One Lace Tablecloth

My grandma loved to crochet. Once, during a visit to Iowa with my dad in the late 90s, I admired the lace tablecloth on her table. “Oh, do you like it?” she said. “I’ll make you one.”

I cherished the offer. Still, that was the visit in which she kept forgetting that I’d already eaten breakfast. She repeatedly asked if I wanted certain household items that she and Grandpa weren’t using anymore, and although I gave the same answer every time, it didn’t seem familiar to her. She often seemed a little perplexed over references to conversations from within the past hour. Eventually my eyes locked with my dad’s in silent acknowledgment that we could no longer hope that Alzheimer’s would withhold its sinister fingers from her. So I knew that she would not remember her offer to make me a tablecloth, let alone be able to undertake such a project, despite a decades-long history of skillful needlework.

On the plane back to Michigan, I mulled over the visit and Alzheimer’s and her offer and her many previous crochet projects. A few days later, she phoned: What were the dimensions of my table? What color thread did I prefer—white or ecru? And the following week, the same phone call. And then another. Each time I answered the questions, surprised that she had not forgotten the tablecloth, each time knowing that creating an intricate crocheted tablecloth would be too confusing for her at this point.

A few weeks after the last phone call, I received a package. It was the lace tablecloth. Behold:

tablecloth

My grandma died 10 years ago tonight. I miss her.

She loved crocheting, birds, the color blue, and beautiful things. She took joy in feeding others—in feeding them lavishly. (Lavishly, I assure you.) This year’s Thanksgiving dinner featured two of her famous pies (peach cream and apple), compliments of my sisters, and everybody got all excited.

She wrote regular letters to my sisters and me when we were kids, telling of farming and church dinners and birds and coffee with her sisters and the upcoming Tulip Festival and construction on the highway and that Gramp said to say hi. Of family reunions and upcoming visits, and what would we like for dinner when we came? She often included newspaper clippings: “Thought you would like this,” she’d pen on the clipping in her distinctive handwriting. Or, “This reminds me of you.” Her letters invariably included three sticks of Juicy Fruit, one for each granddaughter. (In the winter the gum had grown brittle from traveling for days in the cold; in the summer it would be melted and we’d have to put it in the freezer for a while if we didn’t want to have to scrape it off the wrapper.)

Grandpa and Grandma had two sons. I often wish I could compare “mother of two sons” stories with her. Ask what she would do. Inquire whether her experiences had been similar. Laugh and shake our heads together.

She once mentioned that when my dad and uncle were young, the TV would mysteriously break on the first day of summer vacation and not work again until the first day of school. It’s hard to imagine what was on TV in the 1950s Iowa that would inspire her to divest the television of its tube for the entire summer. Didn’t they only have three channels back then? Surely not all of the few options would have even appealed to kids. Surely my dad’s and uncle’s indulgence in TV would have been minimal anyway. But long before “screen time” was even a term, she hacked it off at the knees. Even a meager amount would not be allowed to muddle up an Iowa summertime. So I probably wouldn’t need to ask her opinion on today’s “screen time” practices.

I would like to ask her if people ever told her that she should add a girl or two to the family, and if the implication that two boys weren’t good enough irritated her. But knowing her, she probably didn’t care about other people’s opinions on this topic.

I would like to tell her of the time Ace took a toad into the house and of his passionate protests as I chased them both back outside (“I only lost him once so far, and it’s okay because he didn’t poop!”), and then wait for her to tell me a story like it.

I would like to tell her of Sonny’s extensive rock collection—none of the rocks may be discarded (none of them), because one is shaped like Australia, and another probably contains gold, and one of them sparkles and it’s so cool, and that one is a souvenir from our vacation. All of them (all of them) are special. I’d like to tell her about this and then listen as she tells a similar tale.

I would like to ask her at what point in any particular ruckus she’d kick her sons outside. (Even if it was snowing hard. Not that I’ve ever done that.)

I would like to ask her whether she ever stood outside her sons’ bedroom at night, listening to their whispers and soaking up their brotherhood.

She would write letters to Sonny and Ace, and tucked along with the letter would be two pieces of Juicy Fruit and several newspaper clippings (do they still make those?) telling of toads and snakes and rocks. “This reminds me of you,” she’d note.

The evening after she died, J and I attended a performance of Handel’s Messiah, its significance magnified and resonating among my swirling memories and emotions. Maybe someday the Messiah will cease to remind me of her, but that day has not yet come.

I wish she could have known Sonny and Ace and that they could have known her. But this morning I showed them the lace tablecloth and explained how it came to be. On the way to school we talked about Grandma some more. (“Tell the story about the huge lunches she packed that week she babysat you and your sisters!”) And tonight I played selections from Handel’s Messiah and told them the words were true.

I look at the tablecloth, and I hear her words from the newspaper clippings: “This reminds me of you.” I hear the Messiah: “This reminds me of you.”

Lots of things remind me of her, and for that I am thankful. Especially tonight.

 

The Elephant of Brotherhood

Sonny was seething. “Ace is saying yes like a parrot! And h­­­e keeps saying it! Just to annoy me!”

“Yes. Yesss.­ YES!”

“Ace! Stop!”

“Yeesss,” squawked Ace, encouraged. “Yeess!”

Cognizant of the need for a tactical change, Sonny dipped into his own arsenal.

“Yawn,” he said. “Yawn!”

Ace, who hates the word yawn because it makes him yawn, erupted in fury. Explosive, yawning fury. But he did stop saying yes like a parrot.

Brotherhood: feelings of friendship, support, and understanding between people. (Merriam-Webster)

One wonders how many sets of brothers Noah Webster researched before penning his definition. Or what they were doing at the time. Evidently they weren’t kicking the back of someone’s seat in the carpool, driving hard bargains in a Halloween candy swap, or splitting hairs over whose Lego that is and whose job it therefore is to pick it up. It seems that any number of definitions would fit the bill.

Sonny: You know I don’t like it when you call me “dude”!

Ace: Well. You know I don’t like it when you say you don’t like it when I call you “dude.”

Brotherhood: the rapid exchange of accusations.

Sonny: Can I look at your new book?

Ace: Yes. But just for a minute. And don’t read the words; just look at the pictures. You’re not reading the words, are you? Don’t read them! Just look at the pictures!

Brotherhood: needless tantalization.

Sonny: Ace, when we are grown-ups, you can come to my house every week. We’ll watch the ball game and have chips and cheese.

Ace: I will be there.

Brotherhood: shared dreams.

Ace: Sonny, in real life you will always be my sidekick, but in the movie I’m making you won’t show up until Episode 3.

Brotherhood: simultaneous injections of confidence and humility.

Ace, for 36 of the 40 minutes of the soccer game, very loudly. (Very.): “Go, Orange Dragons! Go, Orange Dragons! Go, Orange Dragons! Why isn’t anyone else cheering? Go, Orange Dragons!”

Brotherhood: unbridled fandom.

Sonny: Ace, probably the reason he keeps pushing you is that he is frustrated that he doesn’t speak English yet . . . but he still shouldn’t push.

Brotherhood: wisdom and comfort.

Ace: My friends thought Sonny had been lying when he told us it was raining, but I told them he wasn’t.

Brotherhood: fierce loyalty.

Sonny: I miss Grandpa.

Ace: So do I.

Brotherhood: shared grief.

Ace: My favorite part of staying at the cottage was building stuff on the beach.

Sonny: Mine too! And swimming!

Brotherhood: shared memories.

Sonny: Three cheers for that pumpkin!

Sonny and Ace, in unison and laughter: Hip!

Brotherhood: shared humor.

Ace: Do you like pepperoni or sausage better?

Sonny: Actually, Ace, pepperoni is a type of sausage.

Brotherhood: pedantry.

Sonny: Ace, do you want half of my treat? I think you would like it.

Brotherhood: generosity (albeit sporadic).

Sonny: The Green Bay Packers are the best team ever!
Ace: They are . . . after the Lions.

Brotherhood: smack talk.

Sonny: Let’s leave this where Mom will find it.

Ace: Yes! It will give her the heebie-jeebies!

Brotherhood: the homing in on a common target.

How does one distill brotherhood into one succinct definition? Is there even a workable definition or, like the Indian tale of the six blind men describing an elephant, does it depend on an isolated perception? Like humanity itself, it’s hard to sum up.

Brotherhood: a looming, extraordinary giant fashioned seamlessly from incongruent parts.

Brotherhood—loyalty, parrots, dreams, and all—it’s worth having. Keep it up, my sons.

What Surprises Them?

This past summer I was swimming with Sonny, Ace, and my niece and nephews at my sister’s neighborhood pool. After about an hour, Sonny issued a challenge: that I jump off the diving board, an idea well received by his cohorts. I had not jumped off a diving board in years (okay, decades) but why not?

Overestimating my level of trepidation, the five of them chanted “Do it! Do it! Do it!” in unison and shouted other encouragements as I approached the diving board. After walking the plank and stepping off, I surfaced to many congratulations.

“Good job, Aunt Laura!”

“Yay, Mom!”

“Wow!”

Huh. They seemed impressed. And astonished.

So against my better judgment, I asked the obvious: “Did you think I would be too scared to do that?”

Smiles and sidelong glances.

“Did you? You can tell me.”

“Well,” one of the kids said gently. “It wasn’t as bad as you thought, was it?”

I was much amused by their assumption. And touched by their encouragement and support when they thought I was trying something new and scary. Oh, and mildly chagrined that I’d evidently been presenting myself as wholly unadventurous.

Since then, Sonny and Ace have been surprised over many things I’ve done. Among them:

  • Singing along to “Take a Chance on Me,” a song they didn’t know.
  • Fixing the toilet.
  • Reciting the Preamble to the Constitution.
  • Answering “Buenos tardes, Mom!” with “And good afternoon to you!”
  • Successfully and without hesitation operating a VCR (a.k.a. “old fashioned DVD player”). Bonus points for knowing at a glance that the tape had to be rewound. (And yes, I had to explain what “rewind” meant.)
  • Hitting a baseball.
  • Firing up a gas grill.
  • Identifying Bugs Meany as the antagonist in the Encyclopedia Brown.

And so on. Each time I was somewhat surprised at their surprise, although how could they know that any of these were in my wheelhouse if I’d never shown them?

Recently, after I was short-tempered all day for reasons that were not good enough, Sonny asked me for a small kindness. When I complied, surprise flashed briefly in his eyes. Given the day we’d had, his surprise was justified, but still . . . realizing that your kid is surprised by your kindness feels much worse than knowing he is surprised that you were not too chicken to jump off a diving board. Kindness, willingness to give a little time or to listen, patience—these should not be dumped in the vicinity of Abba lyrics, Encyclopedia Brown characters, toilet repair, and diving board mettle to be trotted out seldom enough to surprise others. Even on a bad day.

Know what’s disconcerting? To ask yourself whether your kids (or others) would be more surprised if you showed kindness or harshness, kindness or impatience, kindness or sarcasm, kindness or selfishness. Even on a bad day.

“Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.” – Mother Teresa

Best-Laid Plans for This School Year: Only Slightly Awry (So Far)

One day early last spring I waited for Sonny to jump out of my vehicle in the drop-off line. He hesitated. “Mom,” he said. “Are you sure that today is Pajama Day?”

“Yes!” I said, feigning certainty, because suddenly I was not sure—not at all sure—that that day was Pajama Day; why hadn’t I written it down? Was I sealing my place in the Annals of Incompetent Parenting by sending my kid to school in printed fleece and bright waffle weave on Not Pajama Day? As I watched him trot into school clutching his stuffed animal and pillow (recommended accessories for Pajama Day), I prayed that I would not very soon receive a phone call from an irate first grader requesting street clothes.

I lucked out. No phone call. It was, in fact, Pajama Day.

Thankful to have dodged a bullet, I vowed to be more organized. Maybe I’d start keeping one of those acclaimed master calendars.

A few weeks later my cell phone went missing. I’d had it earlier in the morning and hadn’t gone anywhere where I could have lost it. I called it a few times from the land line, hoping to track it by its ring, but no luck. Eventually a Facebook message arrived from someone at school. “Your phone is in Ace’s lunchbox.”

Well, that wasn’t embarrassing in the least. (PSA: When you are hastily packing your kids’ lunches, do not pick up your phone—or anything else of importance, presumably—while doing so, lest you drop your phone into the lunchbox along with the apple that you are holding in the same hand. In my defense, it was 6:30ish o’clock and two kids were holding separate conversations with me at the same time.)

And I vowed again to be more organized.

These were not necessarily isolated incidents. But the 2015-2016 school year would go more smoothly—I was sure of that.

Fast-forward to July, Sonny’s and Ace’s school supply lists, which had arrived in the mail a month earlier, were waiting for attention on my desk. Recalling my earnest vows, I decided to shop early this year. Why wait until two days before school started? Why risk having to (again) make an eleventh-hour stop at an office supply store to hunt down that one elusive supply that Target didn’t have on hand? I stuffed them in my purse, and we headed to WalMart, feeling much affinity with those people who finish their Christmas shopping before Halloween.

Crayons: Check!

Twelve pencils (sharpened): Check!

Dry-erase markers (at least three): Check!

Water bottle (leak-proof): Check!

Pencil box: Check!

And so on. Until . . .

Yellow plastic two-pocket folder: WalMart didn’t have those. Red, green, or blue plastic folders—yes. Yellow paper folders—yes. But not yellow plastic. Oh well. We had plenty of time to avoid a last-minute stop at the store on the way to school.

At home I went to sort the supplies into separate bags for Sonny and Ace. Evidently the school supply lists had been left at the store, however. Which kid’s list included Kleenex? Which included fat markers? Child-sized scissors (labeled with initials)? Finally I consulted a friend, who directed me to the supply lists buried deeply on the school’s web site.

I sorted the supplies accordingly, well before the deadline, just like Organized People would. And couple weeks later, when we found ourselves in the vicinity of Staples, we ran popped in and purchased a yellow plastic two-pocket folder. School shopping: Complete, weeks ahead of time!

Since we will be unable to attend the school open house this year, we arranged to drop off the supplies last week. When it was time to leave I quickly checked the supply bags against the lists one more time. Everything was accounted for, except the yellow plastic folder.

“Sonny? Where is that yellow folder for school?”

He had no idea.

I had no idea.

We headed out with our incomplete stockpile and stopped at two stores before finding a yellow plastic two-pocket folder.

School starts the day after Labor Day. Despite my vows, this year will probably go much like other years—which means we will make it through despite inevitable kerfluffles. But I’m writing down Pajama Day this year, just in case, and keeping my phone away from lunch-packing. And next time I see yellow plastic two-pocket folders in a store, I’m stocking up. They can be hard to come by.

Sixteen Insights from Children’s Books, with Apologies to the Bobbseys

I loved my grandparents’ house for many reasons. Crafts, Boggle games, the pond, the swings, strawberry plants, the cookie jar (thoughtfully located in a lower cupboard, accessible to even the youngest child), croquet, the purple tandem bike, and, of course, Grandpa and Grandma. I also loved the book stash. Grandma was both the church librarian and a school librarian, and, as such, inherited custody of the cast-off books. Although most had achieved their “withdrawn” status by becoming almost too tattered to read, they were still readable as long as one kept track of the molted pages. Walter the Lazy Mouse, Pippi Longstocking, the book about the bunnies and the weasel (I forgot the title): I loved them all.

Well, almost all. Love doesn’t describe my opinion of the elderly copies of The Bobbsey Twins. These books held enough of my interest for me to scan them, but little more. It wasn’t the adventures I found so implausible (although for a family from the early part of the 20th century they were suspiciously well-traveled) but the four protagonists themselves. Such goody-goodies. Seldom was their behavior inappropriate, and when it was, they repented immediately and with great remorse.

These “four youngsters” were what teachers would call “a good example to others.” They often smacked of a lesson. Let’s just all acknowledge that few books that trot out lessons are enjoyable literature.

I much preferred Pippi.

Still, many beloved children’s books do contain a bit of wisdom—not that which clobbers kids with the sense that they should emulate Freddie and Flossie and their ilk, but a gentler variety, subtly woven into the story. They offer insights that I hope penetrate my kids’ outlook on others, themselves, and life in general.

Insights such as these:

1.  “The world is full of talkers, but it is rare to find anyone who listens. And I assure you that you can pick up more information when you are listening than when you are talking.” The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White.

2.  “All children have gifts; some open them at different times.” Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco.

3.  “You can be happy and sad at the same time, you know. It just happens that way sometimes.” The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norton Juster.

4.  “Sometimes when you’re different you just need a different song.” Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae.

5.  “‘Why did you do all this for me?’ he asked. ‘I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.’ ‘You have been my friend,’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.” Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White.

6.  “[May] understood people and she let them be whatever way they needed to be. She had faith in every single person she ever met, and this never failed her, for nobody ever disappointed May. Seems people knew she saw the very best of them, and they’d turn that side to her to give her a better look.” Missing May by Cynthia Rylant.

7.  “Today was a difficult day. Tomorrow will be better.” Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes.

8.  “Olivia’s mother gives her a kiss and says, ‘You know, you really wear me out. But I love you anyway.’” Olivia by Ian Falconer.

9.  “They were two close friends sitting alone together.” Days with Frog and Toad by Arnold Loebel.

10.  “’I like it better here, where I can just sit quietly and smell the flowers.’ Ferdinand’s mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.” The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf.

11.  “I’ve heard tell that what you imagine sometimes comes true.” Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.

12.  “How can we feel so different and be so alike?” Stellaluna by Janell Cannon.

13.  “Talent is something rare and beautiful and precious, and it must not be allowed to go to waste.” The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden.

14.  “You never fill your own bucket when you dip into someone else’s.” Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud.

15.  [On the closing of a library] “There will be consequences!” Aunt Chip and the Triple Creek Dam Affair by Patricia Polocco.

16.  “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia.” The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.

Inspired by these and similar quotations worth pondering, I asked Sonny and Ace what they had learned from books. Surely one of their favorite stories had offered some epiphany on the human experience. Surely they had not only subconsciously internalized wisdom such as the aforementioned but even consciously reflected on a worthwhile message or two.

And they had. Both spoke up promptly.

Sonny: “I learned that before the Lions were a Detroit team, they played in Ohio and were called the Spartans.”

Ace: “I learned that Zane, the White Ninja, is also known as the Titanium Ninja.” *

Fair enough. Read on, everyone, and learn what you will. Enjoy your books.

*He then proceeded to deliver a Ninjago quiz, which I failed miserably.

 

My Circus. My Monkeys.

“Another rule for when we get a pet monkey is that if it’s ever sitting on the ceiling fan, we shouldn’t turn on the fan.”

Sonny added this rule to the list that he and Ace, ever the optimists, were evidently formulating, while I tried to even fathom such an idea. Pet monkey? What? No! No pet monkey, ever!

At the same time, I wasn’t sure that the acquisition of a pet monkey would alter our household as much as one might expect. This is probably not a good thing to admit, but it’s true. Just to check, I asked Sonny and Ace how they thought a life might be different if we acquired a monkey.

“A monkey would mess up the bathroom!”

Have they seen our bathroom lately? (I will spare you the details. You’re welcome.) Just last week I told J that cleaning the bathroom was the exemplification of futility.
“We would have to buy a lot of bananas.”

The large bunch of bananas I purchased five days ago lasted less than three days. Except, of course, the one with the squished top, and with our luck any monkey we adopted wouldn’t deign to eat it, either.

“It would play tricks on us.”

Yesterday Sonny called me over to (ostensibly) check out one of the perennials he was watering, and when I approached he gleefully sprayed me with the hose. The day before, Ace crouched in quiet wait behind the couch until I settled in with my book, at which time he leaped up and yelled “Boo!” Whenever we are waiting for a visitor, repairperson, or package delivery, one of the boys sneaks outside to ring the doorbell to prematurely lure me to the door.

“A monkey would make weird noises.”

This from the kid who talks like Minion for hours on end? His definition of “weird noises” must be much narrower than mine.

“A monkey would get dirty. All the time, it would be dirty.”

This summer’s go-to pastime is digging in the barren patch between the driveway and the flower bed. Sonny and Ace have carved out a large river system, complete with an island (with its own lake), and fill it with water almost daily. Don’t think for a second that my kids try to sidestep the resulting mud.

“We could teach it to do chores. But . . . maybe it wouldn’t want to do them, always.”

Ahem.

“We’d have lots of fun this summer if we had a monkey.”

Swimming lessons, days with cousins, VBS, camping, biking with friends to the park, visiting grandparents, the ice cream parlor, the library, Little League. Legos, Nerf guns, Elephant and Piggie, helpless laughter. Roasting marshmallows. Scooters, bikes. The beach, the splash pad, duct tape. Tickling contests. Digging in the dirt, spraying Mom with the hose.

My circus. My monkeys.

And they don’t even sit on the ceiling fan.

I’ll keep them.

What Teachers Teach, Measured or Not

Sonny and Ace’s school is wrapping up the latest round of standardized testing for this academic year. Sonny and Ace aren’t old enough yet to worry about the process or their results. Sonny rather enjoyed the testing, in fact—or rather, he enjoyed his class’s pre-testing “brain breakfasts” to fuel minds (and tummies) for clear thinking. He also looked forward to the occasional appearance on the screen of the wagging cartoon dog that said, “Good job!” Ace didn’t mind the tests, either, once assured that testing time would not conflict with gym class. He mainly looked forward to wearing the big headphones.

These tests measured their mastery of math and reading, both obviously crucial to educational success. They are assumed to reflect a teacher’s effectiveness. But while they may reveal some truth about a teacher’s influence, they do not tell the whole truth.

_ _ _

I stared at the lopsided circle of blue crayon around the whale picture on the worksheet. The class had been instructed to circle the things that started with K. Oops. I made my way to new kindergarten teacher, wondering how she would respond to someone who failed to follow directions. “I made a mistake,” I confessed, pointing out the whale. She waved away my concern. “That’s okay!” she said, smiling.

My kindergarten teacher taught me that it’s okay to make mistakes.

A classmate held up his hands, which were smudged with brilliant, deep blues and pinks and greens. “This chalk is messy! It’s even on my shirt!” He looked expectantly at our neat, orderly teacher, obviously hoping to be liberated from the art project. Our neat, orderly teacher cast him a sympathetic smile. “Doing art is messy sometimes,” she explained. “We just enjoy it and clean up afterward.”

My first-grade teacher taught me that the lack of neatness and order in creative endeavors is not a shortcoming.

“She is very strict,” an older girl warned me toward the end of the summer. I envisioned a year in a classroom run by a drill sergeant. Fantastic.

A few weeks later, I slumped down at my desk, having sneezed and coughed my way through the day, hating the story about locomotives that we were reading aloud. When the story (finally!) ended, the teacher approached my desk and knelt beside me. I looked at her warily, certain that I was about to be told to sit up straight or throw away my pile of used Kleenex. “You don’t feel good today, do you?” she asked. “How about I ask your grandma [the school secretary] to drive you home so you won’t have to ride the bus?” And she did.

My second-grade teacher taught me that people often transcend their reputations.

“Here we come!” “Where from?” “New Orleans!” “What’s your trade?” “Lemonade . . .”

When it was her turn for recess duty, kids from every grade flocked to her to play “New Orleans” and other games from her endless supply. We loved her turns for recess duty, when nobody felt unwelcome on the playground. We loved being in her classroom. She was gentle, creative, fair, and relentlessly patient. She was fun. She never rushed. Did she ever raise her voice or even convey irritation, even to repeat offenders? I don’t think so.

My third-grade teacher taught me that kindness and patience effect genuine respect in a way that harshness never can.

Every Friday morning my fourth-grade classroom rocked with the singing of old songs, enthusiastic piano accompaniment courtesy of the teacher. This same teacher often entertained us with stories about his childhood on a farm with his many siblings; he didn’t have to spell out how much he cherished it these memories—his face told us that. At a time when end-of-the-year class picnics were being replaced with skating parties, he invited our class to ride bikes from school to his house in the country, where we enjoyed an old-fashioned picnic, complete with sack races and swimming in the creek. On that afternoon we were as carefree as any kid from a previous generation would have been.

My fourth-grade teacher taught me the power of well-placed nostalgia.

It happens every autumn the morning after the first hard freeze: I step outside and am visited by poetry: “When the frost is on the punkin’ and the fodder’s in the shock . . .” Poppies incite a similar phenomenon—“In Flanders fields, the poppies blow . . .”—as does any mention of Abraham Lincoln’s death: “O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done . . .” In fifth-grade we memorized this poetry, despite memorization’s falling out of fashion in educational circles.

My fifth-grade teacher taught me the beauty and inspiration of poetry and its power to make connections. He taught me to ignore the claim that memorization is a meaningless parlor trick devoid of real value.

My sixth-grade teacher was a man of high academic standards and stern repute. He marched us through a long list of Newbery books—the more serious ones, such as Adam of the Road and The Trumpeter of Krakow—and tested us after each one. If the B was too creatively formed on the word abjurer, he would mark the correctly-spelled word wrong on the spelling test, claiming that letter wasn’t a real B. (Ask me how I know this.) He liberally doled out “lines” to wayward students, and don’t think that such students would be lucky enough to escape with, for example, writing “I will not be disrespectful” 50 times. Instead he would write on the board for the guilty party to copy—and the rest of us to gawk at—a “line” along the lines of “I will cease and desist my display of abominable attitude post haste and endeavor to maintain impeccable behavior forthwith as becoming my position as a student who is striving to mature and to increase in decorum.” The culprit would turn pale, the rest of us would vow never to risk being assigned such an atrocity, and we’d all learn new vocabulary. Win, win, win! (For him.)

But after lunch he would read aloud the more hilarious Newberys such as Porko Van Popbutton and other purely entertaining books, such as those featuring Soup and Rob. When we’d howl over Soup’s joke about peeing, he’d laugh along with us.

My sixth-grade teacher taught me that even those with serious academic standards need not eschew lighthearted fare.

 – – –

Whether standardized tests are an accurate measure of educational quality, whether they are fair across socio-economic lines, and whether they reflect the effectiveness of teachers—who knows. What I do know is this: even the best tests, standardized or otherwise, do not fully measure a teacher’s worth.

They do not measure how Sonny’s teacher, Mrs. K., is detail-oriented and highly organized while remaining calm and flexible. They do not measure the personalized notes she regularly writes to students praising their accomplishments and efforts—notes that at least one of her students saves in his desk drawer at home. They do not measure how she captures students’ attention by singing instructions to them, her unruffled classroom management, or the affection with which she greets students each morning and bids them farewell in the afternoon, often praising them for a specific job well done that day. They do not measure her thoughtfulness and foresight in arranging for brain breakfasts before standardized testing.

They do not measure how on the first day of school when Ace panicked at my leaving him, Mrs. C. distracted him with a conversation about frogs, recalling from his getting-to-know-me letter that he loves frogs. They do not measure how she allowed him call me from the classroom when he lost his first tooth. They do not measure her high expectations for behavior or the students’ rising to those expectations. They do not measure the bird calls she has taught students to identify. They do not measure how she launches each morning with a positive spin by inviting students to share their latest good news. They do not measure her tricks for helping young children learn to pronounce TH properly instead of as an F sound, nor do they measure a five-year-old student’s elation over wearing her insect-vision goggles during the Insect unit so that he could better pretend to be a bumblebee.

The tests  measure math and reading, unarguably important, but they do not measure everything. No test can accurately measure the scope of a teacher’s effectiveness. And that’s okay, as long as nobody pretends that it can.

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”  — Albert Einstein

Teachers, math and reading count. But so do these other things—immensely. They matter, and they last. For all you teach, thank you.