And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street

I love Monday mornings. Right before first class, my students and I swap stories from the weekend.

I ask, “Did anything exciting happen to you last weekend?” And they tell me all about their adventures. Or they yawn and give me a blank stare.

How is it that we all love stories? There must be something deep in the nature of humans that drives us to recount our adventures. We’ve told them ever since that first campfire. Our children hear them at bedtime. And I tell them to my students every Monday morning.

Last night, something very unusual indeed happened to me.

Our bedroom floor is made of two-by-six’s laid edge to edge. And I suspect they were laid wet, because now there are gaps between them. I would mention that the gaps are sizeable, but sizeable is relative. The gaps I speak of are the size of a smallish mouse.

As it relates to most things, my dear wife Claudia is definitely above the average. But when it comes to chocolate, I believe she is pretty typical. You could find chocolate on our nightstand more times than not.

And a week ago, a smallish mouse was delighted to discover the same. I awoke to the sound of nibbling. I swung my hand out of bed. He scurried back though the crack. The next morning the chocolate bore the marks of mouse teeth.

Now I know it was a waste of great food, but we broke off the very edge of the bar and Claudia threw it in the garbage. I would have dropped it though the crack. There is a soft spot in me for smallish things. Yet every soft spot has its edges. I was personally responsible for moving the chocolate from the bottom shelf, to the top of the nightstand.

Last night we finished that sweet dark substance. I’m sure you are familiar with the possess: crumpling the empty wrapper, looking at each other and sighing. I turned it over thoughtfully. Precious fragments lingered still. The soft spot wakened, and I dropped the package over the edge of the bed.

“For the mouse,” I told Claudia.

I slept and dreamed someone was typing on a rattly laptop. I woke. The sound came from the floor beside our bed.

For the next half hour, I teased the smallish mouse. I’d make a sudden motion and listen to him scurry off. Soft spots have edges. Many ideas came to me. I could drop my iPad on him and convert him to dog food. I could pounce my hand on him. I could continue building his trust with empty threats. But most of all, I wanted to see him.

How well can mice see in the dark? I know little about the eyeball of the mus musculus except for the way it peers from under the trap spring. But it is reasonable to expect they have great night vision. They spend most of their lives careening through dark passages. I began an experiment, mixing in my own twist of psychology.

Question 1: Do mice see in the dark?

Question 2: If so, do human eyes bother them?

Experiment 1: I put my face over the edge of the bed and turned my closed eyes toward the chocolate wrapper.

Experiment 2: If my mouse began rustling, I would open my eyes and hopefully scare him badly enough to give him daymares.

Solution 1: Yes

Solution 2: I don’t know.

After lying senseless with my face exposed for nearly fifteen minutes, I gave up. There was not a squeak. I turned over, put my arms beneath my pillow, and would soon have gone back to sleep. Except for the rustling.

I closed my eyes against it.

Suddenly the rustling had stopped, and something was tickling my arm where it disappeared beneath my pillow. I jerked. It was gone.

I lay still. My brain whirled. Could it have been a largish Romanian spider? Or was it a smallish mouse? I remembered playing with a mouse in my sister’s house in British Columbia. Sleeping in her living room that night, I had listened to it crawl over the back of the couch, and had waited to make my move until it was between my bare ankles. It escaped unscathed.

Last night, I didn’t.

As I lay still, the tickling began again; and just as I began to move quickly and intelligently to catch the belligerent beast, he sank his not-so-smallish teeth into my arm.

I jerked and roared. Claudia sat up in bed. Something like a giggle dropped though the crack in our floor.

Eclipse

Maybe the flawed school board meeting was the fault of the blood moon, the second in a tetra of blood moons. Few things inspire superstition like the red orb, and if the moon could have made a difference that evening, it did. In school that day, my students and I had discussed the impending phenomena, but none of us were sure it would be worth getting out of bed at 4:30 the next morning just to see a lunar eclipse.

The teacher had school board meeting that night.

As I headed down the hill to school, my mind wrestled with the school board. They seemed to want nothing but absolute authority. With me as a personal slave. How long, I wondered, had those board members actually taught a classroom? This was my fourth year. How could the inexperienced advise the experienced? Wouldn’t it be better for the school board to step a side and give me more room to shine? An eclipse becomes bloody.
We sat down at a table together.

In the previous board meeting the school board had set my salary for the current year. Now, at the start of this meeting, I happened to see an array of numbers on one of the board member’s papers. The numbers were obviously suggestions for a monthly salary, and sure enough $2000 was circled. That was it, $2000 a month. My mind went backward a winter to a discussion on wages in Outback Steakhouse.

“How much do you make a month?” Bruce asked.

“How much should I make?” I countered, chewing on the end of a sparerib.
My friend looked thoughtful, “Don’t know, but a guy your age should probably be making three grand a month.”

I dropped the bone. “Eighteen hundred.”

We groaned together. Teachers make next to nothing. Back then, I wished I wouldn’t have committed to teach another year.

But here I am again. It’s another year, and another meeting taking advice from folks with less experience than I, who pay me subsistence wages.

Within a few minutes, a board member across the table flipped his paper over. It wasn’t really for me to see, but running up the upside-down page was list of numbers. I can read upside down. Across from 2000 was 4 years. Above that was 2200 and 5 years. Next came 2400 and 6 years. The list continued on at the same sickening rate, increasing 200 dollars a year. My stomach knotted. I would make $3000 a month during my ninth year of teaching. I had to teach another five years to make what my peers had made last year.

Outside, the moon may have already been darkening. Yet I doubt it. At least not the bloody part.

In previous months I had fought a battle about finances. I had fought it in my soul, and finally decided money didn’t matter as long as I could teach. As long as I could teach with authority, using whatever method necessary.

Pulling my mind back to the meeting I proposed a work incentive plan I wanted to implement to help lazy students feel like trying. I wished to not assign the even problems on the student’s math reviews if they could score above 95% on their previous lesson. I also followed up with a plan for increased pain, should the students score lower that 85%. I thought I presented it well: my situation, my reasoning, and my cure. “The student’s work is thankless,” I commented, “they need a bit of payback.”

The school board shot it down. I could very well list all their faulty reasoning here, but I won’t. Their reasoning included questioning whether it’s healthy to reward honest work. They weren’t sure why a good student should receive a lightened workload. They wondered why a warm feeling about a good job isn’t enough for students. In short, they made my idea sound ludicrous.

Yet somehow, finally, after much arguing and persuading and rehearsing facts and giving supporting evidence and answering elementary questions; I knocked the school boards novice reasoning from under them and prevailed, of sorts. One board member finally looked around at the rest and said, “We can let him go ahead with this?” He shrugged his shoulders. I then knew I shouldn’t have even wasted their time with such a trivial item.

But I was burnt. I hoped I would remember this in December when they try to get me to teach again. I can’t carry on in a school that won’t help me. I can’t carry on being a pawn and a pauper. I’ll work for someone who actually likes what I do. In fact, I likely could glorify God in other occupations as well.

But worst of all, I was too burnt out to be even a good school teacher.
My heart felt cold, how could I wake in the early morning of the next day to see a lunar eclipse firsthand?

I smugly set my alarm for 5:45, and crawled into bed, too tired and too put out to feel like trying. The eclipse would likely be concealed by clouds. If they want to ruin their school, they can.

But as I lay quiet, something deeper stirred inside. Something strong. Something that can’t be tampered with. Something that will not die.

I thought of the pupils.

I crawled out of bed. I reset the alarm to 4:30 and woke when it rang. Stumbling outside, I gazed at a sliver of moon shining through the haze. I went back into the warm house and set the alarm for 5:45. I crawled back into bed.

And I had a horrific dream that I was arguing, actually arguing in a heated and unholy way with an obstinate school board. I felt pain in the pit of my stomach. I awoke, took a shower, read my Bible, asked forgiveness of God, went to school, put a smile on my face, and asked those students if they had been able to see the blood moon too.

“The greatest frustrations in teaching often have little to do with the students and more to do with school politics.” – Rafe Esquith

The Win

Phillip Done, in his book Thirty-two Third Graders and One Class Bunny, says this about his experience as a teacher: “I always lose at arm wrestling.” I hope Mr. Done would understand.

I also am a teacher, but this game I had to win. Any teacher would lose an arm wrestle. He doesn’t need the biggest biceps, but Chess is a different story. He does need mind over muscle.

I’ve been Greg’s teacher for the last three years without knowing that he is a Chess champion. This means I’ve lost many opportunities to make the connection for him between the game and his school work. Perhaps it’s the thread that runs so true because when Chess became a craze in school this year, Greg brought in a board and won every game. He could win against his older brother, Henry. He says the only person he still can’t beat is his dad.

Then he asked if he could play me.

I don’t classify myself as a champion; I don’t play chess often enough. And I had seen enough of Greg’s play to know that he is good, in fact, very good. Yet something in me wanted to pit myself against him.

A crowd of students gathered when we settled down to business. Someone mentioned closing the doors during the championship. I smiled. They had been taught to block distractions.

I moved a pawn, Greg moved a pawn. My queen came out, Greg’s queen came out. The game progressed on even terms. Nothing was dramatic until suddenly Greg’s queen got busy bumping my players from the board. I lost a knight and a bishop while he shamelessly moved his queen into my corner. “Hey Greg, you got to get her out of there,” Henry said.

Greg smiled, “She’s okay.”

I was afraid too she was. But by playing with one eye on her and watching my chance, my players closed in… and he lost his queen. “Ah, too bad,” he said, using his poor grade voice. I doubted if he cared.

The game moved on. I loved it. There’s nothing like connecting with intellect over a chess board. Before school, at break, during lunch, and after prayer meeting, we played. That evening Greg’s dad watched the two of us play. He watched me sweat. I had a queen only; Greg had a rook and two bishops.

I wasn’t sure how Greg would react if I won the game. I wasn’t sure how he would react if he won the game. I wasn’t even sure there was much I could do about either outcome. “You know one of us will have to lose?” I asked, trying to feel him out.

“Sure,” he responded, “move your queen right there.” He pointed to a space beside his rook.

I moved the other way. “Sorry, but you play too well. I have to play to win.” I was as nervous as a third grader.

We left the game for the night and the next morning Greg told me in a calm, smiling tone that he had been up till midnight reading a book about chess. My eyes bugged out and my brow furrowed. He was very serious about this game, he even read books about it; but one of us had to lose.

That morning Greg miscalculated and my queen got his rook, then one bishop, and then the other. The game was over. Everyone cheered. Greg’s younger brother booed. Greg was silent, silent yet smiling.

He said very little until first recess. I could tell he didn’t like losing, but he knew he had given me a hard enough time. As he walked by the chess table on his way out the door he looked and his dark eyes smiled. “Good game,” he said.

To be a good loser is to learn how to win. – Carl Sandburg