How the Things we Keep, Keep Us

May 12, 1974

“Dearest Jody,

I’m writing you today to say, “I’m glad I’m your mom.”

I am now, and always have been, so proud of you, Jo. Can’t remember a single moments’ “trouble” that you’ve ever been in or any periods of anxiety that you have caused. Sure there were minutes of panic…like the time Colleen hit you with the baseball bat. But so far as the really important things like your character and independence and industriousness are concerned, you’ve never caused me any doubts.

With much love, Mom”


As a newly retired teacher—first Fall without students—woohoo!—I can FINALLY get to some gargantuan projects that I’ve wanted to tackle for like ever. Seriously; we’ve lived in our house almost 24 years—that’s over half of the time I’ve been married.

One such task was culling through almost a lifetimes’ worth (well, since I was 18) of old letters I’ve saved.

What a treasure trove it has yielded–sparks of memory fanned into flame, words from the the past that have fluttered across my vision, sadness and melancholy and sweet joy all rolled into one.   It has been a sobering experience, actually.

The process took about three weeks. Boxes everywhere, piles of old letters threatening to topple and spill, pounds and pounds of ‘who in the world is this card from?’ and “who is Katie and why do I need this Valentine from 2nd grade?” ending up in the Recycle Bin. A very satisfying activity, especially when I downsized my paper estate to two medium sized boxes.

I love to write and send cards and letters. Still. And better still is the joy and pleasure of receiving a handwritten letter in the mail; it’s like finding a sweet surprise.  Saving and keeping old (and new) cards and letters is preserving the bedrock of the past. A bedrock of shared history, a running record of highs and lows and in betweens—the events that make up the everything that is our life.

I have letters my husband wrote when we were first courting, then engaged.  He is effusive in his love for me and his love for Jesus (I think He loved Jesus more—still does).  There are intimations of some of the challenges we faced back then in our Jesus People days, but nothing fazed him. He was a little starry eyed (I’m sure I was, too.)

The most precious letters are those from my mother who died over 30 years ago. Reading her thoughts was a bittersweet experience. Sweet because I didn’t remember all the kind things she’d said to me (like those above), but bitter because of course, she’s gone.  I think my grandchildren will enjoy getting to know their Great Grandma Helen a little bit when they read her letters, too, someday.

The Power of a Simple Question

I had the surprise privilege of teaching a short (four week) Summer School gig for a friend recently–and I do mean privilege. He asked if I could take over his Reading classes at a private Korean Academy. After thanking God for the answer to prayer for meeting a financial need, I then got VERY happy about the subject matter–what’s not to love about getting paid to talk about books and words??

The classes I took on included students ranging in age from 5th/6th grade (mornings) to 7th/8th/9th grade (afternoons). 

I spend my days during the school year substituting in Elementary Schools; however, I’ve usually preferred the ‘little’ kids–Kindergarten through 4th grade. I was surprised and ultimately thankful at the joy I felt in teaching these age groups–who knew?–especially the older kids.

The book I read with them was ‘Where the Red Fern Grows‘, Wilson Rawls’ classic story about love, determination, sacrifice and God.  

When we finished WTRFG I had 4 days to fill. ‘Poetry’ had been included in the syllabus with some texts suggested. However, I made an executive decision to bring in my own books.

I love poetry (reading and writing it) and felt grateful for the little window of opportunity to sneak it into our days.

Since the events in Ferguson had been capturing the nations’ attention, I wanted to tie something in about liberty and justice and freedom.

I found this poem and shared it with the class:

“Liberty” Janet S. Wong
“I pledge acceptance
of the views
so different,
that make us America.
To listen, to look,
to think, and to learn
One people 
sharing the earth
for liberty
and justice for all.”

Right away after we read it–me first, then in unison–A.’s hand shot up, “Mrs. Collins, is this the Pledge of Allegiance?” 
Reasonable question–these are Korean students.

“No, A, it’s not the Pledge of Allegiance.” Sure sounds like it, tho’, doesn’t it?

We discuss things like liberty and justice, (I’m supposed to be teaching vocabulary after all), and spend a great deal of time pondering whether violence can ever change anything (the consensus–No) We talk about how critical it is to ‘accept the views so different, that make us America’, reminding them about diversity and people of all colors and nations being right here all around us.

“Hey, do you guys KNOW the Pledge of Allegiance?” I ask.

“Of course!”

“Great, let’s practice. Hands over hearts.  Here we go.”

“I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag….” 

Another hand.  

Mrs. Collins, “What does ‘allegiance’ mean anyway? And what’s a ‘pledge’?”

Perfect, more vocabulary.  Excellent timing.

We stop at the various words we need to define and I spend some time on the phrase, “one nation under God.”

I point out to them the phrase has no commas–it is a continuous line–regardless of the way they may have been reciting it.  (Koreans, Africans and Americans all say it the same (incorrect) way. Trust me, I know this.)

Then this. “Mrs. Collins, don’t you have to be a Christian to say that? I mean, the ‘under God’ part?  How can you say that if you’re not a Christian?”


S. pipes in, “Yeah, like aren’t there rules? I heard there are rules to being a Christian. Like being a Jew.  There’s a bunch of commandments, right?”

These questions I could answer–contrary to popular opinion, a public school teacher may answer questions about God when a student initiates the discussion.

Wise 13 year old A. gets up and closes the door and says, ‘Yeah, we need to talk about this.”

So I sit down in my rolling chair, push myself to the back wall of the room (there are only 10 of us) and posit this, “So, if we’re talking about being a Christian, which book are we talking about that might have the answers?”

“The Bible.”

“Correct. So in the Bible, Jesus said there’s really only two commandments–to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

“But what about the rules?  Don’t you have to follow these rules?”

“Actually, Jesus said He came to abolish the rules or commandments the Jews had. He said now He just wants people’s hearts and that we can learn to live by grace. It’s a gift.”

(You can see I’m like jumping up and down with excitement while I’m sitting in my roll-y chair, right? Having conversations with myself, “Can you even believe you’re talking about Jesus in the middle of your reading class with the Korean kids? What an amazing God?!”)

I continue, “You guys, you know I don’t want to get in trouble here.”

“Don’t worry Mrs. Collins, we won’t tell.”  Smile.

I finish by saying something about the fact that accepting God’s grace is all you need if you want to be a Christian.I suggest if they want to know more they could find a Bible and read it for themselves.

Or ask their parents at home. You never know where a simple question would lead.

A Closet Full of Ping Pong Balls (or How to Survive Five Years in Spec Ed)

C. is after her purse in the back corner cabinet of the classroom. She’s got just a minute to reach for something and turns her head to answer a question, her back to the cupboard.
Out comes a cascade of bloodshot eyeball ping pong balls, tumbling to the floor…..oh, it’s just another day in Room 3, where we know how to put the ‘special’ in special education.
Boy, I miss those days.

When I decided to retire in 2016 from full-time teaching to simply an occasional Guest Teacher gig, it was the happiest/saddest decision of my life.

Happy because there were new doors to walk through in the days ahead, but oh so very sad because I was leaving a team of people who had become like family over the previous five years.
Just like family, they welcomed me and put up with my idiosyncrasies, indulged my bad jokes and stuck with me through some very tough times—personally and professionally.
I was learning the ropes of working with children with special needs—primarily those with autism.  It was a steep, steep learning curve.  There were days of on-the-edge-of-my-seat antics from all manner of challenging children—some violent because of  their fear of a world they couldn’t process.  Many days were hard and heavy mentally, emotionally and physically.
I interfaced with two classes of K-6th grade children and a staff of 8 other women.  That many women working together can be volatile or it can be invigorating.  I found over the 5 years I worked with them that these shiny, happy people knew how to diffuse some of the most difficult days with just the right amount of fun. Being able to play was absolutely necessary to our sanity.
There was a running prank about a large plastic spider that appeared either hanging by an invisible thread above a desk, or strategically placed on a chair to frighten the resident of that space.  We expected the fake arachnids to multiply during the Halloween week, but there was no small amount of chortling when said spider magically appeared, say in February, on poor old Mary’s desk who was TERRIFIED of spiders.  
I mean, panicked.
We had many good laughs about that (even from the room next door).

And those ping pong balls?  They kept showing up, year after year, move after move. We’d be unpacking in September and find some in the Legos, a kids’ backpack, and who-knows-where.  I think they multiplied overnight.

The gals on my team knew how to party and make the most of any occasion to dress up.  Each Halloween we had to decide the practicality of costumes—children with learning disabilities and special needs can be very distracted by sequins, fringes, polka dots, and so on.
One year we decided to just wear Groucho Marx glasses.  We turned many, many heads at recess; the typical learner kids loved it—our classes of kids were simply puzzled.
Weekly team meetings over a particular book discussion or surrounding a serious student matter were often punctuated by the proverbial Whoopie Cushion ending up on a teacher’s chair. The recipient was always good-natured and seemed to welcome the playful diversion.
Laughing at each other and ourselves diffused much of the tension and seriousness inherent in the job. It also provided a bridge to unite us—partners in crime in our own kooky corner of the school world—which is one of the reasons I miss those friends so much.
Play at work and having fun are not only the best medicine, they provide the strongest kind of bond there is—laughter through tears in the hardest of times. 

Atticus to Zeppelin

Classroom photo, mine. 2012

“Recess teacher!!”
That would be me
and anyone else over 3 feet tall
who has a whistle.

“Hey guys, just so you know,
my name’s Mrs. Collins”,
flashing my cartoon-y fish
logo with my fancy-ish name.
“What’re your names?”

“I’m Atticus, this is Zeppelin.”

“Well, those are some pretty big
names,” I remark, and proceed                                                                                                        to untangle the playground snafu.

They saunter off while I muse about
the challenge of the names
they are saddled with, embattled with
in the spelling from K through twelfth,
and I wonder what parents–
readers of classics?
rock and roll fans?–
would do that to a five year old,
giving them, not a name to grace them
or fit well but letters too many
to spell when you are five
and all you want to do is                                                                                                                     play on the swings
and fly……….