Quiet / Quitters / Tales Out of School


Quiet / Quitters / Tales Out of School

Early on I was advised to “decide the level of noise you are comfortable with” . . . and then try to achieve that. During my enthusiastic student teaching, I encouraged a greater degree of noisy participation, and received complaints from the next-door teachers’ lounge.

I did learn to match expectations to the needs of an activity, silence for tests and quiet reading time, “12 inch voices” with desks touching for group work, respectful listening to anyone, student or teacher, presenting to the class. Overall, a fairly sedate atmosphere, to the degree that two young men once stormed out of the short stories class when asked to do silent reading, no talking. The rest of the class laughed . . . and returned to reading.

I said once to a student whose class the previous period had been with a very energetic colleague that I admired her and wished to be more like her. He said, “No, don’t! I can’t take that every hour.”

Picture 1

A student recommended Stephen King’s “Quitters’ Inc,” from Night Shift. “I know you don’t like Stephen King, but you’ll like this.”

We know when to trust our students. King’s work was often too intense for me and was the warning example of my “G-rating” request to writing students.

She was right. That story was definitely a welcome exception. Good discussions came from that story. Do the ends justify the means? How high are the costs of smoking? Would a wife really be so forgiving? One year I was given “Stop smoking” stickers to hand out, and most of the students took one.

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Poetry/Positive / Tales Out of School


Poetry/Positive / Tales Out of School

I loved discussing Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” with my students, including the contradictory passages and double meanings. They had so many crucial decision right in front of them, and I had so many past decision to reflect upon, but had not, as one student blurted out, “made all of them already.” As long as we live, we are making those choices. I had it on a poster in the classroom, a reminder of choices to be made.

The beauty of poetry is the conveying of many meanings in one short piece. A class discussion of Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” would elicit many varied responses. Then I’d tell them my high school teacher’s “official” take on it as a longing for death. Students would look again and typically one would offer, “Well, I see how someone could think that, but . . . “ Serious work established, we’d go on to a witty piece definitively proving that it was about Santa and the English major party piece of singing it to “Hernando’s Hideaway.” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171621

Poetry is such a good companion. I memorized Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech in high school and found it a good friend in times of giving or receiving judgements.
Just think if we could turn all our creativity and energy to positive ends . . .

Learning from each other is one of the best parts of teaching all ages. Anna in the King and I sang, “if you become a teacher. By your pupils you’ll be taught.”

Once a student said that for the first time ever female students would be joining the Outoor Ed. class at the shooting range. In her honor, I borrowed a copy of Annie Get Your Gun so we could share the wisdom of “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun”

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Outdoors / Tales Out of School


Outdoors / Tales Out of School

Sometimes being indoors is just too confining, and with no recess at the high school level, students have to work at getting what they need. The very best was when FHN had an outdoor classroom, maintained by the science department but available to all. It was a perfect place for writing poetry on a warm spring day. Once my students were settled and writing, I thought of a poem myself, and had to borrow paper so I could write mine, sharing the experience.

The school had two courtyards that were good places to sit and read, if the nesting birds weren’t too territorial. My Shakespeare students used the courtyard to enact scenes. The cement benches seemed fitting, and there was space to move around. Once our regular location, right outside my room, was locked up, so we went to the courtyard closer to the principals’ offices. The final scene of Julius Caesar went well, but not one administrator turned to look, as multiple deaths were enacted right outside their windows.

One spring fire drill was on such a beautiful day that students begged to stay outside, but the books were all inside. Two young men volunteered to bring the class set of Of Mice and Men, and soon all were seated on a curb, quietly reading. The principal gave us an odd look when we didn’t go back in, but seeing all well in hand, didn’t even come to question our tarrying. It helped that Mice and Men is so engrossing. We once were reading in guidance, as students were called to double-check their registration for the next year’s classes. A distraught student had a loud and active meltdown right outside the room, and not one student even looked up.

Some fire drills were less comfortable. I kept a small afghan in the room for anyone needing extra warmth. It would sometimes accompany a student out on a chilly day. Once it was so cold that I put my ESL students, not yet acclimated to the cold, into my nearby car with blankets (not turned on, because that introduced other temptations and risks).

The short story class read a short story on “Snow” and listened to Carmen Deedy’s story of her first snow in the U.S. We promised our Mexican exchange student, who had never seen snow, that if it snowed during class time, we’d go outside. When snow did appear during class time, it wasn’t the first snow of the year, but when I pointed that out, the young lawyers said I hadn’t stipulated first snow, so I sent them to get coat and we went out. They enjoyed it, and just as with little children, they were ready to return in less than ten minutes.

We also shared this story “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” and agreed that teleporting might be convenient and tidy, but everyone should still be able to go outdoors . . .


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News/NEA / Tales Out of School

News/NEA / Tales Out of School

I was a member of NEA all my teaching years, for the shared knowledge and the professional support. One year two of my colleagues came to inform me, after they had fixed the problem, that paperwork had gotten mixed up . . . In a whistling past the graveyard mood, I wrote this poem.


News of My Death

by Mary F. Garrett

The National Education Association has declared me dead,
And Jim Garrett has been a dues-paying member all year.
My friends inform me after they have corrected the records.

I feel an eerie shiver, but mostly I remember Jim,
A friend and advocate for his deaf students;  
He taught my students to sign in his “free” time.

We were friendly, but not close, 
Although students were positive, because of our names,
That we were married.  
In fact, they said we were “a very nice couple.”
We agreed that at least we fought less 
Than any married couple we knew.

Our mail always ended up in each other’s mailboxes, 
In spite of my efforts to clearly label and personalize them.
I once received his health insurance claim with one of mine,
My first clue, though I didn’t try to read it,
Of the illness that would destroy him.

It seems fitting that his death
Should find a way to come to me,
Consistent avoider of funerals caught at last.

I decide I’d better tell my mother,
In case official word is sent to next-of-kin.
I joke that if anyone complains about a boring class,
I can tell them it’s the best they can expect
From a dead person.

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Mice and Men / Tales Out of School


Mice and Men / Tales Out of School

Of Mice and Men was probably my students’ favorite book in American Literature, partly because the language and story were clear, unlike the wordy prose of my favorite Transcendentalists. Also, the plot was so full of conflicts and dilemmas to be discussed and written about.

At one point, our department considered a proposal to move it to a younger grade. Those of us who taught American Lit. fought hard to keep it for the juniors, citing adult issues and harsh language. Ranch hands can’t be expected to keep to school-appropriate language, after all. My students understood perfectly that when they read the material aloud, taking parts as if it was a play, it was allowed because they were reading as a character.

The main reason we fought to keep it was that our students liked reading it, and we all, students and teachers, deserved this book after slogging through the likes of Moby Dick (not that there weren’t some exciting moments in that. Once the office called for a student and I refused to send him, “He’s Ahab, and we need him”).

I did have a little trouble living through the sad, realistic ending with five classes a day. I kept wanting all to be well. My students were very understanding of my teary eyes and would sometimes write me happy endings. In my favorite, the ranch hands all passed the hat to send George, Lennie, and Candy off to buy their little ranch with the rabbits, and all the hands would be welcome as guests. In another revised ending, Curley’s nameless wife ran off to Hollywood and stardom, finally getting a name, up in lights.


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Love / Tales Out of School


Love / Tales Out of School

I used to tell students who asked to call home that if they called during my class time, they had to tell their moms and dads that they loved them. One young man said, “I always do.” I predict he’ll do well. I also told them that if they were asking for delivery of something they forgot, they owed a return favor, and most agreed.

Sam Austin, my first principal, observed my class and said, “It’s clear that you love your students. You will be able to touch them with discipline because you’ve first touched with love.” I loved them so much that I didn’t want to let them go at the end of the year, but they gently informed me that it was time for summer vacation and I’d be okay.

High school students aren’t used to being loved, but they still need it. I witnessed a very angry sophomore become sweet and cooperative when I delivered a message from his fourth grade teacher, “Mrs. R. loves you.” Writing is a scary thing, putting one’s soul on paper, but he did all assignments for the rest of the year, with that message keeping him safe.

That transformation made me a believer in the power of love, even if it resulted in odd conversations like, “Here’s your detention, but I still love you.”
“You mean like.”
“ . . . no I like ice cream, a bit too much perhaps. People deserve to be loved.”

Mom for years had a Curtis cartoon on her fridge that began with Curtis complaining about his parents’ rules, then saying, “No one cares what my friends do,” and then hugging his mom. One of my students said he understood that his parents and I fussed at him because we cared, “but sometimes I wish so many people didn’t care so much about me.” I could tell he didn’t mean it.
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Kindness / Tales Out of School

Kindness / Tales Out of School


Early in the year, I’d share the Parable of Heaven and Hell, in which people can’t eat because their elbows won’t bend (or their chopsticks are too long). I’ve recorded it on my CD, but I also like this version https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLQmxrrh9js
The lesson, “In heaven they feed each other,” set the expectation that we are to help each other and made life in the classroom a bit more pleasant.

Once when I complimented a student for putting away others’ books, I added, “Actually, everyone in this class is helpful. I like that about you.”
He wasn’t sure I was being sincere, and when I assured him I meant it, he said, “No one has ever said anything nice about me or any group I’ve been a part of.”
“Well then, it’s about time . . . .”

I once had a young man come to take his final for my class, even though he had stolen his grandma’s car and was on the run from the police. The principal came to ask why I hadn’t marked him absent. I produced his completed exam and told his principal that he knew he’d be in even worse trouble if he skipped my exam. The truth, more likely, was that he had friends in that class, a very supportive group of students, and he needed to be with friends. I’m glad the police hadn’t come when he was taking the test, as I would have been foolish enough to ask them to please wait until he finished.

One of my high school students confided, “My grandma tried to teach me knitting, but I wasn’t interested. Now she’s gone.” I told her I’d be her grandma, and she brought her knitting to my classroom at lunch time. Quick learner, too.


When my mom was hospitalized, my students helped me with cards, prayers, words of comfort, and their very best behavior and cooperation. Once when I had rushed out to take a call on Mom’s care, a student was in the hall as I hurried to return . . . to wave me back to take another call, mouthing “Line Two” and signaling with two fingers. When I thanked one student, she said, “Do you remember last year when I needed help? Now it’s your turn.”

I saw an article in Smithsonian Magazine about a clock that sounded a distinct bird call for each of the 12 hours and happened to mention it in passing to one of my classes. A young man immediately informed me that I could get one at Walgreen’s, “I stocked them just last night. They are on row . . . “ Mom loved that clock, which I picked up as soon as school was over, and which I now have at my house.


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Jargon/Joyful / Tales Out of School

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Jargon/Joyful / Tales Out of School

Teaching is joyful indeed. A student once accused me of “selective memory” about her classes, but the joyful parts are the strongest. If an assignment can be made fun, if allowances can be made for individual creativity, real learning is far more likely to occur.

I loved the projects students made for Spoon River Anthology, especially the cakes, and MOST especially the clever use of a . . . wait for it . . . Tombstone Pizza.

My all-time favorite was when I assigned students first to write their own first-person narratives of events they wanted to share. With a bit of inspiration from storytellers’ tales of mischief, they created wonderful tales. Then I asked them to interview older relatives and write their stories. The results were so good I had to read and grade slowly, savoring the experience, and advised them to keep their papers safe to share with family for years to come.

All professions have their own specialized knowledge and jargon (paraphrased from an Asimov story “Profession”). Teachers’ jargon is confusing and sometimes off-putting. Talking in initials, IEP, ESL, FACS, makes it hard for parents to participate in discussions. I remember one father, pleased that his son was in all ACE classes, not realizing that was the acronym for the remedial, alternative, classes.
As the jargon changed over the years, it created a generational disconnect between teachers. NCLB pronounced “Nicklebee” was a prime stressor, and the catalyst for my only mystery, “The NCLB Murder.”

Students who went half-days to tech school, an opportunity earned by good grades and attendance and the ability to navigate the separate schedules of two schools, came back with amazing skills and their own jargon. Lewis and Clark students built a new home every year, and it always sold for top dollar. I have been watching and asking questions of the builders in my neighborhood, picking up more jargon, like piering and water torpedo. Fascinating!


“I give up”/“I’ll never forget” / Tales Out of School


“I give up”/“I’ll never forget” / Tales Out of School

One of my very first junior high students sent an email years later . . . just searched and found me through some internet magic, pre Google. He said, among other things, “I’ve never forgotten the stories you told us.” I hadn’t thought I’d been telling stories back when he was my student, but clearly I had been. His positive emails helped me through the difficult final years of teaching, letting me know it had made a difference.

I have had former students come up to me in stores and restaurants, and it seems that the ones who were the toughest make the most effort to let me know how they have gone on to work, marry, start families . . . as if they want to show me that yes, the efforts were worth it. The turn-arounds are wonderful, even by some that it would have been tempting to give up on.

One young man was failing drama until he said, “That writer hates women” while we were watching Streetcar Named Desire. He backed up his comment with specifics, and I told him there was no way someone that insightful should be failing the class. “You do need this to graduate, don’t you?” He completed extra work with enthusiasm and passed.

*God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

One time, after multiple attempts to engage a student intent on failing my class for the second time, I turned away saying, “I give up.”
My students rallied in shock, “You can’t give up. You never give up.”
I declared that I knew when I was beaten, and they asked, “Can we try?” Bless them, they did get the recalcitrant scholar to complete one or two assignments, not enough to pass, but perhaps enough to show him he could do more than he thought he could.

A year after retiring, I ran into former students when I was telling stories in a state park. One said, “I miss you. No one tells us stories now.” I hope some started telling . . .

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Hurt/Helping / Tales Out of School

Thanksgiving story 2

Several times I would find out a bit of the background of a troublesome student and see that student in a whole new light. I’d wonder how I would be if faced with the half the hardships some students have weathered. Sometimes a bit of understanding, the offer of a helping hand, can make a difference. Understanding, help, courtesy . . . what we all would want.

I once took a very upset male student through a “secret passage” to guidance because females can be seen crying, but it’s a social disaster for males. We avoided all the busy hallways and snuck in the back way where his counselor took him in tow without passing through the front part of the office. She understood. Later I slipped a note inside his graded homework, assuring him that once everyone grew up a bit, women would see and appreciate his good qualities.

When I was reading Night with my students, I said I hoped I’d be brave enough to have offered to hide the persecuted, as their servant woman offered to do at great risk to herself. One of my students studied me carefully and then proclaimed, “Oh yes, YOU would.” I accepted her compliment, but said we really don’t know until tested.
I do hope she’s right.

One student asked, as we talked after school, if I have children. When I said no, just nieces and nephews, he said, “Maybe that’s why you have time for kids like me.” We can’t save every one, but perhaps as in the story of the starfish, we can “make a difference to that one.”

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