Civil Rights Movement Subverts Teachers & Administrators!

I’m a white guy who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, during the Civil Rights era. I remember “Coloreds Only” signs over water fountains, restrooms, and waiting rooms. I remember segregated schools. I remember one day per week (Wednesdays) dedicated to “Coloreds Only” at the local amusement park.  I remember the fear and violence:  Selma’s Bloody Sunday, fire hoses mowing down black children in the park, murderous Klan bombings. I wasn’t quite ten years old, but it’s all knifed forever in my memory.

Now, more than half a century later, I teach eighth grade at a racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse middle school in a Birmingham suburb. Every year I take my students on a field trip to Birmingham’s Civil Rights District where they tour Kelly Ingram Park, site of the infamous high-pressure firehoses and gnarling police dogs; 16th Street Baptist Church, where four girls died at the hands of a Klan-planted bomb; and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute where a variety of exhibits are meant to weave meaning and context into what can seem an insane chapter of American history.

When we first started these field trips, I got a huge rush out of bringing a racially diverse group of young people to Ground Zero of the very movement that made our very diverse school possible. At first, my ego ballooned every time a student exclaimed, “Wow, Mr. Stephens, you actually remember this stuff!”

But within a couple of years, this wore off. Reading my students’ post-field-trip essays, I saw that they might as well have been about the conquests of Alexander the Great. The Civil Rights movement was for my students—even my students of color—a distant tiny island in the vast sea of history. It simply did not engage them.

At first I chastised their insensitivity to the sacrifices of life and blood that had made possible our diverse classroom and our friendships across racial and ethnic borders. “You have NO appreciation,” I bellowed, “for what those marchers and activists gave up for YOU!”  An African-American girl rolled her eyes and said, “Mr. Stephens, you sound just like my grandmamma!”

In time I calmed down and admitted I was expecting too much from my students. After all, these are kids who can’t imagine a planet without smartphones.

Then I remembered a mostly ignored admonition from one of America’s greatest teachers—John Dewey. Teachers must not, he said, start “with ready-made subject matter…irrespective of [the student’s] direct personal experience of a situation.” [Democracy and Education, 1916; p.90 ]. In other words, Dewey believed that ALL teaching should meet students in the midst of their own experience rather than that of the teacher (or textbook).

I saw now the futility in my expecting students to engage the Civil Rights movement in the same intensity with which I engage it. I had failed to notice that, while the movement was a direct experience for me, it wasn’t really an experience at all for the kids in my classes. Still, I argued with myself, the movement is important to the lives of these kids. And they should know this!

Then John Dewey’s voice whispered to me from across a century, “Why don’t you help your students learn that importance by identifying their movement.” Dewey was telling me this: History—no matter which part of it—is absolutely worthless unless it offers practical advice to present experience.

So this year I changed my approach. About three weeks before the field trip, I started class discussions with this little monologue:

Every generation is born into a world that is shaped by the generations that came before it. And eventually the new generation starts to stand on their own little feet. They look around and say, “Okay, some of this stuff is cool. I like it. Good job, old folks!” But then the new generation begins to notice others things, and says, “Wait! What? Look at that over there. That’s not cool. That needs to be changed.”  And almost always, the older generations say, “Shut up. It is what it is. We made it, so you’re going to like it!”  But the younger generation says, “You’re not the boss of me! You can’t make me like it.”  And then the struggle begins.

 Now, you, my friends are that younger generation. You’ve come into a world pretty much shaped by old folks like me.  Tell me what you like and dislike about the world you’ve inherited.

Well, I learned that they’re big fans of technology—PlayStations, Xboxes, iPhones. Plus, they love the oldsters’ creation of Marvel and DC superheroes. And great job, old folks, on multi-function hand-held calculators. Also, hip-hop is a nice achievement.

After a while, I jumped back into the conversation:

Okay, now I want you to look around and talk about what you don’t like about this world you inherited. I want you to focus especially on injustice. I want you to think about those kids we read about in the 1963 Children’s March for Freedom. They weren’t completely different from you. There was stuff from the older generations that they liked—televisions, soul music, portable record-players [I had to explain that term], air-conditioning, etc. But then they started noticing the segregation, the racism, how they wouldn’t get the same chance as white kids, and they said, “This is an injustice. We don’t like this. We want to change this!”

 So look around you now.  What do you not like? What do you want to change in order to make the world a better, fairer place?

 At first, students spoke in general terms of topics you might find on a news site editorial page: racism, sexism, gender bias, climate change, etc. In time, though, their sense of injustice began to migrate from “out there” to “right here” in the school building.

The dress code is extreme, they said, and biased against females. LGBTQ students are ostracized and bullied. Some recounted perceptions of latent racism in the school. Eventually, they discussed the oppressive nature of present-day schooling, using terms like “prison” to describe their daily routine. “Teachers almost never ask us what we are interested in,” said one, “never what we want to learn.”  “True that!” said another, “it’s just a one-way conversation!” Several complained of having absolutely no downtime during their 7-plus hours at school. I suggested lunch as free time, and got this: “You tell us where to sit!  And you’re watching us the whole time! That’s not free time!”

In the following days, I challenged my students to choose one injustice from the several they had mentioned.  I let them work in groups to gather information on their chosen injustices.

As they did this, we discussed the Birmingham Children’s marches of 1963, noting that the participants were kids, many of whom were the ages of my students—some even younger—who had no official power: no vote, no voice, no money.  And yet they changed the world.  How did they do it?

This was the question my students would carry with them on the field trip. They would search the Civil Rights movement, asking this question and looking for patterns, plans, and strategies that would allow an initially powerless group of people—like my students themselves—to address and overcome injustice.

Following the field trip, my students morphed quickly into outraged activists. They saw similarities between the voiceless, powerless, predicament of African-American students of 50-plus years ago and their own sense of voicelessness and powerlessness in our school today. “Teachers and administrators really don’t treat us with respect. They treat us like punks who are guilty until proven innocent!”

I got nervous and went on the defensive, trying to convince them that the plight of black students in the 1960s was much worse than their own. They agreed with that, but they didn’t agree that they weren’t also deprived of certain rights and privileges: “Why is there absolutely no free time?” “Why can’t we choose what we want to learn about instead of having to learn only what the teacher cares about?”

I tried to explain gently that they were just fourteen years old and that maybe they weren’t ready to choose.

“Mr. Stephens, you’re sounding like Bull Connor.”

Then a student suggested a walk-out: “Look, there’s what…a thousand of us students here? And how many faculty? Not even a hundred. We could come up with some demands, tell the administration and faculty, and, if they say no, we can walk out.  Are they gonna put a thousand of us in I.S.S. or detention? They don’t have enough jail space!”

Oh my God, I thought, what am I doing?

And John Dewey’s voice returned to me, “Here’s what you’re doing: you’re leading these kids to the real meaning of the Civil Rights movement: removing injustices of the status quo. They’ve found a lesson in history and now they’re bringing it to the present!”

Yes, Professor Dewey, but what about my job?  I’m not sure tenure will protect me against the charge of fomenting an insurrection.

Graciously for my employment, all of this happened at the very end of the school year. A single week didn’t provide enough time for students to organize a walkout. So now, these young people are headed to high school. And in their eyes I see the fire of activism kindling in their hearts.

Should I warn the high school?

Nah.

A Sacred Place

Bill and I opened the door, took one step inside and were stopped in our tracks by laser beams shooting from more than a dozen eyes. While the juke box twanged on, the rest of time and space stood still. The pinball machine stopped its pinging and buzzing, the customers ceased their chatter.

About fifteen feet in front of us was a bar, stretching to half the size of the room—half its stools occupied by men who looked like steelworkers, all of whom had swiveled in our direction. Beyond them, a ruddy-faced bartender, squat, balding, wearing a condescending grin that seemed to ask, “What the hell has the cat dragged in now?”

I whispered to Bill, “I told ya this was a bad idea!”

We were standing inside Air Devil’s Inn on Taylorsville Road in Louisville, Kentucky. Bill and I were 24-year-old students at the nearby Presbyterian seminary. At least a dozen times we had passed this place on trips to and from the J-Town Lanes where we bowled for The Holy Rollers.

“Look at that place!” Bill had said the first time we passed it. “It’s the perfect dive bar! All closed-in, you know it’s dark inside. Cheap drinks, I bet.” Bill was from Buffalo, New York, where dive bars were a-dime-a-dozen and a way of life. I was from the buckle of the Bible Belt where Baptist ministers based pledge-drives on the quest to close bars and taverns. Though I was a young man of “drinking age,” I could still hear my mom’s voice pleading, “You got no business in a place like that.”

But Bill had worn me down. Earlier on this night, upon leaving the bowling alley, he had declared, “This is the night!  We’re going into that bar!”

And so here we were, inside the door of Air Devil’s Inn, frozen by a barrage of blue-collar glares. Then, after what seemed an eternity, the men at the bar turned back around, the pinball machine resumed its pinging and buzzing, and the bartender moved down the bar to serve a customer.

Bill moved toward the bar, and, against better judgment, I followed. We grabbed two stools. The bar was backed by a smudgy, wall-length mirror, off of which many laser-stares were ricocheting toward us.

One of the pinballers bellied up to our end of the bar and called out to the bartender, “Hey, Pops! Old Forrester!”  Shortly, the bartender ambled down to hand the guy his drink. He didn’t look our way.

Bill spoke up, “Hey, Pops.”

The bartender turned slowly, looked venomously at Bill, and said, “Do I know you?” Obviously, a rhetorical question. Not even a question. More a statement. Years later this moment would spring to mind when I first saw Robert De Niro ask menacingly, “You talkin’ to me?”

“Uh, I’m sorry, sir.” Bill muttered, “Can we get two beers?” Without asking what kind, without uttering a word, the bartender reached into the beer case, grabbed two cans of Falls City, and plopped them before us. Bill and I each put a dollar on the bar. The bartender looked at me, pointed to Bill, and sneered, “He’s payin’.” He went to the register, came back, slammed a dime down in front of Bill, and walked away.

Wide-eyed, Bill took the dime between thumb and forefinger, and whispered, “Holy shit! Forty-five cents a beer!” He dropped the dime back onto the bar, turned to me, eyes gleaming in excitement, and whispered, “Stephens, this is the pinnacle of irony! We’ve found heaven right here inside Air Devil’s Inn!”

We had several more. I don’t remember exactly what we paid for them. But I do recall that we left a one-hundred percent tip and still felt as if we’d made a steal.

And, yes, we came back and back and back and back and….  Soon, the laser-beam stares diminished, and we came to be greeted with smiles and head nods. We learned the names and stories of some of those bar-stool regulars who had been so daunting on that first night. We learned their joys and pains. We came to see them as fellow travelers. And the bartender? Well, he was Bobby Drene, a horse’s ass with a heart as big as a washtub. Bobby would occasionally slip me free drinks as a gesture of thanks for my listening to his frustrations, which needed expression after his having listened to so many others’ tales of woe.

Sometime, toward the end of my senior year, as I was perched at the bar after nearly all the customers had gone home, Bobby asked me, “Hey, preacher. If Jesus was to come to Louisville, where’d ya think he’d go first—up on the hill to your seminary or down here to Air Devil’s?”

I didn’t hesitate. I slapped the empty barstool next to me and said, “Right here!”

“That’s what I think, too.” Bobby said with a rare smile.

“But Bobby,” I said, “You oughta be nicer to him than you were to me and Bill.”

“Oh, I will. ‘cause he won’t look like a wall-eyed turd the way you and Billy did!” He cackled and I joined him.

Now, nearly forty years later, I’ve amended my opinion. Today I believe that Jesus was already there in that dark, smoky, pinball-pinging bar. Now I see quite clearly that I was always closer to Him when I was on an Air Devil’s barstool than I was seated in a seminary classroom.  One place was unavoidably real; the other was not. One place was sacred, the other—not so much.

Indeed, the pinnacle of irony.

My First Teacher

Last Thursday morning, minutes away from the first-period bell, I was in robot mode, punching pencils into the electric sharpener on the counter of my classroom. You see, experience has taught me to keep on hand a batch of ready-to-use #2s for those hapless souls who come to class sans writing instrument. (Colleagues chastise me for aiding and abetting student carelessness. “Make them sign the tardy log!” they bark.  “Punish them for their unpreparedness!” I did that for a while, but found it to have no effect on the more Mr. Magoo-ey of my students. In other words, the ones who are like me.)

As the pencil sharpener whined and whirred, there came a sudden, unbidden memory of my mother.

***

I am 17 years old, in my childhood home, dressed and ready for school, but still bleary-eyed and yawning. Hunched over the dining room table, I’m punching pencil-after-pencil into an electric sharpener—in those days a luxury item that Mom induced Dad to buy because her first-graders have taken to surreptitiously breaking pencil-points as a stalling tactic.

Mom has countered—buying pencils by the hundreds, and charging me and my siblings, in turns, to pull morning duty, sharpening dozens of pencils and putting them into a cigar box. This way, Mom nips her students’ foot-dragging by quickly delivering a freshly sharpened pencil to every child who breaks his or hers.

For my sibs and me, this duty comes with specific instruction. Turns out, there is a golden mean of pencil-sharpening—neither too sharp nor too blunt.  We kids learn to work that sharpener as deftly as John Coltrane works his saxophone. Mom thanks us profusely, and repeatedly tells us we’re part of her teaching. I half-listen to her.

***

Nearly a half-century later, all of that came suddenly to mind and prompted me to pay closer attention to the tips of the pencils I was pulling from my classroom sharpener. “Geez, I’m making these too sharp,” I muttered. And I thought again of how Mom used to insist that I was part of her teaching.

I paused and wondered if her decades-ago encouragement and her own teaching have served in any way as cause for my being exactly where I am now—in a classroom of my own.  I must tell you that until about fifteen years ago, I never dreamed I would wind up a teacher. If on that morning in my 17th year, Mom had said, “Jerry, you’ll be teacher, too, one day!” I would’ve laughed in her face.

My mother clung tightly to her identity as a teacher throughout her adult life. But I dismissed her claim in my early adolescence—those years when you start to challenge your parents. I thought, “She calls herself a teacher, but how much has she actually taught?”

Not much, up to that time. There had been those very few years at Moore Elementary School following her college graduation, before she had quit to have kids.  Then, after my baby sister started to school, Mom tried again, this time at Wylam Elementary. But that didn’t last, as she couldn’t find enough energy to teach while battling depression..

Then, in the early 1970s, on her third try, she was hired on the spot while filling out an application for Jefferson County Schools. The county sent her to an impoverished and neglected, nearly one-hundred percent African-American school—Roosevelt City Elementary. Within two years, her students were outperforming over-the-mountain rich kids in reading.

Mom had taken a mandated, standardized reading program and had altered it so that, among other things, extra repetition was added. She persuaded a banker in our church to give her the bank’s discarded IBM punch-cards so she—and we, her children—could fashion them into reading flashcards. Doing this, she lifted her own students to the top of the charts.

This was along about the time my 17-year-old bleary-eyed self was sharpening pencils for her. There was then a particular moment when it hit me: “Wow! Mom really is a teacher.”

***

No doubt, all of our lives are influenced in some measure by our parents’ lives. Yet I don’t think we can ever be sure of the degree—or even the precise ways—in which we are influenced by our parents. I think we construct narratives, life stories that infer our parents’ influences. But are those narratives always accurate? I’m not sure.

Still, in my constructed narrative, I can’t seem to let go of the notion that my winding vocational path has now arrived at Room A104 of Bumpus Middle School precisely because my mother was a teacher—and a good one.

Thus, last Thursday, over the whine and grind of an electric pencil sharpener, I heard my mother’s voice again tell me that I was a part of her teaching.

And I heard my own voice reply, “And you’re part of mine, too, Mom.”

Let’s Trash Grades!

“Lookie here!” the principal shouts into the microphone.

Despite the upscale suit, the professorial glasses, and the elegant white hair, the principal is a bona fide Southern-bred good ol’ boy. His big eyes grow big as he pauses for effect and then thrusts his arms outward and downward to indicate two rows of students seated in chairs cordoned by stretches of blue ribbon.

“These up here in the front,” he pauses again, “are the top ten percent!” [Pause]  “And they’re up here to show all the rest of y’all—”[Leans into the microphone] “—what excellence looks like!”

Obediently the rest of us look upon excellence sitting straight—if nervously—in the glory of a thousand gazes.

“Now, next year!” [Pause] “We gonna need us a bunch more blue ribbon.” [Pause] “‘Cause I wanna see every student up here in the top ten percent!”

Seated next to me, the Latin teacher leans my way and whispers, “That’s a mathematical impossibility, right?”

Right. 

But in the principal’s defense, he’s not alone in overlooking this aspect of rank-ordering students. The principal’s words have rolled over the assembly like water off a duck’s back.

In my experience more than a few teachers, students, and parents vaguely believe that if everyone tries super hard, then everyone can be in the upper percentiles.  Few stop to think that the traditional way of sorting out student performance guarantees that some students—no matter how well they perform—are required to be the mediocres or the losers.

For example, what if we took the principal’s top ten percent—those excellent ones sitting in ribboned chairs—and made them a group unto themselves? Brilliant as they are, they would be split into sets of winners, mediocres, and losers.  In fact, they should stand up right now, turn around, and offer great thanks to the ninety-percent seated behind them. For without that ninety percent, nearly every one of the top ten percent would’ve been reduced to mediocres and losers.

“What’s wrong with that?” you may ask.

Well, consider this: suppose that after Test #1, the teacher works hard, as do her students, to ensure that everyone improves.  Now, suppose every student does improve on Test #2 by, say, a whopping fifty percent. How will the scores for Test #2 look in terms of student comparisons when placed next to those of Test #1? Exactly the same! The losers on the first test are still losers on the second one, despite their having performed fifty percent better.

Thus, in our current practice of education, there will always have to be losers, no matter how well the losers perform. Ain’t no way the principal’s lower 90 percent can break into the top ten percent.

This brings a subtle but, I think, harmful side-effect. In my twelve years of teaching I’ve noticed that ranking students in relation to one another creates (in both students and parents) an attitude that, if expressed honestly, is: Learning be damned, just tell me what I need to do to get an “A.”

As a result, by eighth grade almost every student has developed an academic identity based on his/her average grades:  “I’m an ‘A’ student,” or “I’m a ‘C’ student,” etc.  And this means that students shape their expectations of themselves based on past grades. They settle into their rank, because they begin to think it’s written in stone.

From time to time, my frustration inspires me to speak with my classes about their obsession with grades. I remind them that grades aren’t nearly as important as learning. This sets off a cascade of eye-rolling, and inevitably, a student asks, “But don’t grades show what you’ve learned or not learned?”

Sadly, no, they don’t.

For the most part, grades are an indication of how long a student can remember information that is usually irrelevant to his/her life.  To confirm this, I will occasionally remind students of tests they may have taken in, say, Science or History two weeks earlier. “Would you do as well if you got it as a pop-test today?” I ask.  They laugh at the absurdity of the question. “Of course not!”

There’s an old riddle that goes:

Question: What’s the difference between an “A” student and an “F’ student?

Answer:  An “A” student forgets the answers five minutes after the exam; an “F” student forgets them five minutes before.

Some may say, “Well, that’s life! We all went through it!”

But is this the best life we can offer our young people? And if it’s not, can we do better?

I say we can, and we can start by making the following changes:

  1. Let’s trash grades (yes I said it!) and replace them with performance standards. For example, in my subject, English, a student would be presented a rubric that clearly defined specific degrees of mastery in reading, writing, speaking, and listening. The student would be shepherded through these degrees of mastery. Upon displaying mastery (which is something more than making an “A” on a one-off test; it is, rather, the display of an enduring skill) the student would move on to the next defined and specific degree of mastery. True, some students would move faster than others. So be it. And there would be no stigma associated with a student’s slower pace.  After all, we don’t all learn at the same pace. The pace is far less important than that we learn.
  2. Give the student voice and choice in pursuit of standards. We often forget—or never stop to think—that there are almost always many different paths to mastery of any performance. Traditional public education, with its cookie-cutter methods, tends to favor one mode of learning over the many others, thereby unfairly disadvantaging many students. Plus, students are far more likely to see relevance in their learning if they are given voice and choice in how to achieve their goals.
  3. Encourage collaboration among students as they seek mastery of standards. Traditional grading systems turn students against one another. If I know that my value as a student is based on where I rank among all other students, then I’m inclined to wish ill for those above and below me, and disinclined to share knowledge or to help my peers. If, on the other hand, I see myself and my classmates as climbing a mountain together, even if by different paths, then I’m much more likely to collaborate with and help my classmates. Better yet, I’m more likely to be a collaborative and helpful citizen in future society.

 Granted, these are three very broad-brush suggestions. And I’ll issue here what I consider to be the five most important words in the English language: but I could be wrong. However, I can confidently say this: What we’ve been doing ain’t working well for us at all.

I think it’s time for radical reform.  What do you think?

“…and deliver us from ‘the data,’ for Thine is the kingdom…”

I teach eighth-grade English.

Last February I spent a training day with colleagues at our school district’s central office where a district official emphatically reminded us that our students’ reading scores are of paramount importance. If our students don’t show improvement from standardized test to standardized test, we were told, then teachers will be held accountable.”

At the end of the day I raised my hand and said, “We’ve been here about six hours and not once have we said or heard the word ‘creativity.’  Do we simply not care about our students’ creative capacities?”

I got this answer: “Well, we don’t have a metric that measures creativity. Next question?”

But do we, in fact, even have a metric that measures reading?

*  *  *

A few months earlier I had been in a bi-weekly meeting with my school’s administrator, our reading specialist, and other teachers of the same students I teach. We were reviewing a list of “struggling readers.”

Coming to the name of a particular student—let’s call her Bonita—we were told authoritatively that Bonita reads on a second-grade level.

“Wait! What?” I blurted.

I explained that in my class Bonita was independently reading a sixth-grade-level novel, was journaling about it intelligently, and, furthermore, was explaining the novel’s unfolding plot to me in weekly one-on-one conferences.

“Well,” I was told, “it says right here in the data that she reads at second-grade level.”

“The data.” Lately, I’ve begun to pray the Lord’s Prayer, but with “deliver us from evil” changed to “deliver us from ‘the data.’”  For in the case of reading assessments, the data is evil, because it works like this:

  • slice out 60-120 minutes of a child’s life (without regard for how she’s feeling physically or emotionally in that moment);
  • have the child read a block of text that has little if any relevance to her life;
  • test her comprehension with someone else’s questions and—get this—someone else’s multiple-choice answers (in others words, don’t dare give this child the chance to express her comprehension with her own passions and her own terms);
  • score the test, compare it to other scores and then label the child with that number.
  • Oh, and make sure that child and her parents see that number in comparison with others so that child may be accorded a place on a continuum of good-to-bad.

That, my friends, is “the data” from which I pray the Lord will deliver us.

*   *   *

Last week I learned that last year, according to “the data,” I did not sufficiently advance my students along the reading continuum. Thus, I’m told, I am failing—not in those words (we’re too nice for that) but “the data” is a master of inference. And its inferences always carry a moral tinge. Everyone—students, teachers, parents—on whom “the data” lays its grubby little hands will be judged as either good, fair, or bad.

Having received my judgment, I felt bad—real bad.  In fact I was demoralized. I began to scheme ways to retire as soon as possible. “I’m too old for this sh*t,” I told myself.

But suddenly a voice came to me, saying, “If you feel demoralized, how must Bonita have felt on hearing that she was an eighth-grader reading on a second-grade level?  How must her parents have felt?”

This made me angry—real angry. How dare “the data” do this to us?

I recalled Bonita sitting across from me with smiling wide eyes, her arms gesturing excitedly, while explaining the unfolding action in the novel she had just finished, while she inferred insights into the characters’ points-of-view. This novel was set in the midst of middle-school girl drama which was the world in which she lived. Later in the year she would write poetry about her world, and my pride in her would bring tears to my eyes.

But “the data” doesn’t give a damn about any of that, because “the data” has no capacity for human uniqueness, no appreciation of a child’s ability to gather impressions of the world around her and put them into words that stir her heart and the hearts of her readers.  “The data” just wants to judge in much the same way my students describe the incurably judgmental: “Haters gonna hate.”

So I am not going to let myself be demoralized or defined by “the data.” Instead I will remind myself every day that I have the privilege to share life with hundreds of unique 13- and 14-year-old human beings, each of whom brings curiosity and talent to my classroom.

And so I swear I will refuse to worship “the data.” I will refuse to “standardize” my students. I will not tell them what “the data” declares they ought to be. I will instead ask them what they want to be, and I’ll do my damnedest to help get them there.

For in my theology, one cannot serve God and “the data.”  So, to “the data” I say, “Get thee behind me.”

Amen.

 

 

A Great Lesson from the Great White North (Part 1)

February, 1983. We are twenty miles south of Toledo on Interstate-75 north in a ‘79 Ford wagon, hurtling through flurries of snow. We are five Presbyterians from five Indiana churches–two directors of Christian Education (DCEs, they’re called) and three ministers. Our destination? Toronto, to attend the annual North American conference of church educators.

“I think it’s accumulating,” one of the DCEs says and then giggles.  She’s from that part of Wisconsin where they punctuate their speech with nervous giggles.

“Yes. So it is.” adds Big Steeple Preacher behind the wheel. His words roll out in sonorous tones that make me want to bow my head and say, “Amen.”  But I don’t. What I really want to say is: “What breed of moron sets up a February conference in Toronto?”

But I don’t say that because in this group I am much the least in age and importance. My travel mates are “icons” in the presbytery. They’ve spent years making names for themselves. They preach and lead workshops at churches throughout the Wabash Valley. Adoring fans fawn over them for their faith and wisdom.

They are icons” and I am…well…do you know that character who wanders uninvited into a party and naively kills the mood? That’s me–attached like a wart to this crew of cronies who have trekked together for 15 years, just the four of them, to conferences all across the continent. They see themselves as a single vital unit of Presbyterianism, a brain trust, if you will.  And as I ride quietly in their midst, I imagine the conversation that put me here:

“Somebody’s gonna have to take the new kid?”

[Long, painful pause]

“Well, he lives closest to you.”

“Yes, but…

“What would Jesus do?”

[Long, painful pause]

“All right, all right! We’ll take him.”

Compulsory Christian guilt cracked open a door just wide enough to stuff me into this Ford wagon.

By the time we reach the Detroit suburbs, snow is buffeting us in big, thick waves, creating that starburst blast of flakes beyond the windshield that can hypnotize the most alert of drivers. But there in the cockpit, Big Steeple’s holy hands are tight on the wheel at 10 and 2.  He cranes his neck forward, his knobby nose only inches from the windshield. God is his co-pilot.

No one has yet stated the obvious—that we ain’t gonna reach Toronto like this. So, trying delicately to broach that subject, I resurrect the question I’d muted earlier, only in a kinder, gentler way:

“Why did they schedule a February conference in Toronto?” I ask.

“Isn’t it obvious?” blurts the minister up front in the passenger seat. Let’s call him Big Steeple Jr, or better, Junior. He’s a balding 40-something whose blaring voice belies his belief that everywhere is his pulpit. Covertly, though, he covets Big Steeple’s bigger pulpit, and designs to seize it, once Big Steeple retires—or dies.

“You get much better hotel and venue rates when demand is low!” says Junior with a laugh meant to signal my ignorance.  Then he looks to Big Steeple for approval.

“Quite so, quite so.” booms Big Steeple.  “Are we not called to be righteous stewards of the bounty our Lord has bestowed upon us.”

“Amen!” blares Junior, a little too eagerly.

Make no mistake: by bounty, Big Steeple means money. And nothing brings out the crazy in Presbyterians like money. They are, after all, a manifestation of the Church of Scotland where, for centuries, penny-pinching has been the noblest of arts. I will eventually endure 25 years in Presbyterian ministry, and through it all, any mention of money always trumped all other topics. For example, I witnessed a presbytery meeting in which a debate over the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” (practicing?) descended into shrieking madness bordering on fisticuffs. Then, suddenly, near the back of the room, a peace-minded man stood up and shouted, “ONE MILLION DOLLARS!”  Immediately the room fell silent, all movement ceased.  Then came bewildered murmurs, “Where?” “Whose money?” “Are we makin’ a million or losin’ it?” “Quick, call the Finance Committee!” “Form a subcommittee!”

“Money” is to Presbyterians what “Squirrel” is to the attention deficient. Shouting the word works like the neuralyzer in Men in Black. Folks forget everything that came before it.

So here we are: money-minded Presbyterians, a faith-filled fivesome in a Ford, fishtailing to Toronto, dodging dozens of ditched and dinged-up vehicles, hanging our health and safety over the abyss. But it’s okay. We’re saving money!

In retrospect it’s clear I should’ve been terrified. We had no business on the road in those conditions.  But two thoughts shielded me from terror. First, I naively believed that God was guiding the hands and brake-foot of Big Steeple–that God was his Co-Pilot. Years later I will come to believe that Big Steeple was as unbearably annoying to God as he became to me.   But in February ‘83, it didn’t occur to me that God might be swinging at Big Steeple and whiffing.

Second, I was shielded from terror by my own eager anticipation.  This was to be my first ever trip abroad. Okay, okay, I know. It’s just Canada. But to a boy who who’d just recently escaped the South, the Great White North was bona fide exotica. And so I believed that neither rain nor sleet nor snow could keep me from crossing north of the border.

So now we’re warping, woofing, weaving through the Motor City. Big Steeple is furiously working the wheel, hard and fast to the right, then to the left, back right again, all to keep the tail of the wagon in line with front. Junior squirms in the passenger seat, vicariously jerking himself in whichever direction Big Steeple jerks the wheel. The DCEs are wide-eyed and seem to have quit breathing. DCE Giggles starts to pray, “O Precious Pinnacle of Power, protect us….. [nervous giggle].” The other DCE interrupts with the wisest words said so far: “We need another plan.”

And Junior is ready to dispense that plan, for he is a train buff, among those whose Grandpa took him to see a Choo-Choo when he was a tyke, and, in that moment, the heavens opened and a voice came forth saying, “This is my beloved mode of transportation in which I am well pleased!”  So today Junior can name and describe every locomotive, every train car that ever rumbled on two rails. Back home his attic is a sprawl of miniature towns nestled in an intricate web of model-train tracks over which little locomotives whistle and toot and tug long lines of flat cars, commodity cars, coal cars, passenger coaches and, of course, cabooses. There’s even a circus train that totes tiny elephants and lions and tigers and bears.  (Oh my.)

“If we can get over the Ambassador Bridge and into Canada,” barks field marshal Junior, “we can take the Canadian National rail line into Toronto! CN has some of the finest, softest rail beds in the world! Leave the driving to them!”

“How much will that cost us?” asks Big Steeple, warily, Presbyterianly.

“Less than it’d cost to replace your car and pay our medical bills,” says the DCE who’d lobbied for a new plan.

Judging by the interstate beneath us, I don’t expect the bridge to Canada to be open. And, ill-advisedly, I say so. Junior is too ready to denounce my doubt. “O ye of little faith!” He explains that in its role as a major international artery, the bridge was designed for quick and easy d-icing. And yadda, yadda, yadda.  Well, sure enough, we find the surface of the bridge quite passable, almost dry.

Across the bridge at customs, Junior maintains his command, demanding directions to the train station which turns out to be mere minutes away—a great convenience, not so much because of proximity, but because it cuts short Junior’s sermon on the history of railroads.

[Blogpost concludes HERE.]

A Great Lesson from the Great White North (Part 2)

[Conclusion of a two-part blog that begins HERE.]

At a money booth in Windsor station we convert U.S. dollars to Canadian currency, after which we buy round-trip tickets to Toronto. In the waiting area, we settle into seats, five abreast, until our train arrives. Junior seizes the chance to resume his sermon, prompting the DCEs to open books that they pretend to read.  More politely Big Steeple pretends to listen, his spirits having been lifted by the senior discount.

My own attention is absorbed by my new Canadian bills, which are exotic and eminently more colorful than their drab American counterparts.  I wonder at the faces on them.  I recognize Queen Elizabeth II, but who are these old frowny white guys? What did they do to land on money? The mystery thrills me.  The bills seem to speak: “Gerald! You have made it. You are in a foreign country!”

Our train arrives.  The public address calls for the elderly and parents with young children to board first.  DCE Giggles teases Big Steeple, “Go ahead, get on, old man! You took the discount! Get on the train!” Big Steeple declines.

The seats on the train are set in pairs on either side of a center aisle. My travel mates slip quickly into a cluster of seats together as I stand gawking in the aisle. “Gomer Pyle goes to Canada,” is what I think of myself. “Gaaaah-lay!”  Indecision nails me to the floor as other passengers scurry past to take the diminishing vacant seats. Still I don’t move. My strain of procrastination is less about lazy than it is about indecision. I’ve found that if you procrastinate long enough, you’ll never have to decide. Default will decide for you.

So it is now.  Just one seat is left, about five rows ahead of me on the aisle. I note the back of the head of the passenger in the window seat–silver hair stylishly coiffed beneath a blue pillbox hat. I sit next to her. We do that pleasant-smile-with-a-nod-of-the-head thing. No words spoken. She wears silver-rimmed glasses, wears them eruditely and is dressed professionally, a business suit that matches her hat. I figure she’s in her late fifties. She’s what my grandfather would’ve called a handsome woman. She’s reading the editorial page of the Toronto Star. I steal glances as I pull a book from my briefcase. She’s grimacing, presumably at what she’s reading. I remain silent.

The train starts gently forward. Several rows back of me Junior is preaching, “See? Notice the smooth start. No jerking like Amtrak. CN is one of the finest….”  I tune him out.  The train escapes the station canopy, and I see through the windows that night is falling beyond a veil of thickly falling snow—great white globs of snow dropping fast like stones. I pull a book from my briefcase, but, by damn, I’m in Canada, in a train, in the snow! My excitement won’t let me focus.

Soon, there comes down the aisle a young woman, blonde and uniformed in an apron. She’s pushing a silver cart in stops and starts. I see miniatures of liquor, small bottles of wine and, jutting from a mountain of ice, a big bunch of beer-bottle long necks. God, I desperately want one—or more—of those.

When the cart reaches our aisle, my seatmate buys a Merlot. The young woman hands her the bottle and a glass, then turns to me, “And you, sir?”

Suddenly, a crazy idea pops into my head: treat the four Presbyterian icons to beers! Honestly, this has nothing to do with grace or generosity. The truth is, I’m just seized with an un-Presbyterian impulse to blow a barge-load of this fancy Canadian money, because doing so will make me feel all the more like a foreign traveler!

“I’d like a Molson,” I say. Then I rise slightly, point to the iconic foursome, and say, “And I’d like to buy each of them a beer, too.”  The server smiles, “That’s very generous. Fourteen dollars, please.” From my top pocket I pluck the folded stack of Canadian bills and fish out a twenty. I pass the bill to her. She takes from her apron a Canadian five and one and hands them to me.

Suddenly I panic. How much should I tip her? Earlier Junior had delivered a sermon on how gratuities in Canada will need to be smaller because Canadians often regard American big-tipping as a pompous show of opulence.  Dear God, what do I do!?

Perceiving my panic, my seatmate leans my way and whispers, “Giver her the one.”

“I hand give the bill to the young woman who thanks me, puts it in a jar, opens the beer, hands it to me, and asks, “Would you like a glass?”  I decline. She pushes the cart on.

My seatmate has put down her paper as she pours wine into her glass. I heave a sigh of relief.  She grins.

“So, you’re an American,” she says. It’s not a question. It’s a declaration. I might’ve thought it an accusation, except that she’s smiling amiably as she swirls her wine.

“Yes, ma’am,” I answer.

“Ah!  And you’re from the South?” She takes this as an unexpected treat.

“Yes, ma’am.  From Alabama originally.  But I live in Indiana now.  I gather you’re Canadian?”

She chuckles and nods. She tells me she lives in a city called Hamilton, about 70 kilometers from Toronto.  She’s a lawyer, her husband’s a judge. She had been in Windsor for the day on business and is now headed home. She asks my occupation. When I tell her, she grins slyly and says, “Then I’d better be on my Ps and Qs, ay?

“No, ma’am,” I say, “please just be yourself.”

She smiles and says, “And you be yourself.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The ice is now broken. The beer is working; its buzz melts my inhibitions. So I pull again from my pocket the stack of Canadian bills. “I recognize Queen Elizabeth,” I tell my seatmate, “but these guys are well….” I grin, “…foreign to me.” 

She chuckles, and points to the five-dollar bill. “Let’s start with this furious looking old man.” She tells me that he is Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Canada’s prime minister at the turn of the century. “Despite his pinched face here,” she says, “he’s probably our most beloved PM.” I learn that he was the first francophone prime minister and did more than any to reconcile the French-speaking provinces with the English-speaking ones. He stood for liberty and individual rights. “A bit like your Thomas Jefferson,” she adds.

We move to faces on the other bills. Sir John A. Macdonald, served as PM in the mid-19th century and made Canada stronger and more independent but resigned under a cloud of scandal.  Mackenzie King, the PM who led Canada through World War II and oversaw industrial growth.

I sense that I’m in the presence of a very good teacher, one who peppers her lessons with wit and frequently asks for her student’s impressions, and earnestly listens when he responds. I begin to feel as if we’ve known each other for a while. She’s merrily impressed when I tell her that this is my very first trip out of the States.

“On behalf of Canadians everywhere,” she says with a little bow of the head, “May I say we are honored to be your first foreign land.” When I mention I’ll be staying at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, she beams and tells me this is where she and her husband honeymooned thirty-five years ago. “Would you like some advice on where to go and what to see in Toronto?” she asks.

“Absolutely!” I pull a notepad from my briefcase and jot notes as she describes restaurants, bistros (“Ask for Tony at the bar”), music venues, historic sites, how to navigate the underground, how to find the international art of West Bloor Street.

Much too soon comes the announcement that we’re arriving at Hamilton station. She gathers her things, and readies herself to leave.

“Thank you so much for teaching me,” I say.

“My pleasure!”

“I really want to travel the world,” I tell her, “and I hope everywhere I go I’ll find someone as kind and knowledgeable as you.”

She smiles, starts to speak, pauses for a moment, and then says, “I can tell you this: if you travel humbly, if you ask sincere questions like ‘Whose picture is on this bill?’ if you listen sincerely to those who answer your questions, you’re very likely to find someone kind and knowledgeable to teach you, no matter where you go.” Then she raises an index finger, and imparts to me a proverb that I will guard in my heart.

“Travel humbly, not pridefully,” she says, “and you will find the world a wonderful place.”

The train slows to a stop. Hamilton is announced. She rises. I stand to let her into the aisle. She smiles, shakes my hand, wishes me well in Toronto and in all my future travels and disappears down the aisle. I move to the window and take her seat. Snowfall has ceased. Gazing out across the laden, fallow fields, I’m interrupted by a kind voice, “Another beer, sir?”

I give her a five and tell her to keep the change.  She’s not offended. “Why, thank you sir. That’s very generous!”

I sip the beer slowly and look again across Canadian fields. I do not yet know to what extent I will travel. I do not know that I will visit Mexico, England, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Israel, and Lebanon. I do not know that I will live for two years in Africa—Burkina Faso and then Congo. But I do know that wherever I go, I will do my best to go humbly, not pridefully. I’ll do my best to muster the courage to ask people about their country, their culture, their lives. And I will listen when they answer.

The train slows to a stop at Toronto station. I gather my things, stand and wait until the four Presbyterian icons pass me so I can slip into my place as last and least.  As the DCEs pass, they thank me for the drinks. Big Steeple simply nods. Junior smiles dismissively and says, “You didn’t get to hear my history of railroads and my commentary on I Corinthians 13. Your loss!” He struts down the aisle.

I say a little prayer:

“Thank you, Lord. Thank you.”