Getting Testy

I had an intriguing dream last night. I walked into a room where there was a lady behind a table. She asked if I would play a game. I agreed. She had a set of little cups, each upside down, and a marble. Immediately I knew what the game was, and I knew I would lose. I tried this game recently when the family was over and we were all playing Brain Academy on the Wii. On that, bird cages (some with birds, some empty) were covered and moved around all over the screen until they stopped at the end, and you were supposed to point out which ones had the birds in them. This is definitely not something I can do well. After the first couple of moves, I lose track and my final answer is just a wild guess.

Anyway, in my dream, this lady started the game. Under one of the cups goes the marble, and then she started moving around the cups. I was trying to pay attention, because, smart as I am, I knew what she was going to ask at the end. She came to a halt. This time, though, was my lucky day. I had concentrated well and I knew exactly where the marble was. Smirking, I could hardly wait for the question. She looked at me. Then she asked, “Can you describe the picture on the wall behind you?”

If one can be totally shocked in a dream, I was. What do you mean - the picture I scarcely noticed as I came in the room? What kind of question is that? Ask me where the marble is, lady!!

The whole thing reminded me of the familiar game where someone gets you to add up numbers in your head. “In the Meredith-Springdale school system, there are 439 students. All but 220 went on a field trip in 10 buses. Nine buses held 21 students each.” You’re thinking the question will be “How many students rode on the 10th bus?” but the question is usually, “What was the name of the school system?” It’s never what you expect, nor what you prepare for.

Yeah, I had this happen in 11th grade when Miss Weaks had us read Walden Pond, then on the test was the inane question, “How deep was Walden Pond?” Of course, it can work the other way. We might be studying the trivial part of the book and have to answer the big question of what the book was actually trying to say.

Sometimes in life, I’m afraid we get focusing on the things that won’t help us when the question comes. Some people think a question will come on Judgment Day, but there’s no need to even wait for someone else to ask. These are questions we can ask ourselves over and over to keep our focus in life on what matters. Have I poured myself into my job so much that I have neglected other priorities? I am doing things that bring me pleasure and fulfillment, things that make me a better person to those around me, or I am doing things that make me feel tired, anxious, or drained? Am I elevating family members into their proper place for my attention? Is there an important part of my life I am neglecting in order to focus on lesser things? Is there a decision I have been procrastinating about because it is unwelcome? Am I really paying attention as the days, weeks, and years fly by?

The questions always catch us by surprise, because sometimes they are not the questions we wanted or expected to hear. But sometimes they have to be answered.


“A young Indian boy was auditioning along with some of us for a school play. His mother knew he’d set his heart on being in the play - just like the rest of us hoped, too - and she feared how he would react if he was not chosen.

On the day the parts were awarded, the little boy’s mother went to school on her horse to collect her son. The little boy rushed up to her and her horse, eyes shining with pride and excitement.

‘Guess what, Mom,” he shouted, and then said the words that provide a lesson to us all, “I’ve been chosen to clap and cheer.”

- Ed Slow Horse Chaparro

I received that little gem in a mailing today from Friends of Silence, a group that mails spiritual stories and quotes to me every so often. It made me think of my dad, Ensley Tiffin. You will probably never read his name in the history books, or see him honored posthumously by the Kennedy Center, or see him on the Biography Channel. Yet, he was instrumental in giving encouragement to hundreds of well-known and not-so-well-known people during the Civil Rights movement. He did this through letters of support to those who had done a courageous act, showed the true Christian way, took an ethical stand, knowing the potential risks to their reputation or job, or spoke up for justice in the face of adversity. Some recipients wrote back, saying that Dad’s letter was the only positive one in a bag of hate mail they had received that day.

One of his letters was quoted in the book Freedom’s Coming, and he once had a newspaper article written about his letter-writing habit, but other than that, he didn’t get much publicity. My mother, sister and I will be one day donating the collection of the letters he wrote (and those he received in return) to the Memphis Room at the Memphis Public Library, where they will be catalogued and archived. We would even like to get them published. However, if he never gets the recognition he deserves, that’s OK, too, because he never did anything for his own aggrandizement.

Daddy, of course, took his own risks for justice in his own life. But he knew innately that his gift was being “chosen to clap and cheer,” and he used that gift generously.

Just Folks

I found out a few weeks ago that my second-grade teacher died in 2007. She was 94. Of course, when I was in second grade, I thought she was already in her 90s. Let’s see...that was about 47 years ago, so she must have been in her 40s. When you're in second grade, everyone looks old.

I’ve learned a lot about teachers and aging since then. I never really enjoyed school, but I had some remarkable teachers. I also had some teachers who were the target of my frequent comic poetic portrayal. A lot of my teachers were just plain “characters,” though. Unforgettable. I might have forgotten everything I learned in their classes, but the teachers themselves are burned into my memory. I have enough memories to fill blog posts for a year.

My least favorite teacher (11th grade English) was, interestingly enough, my sister’s favorite. My sister followed me 2 years later, so maybe Miss Weaks had mellowed by then. My favorite teachers were my French teachers, that is, until my last French teacher who didn’t know the difference between the French verbs “to rain” and “to cry,” so I kind of lost respect for her expertise. Most of my teachers just intimidated me, because I was raised to defer to their knowledge and rules and I always did what I was told. I tried to make good grades to please my teachers as well as my parents and myself. I never thought of most of my teachers as real people. During my 12 years of schooling, I visited the home of only my piano teacher for private lessons and my chorus teacher, who consistently opened her home to students. Most of the other teachers were enigmas - I had no idea if they were married, had children, where they lived, if they went to church, or what they did after 3 p.m.

It was an epiphany for me when I grew up when I realized that teachers had real lives outside of school. They went to the grocery, went to restaurants, went to the park, and did all sorts of ordinary things. I remember running into my piano teacher at Walgreens one day years ago. I was shocked to see her in an unfamiliar setting. She was extremely short, but I never noticed it because she was always sitting by me when I played the piano. I couldn’t picture many of my teachers doing things like buying toothpaste.

Of course, things changed when my daughter became a teacher, married a teacher, and then my son married a woman who became a teacher. All of a sudden, things clicked in my head. Teachers had families! They had kids! They paid bills! They could be silly! They could wear casual clothes! They had favorite foods and hobbies and pets!

Do you want to know the most fascinating thing I learned about teachers? I learned that they probably didn’t want to go to school any more than I did back then. They longed for snow days and holidays and summertime. I remember in Memphis on a rare snow day when my sister and I would be jumping for joy, I pictured the teachers cursing the heavens because they had to miss one day of torturing us. I thought they loved their jobs because they had the power over hundreds of students - the power to discipline, the power of the red pen, the power to make or break a report card. I never realized that so many of them got tired of going to work at the school day in and day out, and even among those who loved their jobs, most still enjoyed the serendipity of an unexpected day to stay home. I know the teachers in my family love those snow days!

Here’s to the teachers! Remember - next time you see that schools have a day off, it’s not only the students with unfinished homework who breathe sighs of relief!