, curtains open, and the show starts. During the cartoon I peer past Pamela at Julie. I see her laugh when Bugs Bunny says, “Eh… What’s up, doc?” However, when Julie looks at me, Pamela leans in, blocking my view. Bested by my big sister, I put a whole box of milk duds in my mouth, and settle in to enjoy the show.

Afterwards, Pamela shepherds us home via West Jackson and West Anthony Streets. Once there, Pamela sends Julie and I to run upstairs to change into our pajamas while she prepares an after-movie treat. When we return, Pamela is scooping cherry cobbler and ice cream into three bowls on a tray. When the bowls are full, Pamela, tray in hands, leads Julie and me to the living room.

Munching on a spoonful of cobbler, I look at Pamela, Julie, and then the stack of blankets, quilts, and comforters. A blanket-fort awaits its builder. I eat faster—gulping one double spoonful, then another, and another. When my bowl is empty, I jump up, grab a blanket, and drape it over a chair. Next I move an end table near to the chair. I hang a comforter, over both. Julie joins in with a quilt. Pamela brings a blanket. Julie gets pillows. On it goes until we construct a fort, correction, a spectacular fort. Resting on a soft comforter, the fort’s floor, it is Pamela in the middle, Julie on the left, and me on the right.

Later, I awaken. Go downstairs and into the fort. Julie is asleep there, a moonbeam shining on her face. Her beauty makes my heart beat fast.

Looking at Julie, in a curl, I worry that she might catch a chill. So I cover her with a blanket. As I do, the scent of lilac, her scent, wafts upward. A strand of hair rests on her face. As I move it aside, my hand shakes. I pause to look closely at Julie’s face, closer than I have ever looked at any girl before. A beauty mark punctuates her left cheek. Three freckles adorn her nose. I wonder…

Pop! Julie’s eyes open—twinkling sapphires. Their greenness is greater than I remember from previous encounters. Seeing me, Julie pulls me toward her. Kisses my lips. “Mark Edward, what will I ever do without you,” she says. Side by side, no one between us. We say no words.

Our moment becomes an hour, then another. Early on Julie falls asleep. I cannot sleep. Looking at her, I think about how I did not want for anything before meeting Julie. Now I cannot imagine life without her. I want to protect her, spend time alone with her, and be close to her. But she is leaving. There will be distance between us.

My silent reverie ends when Julie awakens, sits up, straightens her pajamas, and prepares to leave the fort. Before she goes, Julie whispers, “Mark, it’s late, come to bed.” With that, she takes me by the hand and leads me up the stairs. She releases her grasp on my hand at the spare room, gives me a secret smile and says, “Sweet dreams, Mark Edward.” As she closes the door behind her, my heart skips a beat.

This time, when I return to Heartland a memory waits for me about a girl who makes me feel like no girl ever makes me feel before. Her presence in my life evokes changes in my behavior that make me seem so unlike myself. Her kiss, so sweet and pure melts my heart then (and, upon remembrance, does so now). At the same time, her imminent departure and our impending separation create pain beyond words.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now realize that Julie expands my understanding of myself. How spending time, alone, with Julie, a girl, while strange and new, is a big step toward my personhood. That being close, sharing feelings, exploring barns, building blanket forts, and kisses with Julie are priceless lessons to be cherished. The joy and pain I experience with Julie completes and brings out the best in me. The flame she sparks within me burns bright to this day. Thank you, Julie.

Mark E.


Note: This is the 21st post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

WHEN LESSONS ADD UP STUDENTS ENGAGE (And Teachers Teach Better) – The Shift Paradigm Series



lesson.001Imagine yourself in classroom. Where you are observing a teacher and her students. You watch the lesson that she is teaching. Scan the room. Look at the students. See the behavior of each student that corresponds to what is happening in the lesson.

Are students engaging? Do they do what they are supposed to do? In five minutes, see what is happening in the lesson. Scan the room. What is each student doing? Are they on task? Repeat every five minutes until the bell ends the class period.

As you watch, a pattern emerges of the students’ engagement with the lesson. Most likely the pattern is like this. The class begins with attendance, announcements, and other business. Then the lesson starts. A majority of students, but not all, engage with the lesson. As the lesson continues, fewer students engage. Over time, less than half are engaging. At some point, as engagement dwindles, the teacher attempts to re-engage students by raising her voice. Perhaps she says, “Pay attention, this content will be on the test.” Or maybe she calls on a student, one, not engaging with the lesson, who is distracting a student near him. Student engagement keeps dissipating. As the period winds down, students and the teacher idly pass time until a bell signals class period done.

Hold on to the pattern. We will come back to it in a moment. In the meantime, think about how What Teachers Teach dominates the current educational discourse, and has for over a decade.

What Teachers Teach drives the standards that guide the curriculum that in turn determines what students are supposed to learn. Further, it drives the efforts to measure student, and sometimes, teacher, performance against the standards and curriculum and is the basis for the standardized tests that are the primary measure of performance. Some of the discourse about what teachers should teach occurs at the federal and state levels, a little of it happens in the private sector, but most takes place locally. Regardless of where the discourse occurs, you saw the end result of it in the lesson you observed.

Now, return to the pattern that you saw in the classroom. As you do, think about the field’s longstanding discourse. Were content, standards, and tests present in the lesson?

YES they were. However, their presence in the lesson, as the dissipating engagement of students made apparent, had little effect on student learning and the teaching of the teacher. The minimal effect is due to a disconnect that exists between the high levels of learning and teaching that the field seeks, its discourse about how to get both, and what actually happens when students engage with the lessons that they are supposed to learn.

Learning, as you saw, is about minutes and moments. When students engage minute-by-minute with a lesson they learn what the teacher is teaching. If, over time, students’ engagement with a lesson declines steadily, then their learning declines too. So if greater learning the Field of Education’s penultimate goal, then student engagement is an essential indicator whether progress toward attaining the field’s goal is occurring. The quality of a lesson asserts a direct and powerful effect on students’ engagement. The volume of a teacher’s voice and having items on a test do not.

To better understand the relationship between learning, engagement, and lessons, think about the lesson you saw in the classroom. Was it complete? Was its quality high? For instance, did it have sufficient structure to engage all students from beginning to end? Did it help all students understand why what they were learning mattered? Did the lesson connect to the lesson from the previous day? Set the stage for the lesson tomorrow? Was an instructional approach (e.g. direct teaching, cooperative learning) readily apparent? Did it employ instructional strategies (e.g. guided practice, rotate and check)? The answer to each question is NO.

If all students are going to learn at high levels, and perform well on standardized tests, then the answer we must seek is YES. Getting there requires that all lessons be complete, high quality—all the time. Here is why.

A complete, high quality lesson solves the engagement problem. A sizeable sequence of complete, high quality lessons solves the learning problem. Solving the learning problem across several classrooms makes standards attainable and achievement gains possible for a school. Attaining standards and achieving gains in multiple schools makes attainment and gains possible for a district.

Such attainments and gains at widespread scale necessitate that we take up the challenge of designing and building high-quality lessons. There are two routes we can take. One route is obvious, but little travelled. The other is little considered and under construction. Let’s start with the obvious route.

To understand the obvious route please consider a question that I often ask teachers—over 2500 of them during the past 15 years. How long does it take you to design and build a complete, high-quality lesson? A lesson that you are confident will engage every student for an entire class period. One that you are certain each student will master, and necessitates no re-teaching on your part.

Typically, the answers I get range from 1 hour to one day. Teachers quickly adjust their answer, when I say a complete lesson may include a PowerPoint or equivalent presentation, a video, connections to curriculum standards, and, of course, the dreaded lesson plan.

They adjust their answers, again, when I mention the requisite worksheets, handouts, and rubrics. And upon hearing visuals, manipulative, and graphic organizers they adjust yet again. Adjustments finished, they say that to design and build one complete, high-quality lesson for one class period, will take them one day to one week.

Next, I ask, “And how many ready-to-go, complete, sure-to-engage and produce-mastery-of-each student, high-quality lessons do you have?” Whatever response the question elicits, I welcome with a gentle smile, supportive nod, and receptive ear. Ten to 30 lessons, most teachers report. A few teachers offer up that they deliberately use one such lesson during semi-annual observations. Most talk about how they keeping their high quality lessons safe and frequently back them up.

Finally, I ask, “When and where do you design and build high quality lessons?” Teachers tell me how each day the have a 60-minute period for planning and preparation, 25 minutes for lunch, and barely enough time to go to the bathroom. That they must design and build lessons during evenings, weekends, holiday breaks, and summers—while raising families, taking classes, and living their lives.

Let’s do some calculating. First, a typical teacher teaches at least 180 days per year. She teaches four lessons per day. So that teacher needs, at least, 720 complete, high quality lessons per year.

Second, a typical teacher needs at least one day to design and build a lesson. Let’s assume she can use her one-hour of daily planning time to do so. And that maybe, just maybe, she can make one lesson per week. She will, working every week with no breaks, she will make the lessons she needs in 13 years and 10 months.

Third, if a typical teacher spends a five-day week building lessons, nothing else. Does so for 52 weeks (no vacations or holidays). Annually she will make 260 lessons. So in 2 years and 9 months she will have the 720 lessons she needs.

The calculations shed light on the challenges that await travellers who take obvious route. Hopefully the other route is better.

The little considered route involves creating the conditions necessary for all students to engage in their learning all the time. The presence of certain practices makes such conditions possible. The conditions emerge school wide when multiple teachers teach, share, compare, and refine lessons containing the practices.

Technology, in the form of a toolkit, enables teachers to design, build, deliver, share, and refine complete and high quality lessons based on specific Common Core Standards or Provincial Expectations.  Building one lesson takes a teacher 30-minutes. With the toolkit, doing so involves her clicking through a series of screens, accessing libraries, inserting elements, and attaching resources. Doing these steps automatically aligns the lesson to an appropriate standard. When the steps are done, a teacher, with one click, produces a handout, lesson plan, rubric, and homework assignment. Another click produces a PowerPoint-like presentation she can use with a classroom of students. Yet another click initiates a feedback process that improves the quality of the lesson and its delivery.

Independent researchers, using a controlled match methodology, found significant increases in student engagement and instructional quality at schools using a prototype of the toolkit. The increases came within 60 days of the first use of the toolkit. Moreover, its continual use led to sustained levels of high engagement and high quality instruction. Not surprisingly, these outcomes are prompting numerous conversations about next steps for the toolkit approach.

If you are a teacher, you know the impact that high quality lessons have on student engagement, learning, and achievement. Also, you know why so few teachers travel the obvious route to such lessons. For you, a toolkit is an exciting and much welcomed possibility. Hang on! Help is on the way.

Mark


Note: This is the fifth post in the Shift Paradigm series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

COURAGE TO DO THE UNTHINKABLE – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.

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God put me on this earth to explore every nook and cranny of Corydon, Iowa. I take this charge quite seriously. To understand just how serious, consider the many nooks and assorted crannies that I have explored since arriving here two and a half years ago.

I now know the Wayne County Courthouse from its full-length urinals in the basement to the bells in its cupola. The Corydon State Bank, where the townspeople keep their money, I frequent its safe. Next to the bank is the dairy that processes the milk that farmers draw from their cows in its big vats and pasteurizers. Churches, I have been in all 10 of them, some, dozens of times. Movie Theatre, I know the secret entrance out back. The Times Republican, its editor stocks a candy bowl just for me. And the 600 or so houses that protect their occupants from the elements, and each other, well I reckon that I have been in at least 250 of them, maybe more.

Every day, as I go about exploring Corydon, I pass by the water tower. Most days, as I go by, I gaze at it and wonder what my hometown looks like from up there. What nooks and crannies might I see from there that I have yet to explore?

The water tower is by far Corydon’s tallest structure. From tower’s base to the tip of the lightening rod that adorns its top, the span is 130 feet. Its big cylindrical tank—with City of Corydon painted on its side— holds 750,000 gallons of water. It rests on four steel-beam legs. Each leg angles slightly outward, it foot embedded in cement. On one leg, a ladder leads up to a narrow walkway that encircles the tank.

The tower pulls water from the Wayne County reservoir, seven miles away. Hydrostatic pressure pushes water from the tank to the sinks, toilets, and tubs of the homes and establishments that connect to Corydon’s water main. During the day, as the townspeople do their business, the water level of the tower falls. At night a pump fills it back up so it is ready for another day.

Today is the day that my friend John and I decide to climb the tower. I go first. Left foot on rung, I eagerly grab a crosspiece with my right hand. Up I go. Right foot on a different rung, my left hand on another crosspiece, upwards I climb toward the tank and walkway. What a proud explorer of nooks and crannies am I. The evenly spaced rungs and crosspieces make for steady climbing but the steep angle of the tower’s legs demands much effort. Right foot, left hand, and left foot, right hand upward I climb. My legs, arms, and hands ache with fatigue. I use the little strength that remains to pull myself up onto the walkway. Perched there, I reach down to help John get up here.

John safely by my side, I take a moment to look out at Corydon. I see the United Methodist Church where Dad ministers to his flock, the elementary school that I attend, and the parsonage in which we live. Slowly my eyes scan backwards from the parsonage to the library and finally to ground below. There, sitting at the base of the tower, my dog Major, a 185-pound mastiff, looks like a tiny chihuahua. On the nearby sidewalk, a lady carrying shopping bags looks about the size of an infant.

I feel vulnerable in a way I have never felt before. My heart races wildly, my head spins, and stomach rumbles. I turn white. Fear overtakes me. A gust of wind could blow us off the walkway. Tears flow freely. “God, please God help me get down from here,” reverberates in my head. I wish I had never climbed up here. What was I thinking?

Gasping for air, I whisper to John, “Let’s go.” Sliding over the walkway, heading down, I realize that no one can help us. No one knows we are here.

As my foot touches the first rung, my leg goes rubbery. I pause to collect my thoughts. My hand, on the crosspiece, is sweaty. “What if I lose my grip?” I ask myself. Gripping the crosspiece extra tightly with one hand—while blocking thoughts of slipping from my mind—I wipe my other hand on my pants.

One rung and one crosspiece, I pause to breathe deeply and exhale slowly. Then another rung, another crosspiece, another deep breath, and another slow exhale. Rung by rung, breath by breath I make my way down the water tower. A proud explorer of nooks and crannies no more, I am a disappointment to myself but a conqueror of my fear.

On this trip to Heartland, a memory of a terrifying moment on the water tower greets me. It is a vivid reminder about facing and overcoming fear. How, up on the walkway, when fear set in and I had no choice but to find my way down. To do so, I had to regulate myself. I held on, breathed deeply, silenced my mind, and did what I had to do…rung after rung. As I did, I discovered an inner-strength I never knew I had and an explorer’s pride that I had in abundance.

Going deeper, I now understand that the lesson of the water tower is also about comfort. That new learning only happens outside my comfort zone. How, on the walkway, when I was uncomfortable, I learned a valuable lesson about fear. That, by facing my fear and taking a step, I became stronger and more self-reliant.

Now, I also understand that sometimes I take risks and other times risks find me. In a risky situation I often must take a step, or leap, of faith, sometimes to save, help, or improve myself or, perhaps, someone else. When I do, I find the courage to do the unthinkable.

Mark 


Note: This is the 20th post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

LET GO, SET YOURSELF FREE – The Learning Lessons Series

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“Mark, is it ever appropriate to take a crutch away from a cripple?” Roshi asks. I am in morning dokusan with him. It is day two of a seven-day period of intensive meditation that, in this Zen monastery, we call sesshin. My immediate thought upon hearing the question is, “Oh sh#t”. So I hesitate. When my mouth does open to respond, Roshi rings the bell. We bow. I return to the meditation hall.

There, I bow to my mat. Next, I position myself on the zafu that sits on the mat. When comfortable, I resume my practice—watching breath…in, out. If thoughts arise, there is only in and out. For the remainder of the day, there is just in, out. As I sit, walk, work, eat, and sleep I strive to do my practice.

Periodically, “take away a cripple’s crutch” invades the peaceful space that my practice creates for me. The invader disrupts my breathing. Hardens the mat. Makes my back and knees ache more than normal. Peace gives way to thoughts about who is the cripple? What is a crutch? How could its removal ever be appropriate?

If I try to ignore the question, it persists. When I yield to it and seek its answer, the question iterates itself. Only when I acknowledge the question, let it float by, and make no attachment to it, does the peace of breathing in, out return.

On the morning of day three, I report to dokusan. There, bows done, seated before him, Roshi asks, “Mark, is it ever appropriate to take a crutch away from a cripple?” I hesitate. Then, with my mouth ready to open, ring-ring-ring goes Roshi’s little bell. We bow. I return to my mat and zafu. Where, yet again, I breathe in and out and do battle with the question about crutch.

Days 4 and five go much the same as did days 2 and 3. There is morning dokusan—bows, the question, a quick bell, and bows—then more in and out as I sit, walk, work, eat, and sleep. On day six, I awake ready. Sesshin ends tomorrow. Today, in dokusan, I will answer the question. When, the time arrives, alas there is no dokusan. Dejected, I sit on the zafu that sits on the mat and breathe in, out. If the crutch question surfaces I try my best to acknowledge, but not attach to it.

Morning passes to afternoon, and afternoon passes to evening. As they pass, I sit incredibly still, breath coming in and out. The question about the crutch is a distance presence in my mind. Suddenly, on my shoulder a gentle tap pulls me back. Report to dokusan!

Roshi and I bow to each other. I sit before him. He asks, ““So Mark, is it ever appropriate to take a crutch away from a cripple?” I say, “Yes.” He nods approvingly, but seems to want more. So I say, “When doing so helps the cripple walk.” Again, he nods. Sitting perfectly still, I look at him as he looks at me. Both sets of eyes become one. Then none. Time stops. In this vast quiet place, Roshi’s gentle, barely audible voice says, “Mark, how long? How long must you hold on?”

With those words, every failure, indignity, disappointment, loss, and insecurity of my life sweeps over me. The dreams that died painful deaths, relationships that fell apart, and botched up ventures, they all are here now. I am a cripple. These are my crutches. My attachment to them, and the pain and suffering they represent, is a feeble attempt to avoid new pain and additional suffering.

“Let go, Mark. Let go of your crutches!” Roshi says. “Time to move on. You have contributions to make.” At that moment I see how my attachments to the past, the crutches that I lean on to avoid pain, are keeping me out of the game of life. Getting off the sidelines, into the game, necessitates that I walk without crutches. I ache to join in, quit watching, to play again.

As the crutches—people, drama, power, and pain—fall away, tears flow freely. Emotions overwhelm me. I feel alive. I see the crutches for what they are, understand how I lean on them, and call each by its true name. Each, as I do, goes away. When all are gone, I breathe in and out effortlessly.

Stepping back, there are four things to know about crutches. There are times when crutches are necessary. For instance, when a crutch enables a man with incurable paralysis to be upright and mobile or a child with a disability to learn. Also, there are times when we need a temporary crutch, as in the case of a sprained ankle or death of a friend. When injury heals and pain subsides, the need for a crutch ends. Sometimes, when crutches are no longer necessary or needed, but still used, they limit growth or healing. Lastly, people, needs, and crutches must match. When they do not, new pains result or existing pains deflect elsewhere, perhaps surfacing as an addiction or other disorder. In these ways, crutches that do not fit, or are no longer needed, slow us down.

This lesson, while about crutches, is also about my skillful teacher. Who, when, I, on my own, could not detach from my crutches showed me where to look but not what to see. He asked the question, but did not provide the answer. He forced me to face myself, confront the things that I let hold me back, and in this uncomfortable place to find my way forward. When I looked where he pointed me, I saw that I relied on the crutches, hated the sideline, and was ready to walk on to the field. Moreover, my true practice is more than breathing in and out, it is doing so while dealing with the pain and suffering of my life.

I invite you to take up the question that my beloved Roshi would not let me ignore—Is it ever appropriate to take a crutch away from a cripple? Go where the question takes you. Engage with the cripple that you find there. Look deeply at the crutches that keep the cripple there. What you see, will set you free.

Mark 


Note: This is the 14th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

HANGING IN THE BALANCE – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.

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Aunt Francine, Aunt Francine…Mark Edward is coming,” yells Julie as she runs from her upstairs bedroom to the first floor living room of her Aunt’s house. I, oblivious to the goings-on inside, pedal my bicycle straight through the puddles that dot the lane that perpendicularly connects Francine’s house with Highway 2 west of Corydon, Iowa.

Inside, Julie looking out the living room window, her Aunt looking over her shoulder, says, “Look at him!  All arms, legs, and feet…a knight charging to save the damsel.” I, pedaling up the lane, wet from the rain on this gray day, have a pack on my back. I feel like a rode hard, put up wet mule. In the pack, wrapped in plastic, are quilting materials for the project that Mom and Francine are doing on behalf of the Women’s Circle of the United Methodist Church.

Though unsophisticated in the ways of women, I realize my trip here is about more than the delivery of materials for the project. It is a mere contrivance that brings Julie and me together. I am okay with this…but certainly do not say so to Mom. Being with Julie, even in contrived circumstances, is something I enjoy.

Julie, a city girl, here to live with her Aunt, makes me think about things I never think about. I, a small town boy, who loves the outdoors, am proud to show Julie a world she never dreamt of seeing. When together—thinking and showing—we run, laugh, have fun, and sometimes shed some tears. The thought of being with Julie this afternoon excites me.

After leaning my bike against the front step, I reach to knock on the door to the house. Before knuckles hit wood, the door swings opens. Opposite me stands Miss Francine, with Julie—jeans, plaid blouse, ringlets, and bauble—by her side. Pulling me in, out of the rain, Francine hands me a towel. Then says, “Julie, please take Mark Edward’s pack up to my sewing room, then join us in the kitchen.”

I feel a strange, dark foreboding as Francine leads me to the kitchen. While she piles fresh baked chocolate chip cookies on a plate and pours three glasses of milk, I wonder what the foreboding might mean. When Julie sits down beside me, poof, the dark thoughts evaporate.

As I munch a cookie, Francine thanks me for trekking out here in the rain. I say, “No problem, it’s a fun adventure.” When she asks about Mom, Dad, and Pamela. I put my second cookie back on the plate then provide a terse summary about Mom and Dad…not Pamela. Francine, sensing my discomfort, starts talking about what she and Julie have been up to. Finished with the second cookie, now munching on a third, I hear about their shopping trip to Centerville, a movie matinee last Sunday in Corydon, and the usual gardening, sewing, cooking, and cleaning stuff, that women do, about which I have little interest. Nothing to say, and no room for a fourth cookie, I look at Julie.

“Let’s go play in the barn,” says Julie. At that, I offer up my best thank-you-for-the cookies to Miss Francine, finish my milk, stand, then head to the back door. There, Julie waits for me, umbrella in hand.

As Julie and I walk side-by-side toward the barn, she reaches high to hold the umbrella over us. The barn, having seen better days, still works. Its four sides and a hip roof adequately protect the livestock from the wind and keep the dirt floor and a hayloft dry. An intense rain, quick series of lightning flashes, and thunder rumbles announce our arrival. The pungent smell of livestock, manure, and hay welcomes us as we step through the door into the barn.

Julie, city-girl-cautious where she steps, proceeds to show me around. A roost of chickens there, two milk cows through here, a group of hogs over there, and…. Oh, no, a dead cat, from the looks of her, a mother. My first thought is about the foreboding I felt earlier. I, at once, am sad, awestruck, and relieved.

Julie, a tear in her eye, wanting to care for the cat starts to kneel down. Before her knees touch the ground, a soft, delicate meow sifts down from the loft causing Julie to pause. Another meow follows, and yet another. Julie stands up. I spring to the ladder and start climbing. She hangs back, apprehensive…I note curiously.

In the loft, 25 feet above, the meows pull me to a litter of five orange, tan, and black balls of fluff—kittens. “Julie, over here,” I say as she crosses the ladder’s crest. “They miss their mother.” Julie walks ever so cautiously along the loft’s edge.

Lightning, a clap of thunder, a scream, suddenly, there is no Julie. I go to the edge. Afraid, I force myself to look over. There, a few feet below, upside down, hem of her left pants leg impaled on a large, rusty, four-sided nail, hangs Julie, unconscious. Loose arms and limp hair dangling downward, if she moves, surely the hem or nail will give way, reuniting Julie with her beloved bauble, next to the dead cat, on the hardpan floor more than 25 feet below. Acting, not thinking, with both hands I reach over the loft’s edge, grab Julie’s ankle with strength from I know not where, pulling her up and over the edge.

Sitting on the floor of the loft, sweat drenched, my heart beats faster than it has ever beaten before. Julie’s near lifeless head rests on my lap; her limp body leans on my dirty pants leg. Looking at her pale, clammy skin and watching her shallow breathing, I think about the apprehension she felt about coming up here. I ponder the foreboding I felt earlier. Must this have happened? Minutes pass, her eyelids flutter. Seconds pass, an exhale follows.

“What happened?” asks Julie. As the rain patters on the metal roof, I answer her question. Quietly, we decompress. The enormity of Julie’s near death sits silently with us. The meows of the motherless kittens’ are the only punctuation.

“Mark, I want to tell you something,” says Julie. “Promise me you won’t tell a single soul. Not even Aunt Francine.” When I promise, she tells me that her parents are divorcing. Her mother, wanting to straighten out her life, sent Julie to live with Francine for the summer. When Julie goes home it will be to a new house—a new life.

“Dad is not always nice to my Mom…” Julie says. When she leaves it at that, I remember Mom talking about a neighbor family in which the dad was “not nice to the mom”. Their two children are my friends. We talk. I understand what not nice entails.

“I fear for my Mother, “ Julie says. “ I’ve heard nothing from her since I got here.” Here, Julie is safe from the situation back home. Soon she must return there. She will be vulnerable. And I will be here, unable to protect her. I fear for Julie. As I do, I realize that Julie has a special place in my heart.

As I walk home, the rain stops. The wheels in my head are turning faster than those of my bicycle. Over my shoulder, I glimpse back at Julie, in an open doorway, watching me walk down the lane. When I turn left on Highway 2, back to Corydon, I am alone.

On this trip to Heartland, the memory that awaits me is about contrivances, kittens, and the near death of my  friend. The memory reminds me to share my feelings. When I do not share my feelings contrivances occur, such as the get-together for Julie and me. Likewise with my foreboding, Julie’s apprehension, and the incident in the barn. What difference might giving voice to them have made?  As for our exchange in the loft, I never share it with anyone. I am confident Julie did not either. What risks did we take?

Now looking back, I see that each of us deals with big issues. For me it was my sister Pamela, for Julie her parents. Many of us chose to keep our big issues secret. When we do, our lives hang in the balance. And sometimes, as with Julie, we end up hanging by a hem.


Note: This is the 19th post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.