Thursday, September 22, 2011

Where I'm From--Version 2

I MISS….by Cathie English August 2005

I miss the purple lilacs in the front yard,
The scent’s strength permeating the house on a May afternoon,
Adorning the table at eleven high school graduations.

I miss the wood floors in the dining and living room,
The polkas and waltzes, standing on Daddy’s shoes,
The Big Joe Polka show playing on the scratchy stereo.

I miss Dad’s breathy laugh and how he laughed at his own jokes, and the
stories he told of fishing on the Loup Canal and dunk hunting on the Platte,
the town whistle blowing because his parents thought he’d drowned in the canal.

I miss working side by side with Mom in the kitchen,
peeling potatoes, snapping beans, frying chicken, adding cornstarch
to make gravy, washing dishes, and having a cool one after a hot
day of cooking.

I miss racing across road and down the alley to Babka’s house,
Her front porch, sun drenched, on winter days, reading magazines,
Pulling weeds and picking strawberries in the summer, paring apples in the fall,
Staying overnight and having bacon and eggs and coffee boiled with egg shells
On the white wood burning stove.

I miss climbing out onto the roof from our bedroom with my sister Chris,
Talking the night away about our future plans, boyfriends, girl friends, and people
We couldn’t stand.

I miss watching the basketball games and screaming at the top of my lungs when
My older brothers played a good game, screaming for three, Mike, Kava and Scott, proud
Of their three point shooting ability long before the three pointers counted.

I miss our family trips to Beatrice to see our brother Mark—the laughter he created with his funny ways—his love of grapes and magazines and chocolate—and the sadness of leaving him behind.

I miss making breakfast for the little ones before school—Cocoa Wheats, pancakes, and fried eggs or lunches during the summer of fried baloney sandwiches, grilled cheese and macaroni and cheese or hot dog gravy.

I miss watching my younger siblings grow up—Paco, Lisa, Julie, Denise, Charlie and Vicki—the other half of the family growing up while I was married.
I miss all the days of constant commotion, daily strife, tears, laughter, good times, and love, a communion like no other I’ve ever experienced before or ever will again, the tight-knit, stick together family we were and still are.

* * *

I wrote the poem above in 2005, or six years ago. It was the second version of the "Where I'm From" parodied after George Ella Lyon's poem. I have always loved Ms. Lyon’s poem because it is a poetry form that many of us can use well. It isn’t always easy to copy her form. She says so much in a few lines! It takes me forever to say what I want to say but that is because I have so memories. A person has a lot of memories when they have a large family. It would take me a life time to write everything about my family. The sense of place I had was very strong because we rarely went beyond a 50-mile radius of my hometown, Silver Creek. Large families simply don’t have the income to accommodate much travel. It was a highlight for us to travel the 100 miles to Beatrice to visit our brother. It was also necessary to recruit a family friend to help transport our entire family.

So, because we never traveled far, I became intimately acquainted with every gravel street, every flower on my two-block walk to school. I could walk to Kula’s store “downtown” with my eyes closed. I knew not to go barefoot across the Union Pacific railroad during the summer because there were too many stickers protruding from the sidewalk on the approach to the tracks. I could also tell you that the north side of the Platte River right under the bridge is where you’d sink to hip deep before you could reach the sand bars in the middle of the river. I also knew that on the south side of the river about a mile west, there were some pretty good swimming holes where the water was even deeper. Every kid in town also knew that come Halloween, you went to Mrs. Clara Bryant’s house because she always gave out a small white sack of candy to every single child in town. It helped that she had owned the grocery store that her son now owned and she was an incredibly generous woman. She lived right across the street from the school, so she was familiar to all of us.

Living in small town America is the best of times. I remember when I first read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; I felt like I personally knew Scout Finch. She could have been my neighbor. I imagine Scout and I could sit down and talk about the intricacies and people of our little towns.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Lifetime of Learning

Acquiring knowledge is a lifetime endeavor. And it seems like I have spent a greater part of my existence in a formal academic setting. You could say I’m a perpetual student. I really didn’t plan on doing this, but truth be told, I love learning. Thirty years of my life have been spent in the classroom--60 percent of my life has been dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. It’s not that I want to be a know-it-all. I just find that there are so many wonderful opportunities to explore the world and meet new and fascinating people.

Growing up, I was the student who always sat in the front row, eager to hear what the teacher had to say. I was the student who took meticulous notes in every single class. I studied voraciously (well, except maybe for science class at least until I was privileged to take biology) and took my exams with glee. I wasn’t necessarily competitive with anyone else but rather with myself. I constantly appraised my own performance and tried to improve my scores, and if I didn’t improve, I’d chide myself for being stupid. I do not berate myself anymore but I still strive to continue learning because without learning, my life would be utterly boring. One of the biggest disappointments of my life was when I could not attend college after I graduated high school. My parents simply did not have the money to support me. Ultimately, it was a good thing that I waited ten more years before returning to college. I had grown up quite a bit and truly appreciated the opportunity to earn a post-secondary education. Because I had some life experience I became the mentor to some of the younger students who were struggling or homesick. Along with two other non-traditional students, we became the Moms-on-Campus.

Teachers are expected to update their teaching certificates through professional development and continuing education. I certainly could have been happy to do that, but like many teachers at Aurora Public Schools, I decided to attain an advanced degree. Seven years after receiving my bachelor of arts degree in education and English, I commenced work toward a master of arts degree in English. Once again, I was in familiar territory as the non-traditional student surrounded by twenty-something graduate students. The biggest difference between undergraduate and graduate students is that some of the graduate students were know-it-alls! I feel very fortunate that I had the opportunity to experience some of the best teachers on campus. As an older student it was easy for me to befriend my professors. It was such a joy to collaborate and speak to them as peers. Graduate school was challenging but by far my favorite stage of the learning process. I have learned more than I could have ever imagined and have been encouraged and inspired to become the best teacher I can possibly be. I have been surrounded by fellow educators who are passionate about teaching and just being around them makes me smile. Being around them gives me hope for the future of education.

Now, I am almost to what most serious lifetime students consider the pinnacle of education: a doctoral degree in composition and rhetoric. I have been reading and writing for the past four years in order to write a dissertation about a subject I’m passionate about, place conscious education. My goal in writing my dissertation titled “Living Well: The Value of Teaching Place” is to convince other educators that teaching place will instill in their students five senses: living well in community and living well spiritually, economically, politically, and ecologically. I believe that teaching students to know their own places well will enable them to know their future communities well, too. Throughout the dissertation process, there have been times I have been completely depleted of energy and felt somewhat hopeless. When I once asked a relative who had both his M.D. and Ph.D. degree about how intelligent he had to be to get those degrees, he replied, “It’s not about how smart you are but whether or not you have perseverance.” I now know that he was completely right about that. If you have the stamina to continue studying, reading and writing, you can complete the most advanced degree. Herein lies the message of Khalil Gibran: “A little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle.” I may not be Albert Einstein when it comes to brain power, but I do have a bit of knowledge about writing and rhetoric. And I do know how to act upon that knowledge--using it to empower others in this life. Knowledge that acts elicits learning in others, leading others to the “thresholds of their own minds.”

Sometimes You Can't Make it On Your Own by U2

The one song I chose to emphasize from my Life Soundtrack is "Sometimes You Can't Make it On Your Own" by U2. The song is important to me because it reminds me of my dad who passed away in 2003.


I love U2. It is the band of my generation. From the first time I heard them, I was mesmerized. I think the first cassette tape (yes, it was a tape not an album) was The Joshua Tree. I was enamored with the songs “One” and “With or Without You.” Over the years, their music has sustained me in ways that are hard to describe. It really is hard to choose just one song that exemplifies my life, so I am going to focus on one that reminds me of my father, because he had a life-giving impact upon who I have become.

My dad died on January 2, 2003. Two days after his funeral, I came up to the high school very early in the morning, about 5:00 a.m., trying to pull myself together in order to teach. Sandy Pfiefer was our custodian at the time, and she always played country music. Well, my dad was a huge fan of country music, especially Hank Williams. My dad had the most beautiful singing voice in the world. If he had not had twelve children, he could have been a music star. Anyway, when I walked into the building, I heard “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” on the radio. This was a song my dad could sing better than anyone (besides Willie Nelson). So, on a bitterly cold day in January, I had myself a good cry in the hallways of Aurora High School.

Since that experience, I read a book about how our loved ones still communicate with us after they have passed away. One of the mediums they use is the radio. I know it may sound superstitious, which I am not, but I do know there have been moments when I’m troubled or sad, and I will hear a song on the radio, and I know my dad is trying to reassure me or make me smile. It’s not a creepy thing; it’s a comforting thing.

This brings me to this song, “Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own.” I had not paid too much attention to this particular U2 song over the years until I received the DVD set from my daughter for Christmas a few years ago. I distinctly remember the day I finally sat down and watched and listened to it. When the video began, I read the words about Bono’s father—someone who was a working man and who “sang” on the side—I felt a lump rise in my throat. I thought about how much we were alike—how we both had fathers who gave us the gift of a voice and the love of singing. But it was the lyrics that really got to me.

Bono’s first word is “tough.” There is no other word to better describe my dad than “tough.” He wasn’t a big man; he was only 5’6” and probably never weighed more than 150 pounds. He was proud all of his life that he was the captain of the football team his senior year. I’ve seen photos of him, too, and he looked like a mad dog. Growing up, he told countless football stories about hanging on to a “Big Swede,” being drug half way across a football field until someone finally assisted. Of course, when he told this story, there were a lot of colorful metaphors used. My dad was tough, but sometimes, like me, he needed to know that you can’t make it on your own.

Bono’s lyrics continue, “You think you've got the stuff / You're telling me and anyone / You're hard enough / You don't have to put up a fight / You don't have to always be right.” Those lyrics and the haunting melody came across the airwaves and the television screen as if my dad were present in the very room, because this would be something he would actually say. He constantly challenged us all, saying, “Oh, you think you are so tough, but do you really have what it takes to make it in this life? Are you hard enough, like me?” The last two lines would be something I would say to my dad, because I often tired of fighting with him, and I just wanted him to know that he wasn’t always right. I often deferred to him, out of respect, because he did believe he was right—about everything!

My dad and I were so alike in our personalities that I can certainly understand those lines about how we “fight all the time,” and it’s because we were so alike that we saw our flaws in each other, and hated having that mirror put up to us. I can’t remember a day that went by that we didn’t have a difference of opinion on something, or didn’t argue about it. We were both relentlessly stubborn. And like Bono heard his own father say, I heard it, too: “That if we weren't so alike / You'd like me a whole lot more.” At the time I watched the video, I was feeling ever so much the absence of my dad, despite our differences. I didn’t know how much I’d miss him and miss the time together, fighting it out. It was good for me to hear Bono sing that it was “alright [sic] [because] / We're the same soul.”

I think we are the same soul because we both love to sing. I have been singing since I was just a little girl. I sang in the choir and girls glee club in high school, church choirs, and just to myself driving down the road. There is something about singing that just makes the world a better place. There is something about singing that lifts the soul to a higher place. Dad understood that. That’s why our home was graced with its beauty, and its presence made the ugliness of the world a little more bearable. So, I feel Bono’s gratitude to his father when he sings, “Can - you - hear - me - when - I - / Sing, you're the reason I sing / You're the reason why the opera is in me.” I, too, know that it is because of all the countless hours my dad sang, that the “opera” is within me, too.

Dad’s gift of music is a final reminder to me that I need to “Listen to [him] now,” because through the medium of music, he’s telling me something so vitally important: “I need to let you know / You don't have to go it alone.” Knowing that I am not alone is a very comforting thought. Knowing that although he is physically absent, his “same soul” is right here beside me, taking me by the hand, walking and singing me through the rest of my life.