Books, Boxing, and Boot Liners

My kids finished their first novels of the year recently. For some kids, these were their first chapter books. One boy in particular announced to me that he’d never read a chapter book before and that it felt good. Since finishing that one, he’s read two others. Instead of poking the other kids when he finishes his work early, he quietly picks up his book and goes to a private corner of the room to read. I keep pinching myself to see if it’s real.

The first group read The Mighty Miss Malone. They were inspired by the account of the 1936 Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling fight and created puppets and a boxing-themed puppet show based on their reading and their research. They were a huge hit with the younger kids, who couldn’t stop talking about it for days after the big kids came to their classes and put on a show.

Yesterday, a group that read Homecoming finished their project, a picture book based on the story. They did a beautiful job: The illustrations were superb, and the main plot points of the story were all there in terms that little people could understand. I went with them to the K-2 class for their reading. Terri projected the book and had my kids read it aloud for the little guys. When they were done, she encouraged the little kids to thank the big kids with hugs, and “ask them nicely to write another book. You’d like an alphabet book, wouldn’t you?” My big tough boy hid behind a table when the little people came charging around to give hugs. One little girl looked directly at him and said “Wiw you wite us a book about faiwies?” and his face nearly melted. She was soooooooooo cute.

I talked on the phone with a friend in another village last night. He says he’ll take me camping this winter, which is awesome. Just going for walks here opens up the world and makes my heart smile. He’s talking with me about snowmachines and extra boot liners and wall tents, and I can’t wait to find out what the world might look like from that kind of adventure-place. I’ve also been emailing all week with a teacher from another district who’s taking me hiking when I go to town in November. He had all my students when they were in elementary, and seems to have an endless supply of super cute pictures of my kids when they were small. I often feel pretty isolated out here, but this week I haven’t. I’ve felt downright social.

Sometimes I think
everyone around me talks too much
I think
I don’t talk unless I have something to say

Sometimes I wonder
if I have nothing to say, or if
just wears the words out of me

Either way.

Lately, I think
friends are the people you are quiet with
I think
I can hear our skis swishing in the snow

Lately I find
i have some friends here
who hear the silent mountains too.

They say “Let’s go outside and play”
And we do.


First Week

Yesterday was the first fine day all week. We went outside to write in our journals. DSC03654 The kids ran ahead, tripping down the path they use in winter for sledding and in summer for flying on bikes.DSC03655Because they are silly, they wouldn’t sit on the ground. All eleven of them crammed together at the one picnic table. DSC03662A little less work got done than I might have hoped, due to the natural consequences of having eleven kids at one table, but everyone wrote at least a page of sensory details. On the walk back, B borrowed my camera.  DSC03665It has been an awesome first week of school. I had to fight to get B in my class, but he’s thriving so far. He likes the book we’re reading and the activities we’ve done in science. I have a handful of kids, like B, that I didn’t know well last year, and they’re still wild cards, but so far nobody has been bored enough to make trouble just for fun. It bodes well.

We’re going to do algebra for real this year. I’ve taken the kids who are ready, regardless of their grade, and Jake has the kids who need another year of preparation. Ready means, in this case, mostly okay on basic math. I’m starting with a good long pre-algebra unit, then jumping into the good stuff. We’re going to take it slow, but I think we can get there.

I have half the class reading The Mighty Miss Malone and the other half reading Homecoming. Both books deal with damaged families and poverty and kids who carry more than their share of the burden. So far, both books are hits, and it warms the cockles of my heart to sit with my kids and talk about literature. We’re getting there.

The anemometers have been mostly successful. They got a little lost converting RPMs to miles per hour, but we’ll keep hitting it until it comes easy. We’ll get there, given time. And distance. ha. ha. DSC03651


I just sent four of my kids out the door, still sticky with chocolate fingers from the cookies they devoured.

This morning, my scintillating sixth grader marched up to me. “What time should I come to your house for cookies tonight?”
“This is the first I’ve heard about making cookies for you”
“So what time should I show up? 8?”
“I’m not making any promises, but if I let you in and I make cookies, you have to read to me while I make them.”
“OK. See you at 8”

She brought her sister and three friends, and they took turns reading Ella Enchanted to me while I whipped up a batch of Fannie Farmer’s chocolate chip wondercookies with oatmeal. They’re pretty cute.

In which I vacuum seal some chocolate cake


It may look unappetizing to the uninitiated, but that is what is known in my neck of the woods as The Chocolate Cake. After you’ve tasted The Chocolate Cake, you can never eat other chocolate cakes without regret. It’s a Cook’s Illustrated recipe for “Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake” if you’re interested. Sean made it for the first time on my 20th birthday, and I shamelessly hid it from all of my friends and devoured it in secret. It’s that kind of cake.

It’s smooshed up in that baggie because we decided to go backpacking to celebrate Sean’s birthday last week, and the vacuum sealer was (er… is) still on the counter from all of the bacon-processing. We took the cake, took Friday off, and took to the woods with our friend Morgan (we were later joined by friend Andrew) to have an adventure on the Sylamore Creek section of the Ozark Highlands Trail.

By the time we reached the trailhead on Friday, it was 2:30. We’d had to de-mildew our gear and take care of the critters and run a few errands before we could leave, and the drive took nearly three hours. We planned on camping out and meeting Andrew a mile or two from the next trailhead (he’d hike in from that direction a little later in the afternoon). That afforded us a six or seven mile hike for the afternoon. Satisfied with the plan, decked in blaze orange, and full of chicken-salad sandwiches, we set off.

DSC00975The trail is mostly well-marked with white blazes, though it clearly sees little use. We did the crunchy-leaf shuffle for miles, the rustling so loud that we couldn’t carry on a conversation. The leaves on the ground sometimes obscured the path, and we once lost the trail completely and had to just aim ourselves north until we hit a jeep road that we recognized from our map. Getting lost in the woods spiced our afternoon with adventure, but it also cost us some time, and when it started getting dark we still had miles to go. The moon was huge that night, and it broke the horizon orange like an egg-yolk, but not until much later. For the last hour or so, we walked in full dark, navigating from bright blaze to blaze along the trail and then following the wide swath of a jeep road. At one point Morgan stopped, turned off her light, then turned it on again. “It’s spiders!” she said, “there’s hundreds of them! Their eyes are glowing.” She handed me her headlamp but I couldn’t see it, no matter how I tilted the light.

We reached a wide-open feed plot at around 6:45, but it felt like midnight. The stars were bright on the sky like I’ve heard the eyes of spiders are bright on the forest floor. We built a fire in the middle of the jeep road and set up camp. We roasted home-made venison sausages and baked sweet-potatoes in the coals. Andrew joined us later that night, ready to hang out by the fire, but by then we were all half-asleep, curled up in our nests around the coals.

DSC00954I got up just before dawn, chilly beside the ashes of the fire, and lit my stove to make myself some tea. When I sleep out, seeing the sunrise is a priority for me. I feel like a sunflower, smiling at the sky, getting my bearings for the day. I loaded up a bottle with hot tea, stuffed it into my sweater, and grabbed my camera. I found a nice corner of the woods and let the world light up with me in it.

DSC00958When I got back to camp, dragging some dry wood, everyone else was still asleep. I re-lit the fire and built it up a little, then crawled back into my sleeping bag with my hot-tea-bottle to warm my toes. I pulled out Harry and read a little by the breaking light of the sun and the flickering light of the fire.

DSC00953Too soon, everyone else was up, hustling to get coffee ready and start breakfast. We had bacon and eggs (ain’t nobody does deluxury backpacking like us folks) cooked in paper-bags over the fire. You rub the bacon on the bag to grease it, then make a bacon-nest in the bottom. You crack an egg into the nest, fold the top of the bag over, then spear it on a stick and hold it over the coals. To tell you the truth, a foil-pack works better, but the paper-bag scheme has a cool-factor that foil packs don’t offer, plus you can burn your cooking implement when you’re done, instead of packing it out. At one point, my bag caught fire and burned down to the bacon, but we slid the charred remains of the bag into another bag and I cooked on with great success (and at great length, this took something like an hour)


As you can see, my egg is seasoned with paper bag ash

We spent Saturday on the trail and came across our first hunters only a short walk from our camp. Saturday was opening day for deer season in Arkansas, and we’d been concerned about hunters coming upon us early in the morning, especially sleeping as we were in the middle of a feed plot. I heard four-wheelers and some shots in the early morning, but there was another feed plot down the road a stretch, and our sleep had gone undisturbed. The hunters we met looked bemused to see us tromping through the woods, all decked out in orange and with heavy packs and no guns, but they were friendly and chit-chatted with us a while.

We filtered water twice in some cold pools in the bottoms. They weren’t flowing (trickling at best) but we pushed our concerns back and drank up. We’re still fine.

We looked a little smurfy in our bulletproof hats, but our ears were damn warm.

We looked a little smurfy in our bulletproof hats, but our ears were damn warm.


Sean quite liked these funky formations.


We were forced to abandon our filtration mission at this pool with the cool rock wall when Andrew went for a swim. Brrr!

DSC00970We camped the next night on a north face, and I pointed my hammock east. I didn’t have to break my cocoon to watch the sun come up: I just basked under the pink sky and read about Harry’s adventures at Poudlard (that’s french for Hogwarts, it seems). After a time, we all got up and reluctantly stuffed our aching feet into our frosty shoes and boots and set off down the trail to the next road crossing where we dropped our packs, hitched up our pants and stuck out our thumbs. A young man, unsurprisingly in a pickup loaded up with hunting gear, stopped for us, and (surprisingly) he didn’t make us ride in back but allowed our stinky selves into the cab. We chatted about spray-foam insulation and pheasants as the red hills swooped by, and he left us at Andrew’s car, ready for a pizza.


Snakes, induction, pool parties, and free time (?!)

Sean and I got down to business when we got home last Tuesday. We loaded up the truck with the tables and the propane cooker that we’d borrowed for the barbeque and bumped down the road to Danny’s. I was reading this amazing book, Code Name Verity, so I didn’t look up until Sean said “whoah…” and stopped the truck. There was a snake, sunning itself in the middle of the driveway, perfectly still. It was a rattlesnake, at least four feet long and easily as big around as my forearm. Whoah.
We edged around it warily, and I placed my body between Sean and the snake, which never moved a centimeter. Its stillness gave me the heebie jeebies. We knocked on the door and Sean informed Danny that his “pet was loose in the driveway.” Danny looked out from the top step and went goggle-eyed; He does this very well – our neighbors are all good at theatrics and story-telling. He went into the house and came out with Nancy and a flat hoe, then walked right up to that rattler in his house-slippers. “Be careful baby,” said a worried Nancy, then to Sean and me, “the logging up behind Catherine’s place is driving them out of the woods. We’ve never seen one on this property before, but they’re on the move now. Loggers killed a six footer with 18 rattles just the other day. Wish they hadn’t killed it, they’re endangered.” Danny had reached the snake by now and was using the hoe to prod it. It set up a rattle, which is more like a buzz, and rose up, ready to strike. Danny held his ground and then actually scooped the snake up on the hoe and threw it a few feet off into the grass. He followed it and repeated the performance. It never stopped buzzing, but Danny was slowly able to harry it until it was well into the treeline.
Sean, Nancy and I let out our breath with a whoosh and Sean and I hopped into the truck to meet Danny down at the shop to unload the tables and cooker. We were all a little unsettled and I looked down at the ground before I stepped out of the truck, unreasonably afraid of running across another snake, this time by surprise. Of course there was nothing there, and I laughed at myself as I stepped out of the truck, reached into the back and pulled out the stand for the cooker. Sean and Danny were leaning against the tailgate, talking about snakes. I walked a few steps into the shop and just about set it down right on top of a copperhead. I noticed just in time and pulled back. “speaking of snakes,” I said, and gestured. Danny turned and there it was, not two feet away from him. “Keely!” he hollered, “My God! He has got to go. He was inside the shop! My God! How did he get in here!” The snake was gorgeous: its hide was a polished copper with deep chocolate patterns. It was coiled up, probably hunkered down for the night, and it never moved until Danny grabbed a long handled tool with a blade and smashed its head. It thrashed a bit, and Danny flung it off into the grass outside the shop. “You’re not gonna skin it, Keely?” Sean said with a shudder. I shrugged. “You want it?” asked Danny, and I nodded “why not? I’ll skin it and practice on it, just like with my raccoon.” Danny gave a laugh but beheaded it for me and I placed it in a bag and chucked it in the truck.


Snakes are weird. They have a musky smell to them that lingers on your hands. I pulled the snake out of the bag when we got home and started trying to skin it. Sometimes, when I would trigger something just right, it would thrash or make a slow slithering glide. It seemed alive, even without its head. Sean couldn’t be in the room with me while I did it. I made a long cut down the belly and once I got it started, the skin pulled off like a banana peel, but all in once piece. It was easier than skinning a raccoon or a pig and took maybe ten minutes. The skinned snake was gray and strange. I bagged it back up and threw it away, disconcerted on an animal level. The skin I laid out, scaly-side down, on the same pallet as my coon skin. Sean helped me flatten it with some window-screen and then staple the screen down to the board so that there wouldn’t be holes in my snake-skin. It’s drying now, though nothing’s really drying in this humidity. I’m going to try making some bracelets out of the hide.


Last Wednesday was my official last day of school, though it was our third day without kids. We teachers spent most of the week doing nitpicky things in our classrooms and gossiping anxiously about the big changes that our district is going through: TFA is not placing in our district for reasons that I wholly support, but the news came late and we have a lot of positions to fill; in addition to that pressure, we’re moving the 7th and 8th grades up to the high school campus. We don’t have enough classrooms, so some teachers will be in portables. We’ll be offering fewer electives and some of us may have to teach more subjects. It’s not a comfortable change, and transparency isn’t one of our superintendent’s professional values.

Interjection: It is broad daylight and I’m hearing coyotes outside. This is extremely unusual and a little nervewracking.

Wednesday evening, Sean and I went to Memphis for dinner and I was able to check out the book Rose Under Fire which is the companion to the book I had just finished. A librarian had to bend the rules for me to make it happen, since the book had not yet been processed since its return, but I charmed her with my enthusiasm/desperation. Her willingness to help me reaffirmed every good thing I’ve ever believed about librarians. I gladly spent $50 for another year’s membership with the Memphis library. Every time I go through the doors to that place I have to fight back a happy-dance.

We went to bed too late and I woke up way too early: I had to be in Monticello, nearly three hours away, by 8:00 am. You do the math: I’m on vacation. I was volunteering to help with induction, TFARK’s orientation for new teachers, and I was less than 100% stoked. I’d committed before I realized that we’d have no new TFA teachers at my school, and I couldn’t go back on my word so I stayed the course. My exhaustion evaporated soon after I arrived and began meeting new teachers. Everyone was so passionate about teaching, so excited to meet their students, so ready to love everything about Arkansas, and so eager to learn that I found myself plugging in to their bubbling energy and recharging. I think I made a summer’s worth of recovery in two days. My jaded, cynical perspective is gone and I’m ready to dive in to next year with all my heart. If you’re one of the people I met at induction or at the party in Helena on Saturday, this is my sincerest thank you. You’ve inspired me.
My favorite part of induction was the math content group. I love teaching math (most of the time) and talking about the specifics of teaching math makes me happy. I loved being grilled by new teachers about my classroom and hearing their ideas for how to get kids excited about math. Totally wonderful. I hope some of them will take me up on my invitation to come up here some weekend during institute to do some planning or talking or canoeing and to let Sean feed them. I want to have a real community of math teachers next year, and it’s already looking good.

Sean’s science lady from our co-op had us over to her beautiful home yesterday. We sat by the pool and had some drinks and chit-chat. She was funny and gracious and fed us generously. It was a perfect way to kick off the summer, that strange season where I have free time and I don’t quite know what to do with myself. It’s a fantastic feeling.

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