The Other Madison Classroom

Over the past couple of weeks there has been much discussion and media attention regarding the altercation between an eleven-year-old girl at Whitehorse Middle School and a staffer.  There was even a grainy video to further the headlines.   It was a story that deserved coverage as it underscores the struggle that our schools face in both providing education to our youth, and also dealing with complicated inter-related components.

The Whitehorse story along with the spring elections for the Madison School Board, at times, tend to further a narrative that much is wrong with what takes place in the classrooms.  But if we only pay attention to that narrative we would miss the good work that is happening in our schools.   A teacher and her nineteen fifth-graders, while not making top of the fold coverage, is the flip side to the news we all have come to know.

Two weeks ago my partner, James, and I sat for an hour in a very busy and creative classroom at Falk Elementary School.  Over the school year a number of adults sponsored a student so that each month a new book landed in their hands.  The effort was made possible in tandem with Scholastic Books and related services.  The school reached out to say thanks with Read Your Heart Out Day.  What I witnessed made an impression that lifted my spirit about teachers, students, and our schools.

As adults rotated among the kids seated at tables we talked with the sponsored child along with their classmates.  It was clear, at once, that books were important parts of not only their classroom work but also their home life.  In easy conversation I causally asked students who had read to them when they were young.  All spoke of an adult who had made for a fond memory.  What cheered me deeply was hearing from students that they now read to their younger siblings.

Boys and girls were tossing out book titles and authors as if the question were what toppings made for a perfect pizza.  There was no missing the fact a teacher had not only made books available but also inculcated the love of reading.  No matter what else happens in the classroom that seed once planted and fostered will serve them for a lifetime.

For the school event James had culled his paperbacks, and spread nineteen of them out on a table.  From Robert Louis Stevenson to Jules Verne there was something for every interest.  One kid when bringing his choice back to the table said he would be reading it right after finishing his current book.  When asked he said it was a self-help book, adding, “You can learn so much from other people’s lives”.   He was reading how to be a successful teenager.  When reminded he was eleven the response came fast.  “I am not going to be caught behind in what I need to know”.

One boy had an interest in being an astronaut, another wished to be a professional basketball player.  A charming girl talked about seeing a bear while on vacation.   What struck me continually was how conversational these youngsters were, and how they were able to link their interests to books for either being entertained or more informed.  They talked with enthusiasm about topics which I could tell from their eyes and words was genuine.

I left the school with a very upbeat sense about what is right about Madison Schools and our youth.  The students did not just find themselves engaged with books as they had nothing better to do.  Granted, there are good forces in many homes which propel kids towards books.   But it is also most obvious the importance of having a guiding hand and nurturing spirit day-to-day from a teacher.  I also am confident being able to walk into a number of similar classrooms in Madison and having a comparable enriching experience.

I have gladly talked about these students and that classroom teacher to several people over the past weeks.  Just yesterday I was telling this story to an aunt and uncle some eighty miles away!   With the recent headlines it is important to know there are many classrooms making us proud as parents, citizens, and taxpayers.  It is important that all the stories get told about Madison Schools, and not only ones that make for alarm.   I sincerely thank those fifth graders for reminding me again that all good things start with education.

Letter From Home “Snowdrifts Beckon” 3/6/19

Eighty-one miles northward.  Fifty years in reverse.

The road where my dad grew up in Coloma, Wisconsin.

Most winters, over the recent years in Wisconsin, have lost their bluster.  The snows come late.  The drifts look anemic.  The cold can still bite but without the scenic wonderland of white there is just not the drama of the season.  Over time there has been little from Ole Man Winter to remind those with decades behind them what it felt like to be a kid.   And then came February 2019.

With sharp blasts of Arctic air, significant snow falls, and wind gusts that shaped and sculpted drifts the dreary landscape was transformed.  With the aid of dual-wing snow plows, and motor graders with massive front-end plows waging battle in the rural areas, the piles of snow started to echo the memories that older people recall from childhood.

This week, when James and I started northwards for a trip, there were no thoughts given that anything more interesting would be seen than the folks we were to visit.  We had traveled the same highway and back roads often over the years.  But it was not long after heading north from Madison that the sights started to change, and my mood–which was already chipper–took off with a broad smile.

Along the road were large molded drifts with the tops curled down and shaped by the winds.  A brisk raw breeze made for the continuing sifting and blowing of snow that arced off the tops of the drifts and came like wafts of white over and around the car.  Where the drifts along the road were continuous it was akin to following a semi on a snow-covered road.  I loved it.

But it was not until we reached the area where I grew up that I stopped the car several times on back country roads, grabbed the camera, and tried to photograph how I felt.  Winter in the country is much different from the same season in the city.

As a boy walking in the fields and woods back home I always plodded through snow deeper than my boots.   Without fail I would wind up with snow inside them and a need for dry socks.  I have not had that sensation for at least 40 years.

Standing on the roadways this week the bracing wind and the rustle of the dry foliage were the only sounds to be heard.  No traffic or hub-bub to block out the silence of winter.  In the city we forget that winter is a quiet season.   It is to be restful and restorative.  The snow is to be calming, pointing us inwards.  The country woods and open fields have always known that truth.

Childhood memories of snow drifts that covered a portion of the Buick in the driveway, or the blowing winds which sent snow through the crack in the back entry screen door still bring smiles. Mom was none too pleased with the snow at the bottom of the door but as a kid I marveled at how strong winter had to be to get the snow inside.

But it was while drinking strong hot coffee this week, while looking across the road at the old home place, that allowed me to recall another memory.  When dad worked at night plowing snow the yard light would be left on for his return.  It was those nights I would draw back the window coverings in my bedroom and watch the snow fall.  The room would be awash in light but the snow falling and blowing about was a tonic as I fell to sleep.  At some point I would awake and the light would be off.  Dad was home.

The work of the snow plow drivers was much in evidence this week–as was the power of Mother Nature.  In order to create the mounds of snow in the flat open areas there needs to be hours of howling winds and measurable snowfall.  With just the right velocity and amounts of precip the outcome mimicked what I knew as a kid.   I stopped the car quickly on the icy road just about a mile from the family home and yelled to James “this is what it was like”!

And it was.

Wisconsin has four seasons.  Some people like parts of each.  Some love a few, and much dislike one.  As I stopped the car for the umpteenth time to hop out and snap a photo I felt a bit like a kid.  It was a good day.  But I also felt something else, too.  Something that comes with experience and time.  It is a blessing to have four seasons and be alive to enjoy them. We should not wish time away to get to another season.  We should feel the bite of the wind, hear the crunch of snow underfoot, and thrill at the sight of snow lifting off of a mound taller than we are.

And we should never venture northwards in a Wisconsin winter without a hat in the car.

The road where I grew up in Hancock, Wisconsin.  Home can be seen slightly far right in middle of photo.