With the Jerk of a Knee

Shirley Hills School
Shirley Hills School in Mound, Minnesota, was brand new when I attended as a second through fourth grader in the 1950s.

Whenever a school funding proposal appears on the ballot, many voters react in knee-jerk fashion. I’m among them. Some of the knee-jerkers would never consider voting for any tax, schools or not. They look for reasons to oppose. Others, including me, can’t imagine NOT voting to fund schools.

It’s all about gratitude. For thirteen significant years of my life, people who for the most part didn’t know me paid taxes so I could get an education. I’m grateful. Throughout those thirteen years a cadre of public school teachers devoted themselves to my growth and betterment. I didn’t always appreciate their efforts at the time, but I’m indebted to them now: from the aptly named Miss Gardner, the kindergarten teacher who introduced me to the enchantment of learning, to Mr. Thornburg, the twelfth grade yearbook advisor who sparked the possibility in my mind that I could be a writer. I can still see the smile on his face when, years later, I ran into him in a restaurant and told him I was an Associated Press editor.

I’m grateful that all my teachers provided a legacy that today’s teachers can build upon. Teaching today is certainly more stressful. Sadly, educators must work much harder to gain community and parental support.

Five school districts in Okanogan County, where I live, are placing funding issues before voters Feb. 13. Washington state has been wrangling for years over how to fund education. Now the state has a new formula, which means operating levies in some districts may be reduced. Less means more, thanks to state matching funds. My district—Omak—stands to lose $7 million from the state if the levy fails.

Omak is also asking voters to approve bonds to build a new middle school. The school will be vitally needed by the time our burgeoning enrollment of kindergarten through second-graders reaches that level.

I was in the vanguard of the baby boomer generation. Lucky for me, voters in the 1950s recognized the need for more schools. Instead of being squeezed into antiquated buildings, I attended mostly new schools from second grade on. Even then, I recognized the difference it made.

Last week I went to an informational meeting about our proposed middle school. I didn’t need to be convinced. I showed up to support the volunteers and school leaders who’ve worked for years to develop a practical plan for addressing future needs. I was heartened when a gentleman spoke eloquently about his gratitude to Omak schools for giving him skills that, he said,  “I use every day.” I was disheartened when the same gentleman voiced skepticism over the likelihood of this bond issue passing.

I agree with him that our method for funding schools is inadequate and sometimes unfair. But those kindergarten through second graders, who are being crowded into so-called portable classrooms even now, didn’t invent this system. Maybe, if we give them a good enough education, they could eventually find a way to fix it. I hope we don’t wait that long.


What fifty-five years can do to/for a person

A reunion can feel a lot like drowning. Supposedly, a drowning victim’s life flashes before them on the third, fatal time down. My life, or at least the past fifty-five years of it, was flashing before my eyes as I prepared to reunite with someone I’d not seen for that many years.

A junior/senior high school classmate emailed out of the blue a few months back. I’ve not attended high school reunions of late. I stayed in touch with only a handful of classmates, and she wasn’t among them. We hadn’t been close friends, but shared a few classes and played in the band. I didn’t consider myself on her level of the social strata that were implicitly delineated in that large, urban school. I saw her as popular, well-grounded, confident, coming from an affluent family, perfectly dressed and coiffed. Me? Less so. She was the classmate I most wanted to be like and be liked by. I’m sure she’d be surprised—or maybe even amused— to know that, then and now.

I responded to her email, and we ultimately made a date to have lunch on my next trip to Tacoma. That’s when I began mulling the past fifty-five years and wondering how I’d ever describe them to her. How to avoid a boring monologue of “and then I . . . and then I . . . and then I”? Besides, what I most wanted was to hear about her life. It would be, I guessed, a story of success after success. And it was.

Her story started exactly as I expected. As she described it, after college and sorority life she had her china and silver as planned, her three children as planned, her husband with secure, professional career—as planned. Then it all blew up. I won’t provide details because it’s her story, not mine. She didn’t tell it in the sequence I laid out, but started with the hard stuff, as if to lay her cards on the table. As if to say, “There’ll be no secrets; nothing will be held back.”

It turns out she and I have walked a parallel path these fifty-five years, living lives that pulled us every which way other than the direction we’d planned. That included our lunch: the restaurant where we’d agreed to meet was closed. We found another, really nicer, restaurant on Tacoma’s waterfront—a metaphor for what happens when plans don’t work out. We lingered for hours over lunch, telling not so much the details of our lives’ events. It was more about lessons learned, wisdom acquired. It was a sharing free of hubris, filled with the joy of discovery. We both had learned that when life interrupts your plans, take it as a gift and run with it. That’s success.

Given our mutual age of seventy-three, we can’t afford to wait another fifty-five years for our next reunion. I hope we won’t. She is a woman I want to be like, and be liked by.

Just Ducky

fullsizeoutput_1d1aThe river in front of my house is now a duck pond. Various sections of the river are frozen bank- to-bank, but here free water flows and water fowl float. It’s a busy sight/site with ducks and geese paddling upstream, cruising back down, taking off into the air with the frequency of planes at O’Hare, and landing again in small squadrons. The mallards come in for their landing with wings bowed, braking their speed just as they hit the water. Canada geese are less elegant, splashing onto the river’s runway in noisy, squawking turmoil.

My favorites at this time of year are the bufflehead (who I may be confusing with golden eye, or maybe we have both). Their radiant white caps make me think of novice nuns. They dip smoothly below the water’s surface, later to bob up again—never in the same place. My eyes scan the river, trying to predetermine where they’ll suddenly surface. I almost never win this game of bufflehead bluff.

At times some ducks leave the water to cluster on the edge of snow-covered ice—not exactly dry land. I have to wonder if they’re warmer, leaving the icy water and hunkering down in the wind-chilled air. I’ll bet they’re warmer in the water. What we don’t see is those webbed feet paddling hard like a cross-country skier following an uphill trail, warmed by the effort.

Occasionally—and suddenly—the pond empties of water fowl. Only small chunks of ice float desolately along the current, destined to join the glacial islands downriver. That’s when I know to look up and search for a bald eagle. Or perhaps some other raptor, an osprey for instance, is temporarily scattering the flocks. In only a few minutes, the ducks will return to resume their routine, up and down, forth and back. They organize themselves like an Esther Williams water ballet, sometimes in straight lines (although those are most often the geese, who have a penchant for the military), other times in complex choreography that unfolds like time lapse photos of flowers blooming.

There is other winter wildlife along the river bank—the hardy birds, of course, and an occasional river otter. The plucky quail scoot in nervous groups, puffed up to twice their miniscule weight to insulate themselves against the cold. I could see more if I would take time away from my ceaseless chores and distractions. Is that a resolve for the new year? Seems like a good one.