Bless her heart, she did the best that she could do, and I loved her for it.

I’m not a native Alabamian, but after 20 years I just know that’s what you say when someone is doing his or her best in a situation.  Bless her heart. Or, as is probably more often the case, bless his heart.

It’s voting day–Super Tuesday–in Alabama, and a number of primary races are of course being decided.  Like many citizens, I do my best to get to the polls, even for minor races. This year’s elections, without getting into politics, aren’t minor in my humble opinion (I do my best to have one of those), but let’s not go down that road.

Anyway, in Alabama we have a paper ballot voting system.  No caucuses, no electronic voting machines, no smartphone apps: We vote on paper.  We’re not backwards, though–votes are counted electronically. For the record, I like the paper copy that really can’t be miscounted if you try hard enough.  

Okay, where was I?  Right, bless her heart.

It’s a secret ballot in my state, but getting the ballot isn’t part of the secret.  You have to say which ballot you want for a primary: Democratic or Republican. 

Now, states are oftentimes labeled with a color, and conventional wisdom has Alabama as a deep shade of red.  Crimson, even (see what I did there?). I’m not going to necessarily tell you how I voted, but I knew when I asked for my ballot I’d be taking one from the stack that still had plenty left.  

The first clerk, that dear woman in my case, gives you a ticket that you take to pick up your actual ballot from a second clerk. She–and really, she was awesome–did her absolute best to pull the ticket that I would need from the appropriate pad as discreetly as possible. Perhaps a bit too discreetly, as for a minute I wondered if I was going to have to give the code word before I could take it from her hand.  It honestly seemed to pain her that my party choice would be revealed to the assembled crowd, modest as it was. She was protecting my vote, and as I said before, I loved her for it.

That, my friends, is a snapshot of what America is all about.

If you have the chance to vote–and the vast majority of us do–please do so.  It matters. 


Training for a Worst-Case Scenario


Strangely enough, despite its relatively light weight, I found a degree of assurance as I released and reattached the Velcro strap snugging the body armor close to my torso.  With that last adjustment behind me, I turned my attention to the Glock pistol I held in my right hand, checking to make sure the slide was all the way forward, a round secure within the chamber.  Confident in my equipment, I looked toward my partner, Robert, at the same time he looked back at me.  

With a nod, we began moving silently and deliberately down the hallway of Gulf Shores High School, moving toward the gunfire and shouting that had echoed off the now silent lockers just seconds before.  Responding to an active shooter required movement to contact, ignoring one’s desire to find cover and concealment. Responding to an active shooter wasn’t something I planned on when I accepted a position as a teacher of third-graders some eleven years earlier.

But here I was, my pistol pointing toward the direction from which we came, my eyes scanning for the threat I knew stalked those halls.  My right hand securely held my weapon, and my left hand rested on my partner’s back as I allowed his eyes and ears to guide us forward past the blue lockers illuminated by the seemingly-inadequate fluorescent light.  His confidence was enough, and I was determined not to let him down as I covered his six o’clock.

Unchallenged to this point, we turned left and found the result of the mayhem we so recently heard.  A student sprawled across the floor, his eyes and voice pleading for help as we came around the corner.  Blood oozed from an apparent gunshot wound to his right leg, and he clawed at my partner as we came within reach.  Despite the urge to do otherwise, we did our best to ignore him, brushing him away as our eyes continued to scan for the threat we knew was well within the effective range of our weapons, knowing we were within range of it as well.

“Open door to the left,” Robert barked, and with a last glance to the rear I prepared to follow him into the room.  We smoothly entered what was apparently a storage room, his body following his weapon in and to the right as I went in after him, swinging my own weapon up and to the left.  

“The room’s clear,” we called out almost simultaneously.  Given the opportunity to attend to the victim lying on the floor, I sent my gaze past the sights of my weapon and back into the hallway, scanning left and right while my partner dragged the student into the empty classroom. Forced by the situation to be content with this small action on behalf of the victim, we headed back out into the hallway.  

“Open door to the left,” I heard, and once again we swept into a classroom.  As with the last, this room was devoid of human threat. As we prepared to move back into the hallway, our individual positions put me in the front of our two-man team.  As he had before, I felt my partner’s hand as it rested on my upper back. As he had before, I moved forward without the need to worry about an undetected threat from the rear.  Flashing lights, similar to those seen from a fire alarm, added to the sensory load we were experiencing, and we could hear shouting just ahead of us.

With my left shoulder dragging along the wall, I moved toward a blue tarp that hung inexplicably across the hallway ahead of us.  Suddenly, the threat burst through the tarp, and time seemed to stand still as my mind struggled to process what I was seeing.  I was aware of a figure dressed in black, a mask covering his face and his hands clutching what appeared to be an assault rifle.

In retrospect, I am given pause by how I reacted through  instinct and training.  My index finger moved without thought from its position along the side of my weapon and onto the trigger.  Within what seemed less than a second I pulled the trigger three times at nearly the same time my partner did so with his own weapon.  We watched the target drop to the ground, continuing to move toward us as he fell.


And then the corporal’s whistle blew, letting us know this part of the scenario was over.

“Put your weapons on the ground,” we heard.  “Move into the classroom ahead of you!”  With her shouts echoing in our ears, we placed our pistols on the ground and moved quickly through an open door, leaving the shooter on the floor behind us.

“Pick up the keys and lock those doors!”  Totally disoriented by the 120 seconds of chaos we had just experienced, we were now tasked with placing a key in the lock of a door knob mounted to a stand in the middle of the room.  Earlier in the day I had learned about the effect stress has on fine motor skills, and now I was faced with that reality first-hand.  Picking up a set of keys from the floor, I fumbled with the effort, finally placing the remarkably tiny piece of metal into the hole and, after another several seconds, turning the lock and ending the exercise.

“Good job–take off your masks,” the corporal ordered.  

And just like that, we were done.

Every day, in schools across the country there are law enforcement officers who serve alongside teachers and administrators.  School Resource Officers–SROs–are there to protect and establish a positive relationship with young people as well as those who seek to educate.  I’ve recently had the privilege of attending the annual conference of The Alabama Association of School Resource Officers (TAASRO).  This narrative reflects (as best as I can remember it–things got a little crazy) my experience with TAASRO’s active shooter familiarization experience for educators.

UPDATE: I’ve had a few questions about why law enforcement is training teachers to respond to active shooters.  They’re not–not even close.  This was simply an exercise designed to help us as educators know what was going on outside of our locked doors.  I am appreciative for the opportunity.  Also, this is a personal narrative–a story.  It doesn’t include anything that didn’t happen, but it also doesn’t delve too deeply into all of the coaching and direction that we received during the exercise.  In simple terms: wow, did we screw up…but we learned along the way.  Thanks again, TAASRO!

Dirt Under Our Fingernails

A post hole digger isn’t a tool that’s used every day by most folks, and, as such, it is typically used with one of the appropriate adverbs: strenuously, arduously, and laboriously are all commonly associated with that particular implement of excavation. With my wife and me, though, “spontaneously” can be added to the list.  

It almost always starts with a book, in this case Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together with Children by Sharon Lovejoy.  Books lead to ideas, ideas lead to pondering, pondering leads to discussion, discussion leads to a decision, a decision leads to a trip to the home improvement store, and that trip leads to a post hole digger.  Now, my wife isn’t one to shirk away from work (on the contrary), but my greater size usually means I get to do the digging.  And I love it.

We’ve always gardened, with varying degrees of success.  Houseplants really aren’t our thing, but we consider our yard space to be an extension of our living space. Our style is “eclectic,” which means a little of this, a little of that, and someday we hope to tie it all together.  We’ve got our chickens and their coop, we’ve got a few blueberry bushes and pecan trees, and we’ve got a lot of shade because of the trees we’ve planted over the years.  We’ve got a nice side porch and a growing number of places to sit in the yard.  And, as of a few years ago, we’ve got grandchildren. Grandchildren in whom we hope to foster a love of the outdoors and all things natural.  Thus, the post hole digger.  

Gardening with chickens requires a fence, either to keep them in or out, depending on the situation and one’s perspective.  So yesterday, racing against the oncoming rain, we started the fence that will soon surround a garden of dreams (My wife, Lisa, walked around yesterday singing the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams”).  Dreams of ours, and, we hope, dreams of those little kidlets, as my daughter calls them.  A garden with sunflowers to sit amongst, a garden with pumpkins to watch and measure as they swell, a garden with flowers turning their faces toward the Alabama sun.  A place in which we can plant hopes for the future.  A place where, with a nod to Wendell Berry, we can know the peace of both the wild and the cultivated.

All that said, my coffee cup is empty, so it’s time to get back out there.  I give thanks for the opportunity.

Recess SOLSC 29

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Today was a beautiful day here in north Alabama!  Right around 80 degrees, a light cloud cover, and a slight breeze made it a wonderful day to be outside, which has been nice after the few recent rainy days we’ve had.  

Today was a recess day, no doubt about it.

As a teacher of third graders, I’m a big fan of recess.  I know the research: How students need a time of physical exertion, how recess helps student engagement, and how nice it is simply to have a break (okay, that last one was peer reviewed personal research, as in, all of the other teachers in my grade level like a break, too!).  Mostly, though, I like to play on the playground, and this was that kind of day.  

On occasions like today, I feel the best vantage point for my playground supervision is the top of our large geodesic dome.  I moseyed on over, and climbed right up to the very top.  I’m probably going to hurt myself someday, but today was not that day.  This particular structure isn’t the most popular on the playground since we recently had new equipment installed, but within a few minutes I had a swarm of kids all around me, clamoring for my attention. Needless to say (yet he says it anyway), not many of our teachers have been to the top of the dome.  We had a big ol’ time hanging out and talking, and I watched nearly a dozen students show me how they could drop down “from almost at the top, Mr. Gels!”  

“Wow, look at you!”

Writing this slice reminds me of a day during my first year teaching.  One of the students challenged me to a race around the playground.  Being an enthusiastic, sprightly 41-year-old, I picked up the gauntlet he threw down and we were off.  Rounding the last turn, I wiped out in the loose gravel and absolutely shredded the right knee of my pants as well as me.  For the record, I still beat him.  We were gasping for air at the finish line (me more than him) and he looked down and saw the blood running down my exposed leg.  

I’ll chuckle about his first words for the rest of my days: “Mr. Gels, is your mom going to be mad?

Kids.  Sheesh.


There isn’t Anyone SOLSC 28

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When I started this Slice of Life Story Challenge, I said to myself (and I know I’ve mentioned this once or twice before) that I was going to keep things light and not dwell on the difficulties of life as a teacher, husband, father, or friend.  There have been a few times where I’ve had to move toward the dark side, but I’ve done pretty well at meeting that early goal.

As of this moment, it’s about 3:30 in the afternoon.  My students have left, I’ve graded the few papers that needed my attention, and I’m looking forward to a retirement event that I’m going to this evening.  I won’t be back until late.

I don’t have a lot of time to write today.  This is it.

Knowing this was going to be the case, I’ve had my eye out for the subject of today’s slice.  The beginning of the day came and went…no story.  Lunch? Uneventful, for the most part; certainly nothing to write about. The afternoon was routine (okay, except for a PLC meeting which was interesting, but a short slice on morphology is escaping me).  The students made it out the door without incident.  That’s certainly noteworthy, but not fodder for my writing.

Honestly, though, today was one of those days where it was not easy to keep from the dark side of slice writing.  Spring fever is in the air, and my students haven’t bounced back from the slump of the nine-day break we just had.  The students who struggle were struggling mightily, and I don’t just mean with academics.  Today was hard.  A light, happy slice is beyond me today.

One of my heroes was Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers.  I’ve got very few memories of his television program, but have the same feeling about him that so many others do (he’s a whole bunch of slices, isn’t he?).  In a book I read about him (sorry, the name escapes me), it is reported that he kept a quote by Mary Kownacki written on a card in his wallet.  If it was good enough for Mr. Rogers, it’s good enough for me, so I’ve got it hanging on my bulletin board near my desk.

“There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.”

My eyes fell on that index card during my earlier despair over my lack of a story idea.  There it was.  There was my slice.

If you’re a teacher or just a friend, you might need those words today.

I did.

I’m sharing them with you, neighbor, because they mean so much to me.  May your day be a good one.

When Worlds Collide SOLSC 27

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This is my first time participating in the Slice of Life Story Challenge, and I’ve enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.  I’ve long considered myself a writer, but have never written and published with regularity.  I know I’m still a few days away from the end–this isn’t a reflection slice–but the realization of one particular way it’s affected my life in conjunction with a chance run-in with friends has prompted today’s slice.

That “one particular way,” as I’m sure is true for many of us (at least 99.9%), is the community that comes with this endeavor.  I have been a regular reader of a few different blogs, and have enjoyed the feedback and comments I get from my readers (especially my incredibly dedicated Welcome Wagon readers–thank you Linda and Diane!)

I feel an awareness that I’m becoming part of the community–I’m becoming part of a new world.

My worlds.  I know that as teachers (as many of us are) we all wear different hats in our lives, and I’ve come to call those hats my different “worlds.”  I don’t know if I have more than the next person, but the variety is certainly interesting.

I have, of course, the world that is my circle of co-teachers and co-laborers at school.  We know each other and relate through all of our “school stuff.”  We can speak in shorthand (just an eye roll and most of them know what I’m talking about) and have each other’s backs in the trenches.

There’s also my church world, where I’m part of a completely different circle of people with different situations, stories, and shared experiences.

As a military retiree who’s active on social media, there’s that world as well: 21 years of service and relationships spanning from when I was a dumb, young 17-year-old through my early 40s.  Three different continents and a whole lot of travel.  Oh yeah, two different services, so I live in both the Marine Corps and Army worlds.

My environmental education world (I’m active with a number of different organizations through Alabama).  My conservation world (Land Trust and Audubon).  My yoga world (perhaps my most colorful, people-wise).  My woodworking and art worlds (small groups, but unique in their own ways).  I’m sure there’s more, but that’s all that come to mind with this writing.

Last night I was at an event, and out of respect for their privacy and the situation (I know, I feel like I’m leaving out the best part of the story) I’ll skip the details, but two folks from completely different worlds of mine (let’s just say far left and far right) came together.  The conversation was awkward, the situation comical (to me), and the follow up conversations over the next few days are sure to be interesting.

I’m me, though.  I’m happy to say that, having read just about everyone’s “About” page, I see that each of you are you as well.  What a crew–thanks for having me.

I like it.  I like it a lot.

What a Dovetail Means to Me SOLSC 26

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I’ve spent some time this weekend exploring what I need to get a newly acquired dovetail jig ready to use.  I want to make some boxes and think they’ll be better looking with that particular joint.  Fortunately, my dad had a jig he was willing to give me, and I just need a few accessories.
As I’ve been working on getting the jig ready to go, I’ve had some time to reflect on just how much doing so means to me.

I know that not everyone knows what a dovetail joint is.  I do, and I’ve got my dad to thank for that.  Dovetails are what you sometimes see when you open a drawer and look at its corners.  Those trapezoidal shapes are called dovetails.  They’re typically machined these days, but still hold a place in our collective consciousness as a mark of hand-work quality.  I spent a lot of my formative years, as well as lots of time since, in my father’s woodshop.  While I don’t remember him cutting any dovetails back then, it was something I knew about.

I know that not everyone knows how to use the tools necessary to cut a dovetail joint, either by hand or with machinery.  I do, and I’ve got my dad to thank for that.  Tools were a part of my childhood as well as the years since.  I recently got to spend time with some of my childhood friends: a twist drill that has long since been replaced with power tools, a coping saw that has seen countless blades through the years, and even a “spare parts” bin with sawdust in the bottom that comes close to matching my 52 years.

I know that not everyone knows how to make a simple wooden box, much less one with dovetailed corners.  I do, and I’ve got my dad to thank for that.  I’ve watched him for years, turning plywood and other lumber into furniture and home improvements.  As the years went by, his skills have improved and I’ve worked to keep pace.  As with age, I don’t know if I’ll ever truly catch up.  We got to spend some time in the shop together last week, and I caught myself standing there watching him work.  I know we’ll both someday close our shop doors for good, so I relish every moment we can make sawdust together.

I’m a maker because he’s a maker.  I’ve got my dad to thank for that.

Degrees of Cathie SOLSC 25

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I have absolutely no idea how many degrees of separation there are between Kevin Bacon and me. No idea whatsoever. That said, I do have a positive recollection of him in Footloose all those years ago. Truth be told, that positivity could be because of my date (high school, tons of nervous energy, 35 year-old memory, blurred, blurred, blurred), but I can’t be sure.

Today is a bumming around town kind of day. A few errands, a cup of coffee with my favorite mermaid, and–and this is a treat–a stop by Lowe Mill. I live near Huntsville, Alabama, which is home to what is reportedly the largest community of artists in the United States. The building itself is a renovated textile mill (yes, I do live way down yonder in the land of cotton) that has been divided into a hundred or so studios for artists of all stripes. Potters, painters, jewelers, printers, carvers, stained glassers, weavers, cabinet makers: It’s an incredible place. I get here when I can. Given that I live a whopping 25 minutes away, the regularity of my trips is depressingly low, but I love it when I can get here (I’m writing this, by the way, in a non-Seattle-based coffee shop located on the second floor of the Mill, fueled by what is probably more caffeine than my cardiologist would recommend).

Tim, what does this have to do with Kevin Bacon? Nothing, I don’t even know the guy.

I do, however, know Cathie. Cathie is a wonderful person who is probably the most understated, laid-back, ball of energy that I’ve ever known. She wears a number of hats with the local Land Trust, each of which takes her out into the community spreading the gospel of conservation and stewardship. Cathie knows people. Not in the I’m-important-and-I-can-show-you-by-dropping-names kind of way, but in a good way. The kind of way that even has her knowing people like me.

Shortly after walking into the Mill, I headed up to the second floor after a quick lap around the first. I was plodding up the stairs (dimly lit, concrete steps, smells vaguely of urine–no idea why) when I became aware of someone on the landing above me. Cathie. Did I mention that she’s connected with the art community as well? Just another reason to love her.

She wasn’t alone, and quickly introduced me to her friend Martha. After a flurry of conversation–a quick flurry, but a flurry nonetheless…did I mention the smell?–in which Martha and I learned we had more in common than just Cathie, I headed back down the steps to Cathie’s studio. Okay, it’s technically her daughter’s studio, but that has no relevance to this story…kind of like Kevin Bacon.

Degrees of Cathie. As I mentioned earlier, friends of Cathie so often find that they have more than a little in common with each other, and I’m always the better for meeting one of them. Martha, it turns out, was once a third grade teacher, just like me. She’s also a writer, albeit one significantly more recognizable and published than me. She loves nature–hey, just like me. She even has a husband named Tim, just like me! Actually, I don’t have a husband named Tim, but my wife does. Good people, she is, to use the cliche.

After a half hour of lively conversation filled with wonderfully scenic rabbit trails, I gave my regards and left them to whatever business brought them here today. It’s a bumming around kind of day for me, but it’s turned out to be one of the best kind. Spring weather, coffee (just one more cup, please), a trip to the Mill, and thirty minutes of good conversation with friends old and new. All things considered, I couldn’t ask for more.


By the way, if you have no idea what I was talking about in my first paragraph, look up “Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Fascinating, in a pop culture sort of way.

That’s Right…I Can Draw SOLSC 24

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Being a teacher of third graders has its challenges, but there are a few things that come pretty easy to me.  Playing basketball with my students, for example.  Being 6’ 4” tall allows me to dominate on a court with an 8’ hoop.  Not many students beat me with multiplication flash cards, either, and I’m usually a lock at checkers.  Old age and treachery always overcomes youth and skill, as the saying goes. (Not that I’m very treacherous…)

Today, though, we didn’t play basketball or work with multiplication cards.  We did, however, have our Den Days.  Our school has a monthly event in which every student participates in a “den.”  (We’re the Endeavor Cubs, so we don’t do clubs, we do dens.)  Each faculty member has 15 or so students for an hour, and we get to share something we enjoy with the kids.  The dens let students participate in everything from board games to singing to yoga to crochet to drawing–that’s what I lead.

As with basketball, I’m really not particularly skilled at drawing, but I have the basics down.  That allows me to deal in a currency that my students appreciate: Pokemon character drawings.   Today, I learned about Karrablast and Glaceon.  Certainly you know who they are, right?  Yea, me either.  I used them today, though, to teach a few art basics and develop some relationships.  That’s a win, even if it’s a little treacherous, in my book.

Strange, but true, fact: My niece is employed as a graphic artist and works for a Pokemon licensee.  She really does draw them for a living. Pretty cool.

Dinner Date SOLSC 23

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My daughter saved me–and you, my reader–from having to write about school.  Thank goodness.  Today was one of those days where it wasn’t a bad day, but wasn’t necessarily a good day, either.  For this teacher of third graders, it was a busy day. Busy, as in, “Wow.”

But, I’m not going to write about that.  Nothing to see there, citizens, just move along.

Thursday night, my youngest daughter, Kim, normally comes over to our house for dinner.  ‘Tis tax season, though, so I’m sorta baching it (my wife’s an accountant).  I’m perfectly capable, mind you, of making a meal, but sometimes it’s nice to go out as well.  (Quick aside: No, I didn’t know how to spell “baching,” so I Googled it.  Most definitions were a variation on “living as a bachelor while one’s wife is away,” but the Urban Dictionary says it leans toward infidelity.  Darn.  Another perfectly good word headed down the drain of modern usage, but I’m still going to use it today.)

We decided on a nearby Mexican restaurant that she enjoys.  I’ve only been there once, but it’s been quite a while.  It was good, and after April 18th I’m pretty sure I’ll be headed back with my wife.  (Another quick aside: Tax day is April 18th this year.  Why not the 15th, you might wonder? (Then again, you might not.)  The 15th is on a Saturday this year, and Emancipation Day is celebrated in Washington D.C. on April 16th.  That means it’s observed on Monday, the 17th–a holiday for the IRS.  Hence, Tax Day is on the 18th.  Go ahead, relax–you’ve got plenty of time.)

The food, as I mentioned, was good, and the conversation was better.  My daughter was probably the better conversationalist today (see my first paragraph), but I think I did okay.  It’s nice to spend time with my girls.  They’re both closer to thirty than twenty, now, and I’m more than proud of the women they’ve become.  My other daughter, Karin, doesn’t get out much without her two daughters in tow, but I love the time we spend together as well (I need to write about the granddaughters–maybe a later slice).

As I’m wrapping this up, a closing pun occurred to me: Tonight was nachos with two asides.

I know, I know. Did I mention today was a little crazy?

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