I am in my office between classes, eating egg drop soup out of a little plastic container with a white plastic spoon, checking email, separating student essays into stacks, wondering whether I will be able to make it until Friday, when my next appointment with the chiropractor is scheduled. Every six months or so, my back slips out of alignment and I spend a few miserable days in varying degrees of pain, with tingling and burning sensations radiating through my torso. I gobble down muscle relaxers and handfuls of Ibuprofen, but get very little sleep until I’m properly aligned again and the pain finally abates, a square inch at a time, a minute at a time. I don’t have time for it, not with the end of the semester bearing down like the gray, oppressive sky just outside my office window, but back pain is notoriously indifferent to my plans and responsibilities.
By Melanie Threlkeld McConnell • Guest Columnist
He usually arrives in the late afternoon, always before dinner time, and he doesn’t stay more than 30 minutes or so. Sometimes I see him arriving, sometimes leaving, his old maroon Oldsmobile crawling along Shelton Street. If I’m out walking, he always waves when he sees me. I wave back. We smile.
But mostly I see him when he is parked, his car pulled over just enough so others can pass, always next to the same row of graves on the Veterans Drive side of Greenhill Cemetery, across the street from where I live. For several years now, I have witnessed this man, likely in his 80s, sitting alone in his car, always at the same spot. Who does he visit? A late wife? A brother or sister? A child? We have never spoken, nor do I know his name, but his vigil speaks volumes. And his isn’t the only one.
My seniors are writing letters to themselves today, an activity I have students do every year just before the holidays. I will mail these letters to them, as I do every year, when they are 22, only five years in the future, but a universe away. The idea of the adults they will become receiving a letter from their former selves fires their imagination. They write and talk for the full period, describing friends, families, passions, habits to break, or, perhaps, habits to form. I watch them while they work, and on their faces is a pensiveness made of equal parts anticipation, hope, and uncertainty.
Moments, mostly the ones unplanned, are the stuff of important and lasting life memories.
We had a great Thanksgiving day with our daughter Hannah, son Liam and family in Asheville. My wife Lori and her sister Julie had planned the dinner for some time, and all turned out as we had hoped.
I left for the office Friday with Lori and Hannah snuggled on the couch watching an old Audrey Hepburn film because, well, that’s what my girls do on vacation days. On Saturday morning we went skiing early at Cataloochee to get in some first-of-the-season runs before the holiday weekend crowds jammed the lift lines. The snow was perfect, and we all gushed once again about how lucky we are to have such a great ski mountain so close to home.
One in 30 American children are homeless, and, overwhelmingly, the two most common causes are economics and parental abuse. That’s the statistic I heard driving to school Monday morning. The outside temperature, 21 degrees, was a stark contrast to my car’s heated seats and comfort. In the three months since school began, I have known four students who have been without a place to stay. I hoped they were somewhere warm while I was listening to this radio report.
I cannot take a nap, at least not on purpose. Whenever I try, I twist and turn as if my wrists are tied behind my back and I have to work myself free. Try as I may to fall asleep, I cannot help obsessing about the things I should be doing, worrying that I may feel worse when I wake up, that I may have insomnia from having slept earlier in the day. A nap has to sneak up on me like a big cat stalking its prey, pouncing on me while I’m listening to jazz in my easy chair, or reading the short stories of Herman Melville. The older I get, the easier prey I become for such naps. When I wake up from naps, I’m usually confused, even disoriented. Where is everyone? What time is it? Why am I reading Herman Melville? Who is that man knocking at the door? Or am I merely dreaming of a man knocking at the door?
I grade about 2,000 essays a year. I do so because I am a high school English teacher, and because I also score Advanced Placement essays for a week every summer for Educational Testing Service. The first year I worked for ETS, by the second day of scoring, I had blurred vision, a stiff neck, and a dread of reading the words “relatable” or “cliché” one more time in the student responses to the essay portion of the test. But something happened the third day, the same something that happens when I read my own students’ work. Call it renewed vision. Call it human connection. Or call it fatigue hallucination. Whatever you call it, I began to read the essays as if they spoke directly to me, and what they said was that adolescents are as hungry for decency, hope, and goodness as any generation before them.
Just as President Obama seems poised to sign an executive order preventing the deportation of up to 5 million illegal immigrants, we read in the Nov. 17 Asheville Citizen-Times that a newcomer center for immigrants in the city school system is so full it has a waiting list. I have no idea how many of those students in the newcomer center or waiting to get in are illegals, but the point is that we have a huge immigration problem in this country and policy to address it keeps being ignored by those in a position to change things.
By Bob Scott • Guest Columnist
In a letter to the editor published in the Nov. 5 edition of The Smoky Mountain News, Rachel Truesdell wrote that as mayor, I “have a lot of explaining to do because most of the arguments in the media from the Town of Franklin are horribly invalid and definitely culturally insensitive.” She was speaking of the Nikwasi Mound.
Absenteeism in American public schools has reached epidemic proportions. Six million students, one in eight, miss 30 days of school each year and are considered chronically absent. Children of poor families are four times as likely to be chronically absent than their peers and, by ninth grade, seven times more likely to drop out.