The Student Information System

School starts in ten days and  
I have a list of names in a spreadsheet
freshly extracted from the student information system

The S. I. S.  

Fourth graders, all
as that’s what I teach 
Fourth graders.  You’ve heard that old line, right? 

“Oh, you’re a teacher.  What do you teach?”  

“Fourth graders.” Awkward pause.

I’ve looked at that spreadsheet and even queried the SIS
that all-knowing database
but found it to be missing some information

The student in the 11th row 
is he excited about coming to school?  

I wonder about the kiddo in row 4
Science is her favorite subject
but how can I help her love the others?

Does Row Number 6 know that Row Number 8 
is worried about making friends
just like he is?

Row 2 can’t wait to tell me about her summer,
her trip, and all the fun she had, yet

There’s no mention that Row 23 
wishes she could forget the last three months

Row 14, I’ll find out on my own
loves reading while snuggled on the couch 
with his new step-mom

But that’s not in the database  

I have birthdays and addresses 
I guess there’s that

Please Don’t Leave

Interstate 65 in the southern half of Alabama is, for the most part, a beautiful slog.  Pine trees line the roadside for dozens of miles at a time, and you’d better not have less than half a tank of gas if there’s an accident ahead.  Monotony and the resultant distractions probably lead to most of those accidents, but that’s not what I’m writing about. 

As I said, southern Alabama (and northern Alabama, for that matter) is a beautiful place.  The gentle hills of the coastal plain are mostly covered in the pines I mentioned earlier, and the views that the tallest of those hills afford are stunning, in a relatively flat and green way.

Recently, coming home from a conference, I had the opportunity to drive I-65 northbound out of the Montgomery area.  The trip, I’m happy to say, was relatively uneventful as all of my distractions — as well as those of my fellow travelers — were within the limits of safety.  The drive, not complicated with heavy rain or traffic accidents, gave me some time to think, as well as plenty to think about.  

A number of miles north of Montgomery stands a billboard that is regular fodder for local conversation and commentary.  Given the inter-state nature of interstate travel, it’s also known throughout the region and even makes it into national human-interest pieces on occasion.  I am, of course, referring to the “GO TO CHURCH Or the Devil Will Get You!” (sic) sign.

I didn’t actually spend a lot of time thinking about that sign, and I’m not writing about it either. It’s just cool to tell people about it.

There is, however, a new sign sharing the same field, and I did spend some time thinking about it.  Much smaller, though still prominent, the sign states the cliché, “America love it or leave it.”  I’m pretty sure it’s in all caps, but I didn’t get a picture.  In my mind, though, it’s in all caps. 

That saying has been around longer than I can remember (which is back into the 70s), and there was a time when I gave it a positive nod, if not a hearty endorsement.  I used to think differently about a lot of things, to tell you the truth.  Now, though, I see a different America than I did back then, and I see that sign and its words differently as well.  

I used to see only my own little world.  My little town, my little circle of friends and family, and my little frame of reference.  My limited travel and only three channels (plus PBS on the UHF dial) were, I suppose, some of the reasons things used to be little.

Now, though, I see a bigger world and a bigger America.  My little town gave way to living on three different continents and enjoying a variety of experiences.  Traveling over the years (as well as the Internet) has given me a bigger circle of friends and family, and my frame of reference has grown as a result.  I’ve met and known people who are different from me: they look differently, they think differently, and they act differently. They — at least those who are stateside — are America.

America is a big place, literally and metaphorically.  It’s a place of wonder and simplicity; a place of unity and division; a place of celebration and protest.  It’s E pluribus unum: From many, one.  America is a country of diversity and the variety of opinions that come with that reality.  My America, whether one likes it or not, is a place of both differences and similarities.  

And you know what? America, as I see it, is big enough and strong enough to thrive with those realities; they’re an asset, not a liability.

That sign, I suspect, didn’t completely express its author’s full intention.  I could be wrong, but what I think it’s supposed to say is, “MY little vision of America: Love it or leave it.”

I don’t agree with your opinion, sir or ma’am, but I respect your right to have it, and I’m glad you have the opportunity to share it with the world.  

On Permanence

Concrete wall anchors.

All three of those words carry a sense of permanence that — I have to confess — I’m just not looking for right now.  That said, I need to mount something to a wall, and it has to be done today.  

Anchored, it will be.  To a concrete wall.

I’m moving into a new classroom, teaching a new grade level, and working with a new team.  That, for me, is a lot of new, and while I’m looking forward to everything about this school year, it’s still a bit much, given how the summer break has gone so far.  (I’ll start at the current time with that story: All is going well.  The previous five weeks were a bit touch-and-go, though.)

Ah, a new classroom!  So much potential, and so many decisions to be made.  Decisions that include where to mount an interactive panel that’s roughly the size of the barracks room in which I started my adult life.  

Thus the concrete wall anchors.  

Fortunately, I’ve got a putty knife and I’m not afraid to use it.  Maybe things aren’t so permanent after all!

Father’s Day 2021

Etiquette in enclosed spaces is still an iffy thing in the middle of 2021, and a hitch of hesitation showed in the movement of the young man who instinctively lurched toward the doors of my elevator as they started to close.  It was only a hitch, though, and the urgency in his eyes caused me to stick my hand between the moving stainless steel panels, sending them back open to allow him to step into the car with me.

In his early 20s with a ball cap covering his short curly hair, he carried an overfilled bag in his left hand and a phone in his right.  He had been walking hard, and a mixture of anxiety and exertion showed on his face.

I reached down and pushed the button beside the number six, then turned to face the new passenger.

“What floor are you headed to?”

“Fourth, please.”  His countenance darkened slightly as he spoke, although it’s possible it was just a figment of my imagination or a product of my own memory.  I pushed the appropriate metal button.

As the doors slid closed all the way this time, a brief moment of silence hung between us, and with the slightest of jolts, we began to move upward.

Save the hum of the ventilation fan, the ding of passing the second and then the third floor was the only sound in the car until I found the words to say. 

Our car slowed to a stop and the doors opened as I spoke. “My dad just left the fourth floor the other day. I hope y’all are out of there soon.”

Hope. I hope.

He turned his face toward me as he left the car. Inhaling deeply, he hesitated for the second time in the last 30 seconds before saying, simply, “Thanks, man.”

He turned and walked away as the doors slid shut.

Within a few seconds they opened again to let me leave the small compartment. As they had many times over the past three weeks, my eyes looked toward the brushed steel letters on the wall just ahead of me: Heart and Vascular Patient Care.

I whispered a short prayer as I dropped my eyes to the directory on the wall beside me.  As if I needed to be reminded, I read the label beside the number four.

Heart and Vascular Intensive Care

Hope.  I hope.

Turning away, I stepped in the direction of the patient I had come to see, happy to be able to make the trip.

Summer Weather

Predicting the weather, especially in the early days of summer in the south, is always the pursuit of a moving target.  Air pressure rises and falls, fronts move, winds shift, and water vapor collects in white masses that turn to gray then turn to black. Temperatures drop ten degrees in a matter of minutes and the trees wave back and forth, welcoming the lashing they are to take.  Nature holds on.

warm turns to cool
clouds roll in from the west
we brace for what’s next

The Cost of Labor

I’m a maker.  In addition to making narratives, poetry, and other forms of written work, I dabble in carpentry, cabinetry, pottery, gardening, stonework, painting, sewing, rope work, carving, weaving, and a few other activities that will come to me later.  I enjoy making, and I enjoy being around other folks who do so as well.  

There are two ideas floating around the maker world that I’ve seen expressed in different ways, and they always make me chuckle.  

The first is usually found at craft shows or fairs, and it’s a form of, “Sure, he can make it, but will he?” 

As a quick aside, I’m sure “she” could make it too, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen that sign.

The second idea deals with the cost of a service or making of an item.  There’s the basic price, the price that is charged if you watch, and the price that is charged if you help.  Guess which is the cheapest?  Here’s a clue: It’s the one that doesn’t involve you being in the room as the work is being done.

Both of these ideas are floating through my mind this very day, and it’s been tough.

You see, until about two hours ago, the roof on my house leaked.

Before I continue, I’ve got to give a quick tip of the hat to Jerry Garcia and David Grisman for the lyrics to their version of “Arkansas Traveler.” 

Well, hello stranger
Can’t you see that your roof is leaking?
Why don’t you fix it?

Well, right now it’s rainin’ too hard
And when the suns a shinin’
Why, it don’t leak!

Anyway, like I was sayin’, my roof leaked.  In addition to that, I tend to pick up other folks’ speech habits, but that’s another story.

Thinking about how to address that leak, I had a conundrum.  That is, I can do the work, but I don’t have the time.  To be clear, I’ve laid a shingle or two in my day, but I have a flaw in my disposition that accounts for the two guys who are currently on top of my house: I’m a ponderer.  I think too much.  In a word, I’m slow.  I can probably do it, but it’s going to take a lot of time.

I’m fortunate right now to have the resources to have someone else do the work, but I’m absolutely itching to get out there and help.  With my speed, though, they’d charge me double.  

Rightly so, rightly so.

Don’t Read the Comments

I have an opinion, and a way to get it out there
…….I can share it, so I will
What’s an “informed opinion?” I don’t care — this one is mine
…….And that’s what matters
I see that you have an opinion as well, your own point of view
…….Even though it’s flawed
As easily as I can share my opinion, I could do some reading
…….That doesn’t matter
I have no time for nuance, as there are other battles to be fought
…….I have an opinion
You’ll try to scroll on by, but you’ll probably see it, this opinion of mine
…….I can share it, so I will

Tim Gels, Draft

Please note: This is not an autobiographical poem!

Dividing Fractions

I remember my muscles tensing and my body freezing, my eyes growing wider as my mind started to race and adrenaline started to pump.

“I don’t remember how I used to explain why dividing fractions oftentimes ends up with a quotient larger than either the dividend or divisor.”

A few panicky seconds passed.

“Oh my gosh — I can’t remember, I can’t remember,” I said to myself, over and over.

I searched for the answer in my mind.  I worked examples, looking for the pattern that was going to -click- make everything fall into place. I knew this, but I just couldn’t remember.

“I have got to know this.  I can’t just say ‘flip the second fraction and multiply,’ without being able to explain why.”

I looked at the clock, on the off chance that it might give me the answer.

2:40 A.M.

Knowing that I don’t start teaching fourth grade for another two and a half months, I did my best to let it go, telling myself I could look it up in the morning.  “Besides, that’s not even a fourth grade standard,” I added for good measure.

To my later-in-the-morning amazement, I actually went back to sleep.  

A new grade level is going to be fun!

Out of State Plates

The driver ahead of me hesitated
physically straddling the line between turning or not
as one does when a decision is uncertain.

It was a small car, road-dirty with out-of-state plates
and a single occupant, a man whose greying hair 
was visible in the early morning light.

As I would too, he pulled through the light in the turn lane
and it was curiosity, I confess, that soon had me alongside him 
for just a moment before pulling ahead.

Perhaps mid-60s, needing a shave but not a haircut.
A look of concentration with his left hand on the wheel
and his right clutching a sheet of paper.

A few moments later I looked for him in the mirror, but he was gone. 
Where was he going, this far from home?  
Where was I going, this close to home?

Shaking the thought, I slowed once more 
dutifully put on my signal 
and made a turn into the rising sun.

You Can’t Sneak Up on an Owl

It’s almost impossible to sneak up on an owl.

No, really.  Their eyesight is near the top of the charts. Their vision is better than ours during the day, and there’s that whole night vision thing they’ve got going for them.  

Their hearing?  Well, their hearing is enough to make one wonder why we even have charts.  They don’t need to see their prey in order to capture it — the sound of a rustle in the grass or even the beating of an excited heart is more than enough for them to locate their next meal.  

Owls don’t typically have much of a sense of smell, so that works in the favor of any would-be sneaker, but that’s about it. 

All of that said, I recently found myself wishing I could sneak up on an owl.  

An owl who was awaiting my arrival.

A hungry owl — an apex predator — who was waiting for me.


Okay, really, I just needed to feed Max.

I’ve written before about the volunteer work I do with the RISE Raptor Project here in north Alabama.  We’re a small stewardship and conservation education organization that works with birds of prey to communicate our message to the public.

Those birds have to eat, and it was my turn to feed them.  Max’s food, though, was still frozen, so my presence — which should have meant dinner was about to be served — didn’t really mean a meal was imminent.  That’s why I wished I could bring my car up a gravel driveway, turn off the engine, shut the door, unlock and open the building he stays in, thaw his food, and go into his enclosure, all without him knowing I was there.  As if. 

He knew I was there.

Did he let me know he knew?  Yes.  

Did I thaw his dinner as fast as I could?  Yes.  

He gave me grief in the form of an impatient squawk until I finally fed him some 20 minutes later, but he did eventually get his well-thawed meal.  

Did he shower me with thanks afterward?  

Well, no, not really. He was quieter, though. I guess that counts.

Maximus, a Eurasian Eagle Owl
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