New Life SOLSC 10

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I’m enjoying how this Slice of Life Story Challenge is helping me to put the little things in my life into words.  I’ve always noticed the small and simple things around me (at least, I’ve noticed them as much as I’ve noticed them, if you know what I mean), but it’s been great to share them with others through these short works.

Early this morning I went out into my backyard to give the chickens a little free-range time before my wife and I headed out for the day.  They barreled out of the run to go do their chicken thing, and I took the opportunity to walk around a bit to check on our recently planted trees and shrubs.  With our early spring weather (though snow is forecast for the weekend), they’re starting to bud.  The established stuff has been in bud for a while, but the new is just starting.

The new.  That story–how the new came to be here–rose in my mind as I stood there, looking at the dozen or so plants around me.  A few weeks ago, my wife and I attended a presentation on native plants here in north Alabama.  My wife mentioned that she wanted a paw paw tree (yes, they’re more than just a line in a kids’ song), and a gentleman standing near us said he had some we were welcome to.  Just like that, “I’ve got plenty if you want them.”

A drive, a pleasurable two hours digging around his nature-preserve-like yard, and we were on our way home with way more than just a few paw paw trees.  He gave freely, and I stood there this morning, looking at the new life giving testimony to his generosity.  That, I’m pretty sure, is a parable.  Thanks for sharing it with me.

Old Dogs and New Tricks SOLSC 9

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Like many (probably all) of the slicers participating in the SOLSC, I hope that I and my students will be lifelong learners.  That phrase–lifelong learners–means different things to different people, I suppose, but for me it means that I’m always looking to be able to do or know things I couldn’t do or didn’t know before.

I’ve been someone who enjoys working with my hands since I was very young.  Woodworking, gardening, drawing, painting and even sewing have been pursuits of mine through the years.  Lately, a new term has come into use for people with my (and many more) varied interests: Makers. The “Maker Movement,” as it’s come to be known, embraces traditional do-it-yourself activities as well as today’s technology.  Simultaneous to the emergence of this movement has been a rise in the number of “You-Tubers” publishing videos showing their techniques and methods. (Some say the two occurrences have fed each other.)

Anyway, about the slice of my life.

The other day I was watching a video about how to turn large pieces of wood on a lathe.  The young guy (I say as one in my 50s) had a large, thin paper pattern and laid it on his wood to transfer the shape he was going to cut.  As I was watching him, I thought that there was no way he was going to be able to accurately trace paper as thin as the stuff he was using.  To my amazement, he didn’t trace it.  He laid the pattern on the piece of wood, reached for a can of spray paint, and painted around the edge of the paper, creating a negative silhouette that he was able to use as a cut line.  Wow!  I mean, Wow!  Some of my readers might not think this is a big deal, but for me it was pretty darn incredible.

Last night I was in my garage shop working on a baffle for the post of a birdhouse (the better to keep animals other than birds out of the house).  I needed to cut a piece of wood into the shape of the inside of a piece of flexible stovepipe. The shape was almost, but not quite, a circle, and even if it was, I couldn’t accurately measure its diameter.  Normally, I’d take a pencil and reach down two feet through the pipe to attempt to trace the shape. And, normally I’d be frustrated by the effort since I’d undoubtedly bump things out of place.  Not last night, though!  I grabbed a can of spray paint, shot a quick burst of paint into the pipe, moved the pipe out of the way, and voila! The shape I needed to cut was there on the piece of wood.

Old dogs, new tricks, and all that.  I love it.

Just a Thin Slice SOLSC 8

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As a rule of thumb, I rarely trust women who ask for “just a thin slice” of any type of dessert.  That has almost nothing to do with today’s writing, but since I’m only offering a thin slice it came to my mind.  “Why?” you might ask. Because they’re usually going to want some of mine…

Stepping out my back door this morning, I was totally overcome with the sensory explosion that has led to today’s slice.  I was heading out to make sure our chickens had food and fresh water for the day (my chickens are a story for another day, I’m sure), and was wearing my traditional cool weather garb of sweatpants and a pull over-fleece.  My upper body’s toastiness was quickly offset by the 39 degree Crocs that I slipped my bare feet into on the porch.  Now fully awake, and I mean fully awake! I started down the steps into the yard.

And was totally blown away.

Within the span of a few seconds, I became aware of the birdsong that surrounded me.  The chickadees were loudly admonishing me for not yet putting up the birdhouses sitting in my garage.  The mocking birds were staking out their territory in the neighborhood.  The robins were doing, well, whatever it is robins do.  And two Canada geese flew overhead, honking loudly as if their volitation depended on it. (Mary Oliver also whispered in my ear, as she oftentimes does, “You do not have to be good…”)

Within the same few seconds, I was aware of the new colors surrounding me, standing out against the browns and grays of the winter backdrop.  The lime-green new grass was emerging, the bright pink cherry blossoms next door called for my attention, the white flowers of the volunteer Bradford pear trees behind my yard caught my eye, and the vivid pink blooms of the redbuds stood out starkly against the brown of the deciduous trees further on.

But, most dramatically, within those same few seconds, the Sun rose from behind the house to my east.  I only imagined the “pop,” but it seemed all so real as the trees, the chicken coop, and the rest of my yard was instantly bathed in the golden morning light. The blue sky, the crisp air, the clamor of the birdsong, the colors that surrounded me, and the instantaneous sunlight: All of them worked in concert to leave me briefly speechless.

Just a few seconds–I suppose that’s a thin slice–but oh, what a rush of flavor.  Enough to share.

Cabbages, Yes Cabbages SOLSC 7

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“There he is!  There he is!  Mr. Gels, Mr. Gels!”

I’d put my students on the bus some 15 minutes earlier, and I was walking back to my classroom after standing and talking with a co-worker.  Now, it’s rarely a good thing when I hear my name echoing through the hallway, and it’s even more rare for it to be good when what looks like the entire after-school-day-care safety patrol contingent is the one doing the echoing.

“Mrs. M— is looking for you!  Mrs. M— is looking for you!”

My assistant principal was looking for me.  It’s with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek that I say this was quickly going from bad to worse. I ran through the usual list: I was supposed to be at an IEP meeting…nope.  I’d missed a parent conference…nope.  I’d said I’d take someone’s duty and forgot…possible, but duty should be over by now.  I was lost, but I fell into formation behind them and made my way down the hall.

As I came into Mrs. M’s line of vision, I saw her break from a conversation and give me that look that says I’m glad to see you because there’s something that needs to be done. Okay, at least I didn’t forget anything (as I, ahem, sometimes do).

“There’s a truck here for you.  You’ve got a bunch of cabbage plants.  Get with the front desk and they’ll let you know where he’s at.  We told him he had to leave because there wasn’t a available door during dismissal.” And just like that, she went back to her other conversation, apparently confident that I knew what she was talking about.

I did, but it certainly wasn’t an expected development in my afternoon.  The Bonnie Plant Company has a program where they provide third grade students with a cabbage plant every year.  It wasn’t something we’d done in a few years, but I was familiar enough with the program that I knew what to expect.  As a quick aside, I love Bonnie’s brochure that comes with each plant; it shows a picture of a smiling kid with a ginormous cabbage plant (we’re talking beach ball-sized).  The plants at our school rarely make it out the door alive.

Anyway, after making a big dent in my day’s step goal, I tracked down the plant guy as he pulled back into our parking lot after apparently delivering to another school.  He was a great guy, new to this distribution route.  Some small talk, a few trips in and out of the building carrying flats of cabbage, and a brief paperwork exchange saw him back on his way and me in possession of 144 cabbage plants ready to go home with students tomorrow.

Sauerkraut, anyone?  Just give me a few months.

Rock Stars SOLSC 6

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Growing up with my high school years falling in the late 70s and early 80s, my awareness of what was going on in the music world was shaped the same way many others was: through top 40 radio. I leaned more toward the guitar driven rock end of the spectrum, which meant I was pretty much so constantly in awe of a handful of rock stars. Yep, rock stars.

I sort of feel sorry (in the knowing, yet condescending way of a person in his early 50s) for today’s young people. There’s a lot of fantastic music out there, but–and this is just my opinion, which means everything to me–not much of it has any lasting power. By that, I mean, not much will ever be played on “classic rock radio.” Really, will these young people be headlining auditoriums when they’re in their 60s? I think not.

Okay, I digress.

Tonight, I left school much later than I should have (my wife is a personal tax accountant, so it’s the season for late afternoons and solo dinners), and headed out to my neighborhood big-box home improvement store to buy some hardware to install a few birdhouses in my yard. While I was there, I ran into a teacher I know from one of the other schools in my district. She was out (again, well past “quitting time,” whatever that is) shopping for materials so her students could install a frog pond in their outdoor classroom in a few days. As she wheeled her loaded cart away from me, I realized that she’s a rock star. Lasting power–her impact will be felt over the lifetimes of her students.

Rock stars.

You know what, I’m surrounded by them. The literacy coach who toils those long hours to be ready for whatever a school full of teachers throws at her. The librarian who works to truly know her craft so she’s able to recommend that just-perfect-for-you book. The teacher/blogger/writer up north who points me in just the right direction with book recommendations and article links. The administrators who lead by example and care more than I ever thought possible. The authors, the environmental educators I call friends, the support staff who give long hours well outside of their job descriptions: Rock Stars.

To all of you, from this kid sitting on his bed with a guitar trying to copy your licks, thank you for what you do. Rock on!

Daffodil Picking SOLSC 5

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Wow, I could probably just leave that one word there and my readers could come up with their own stories, whether about their own grandchildren, or their experiences as grandchildren. Hopefully they would be happy stories, but some–like many of mine–would be about sadness and memories.

Today’s story, though, is one of happiness–the kind found in the presence of young children whom one loves.

My granddaughters (my wife would correct me to say, “our granddaughters”) are in the last months of their second and third years.  I can’t just say they’re two and three, because so much happens in those years. They’re only 13 months apart (what was my daughter thinking), but the youngest has had a model in the oldest, so developmentally they’re quite close.  Simple words and phrases have become entire conversations, toddling across the floor has progressed to running through the yard, and they’re even starting to develop a sense of humor.  The oldest is the serious one (as is so often the case), and the youngest has a sparkle to her eyes that cause me to pause and wonder what’s coming next.

They were over today, and the spring-like weather prompted me to drop their mother a note to ensure they came dressed to go outside. We played with the chickens, despite the squawking protests that we were met with.  We investigated the buds forming on the lower branches of the backyard shrubs.  We checked the mailbox beside the chicken coop (another story, there) and found the leaves that had been placed there a few visits ago. And we cut flowers.

“Nana, Nana!  Can we pick flowers?!”  “Picking” daffodils is an adventure, because it involves scissors. The first few attempts were, of course, rushed snips that resulted in much more bloom than stem.  Eventually, though, the skill was mastered.

It seems a cliched expression, but they both actually stick their tongues out slightly as they concentrate. The scissors are place on the stem just below the flower, and then slid “all the way to the bottom, right Nana?”  One at a time, the golden treasures are cut from the plants and carried to the waiting cup of water.  The first time we did this, pictures were taken.  Now, memories are solidified (ours, not the kids, I suppose) and hearts are warmed.

I can’t wait until the next flowers bloom.

A People Day SOLSC 4

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I’m a reluctant people person. Most folks are skeptical when they hear me say it, but it’s true. I’m comfortable in front of an audience or a class, but I’d just as soon be by myself or with my wife with a book and a cup of coffee.

Today, though, was a people day. I was working for the local land trust, sharing information about our organization at a Kite Festival. There were nearly 3,000 people in attendance, but I’m happy to say that not nearly that many of them actually stopped by my booth. It was a full day though, filled with children and adults who dropped by to see the animal puppets and coloring activity that I had for them.  If you’ve never played with a raccoon puppet, you need to. It’s a lot of fun!

As a teacher, there’s a group of people that I see everyday. Most of them, of course, are eight or nine years old. Every once in awhile I have a parent drop by, but that’s about it. The same people, nearly every day. It’s good for me, as a non-people-person, to do things like I did today, stretching myself and getting out of my comfort zone. Sort of like what I’m doing right now. At the end of the day, I’m a better person for it.

Thank you, reader, for dropping by my booth. I’m glad you were here!

A Link to the Past SOLSC 3

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“Mr. Gels, I’ve got a turtle for you.”

“Um, huh?”  The look on my face must have been an interesting one, as kids continued to file around us into the classroom to start their school day.  Students have brought me a lot of different things over the years, but this was a new one.

“I bought him for you in Florida,” he said, as he held a well-used food container in my direction. The container certainly wasn’t store-bought (not recently, anyway), but there was indeed a turtle within it, suspended at the surface of an inch or so of water, looking, well, like a very small turtle with no place to go.  Not panicked or frantic.  Resigned, really. “He wasn’t expensive; I bought him with my own money.”

Okay, a short word about my student: (Here’s where I’d write about him if I could, but that’s not something I’m free to do because of the privacy concerns we all know about.  Thinking about him, though, reminds me of the stories I could tell.)  I miss him and think of him often.  Fond memories, and all of that.

A shorter word about me: The turtle was not something I could resist.  It was a gift, right? Purchased with his own money…how could I turn it down?  I’m a sucker for stuff like that.

An even shorter word about the turtle story: It was actually caught in the neighborhood pond.  The kid confessed a few years later.  Sigh.  That kid.

The turtle spent the rest of the day in that same container, sitting on the counter at the back of my classroom.  That night I took the first of many trips to the pet supply store, getting the supplies needed to set up a suitable habitat in the classroom.  The first of many, indeed–over the years, I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on that turtle.  I keep her for a variety of reasons, but one is the attachment to that student I feel through her.

As I’m wrapping up this short story, I feel like there’s more unsaid than said.  Life’s like that sometimes, isn’t it?

The turtle, well, she’s a slice of my life, splashing when she’s hungry and basking under her light when she’s not.  She’s a connection to my past and a pleasure for the students of my present.

Donations kindly accepted, just not another turtle, please.

Note: I know I changed the gender of the turtle as the story progressed.  For years, the turtle was “Mr. Tuttles.”  Then, a few summers ago, she laid four eggs.  We call her “Ms. Ruby,” now.

54 Squares of Color SOLSC 2

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I really enjoy walking down the hallway just after school lets out.  I’ve taken the students in my third grade class to the bus, and heading back to my classroom takes me down the hallway where all of the “car riders” are sitting.

And sitting.

And sitting.  It’s not uncommon for some of the kids to wait thirty minutes for their parents to show up, so they oftentimes find something to do to while away the time.

Homework and reading are probably the most common activities, but every once in awhile I’ll spot a student with one of my favorite diversions in his or her possession. With its six faces comprised of nine squares each, the Rubik’s cube can’t be beat when it comes to idle hands, at least not in my book.

I’ll walk up all casual like, and quietly ask, “Mind if I take a look?” I’ve never had a student say no; usually they hand it to me like they’re in trouble, despite the grin on my face. Being well over six feet tall in an elementary school world might have something to do with that response…I don’t know.

I’ve never claimed that I figured out how to solve the Rubik’s Cube, but solve it I can.  I’m not a speed cuber, but within just a few minutes the puzzle is normally restored to a state that it’s not seen in quite some time.  I follow up my feat with the admission that I’m not smart enough to have figured it out on my own–I learned it the old fashioned way, by reading a book.  In my fantasy world, the student is inspired, by gosh, to get a book and learn it himself (I offer a copy of my own).  In reality, though, I usually just get the pleasure of solving a puzzle and looking to be just a little bit awesome in the eyes of a student.  Sometimes, that’s enough for me.

Simple Joys SOLSC 1

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The simplest things bring joy to my heart, and lately it’s been birds. Birds.
I’ve never been an avid birder. I can, perhaps, recognize and name more than most folks, but for the most part only by sight.  Real birders, in my mind, know them by their calls, their flight patterns, and their behaviors. Me, though?  I just like birds.

Here in north Alabama, my wife and I live in a modest home in a small subdivision (someone years ago used to own a small cotton field, I suppose) that’s “out in the country.”  We’re within a few miles of civilization, but only because it’s come out to us in the past decade.  The porch on our house has been home to a number of birds over the years, but the nests have almost always ended in disaster.  In the bird world, house finch versus grackle or starling rarely ends well for the finch.

For the past few years, though, we’ve had guests that bring a smile to my face every time I see them.  We’ve got a pair of wrens. I don’t know if they’re together, though they occasionally roost as if they are. They come as the last bit of light is fading from the sky, and leave just before dawn. They aren’t here to nest; they just spend the night, apparently feeling safe from whatever dangers a wren faces in the wild.  Roosting in the corner, perched on the aluminum trim of our siding, they’re tucked just out of sight from the yard.  Occasionally we’ll inadvertently frighten them away, but for the most part they’re comfortable with our infrequent comings and goings. They’re comfortable with us, and we find joy with them.

Wrens.  Simple joys in a not-so-simple world.

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