Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How Great Thou Art

Have you ever heard of a bride standing in her wedding dress, facing up a staircase, and leading a choir?

Now you have because that’s what I did the afternoon I got married.

In those days, in the fifties and sixties, overseas missions had almost no high schools on the field, so most teenagers had to attend boarding schools in their home countries. To help meet that need, for ten years my parents made a home for our mission’s teenagers in Wheaton, Illinois. Because of all the maple trees on the two and a half-acre property and because our mission was Mid-Missions, we named the home Mid-Maples. Many years, we had twenty or so around our two large dining tables for every meal. During the early years, I was attending college there in town, so I was part of that large family.

We were a mission operation, and the imagination of many folks and churches was captured by those young people who were separated from their parents, at least for one year and some for as many as four. The year my parents furnished the home, before the arrival of the teens, churches got the vision to supply the mountain of linens that would be needed, and each year at Christmas they asked for sizes and wish lists and sent boxes and boxes of gifts.

When we had an invitation to visit one of these interested churches, we decided to put together a program. The young people from different countries dressed in typical clothing of their countries and sang in the languages they had grown up with. We wanted to use our theme song, “It Will Be Worth It All,” so we prepared it as a group number with the young people singing parts. I became the designated choir director, and we ended up many Sunday evenings traveling to churches within driving distance to present our program. In time, we added other musical numbers. One of those was a song fairly new to America in the 1950s—“How Great Thou Art.” My dad would close the meetings with a meditation on godly young people.

I was a senior in college the year serious romance and a diamond ring came into my life. Because most of the young people stayed right through the summer, our August wedding became a huge family affair—especially since we decided to hold it right there in the large Mid-Maples house. In my wedding dress I came down the front stairs with my Daddy, and Fred and I said our vows said in front of the big picture window with the bamboo-print curtains. Some of the guys served as ushers, other directed traffic outside the house, two of them lit the candles, and three of the girls served the cake and refreshments in the big side yard afterwards.

I don’t remember whose idea it was to use “How Great Thou Art” as one of the music numbers for the service. The kids gathered in the front hall at the top of the stairs, and I stood in my wedding dress facing up the stairs, unseen from the seventy-five people in the living room and dining room below. From there I led them in singing, and it turned out pretty well.

That hymn would probably have meant a lot to me all these years even if we hadn’t used it like that in our wedding, but because we did, it has meant even more. It is a great song with great truth and has become an icon of music for many in our Christian faith.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Memorial Sunday for Last Year's Flood

We had a special and touching church service this morning. It was framed as a memorial to the big flood a year ago this weekend when we had fifteen inches of rain in 48 hours. The pastor told how a year ago about fifteen people (that included us) had made it to church when he realized they needed to cancel it. Fifty families in our church alone were affected to some degree, at least half of them losing everything.

In the children's sermon he held up the visual he had planned to use for the children that Sunday a year ago--it was a framed picture of Noah's Ark. The point he made with it is that the first thing Noah did after coming out of the ark and that traumatic experience was to worship the Lord.

We had two testimonials--one from the lady who ended up organizing much of the effort as our church served for a month as a disaster-relief center for the community. She said she never got over the joy of watching someone leave with a smile after they had come in completely beaten down. The other came from a couple who lost everything in the flood (I don't mind telling you there were tears with that one).

The choir sang a thrilling arrangement of the song, "The Anchor Holds."
The anchor holds though the ship is battered;
The anchor holds though the sails are torn;
I have fallen on my knees as I faced the raging seas.
The anchor holds in spite of the storm.

We sang "Great Is Thy Faithfulness."

Our pastor brought an excellent message from Ps. 40:1-3 and Ps. 93, including these verses: “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord.”

Especially in light of what has happened to so many in our same part of the country this past week (over 350 dead from tornados), it was touching, sobering, and a powerful reminder that our Anchor does hold in the face of the storms that come our way in this earthly journey.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

New Challenges (Part 5)

When we turned up a school year without enough kindergarteners to justify a full teacher just for them, I was offered the opportunity to “float.” A number of my previous class of kindergarteners needed speech therapy; would I continue the work I had begun with them the year before? Sure. Because of my interest in writing (I don’t remember how they knew about that), would I be willing to teach a time slot three days a week of creative writing to the fifth and sixth graders? I would. Besides, interestingly enough, I had taught several of them in kindergarten a few years before. In addition, I could be available to be something that was a luxury to that setting—a substitute teacher within the school system itself.

That year worked out well, and in the course of it I substituted in almost every grade, including what we then called junior high. Meanwhile, the visa situation became tighter, and it didn’t look hopeful for securing enough teachers for the following year. During break times in the teachers’ room, we would joke about the first grade teacher covering K-2, the one who then had 3-4 would cover 3-5—and Esther Gross would cover 6-8! We all laughed together.

Then one day our principle (by then a personal friend, of course) called me in privately and said, “We’ve been joking about taking different classes next year. Would you consider teaching 7-8?” She wasn’t kidding. I said I’d have to think about it.

My teaching certificate covered K-8, so no problem there. But those two grades were different from kindergarten in more than just student ages. For one thing, they were a double grade. Both grades were taught in the same room by the same teacher. That of course was not a new concept in American education, but I had no experience with it. When I had subbed in those classes, I did okay. Maybe . . . If they could find someone else to teach math and science, I could probably handle English, social studies (ancient and American history), and Bible.

But . . . but . . . what if I couldn’t handle it? What if I “blew it”? What if I did a horrible job? As I thought and prayed about it, God had a message for my heart. If this was something He wanted me to do, then my task was to obey and do it. The consequences—how it turned out—were His problem. So I agreed.

Remember the kindergarteners I had again in grades 5-6 for creative writing? Many of them were now in junior high, so I taught them once again—and at the end of the school year, the principal gave me the pleasure of handing them their eighth-grade diplomas.

I don’t remember when I noticed that God again “grew me into” the job He had for me. I had decided to become a kindergarten teacher after I had children of my own that age. And what did I have now? Children of the age I was being asked to teach. My youngest would be an eighth grader in my class. Junior highers were not the terror to me that they had been years before when my only experience was with little ones.

And what that rule that students had to call their teacher “Mrs.” even if she was their mother? I remember fretting some about that over the summer. How hard would be it be get my son to do that? It wasn’t that he was a difficult kid, but I never found the courage even to mention it to him. The new school year started. A couple of times, Don Paul called me Mom, but no one paid any attention.

Then one day he wanted my attention and couldn’t get it. After calling me Mom a couple of times, he tried “Mrs. Gross.” His classmates busted out laughing. So . . . that was the way it was, was it? Apparently at that age, his classmates expected him to call me “Mom.” Anything else was strange and comical. The rest of the year proceeded without any further attention to the matter, and I never breathed a word about it to the principal. I wonder if now, thirty years later, I should refer her to this blog . . . .

After nine school years in Colombia, we ended up back in the U.S. for good. I continued working with the Children’s Education Department another sixteen years, writing curriculum and later doing layout and editing of newsletters that went to our people overseas. I did some moonlighting teaching English skills to students in a community college, and eventually I taught fellow missionaries in many workshops.

So my teaching career ended up (with the exception of high school) spanning from kindergarten through adults. It has been humbling to watch God lead me step by step and give me joy all along the way. I enjoyed each thing I did, yet when God nudged me on to something else, I never looked back with regrets.

And to think I started out not knowing I would like to be a teacher!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Mixed-Culture Teaching (Part 4)

So given the fairly unorthodox way I came to the teaching profession, what did my teaching career look like? How long did I teach, and did I actually teach kindergarten as planned?

The answer isn’t a simpler yes, or no, or a number. I did teach kindergarten, the two years in the States and four years at the mission school in South America. I loved it. Teaching in a mission school has some interesting twists—such as having behavior problems with a five-year-old in morning class and then playing volley ball next to his father at 5:00. Parent-teacher conferences were interesting. That first year I went to Linda’s class for a conference on my first-grader’s progress, and she came to me for one on her kindergartener’s. That happened several times over the years with different students and different fellow teachers.

I faced a couple of cultural adjustments I didn’t expect and have never forgotten. I still remember my shock when the principal came into my classroom to remove the American flag. Yes, he acknowledged, we were mostly Americans, but we were guests in a foreign country. Someone had realized it was not appropriate to fly the American flag in our classrooms—and I soon understood that.

Another shock that lingers is when parents of one of my five-year-olds objected to a Halloween song I was teaching the kids. I don’t remember the song now, but it was a very common one, undoubtedly about spirits or something spooky. The parents objected because out in the jungle village where they worked to translate the Bible, evil spirits and spooky things were not make-believe. I complied, but it took a bit longer before I fully understood. I’ve come a long way in my feelings about Halloween since then, and I have a completely different perspective now.

Even mission schools within the same organization can come to different conclusions about school matters. Though we were both in the tropics, our school did not have all the same practices as our counterpart two countries over. While they allowed students to come to class in bare feet (often standard attire in the tropics), our school decreed that they wear shoes. I have fond memories of those rubbery sandal-type shoes we bought locally down there. In rainy season one could hardly arrive anywhere without muddy feet—so we would just turn on an outdoor faucet, stick one foot after the other under it, and continue on our way with clean feet and shoes.

The atmosphere and relationships at a mission center are usually informal and close. Children become much more attached to adults than they would in their home country and often use the terms “Aunt” and “Uncle” with first names. In the school referred to above, students were allowed to use those same appellations with first names for their teachers, but those setting policy in the early days of our school felt it would be important for discipline and lines of authority for students to use titles of address, like Mr. or Mrs., when in school. (Outside of school, of course, they could use any term they wanted.)

This became especially interesting when a teacher had her own child in her class. This happened a couple of times in third and fourth grades, and yes, the eight or nine year old referred to his or her mother as Mrs. Whatever. A side story on this in my next installment. What happened when my son ended up in my class?

Monday, April 25, 2011

And Where Was All This Leading? (Part 3)

In the winter of 1969, my sister had her third child in Colombia, South America, where she and her husband were missionaries. Our mother decided to be adventurous and go visit them. She did go, and she spent an enjoyable month. In the car bringing her home from O’Hare Airport, she was bubbling over with accounts of her time there and the wonderful people she had met. As I listened somewhere in a back seat, God planted a dream in my heart. I knew I wanted to go and work in that place in South America. Fortunately, I was smart enough to realize that for that to happen, God had to plant the same dream in my husband’s heart.

Meanwhile, I looked into options for the student teaching I needed. Most such courses, in a college program, required a full year of classroom experience, or “practice.” I’m sorry I have no memory of how I heard about it, but I learned that NIU offered a fully-accredited student-teaching program during six weeks in the summer. Could that be for real? Ah, but it had an unusual requirement. One had to have taught a full year under contract to qualify.

Say what? I had taught only half days—but wait! I was in my second year. By the summer of 1970 I would have two years. Two half years make a whole year, so yes, I qualified. I would take the course in the summer of 1970 when I had finished all the other courses to qualify for a certificate.

The previous fall, my sister and her husband began a campaign to recruit us to go to South America. Their oldest would be going to kindergarten in the fall of 1970, and the mission school had no teacher for that fall. In addition, the man who kept the mechanical things running was going on furlough. That was my husband's area of expertise, and he was open to considering it.

The number of bumps we encountered along the way are stories for another time. At this point I just need to pull this together with the fact that the summer of 1970, while Fred and the girls visited friends to recruit some financial support for us and Don Paul spent his days with Grandma again, I did my student teaching in a six-weeks summer kindergarten program. I then rounded up all my credits—from Michigan again, from Wheaton, from NIU—and sent them off to the state of Illinois in Springfield.

They would issue me a teaching certificate, but I would not see it until three years later when I came back from South America. And that’s how I became a school teacher.

I never cease to marvel at the “ifs” along the way. If I hadn’t taken those courses in Michigan, if I hadn’t decided in 1967 to start working to become a teacher, if NIU hadn’t had that six-weeks’ summer course, and the biggest IF of all, if that half-day school-teaching job hadn’t come looking for me the exact time it did, I would in no way have been ready to think about South America when the opportunity came my way.

My God is so utterly amazing.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

So What Should I Do About It? (Part 2)

I was ten years out of college when I figured out I might like to be a teacher after all--so what was I going to do about it?

The first step was to find out what it would take to get an Illinois teachers certificate at that point. I rounded up my Wheaton transcripts and the ones from the two courses in Michigan and sent them off to the state of Illinois. I don’t remember why I decided to go straight to the state instead of back to Wheaton with the question, but God was in it because I found out later that Wheaton would have required thirty more credit hours from me to get a certificate.

The state sent me back a list of just thirteen hours total.

Those six hours of educational courses from Michigan turned out worth their weight in credits even though I don’t remember anything I learned, and the state must definitely have counted those Christian Education courses I took. The thirteen hours included requirements for two specific two-hour education courses (one was Philosophy of Education) plus a course in modern math. And would you believe . . . the thirteen hours included five hours of practice teaching?

I soon had a plan. I would substitute teach all that coming school year. LynĂ©e was in kindergarten half days, and Grandma would be available for her and Don if I was called to sub. We brought my teenage cousin Joy from Indiana to watch the children while I took one of the education courses through Wheaton’s summer fast-track, Intersession—two hour credits in one week (or was it two?). The other ed course I would take at night.

At the end of the year of subbing I decided that, of all the classes I’d taught, I liked kindergarten best. I had even survived the day I was called to teach three sessions of it—ninety students—in one day. I patted myself on the back for having learned all their names by the end of each session. (Of course I didn’t remember them three days later—I didn’t need to.) So the following year I earned my last two credits taking a course in kindergarten teaching from the Northern Illinois University (NIU) a few miles west of us.

One day as I worked in my kitchen in August of 1968, the phone rang. A school five miles up the road from our suburb needed a kindergarten teacher—half days only. The opportunity was irresistible. Don Paul would go to “nursery school” three days a week and to Grandma’s the other two days, and I would have a chance to confirm if kindergarten was what I really wanted to teach.

Just like with the six hours’ credit God had orchestrated for me that year in Michigan because He had a plan for them years in the future, I had not the slightest inking that this was another link in the chain of a huge plan He was putting together for my life, a plan that would touch many other lives in the years that lay ahead.

To Be Concluded

Friday, April 22, 2011

I Never Wanted to Be a Teacher (Part One)

Family and friends who know how much I enjoyed the fifteen years I taught school will be surprised to hear that, but it is true. As best I can figure, it had something to do with my childhood.

I didn’t grow up going to school. I got educated—with a classical education, at that, but I didn’t go to school. I learned all about the paintings, sculpture, and architecture of the Renaissance, the mythology of the Greeks and Romans, and the history of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians, but it didn’t happen in a traditional classroom. Today it would be called “home schooling,” but in the 1940s it was just Calvert School in our home at a faraway outpost in a French colony in central Africa. I only had one year in a traditional classroom until I went to high school.

While I see little reason for that to make me want to be a teacher, neither do I see in it any reason for it to make me sure I didn’t want to be a teacher. But that was how I felt. All through Wheaton College, I stayed away from classes about teaching—with one exception. I did take Christian Education of Children and Christian Education of Adolescence because, I reasoned, I expected to have children of my own some day. They were both three-hour classes. After college, when I had a friend training to be a kindergarten teacher, I groaned at the idea. She could have it!

Then the ironies began. I married a man who decided to go to Bible school, so it fell to me to support the family. But with a college diploma that included a Bible major and an informal minor in languages (I also knew a fair measure of French), I didn’t really have any marketable skills. But I needed a job. I was about to take one as a cashier at a supermarket (I can’t even imagine that now) when a job possibility dropped into my lap.

We were at a car dealership in Grand Rapids, Michigan, trying to trade in my new husband’s lovely Buick for a more appropriate car for student life when he mentioned that his wife was looking for a job. The dealer perked up. Did I have a teachers’ certificate? No (of course not). Did I have a college degree? Well, yes, I did. But, hey, that was all I would need. The dealer knew of a school very much in need of—a second grade teacher! According to Michigan law, if one had a college degree and took one night class a semester, one could get a provisional certificate.

Given all the things I do remember from that far back, I’m surprised I don’t remember what I thought or felt at that point, but I accepted the job, took the night classes, and taught the school year of 1958-1959. We moved back to Illinois for what turned out to be one very interesting year (including our first baby), but that has nothing to do with this story here.

A few years later when Fred finished school, we settled in our first house in Carol Stream, Illinois, on the north side of Wheaton. We got involved in a small, just-starting church. There were only a few people and many opportunities to get involved. Our first Christmas there, a new friend and I were asked to come up with a Christmas program for the kids, and later I agreed to provide a program for school-age children during Wednesday evening prayer meeting. Hmmm. This wasn’t so bad. Meanwhile, I had two more children of my own.

By 1967, with a preschooler and two in school as well as working with children’s activities at church, I had become accustomed to being around children. Oh! Could that have been why I was so sure I didn’t want to teach? Growing up, I had never been around children (except once a year at conference). Even my teen years were spent in a boarding school where staff had only two small children. Was that why I didn’t know I would like working with them? Was there a possibility I would like to be a school teacher after all . . .?

To Be Continued

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Epiphany by Candlelight

The word “epiphany” was never in my vocabulary until fairly recent times. I had heard it, but I only knew it as some high-church religious term that didn’t touch my world. Several years ago I heard it used in a way that made me become more aware of the word in a context of everyday life. Recently I’ve found myself using it occasionally.

The dictionary describes “epiphany” as a “sudden, striking understanding of something.” That fits the way I’ve been understanding it and using it. That’s a comfort. And if that is its meaning, then I had an epiphany last evening—by candlelight.

Now that I’ve finished the myriad writings and rewritings of my first novel, Tangled Strands, it is time to think about the second one. This one has had a root file on my computer for as many as two decades. I’ve had it all plotted and outlined, but based on all I’ve been learning about writing in the last few years, this one had problems that would need to be solved before it went anywhere.

Among the many things I’ve learned about novel writing in the last six years are these:
• You have to have a main character, and with few exceptions male leads need to be written by male authors.
• That main character must want something very badly; otherwise, you don’t have fodder enough for a story, let alone a whole novel.
• Your opening sentence or two must strike your reader between the eyes and make him or her say, “Oh, I’ve got to read more of this!” Today’s readers have no patience to start with flowery descriptions nor the heroine studying herself in a mirror.
• The opening scene must center on the main character, which means that character must appear in those opening sentences.
• Not long after your “opening hook,” you need an “inciting incident.” That is something that kicks the story into action, and it needs to connect to the goal/desire/longing of the lead character.

All this is well and good and I agree with it—but that didn’t make it easy to make decisions about the entirely new opening I needed for my new novel, Tapestries. Just two days ago I made a name change to one of the candidates for main character, and that (don’t ask me how) helped me bond to that character and be content with what I already knew—that she needed to be the lead for the whole tale.

But where and how to start? What could I use for the opening hook and the inciting incident?

Storms yesterday afternoon and evening took away power in our part of the city for eight hours, including the evening. I was happy to spend time reading a top book on novel writing and watching the fading dusk through the double windows. But later in the evening, by the light of a stubby candle that willingly submitted itself to being used up, I got out my little computer and started green-lighting about this story.

I was just past the middle of the page when it came to me—after all these months (even years) of thinking about it. I would start with Catherine preparing for her wedding (but not studying herself in the mirror!). And just like that, I had the inciting incident, too—a meltdown by a four-year-old boy. The need for the meltdown was already in the story; I just needed to recognize where it needed to happen. I had my “sudden, striking understanding,” my epiphany.

So now I am on my way to being able to sit down and write a brand new version of what I hope is going to be an emotional story.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Across Six Months

Gifted author of the last century Irene Hunt wrote a wonderful book entitled Across Five Aprils. In it she wove a poignant story based on her grandfather’s life as a young teen during the years of the Civil War (from Fort Sumter in April 1861 to Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865. I’ll never be an Irene Hunt, but her title intrigues me, so I want to paraphrase it as I set out to weave a bridge across the six and a half months since I last wrote on this blog.

Back then my husband and I had just finished a busy summer of travel. We had visited old friends and old times in our lives. My friend Krista’s baby had been born with a serious heart problem the doctors already knew about, and I had just facilitated a new online course for missionary coworkers.

Since then, my husband has had both knees replaced and made an excellent recovery. Krista’s baby has gone on the heart-transplant list. During research on the genealogical resource Ancestry, I discovered an ancestral line that reached back into the 1100s. And I heard from a literary agent that he might be interested in representing my Tangled Strands novel if I did certain things.

That led to a flurry of efforts that writers understand—changing a point of view, writing a new scene for the main character, adding references to enhance my time setting, exploring the possibility of a mentor. I agonized over a new synopsis, and I sent it all in before leaving on a two-week trip.

Suddenly, with the exchange of three e-mails, I had on my computer an agent agreement. Please print two copies, sign them, and return them to the agent. My husband took a picture of my signing them that very evening before I caught a 6 o’clock flight the next morning for Colorado.

That was two weeks ago last evening. After visiting friends in four states, I’ve been home since 4 o’clock this afternoon. Buried in the pile of mail was a copy of the agent agreement bearing both my signature and his. I’m going to have to take a another picture.

Where do I go from here? First on my list is to write and resurrect this blog. Next, I have a long list of thank-you notes to write related to our travels during the last two weeks. Starting next week, I’ll facilitate another online course. In the very near future, my husband will have another surgery, unrelated to the knees, and once again I’ll be here to help him make a good recovery.

Beyond all those things, I’m eager to get back to my story. I want to expand on a romantic attraction in it, deepen the story’s theme, and make some final adjustments in those points of view. I’m happy to be back home, and I look forward to getting back to a semblance of routine. Spring has always been my favorite season, and I am soaking it up with joy. I rejoice in having meaningful work to do and grateful that I’m healthy enough to do it—in spite of the aches and pains inevitable in my season of life.

With God’s help, may the next six months be as full and profitable as the last six.