It’s important to pay attention to the people you encounter, because sometimes, a messenger will find you in the most unlikely places. This is the story of one such chance meeting that occurred today in Central PA. 

I had just listened to a new podcast called Grapple, which “gives voice to people living and working in distressed communities.” Today, on a road trip, we found ourselves in Mahanoy City, the first town profiled in the podcast. 

Mahanoy City, PA

Mahanoy City. Photo credit Steven D. Martin.

We went into Rite-Aid to buy some allergy medicine and a soda. As we approached the check-out, a diminutive older woman was chatting with the clerk. She noticed we were waiting behind her and apologized. “No problem,” I replied.

She finished her transaction, turned around and looked up at us and said, “You’re not from Mahanoy City, are you?” We replied no, that we were passing through. “Oh,” she said, “How nice that you stopped here!” Then, as if she knew we’d heard the podcast, she added, “This used to be such a beautiful town!” We assured her we thought it was still lovely.

I asked our new friend what her name was. “I’m Nellie,” she said, and her smile lit up her whole face. 

“I’m Meg, and this is Steve,” I replied. “Steve!” she repeated. And then, as if his name jogged a memory, she told us that her parents were immigrants from Czechoslovakia. Steve said he had learned a few phrases in Croatian, which is similar to Czech. “Dobro vece!” he said, and Nellie’s eyes twinkled even more as she translated and then returned his greetings. She said she remembered some of the language from when she was a child.

Nellie was engaging. As she talked, she would reach for our hands, touching them as if we were old friends, to emphasize her points. She told us that she was the last living of ten siblings. Her mother had had a stroke when she (her mother) was young, and Nellie had to care for some of her younger siblings. She talked about how young people have to leave the area to find work.

Nellie continued, “I’m 94 years old, and I just moved into the high-rise.” I asked if she liked living there. She said that she did, but that she had lived in her house for 67 years, so it was very different. “I’m a widow,” she added, answering a question neither of us had asked, and she remarked that she’d never had children, almost as an afterthought (though I’d have loved to hear her story).

Then, Nellie said that all she has left is her memories. “It’s important to make memories while you’re younger because eventually that’s all you’re left with.”

“That’s what we’re trying to do this weekend,” I said, and Nellie smiled at us some more.

We finally said we had to be on our way and bid Nellie farewell, thanking her for talking with us.

After we got into the car, Steve said, “She was an angel.” It felt as if she had come from another time and place to tell us what we needed to hear, at that exact moment. I had been thinking the same thing:  Our encounter with Nellie was meant to happen. And in addition to her message, she gave us one more memory to treasure.


Orion is a-Risin’

Tonight, on a cold February night, Peezer had to work on part of his multi-day assignment on a president of his choice. For reasons too numerous to list here, I just was not up to helping him. Fortunately, his Dad was. And in exchange, I happily donned coat and hat and gloves to walk Mac – usually Curt's job, typically something I avoid, but I was eager for the trade tonight.

So the dog and I are walking up the road to the clearing where the power lines run through. I looked up and I saw A SHOOTING STAR! – and also Orion. And I can never see Orion in the winter sky without remembering 5th/6th grade in Mrs. Cameron's class in "the Annex" at Millerstown Elementary School – we had what seemed like lots and lots of time (which I anticipated and loved) devoted to music education – and when she would take requests, the song "Orion" was in heavy rotation. (And so were "Lemon Tree" and "There's a Hole In My Bucket" – both of which make me want to gouge out my eardrums to this day. But ORION!) She was an excellent pianist (I'm sure she still is), and we gathered 'round the piano a couple times a week and sang: 

        Orion is a-Risin' 

You can see his stars a-blazin' in the middle of the clear-eyed country sky

And it's never too surprisin'

That the sky is still amazin' way out here where nothin' hides it from my eyes


Sleepin' outside in a bag as a kid seems like the best thing that I ever did


Chasin' the shadows and the tracks in the snow, don't ya know…..

The day is gettin' colder

And I really start to wonder why they're cloudin' all the country skies to gray

The world is gettin' older

You can hear it in the thunder and the rain might come and chase us all away



The moon is on the wane

And it looks like it might rain or maybe snow

How are we to stay here

If there's no room left to play here or to grow

Don't ya know, don't ya know

I didn't appreciate the lyrics then, though they have stuck in my brain as a perpetual earworm since the early 1980s, but I see now that they were about growing up in the country, which I did, and appreciating the wide open spaces we were fortunate to have – spaces that enabled us to see the night sky in all its expansive vibrance.

God, I was so blessed.

So I'm here in the suburbs and I'm walking the dog, looking up at the stars and humming my 35+ year earworm, relishing in the shooting star that was surely placed there JUST FOR ME, and I start thinking about Peezer, at home working on some poster about President Kennedy, and how last night he was tooting his clarinet at his school's winter concert:

  Band concert 2-9-15
And you know what? That group of fourth graders, who began playing those instruments just four months ago, who get about 30 minutes A WEEK in instrumental music instruction (seriously, how can anyone possibly think that's enough??) – they played several recognizable melodies. As a group. TOGETHER. And whenever a group of ANY AGE HUMANS performs any kind of music together – even if it's a bunch of out-of-tune woodwinds – IT'S MAGICAL.

MUSIC. What a blessing. 

Whether it's "Hot Cross Buns" on the (flat) Clarinet (I guess they tune in middle school?), or "Orion" in my head by a bunch of farm kids in the 1980s, or The Steel Wheels in 2015 (Roots / bluegrass by this band of guys that just has my heart lately), music is a universal language… and so are the stars, and maybe presidential homework isn't, or maybe it is, but February, which I really have come to dread in the past decade – maybe February is not actually the worst month after all. All things considered.


Way Back to School

LAST NIGHT, CURT AND I ATTENDED our second-to-last elementary back-to-school night. Peezer is in 4th grade now. This is the year he starts instrumental music (he has chosen the clarinet). He's already looking forward to becoming a "patrol" in fifth grade. Third through Fifth grades are probably my favorite years for kids and we are enjoying him immensely these days.

While explaining the homework policy, his teacher said she understands when sometimes, the homework just doesn't happen, for whatever reason. Then she told how she remembers ALL TOO WELL her own fourth grade year, when her mother made her stay in and do homework on HALLOWEEN NIGHT even though all the other kids were trick-or-treating. You could tell from her voice that she was over it, mostly.

I, too, remember fourth grade, mostly with nostalgic fondness, but for one thing. We had this independent reading program called SRAs, and I don't remember what those initials stood for, but the program itself came to represent BLACKMAIL in my mind. I loved to read, but these particular reading activities bored me silly. Consequently, I was not motivated to read whatever schlock was on those color-coded cards, then answer the comprehension questions so I could advance to the next level. I just didn't care. Still, it was expected that we students would work through them at our own pace, and because I was a good student, I was expected to plow through them. Only, I wasn't.

Around this time, I had been pestering my mom to let me get my ears pierced. Sensing an opportunity to reinforce a lesson, and concerned about my recalcitrance toward the SRA program, she met with my teacher. They conspired to formulate a plan: if I could advance through the SRA cards to a certain color-coded level, I would be rewarded with a trip to the Mall, where a nice lady at Piercing Pagoda would use a gun-like device to inject gold studs into my 9-year-old earlobes. I was surprised that my mom would so blatantly collude with my teacher, but I wanted my ears pierced bad, so I gritted my teeth up through the dark green reading card and my mom made good on her promise, and my ears didn't sting for very long at all after the piercing. (Yes, Mom, I learned my lesson.)

Anyway. Last night, my kid's teacher talked of synthesizing and collaborating, and of collecting data points to track the kids' progress. She explained the grading scale (hint: it's not alphabetical). She uses a Promethean board with a "proximity tablet" she can walk around the room with, tapping on it with a stylus to present lessons, and the kids can participate by pressing buttons on their own desktop interactive voting device (think audience participation on America's Funniest Videos). The class keeps track of compliments paid to them by teachers and staff and can earn rewards when they reach a certain level. The have things like "guided reading" and "balanced literacy."

All of this made me wonder how the teachers manage to incorporate everything, organizing the kids into groups so they can collaborate to synthesize each concept. On its surface, It's so different from my own fourth grade experience, which featured blackboards and chalk, an alphabetical grading scale that was tracked by hand in a spiral-bound grading book, and the dreaded SRA reading program. It's amazing how much has changed for both students and teachers.

But what hasn't changed is the sense of community a school can represent.  At our kids' school, back-to-school night is a chance to say hi to neighbors and friends from our community, and reconnect with the teachers our kids have had throughout their years. I recall the same sense of community at my own elementary school, which was in a small town. The principal of my elementary school had been one of my mom's high school teachers. My dad's cousin ran the cafeteria. I had more than a few cousins in my class. Everyone knew everyone. It takes a village.

While my own elementary school experience was community based, I'm sure my parents' experience was even more so. Having been born and raised in the country, they attended one-room schools for their earlier grades. I have a book, published by the Perry Historians, called "A Scrapbook of Schoolhouses in Perry County" by Margie Becker of New Bloomfield, PA. It's a wonderful collection of the history of education where I grew up. It's also a testament to my ancestors' believe and involvement in education. The book includes lists of teachers at each schoolhouse and board of education members and directors, and I recognize many names on these lists, including neighbors, great aunts and uncles, my grandfather, and yes, my mom (who was school board president for some years). 

Here is a picture, from that book, of the elementary school where the blackmail occurred. It housed grades K-4 when I attended, plus one class each of grades 5-6, with the other 5/6 graders attending school in the "annex" (which was the basement of the medical center next to the school). Prior to the building of Greenwood Joint High School, this same building was where my mom attended high school. When GJHS opened, kids from Millerstown (my mom) and Liverpool (my dad) high schools all attended the new high school, and my parents were in the first class to graduate from GJHS.

  Millerstown elementary school

I made a note in this book that my dad attended both Lebkicher's and Gilfillen's schools, though I don't know which grades. So here they both are, Gilfillen's first:

Gilfillen's school

And Lebkicher's (sometimes spelled Lebkichler's), where my dad may have been taught by his Aunt Mae if I've got the years right:

Lebkicher's school

By the time I came along, both of these schoolhouses had been sold and turned into private homes.

I don't know if the teachers back in those days thought much about synthesis or collaboration, and certainly the body of knowledge and methods for teaching and assessing it have changed significantly. But the sense of community must have been magnified when only a handful of kids were in the room with one teacher.

We left last night's event feeling blessed live where we can send our kids to high-quality schools with all the latest technology, highly-educated teachers who obviously care about our kids, and a true sense of the school's role in building and supporting our community. I imagine my parents and grandparents felt the same way. So maybe, all things considered, things haven't changed all that much after all.