Writing is Good (for me)

Teachers

Teachers are the people we remember.

On Saturday afternoon, I’m going to the 50th anniversary wedding celebration for two educators from my hometown, Pryor, Okla. One was my 7th grade English teacher and the other my junior high student council adviser.

They also were supportive when I, as a young and brash adult, sought a seat as a delegate to the Oklahoma Democratic Party state convention. This was part of an honors project when I was a student at Oklahoma State University.

We were not particularly close. But they have both remained large in my life, some 30+ years later. Jana and Rick Elliott are two of the faces that come to my mind when I hear the word, “teacher.” There are certainly many others, including lots of relatives, but these two always seem to pop into my head.

There are three reasons Jana, my English teacher, is the poster teacher for me.

  1. Jana told stories about a dog, Zeke (as I recall) who would participate in their lives, specifically while Rick was shaving. I didn’t know much about shaving then, but I loved dogs. And that they allowed their dog to participate in the family morning ritual stuck with me. I never met Zeke nor saw a photo. Yet decades later I can recall his name when I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday.
  2. That white people stole the land from Native Americans was a concept first introduced by a simple puzzle Jana introduced on a late afternoon in class. I’m admittedly fuzzy on the details, but I recall a quote on the chalkboard we were supposed to figure out. The answer was a quote from Chief Joseph, in my mind, but it could also have been from some other indigenous leader. The next year in a different school system, I had a Native American teacher for American History who enlightened me on the history of the United States from a different perspective.
  3. Jana reinforced my nature to be a creative thinker in solving common problems. Students in a seventh grade classroom are not the best at keeping up with things like pencils, paper, and textbooks. Jana had a practice of allowing students to borrow forgotten items as long as they left collateral. Typically, this was a shoe. I never had to offer a shoe for a pencil but classmates did. Her creative way to deal with this has inspired me to look for unique solutions to common problems that help people change their behavior.

Now, on to Rick.

He was the student council adviser my ninth-grade year. I had attended a different school for a year-and-a-half before returning to Pryor and was on the student council there. I don’t even recall how I ended up on student council, but I am grateful he was the faculty adviser.

Ninth grade was a hard year. My parents were recently divorced. I left a school with more advanced courses to return to Pryor with no support for my specific educational needs. (“Kurt can take geometry if you can get him from the junior high to the high school every day.”) Student council was a highlight. I’ve always liked governance and politics.

Due to poor judgment from some of my classmates and my lack of reporting on their plans, many in the student council became at risk for losing their leadership roles and even faced possible expulsion or other disciplinary measures.

Rick deftly guided a process which held those most culpable, culpable, while also instilling a stark sense of responsibility to those of us on the fringes of what in 2019 would be considered a crime and lead to minutes of hyperbolic TV coverage on the youth of 1976.

His calm demeanor and regulated response was a gift and now a reminder to treat a crisis as an opportunity for reasoned response and leadership. It was a different time as we looked forward to the bicentennial celebrations of the United States. Rick’s example resonates in my life as I’ve encountered people in crisis, deserved or inflicted.

My first commitment with this new blog (actually revitalized, but I don’t think anyone read the previous blog) is to remember each of the teachers I had from Kindergarten through high school graduation. After that, I’ll write about other influential educators in my life. I’m please to start this blog with Jana and Rick on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary.

Dying Well

On my desk, as I write this, are two torn pieces of paper. One is a list of appreciated recipes by my spouse. The other is a business card promoting a nonprofit national orgnazition where I serve on the board.

Both papers were torn by Jackson, a puppy rescued from a terrible fate by people who cared enough to invest their time and treasure to this animal who did not ask for nor deserve their intevention.

This holiday season, as I have the Carpenter’s Christmas music streaming, I can’t help but think of all that most of us perceive as abandoned is actually great treasure.

May your perspective shift toward the eternal, divine.

Blessings,

Kurt

Grade 2—Sylvia McMillan

Work, life and service on nonprofit boards have taken over my most recent writing time. I’m overdue in writing about Syliva McMillan (I recall this as the correct spelling).

Mrs. McMillan was the first teacher I encountered who offered time for her students beyond the published class times. There were three or four of us who would arrive early and work on extra lessons.

These lessons ranged from writing, to math, and other interests. This was also the first class where I came to learn that other students were taking her class for a second time. That I knew this about the student indicates this was a different and unjust time.

There was a partition in the southeast corner of the classroom where classmates who were disruptive or otherwise being set aside would sit in isolation for a period of time.

I was always glad I did not reside in the space and I worried about how my classmates felt segregated and apart from the rest of us. It was a different time but it was wrong. I sensed this as a second-grader and I know it now.

It was not Mrs. McMillan’s fault this happened. She was following the norms of the institution. Regardless, this separation causes harm to an eight-year-old human being seeking inclusion.

Mrs. McMillan opened her classroom early to students who go to school early and wanted to work on their areas of interest. I would often read, do math, or help care for a tadpole, frog or turtle we might have in the room. Sometimes we would help clean and organize.

Fifty years later, I have incredibly fond memories associated with those early mornings in her classroom. It was a safe space to explore and push on what was being taught. My sense is Mrs. McMillan saw a need for a few students who would benefit from additional work and challenges. Her support for so many made her a favorite teacher for a lot of my classmates and for me.

Aunt Betty

I’m behind on posting this week, in part due to the passing of my Aunty Betty. I promised her some years ago that I would officiate at her service. That happened today. There were so many people there who loved Betty and her family. This post is my homily delivered at her graveside service in Neosho, MO.

There are those people in your life you believe will always be there. On August 22nd, my spouse, Charla, and I were just finishing dinner when the text message arrived letting me know one of those anchors had left this world.

Aunt Betty, it’s hard for me to call her anything else, was that person for so many of us. She was always there. Lots of things might shift and change, but Betty was a constant. She was always so thrilled to see any of us who would stop by to say, “Hi.” She certainly had her opinions about what you might be doing, involved in, or involved with, but her overwhelming love for her family was at the center of her acceptance of each of us.

As I reflected on her life, I had an insight that surprised me because I had not thought of it before. Betty was the bridge between the Montgomerys and the Gwartneys. As the baby of the Montgomery children and the one closest in age to the Gwartney kids, Betty became a natural connector. My dad, Gene Gwartney, was her brother just as much as Howard Montgomery, her oldest brother. You only have to look at those of us gathered here to see the power of her ability to love people into relationship with each other. The rest of you may have figured that out long ago, but it was a revelation to me.

There are so many memories I have about my aunt who lived in the distant land of Neosho. You know, kids aren’t the best at understanding geography. We’ll have some time to share our recollections as we come together after this service and these memories will differ depending on our relationship and proximity.

For some reason lost to my personal history, my Aunt Betty is tied to the music of Boots Randolph and Floyd Kramer. Throughout my life, whenever I hear those artists, I think of her. The image isn’t clear but it includes a Boots Randolph album cover. Google it or look it up on YouTube if you’re too young to have an idea who I’m talking about.

While Aunt Betty was not one to wear her faith on her sleeve, she had confidence that when her life ended, she would live on in the arms of God and in the memories of her family. Kristi and I visited her at the Joplin hospital when she had hip surgery. She was doing well and wanted out of the confines of her room… and another cup of coffee. We prayed together, holding hands, confiding in the healing love of God. I could see a peace come over her as she settled into her faith.

The faith she lived was tested in the loss of two daughters and her husband. There are people who would give up when faced with losses like this but not Aunt Betty. She never gave up and could do most anything she set her mind to. Now, the other side of that coin, as I’m sure her boys know, is that if she set her mind on something, it wasn’t very likely you were going to change it.

One example I’ll always remember is well into her later years when she quit smoking. This is something she had done her entire life but when she knew her health was really at risk if she kept it up, she found the will to quit. When I asked her about that, rather than going on about how hard it was or how she missed smoking, she told me, “I would’ve quit years ago if I would’ve known I’d feel so much better.”

There are many things in life we can look back on and think, “If would’ve made that change years ago if I would’ve known how much better my life would be.” But most of us lack the will, faith, and persistence that Betty lived each and every day to tackle those difficult changes.

I do know one thing that never changed for her and that was her love of our big, crazy, imperfect, quirky Montgomery-Gwartney family, especially her children and grandchildren. I know it’s a sad day for us as we say goodbye, but I also know Aunt Betty wouldn’t mind if we had a little fun.

So in a moment, as a remembrance, I would like, if you’re willing, for us to gather around for a picture of this holy and special time in memory of the life we’re here to remember. In the name of the creator, redeemer, and sustainer, Amen.

My Pigs Almost Caused Me to be Kicked Out of Kindergarten

This is not one of my pigs, but it looks like them. This is “The Pumpkin VII: Patty is Proud”by Marji Beach is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The headline is true, though I didn’t know that could have happened until a few years later. The real problem was I wasn’t supposed to go to Kindergarten in the Pryor Public Schools. I lived inside the boundaries of a rural school district but my parents really wanted me to go to school in town.

They came up with a plan of subterfuge that allowed me to enroll in the Pryor schools and begin my academic career at Washington Elementary School on the west side of town with my teacher, Ailsa Vojvoda. (I’ll likely write a specific post about Washington later.) My double aunt and uncle (my aunt was my mother’s sister and my uncle was my dad’s brother) lived near Washington Elementary and my aunt took care of me after school.

The plan was to use their town address as my place of residence. You could see their small home just off one of the main roads through town. It had a small yard and a storage building just beneath a large water tower. It did not have room for raising pigs.

But my home in the country did have room to raise pigs. I’ve always loved animals. My first sow, Sundown Shirley (a registered Hampshire pig) was not only a great pig mom, she was a pet to me. Despite the ferocious reputation sows have, Shirley would allow me to be in her pen and play with her piglets. We were so comfortable with each other that I would snuggle with Shirley and her babies on the straw floor of their enclosure. I even fell asleep with them at times.

I was proud of my Shirley and her litter. So proud that when asked to tell a brief story to Ms. Vojvoda that she would write in big letters to display for the upcoming school open house, I told the story of Shirley’s piglets, specifically how one one lost its tail.

I don’t know if Ms. Vojvoda knew where I really lived before the revelation of my hog farming activities. I also don’t remember her saying anything about it and my parents have never mentioned getting any direct communication from my teacher or the school because of my Kindergarten story.

I do remember the ride home from the open house and overhearing my parents talk in concerned tones about something called, “transferring.” They were worried that my story could cause the school system to remove me.

The school didn’t kick me out, though in future years my parents went to court each year to ensure I could continue my education in the Pryor schools. Ms. Vojvoda helped me get a wonderful start in Kindergarten. We had a few disagreements (allowing paint to drip down the page to make bars for a tiger cage was inspired and against the rules for how we paint; that was the last time I argued with her).

I remember the classroom going from a kind-of-scary place to a welcome space where we learned to work together while also figuring out all the expectations that came with public school in the mid-1960s.

One of the vivid memories from that first year was the parade of small children, each carrying a chair, marching across the school grounds from the cafeteria/classroom space to a brand new building constructed for us. On one side was the sparkling Kindergarten class. The other held our school library.

Washington was the smallest, by far, elementary school in the Pryor system. Looking back, getting that start in a smaller school with a wonderful teacher and a classroom filled with many of the same people I would eventually graduate high school with provided a foundation for so many things in the future.

After moving away from my hometown for a part of junior high school and a parental divorce, I came back to Pryor. My mother, sister and I moved into a home on 13th Street where I made a lifelong friend across the street and discovered that Ms. Vojvoda lived next door. I admit it was odd to be a teenager with my Kindergarten teacher a lawn away but there was also some comfort knowing that my first teacher was a real person with parents, children and a life outside of Kindergarten.

Time for Regular Posts

This evening, I realized the thoughts I have are not known to others. For more than 50 years, I’ve had an ongoing dialogue that I only recently realized was internal. Part of the reason for the retarded response to this realization is because I’ve been working in journalism, one of the fields where the internal dialogue may have a chance to burst upon the external.

There are a few close friends and colleagues, either exposed intentionally or otherwise, who have been exposed to this mindstream. They have, on the whole, been supportive and often curious.

Tonight, this revelation has confirmed the reason for getting these internal musings into the wild.

My hope, my plan is to provide daily musings. Many of these may relate to my daily commute along Highway 169 in Tulsa, Okla. I appreciate comments and dialogue.

Pax,
Kurt

Legislative Intent

I had lunch today with one of my favorite journalists. He is one of those reporters who if told by someone, “The sun will rise tomorrow morning,” would want to know how the source knows this will happen.

While we dined on some fine barbecue from Big Anthony’s, we discussed a few of the crazy things going on in the Oklahoma Capitol building. Neither of us was surprised by what was going on, but it did make me think of a phrase courts sometimes use to determine how a law actually works in the real world: legislative intent.

It seems many members of the Oklahoma legislature are concerned with their legislative intent proving the crazy ideas posed by some of their constituents are good enough for the rest of us living north of the Red River and south of Wichita.

Despite this type of legislative intent, and the seemingly constant supply of anti-Obama bills, the Oklahoma Constitution, in its first section, recognizes the Constitution of the United States as the supreme law of the land.

This same section, with apologies to Rep. Sally Kern and others, also says no one living here will be molested for their type of worship. There is a proviso at the end that does prohibit some activity. Read it yourself:

Perfect toleration of religious sentiment shall be secured, and
no inhabitant of the State shall ever be molested in person or
property on account of his or her mode of religious worship; and no
religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or
political rights. Polygamous or plural marriages are forever
prohibited.


I am ordering bumper stickers next week saying, “Perfect toleration of religious sentiment shall be secured.” I think our lawmakers need to refresh their understanding of what it means to exercise religion in Oklahoma. Religious sentiment is not a monolithic idol, nor a monolithic idea. May those who we elect come to this understanding.