Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Setting Goals, Reaching Goals, and Chasing Goals . . .

    What do I want to do with myself this year?  Isn't that a question we all ask ourselves as the glow of the New Year fades and the gloomy reality of the "thirty-nine days of February" set in?  (Yes, I know it's only twenty-nine, but if you're a schoolteacher you know EXACTLY what that phrase means!) Forget New Year's Resolutions.  I mean, most of us break those things, if we bother to make them at all, within the first week of the New Year. 


NEW YEAR'S DAY: "This year I resolve to lose weight!" 
ONE WEEK LATER - "Why don't these jeans fit anymore??"
NEW YEAR'S DAY: "This year I am going to avoid eating sweets!"
ONE WEEK LATER: "Whoa, they make ONE POUND Snickers bars??"
NEW YEAR'S DAY: "I am going to be less bothered by silly little things this year."
ONE WEEK LATER: "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya.  You cut me off in traffic.  Prepare to die!!"

     You get the idea.

     Still, all of us try to set some sort of goals for the New Year.  Professional goals (at my work those are actually a requirement!), Personal Goals, Relationship Goals (big hint - if your S.O. isn't on board with those, they ain't happening!), Hobby-Related Goals, Reading Goals, you name it.  These are the things we really and truly TRY to do, and hope to achieve.  And, miracle of miracles, sometimes we actually manage to achieve them!

     So as I sit here on this rainy February evening, contemplating the fact that I have gone WAAAY to long without updating this blog of mine, I think about what my goals are and how I can best reach them this year. And, since this is the place where I share my thoughts with the world (or at least with the couple hundred or so people who read my entries), I thought I'd tell you what they are.

     First of all, I want to finish my current work in progress, my book, PRESIDENT HAMILTON: A NOVEL OF ALTERNATIVE HISTORY.  In all honesty, this isn't that big a challenge, since I am thirty-five chapters in and have perhaps three more to go.  With any luck, the story will be done in the next month or so.  Unlike many authors, finishing books isn't that big a deal for me.  Since I started writing my first novel, THE TESTIMONIUM, eight years ago this month, I have completed a total of six novels.  (I know, I only have five in print.  My last published work, THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY, underperformed and so I was not offered a contract for THE EMPEROR AND THE APOSTLE.)  But still, it's a long and winding road from writing the title page and then typing "The End", and I hope to hit that point early on this year.

     The next big challenge will be securing a publishing contract.  I have been very blessed in my association with the good folks at Electio Publishing; they took a chance on a rookie author and have given me contracts on my first five books.  But publishing is a business, and while I like Christopher and Jesse very much, I haven't yielded them a big return.  I think this book has enormous potential, with a huge audience reach, but I have said that before.  If they decide that this one is not worth the risk, given the current market, I'll absolutely understand.  At that point, my options will be to seek another publisher, secure a literary agent, or perhaps to do the one thing I have not done before - self-publish one of my books.  The thing is, I want this book to come out SOON, while the HAMILTON musical is still touring, and before the theatrical release comes around.  So my biggest professional goal would be to see this story either in print or about to be released by the end of this year, or early next year.  That's a big goal, but not unreachable.

     Those are my professional goals as a writer, and I intend to do my best to reach them.  As always, I hope you, my faithful readers and social media followers, will come along for the ride and enjoy the story when it becomes available.

     As a teacher, I've actually hit a very comfortable place in my career.  I love my job, I love my kids, and sharing the remarkable story of man's past with them every day is all any educator could want.  My goal with them is simply to keep doing what I am doing, watching my little sprites grow up from seventh grade to their senior year, and being able to share that journey with them along the way.

      Personal goals?  First and foremost, to get my daughter's wedding over and done with and see my second baby chick launched from the nest.  The big day is a month away as I write these lines, and lots of plans have been made, while others are still being made.  After that, the big adjustment is coming - after 25 years as parents, Patty and I will be settling into our role as a couple, slightly complicated by the other role we share as senior caregivers for her aging mom.  But we will figure things out, as we always have, and I look forward to the "empty nest" years.  At some point, maybe we'll be able to travel again, that would be nice.  But whatever we do, I hope we are able to enjoy each other's company for many years to come.

   Oh yeah, and I need to lose some weight.   After I eat this big plate of spaghetti!

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2020 - THE END OF A YEAR, THE BEGINNING OF A NEW DECADE!

    Has it really been twenty years since the calendar rolled over from 1999 to 2000?  I remember as a kid thinking just how far off and futuristic the year 2000 sounded.  Then, when it finally got here, the big discussion was, what do you call the first decade of a new century?  I mean, "The 2000's" sounds like it should refer to an entire century, not a single decade.  "The Oughties"?  Who even uses "ought" for zero any more?  By the time you explain it to a teenager, you've forgotten what it was you were going to say about the decade.  And, before we figured out how to refer to that troublesome collective that stretched from 2000 to 2009, the decade ended and saved us the trouble of giving it a name. 

   But then the next one started, and we all more or less agreed that it could be called the "Twenty-teens." Never mind that it sounded more like a group of people in life's most attractive and annoying age grouping than a ten year period on the calendar, at least we had some consensus!  But the thing is, neither of these decades really felt like they were part of a whole new century to me.  I still found myself thinking, well, in twentieth century terms - despite the fact that not a single one of my current high school students this year was even born in the nineties.  No wonder they think I am old!

    But now here we are in the Twenties.  It's no longer a new century, it's old enough to vote and nearly old enough to (legally) drink now!  The Twenties . . . that just blows my mind.  My Dad, father-in-law, and mother-in-law were all born in the Nineteen-twenties - and now I will have to say it that way to avoid confusing my students.  Time, that crazy, elastic, all-consuming fire that burns our lives away so much faster than we want it to, has done its magic trick again.  The twenty-first century has come of age.  The decade that began a century ago was remembered as "The Roaring Twenties," with Prohibition, gangsters, Model T's, flappers, jazz, "moonshiners," the first movie stars, and the golden age of radio.  How will historians remember this new decade that dawns tonight?  Will it be the "Yelling Twenties"?  The "Snowflake Twenties?"  "The Trumpster Twenties?"  Or will history take one of its screaming left turns and leave this decade with a nickname that none of us can foresee tonight, as we sit here imbibing our beverage of choice and listening to the fireworks outside?  No one knows, but if this blog and I are still going a decade from now, feel free to check in and we'll discuss it!

   But it's customary on this occasion to look back as well as forward.  So I would like to say a few words in fond memory of our recently departed friend, 2019, and then perhaps drop in an unofficial obituary for the entire decade of the - say it with me now! - Twenty-teens. 

    The biggest thing I will remember about 2019 is that it was a year of difficult goodbyes.  In January my friend Randy Daw, the man who invited me on that marvelous 2016 trip to Israel (scroll back to the entries for March of that year to read all about it), died suddenly of complications from brain cancer.  Randy was a beloved pastor, a talented musician, and a joyful soul whose departure left a big hole in our community.  Then in April my sweet cat, Fortuna, the only cat I ever raised from the time he was a tiny kitten, had to be put to sleep after a run-in with a car left his digestive system paralyzed.  I never thought I would be as attached to any pet as I was to my dear "Tuna Kitty," and holding him while the vet administered that final injection was the hardest thing I have ever done.  In May, I bid hale and farewell to my boss, Steve Bowers, who left Greenville Christian School after 9 happy years to take on a new job at a small school in rural Kansas.  Steve was a wonderful leader during his tenure at GCS, and the easiest boss I have ever worked for.  More than that, he was and is my friend, and even though his successor, Mark Reisner, is doing a fine job, I do miss Steve's corny sense of humor and his willingness to laugh at my jokes no matter how dumb they were.

    The hardest goodbye came in June, when my sweet, godly mother, Laura Jean Smith, went to be with my Dad in heaven.  Mom had just turned 87 and had enjoyed good health for nearly all of her life.  She was diagnosed with cancer in January and given five to six months to live; the doctor's prognosis proved grimly accurate - but the silver lining on that cloud of sorrow was that the other part of the diagnosis also proved correct - Mom had little to no pain, right up to the end, and was able to get out and enjoy life with her four children right up to her final month.  Her eighty-seventh birthday party in May was attended by the whole family, and she enjoyed being with us all the more because she knew it would be our last celebration with her on this earth.

    November brought a different kind of goodbye, as my daughter Rebecca (the younger of the two by six minutes) walked down the aisle to marry her longtime sweetheart Joseph Reyes.  She moved with him to Fort Bliss in El Paso, where he serves our country as a young soldier.  So now our nest is half empty, and Rachel will be taking her own walk to matrimony in March.  I've heard about the "empty nest" for the last decade or so; it will finally be our time to experience it!

    But 2019 brought a lot of positive accomplishments and new challenges with it as well.  For the first time since I began writing in 2012, I finished a novel manuscript and was not offered a publication contract for it.  I get it; publishing is a business and my last release, THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY, underperformed badly (despite being, IMO, one of the best stories I have ever written).  Undaunted, I decided to branch out and write a story in a completely different genre, set in a time period that I have long studied but never written about, the early nineteenth century.  As I write this, PRESIDENT HAMILTON: A NOVEL OF ALTERNATIVE HISTORY, is about three or four chapters short of completion, and has been a wonderfully fun project, taking me in directions I never intended to go.  2019 was also the year that I made my first ever visit to New York City, and returned to Washington DC for the first time since I was twelve years old. Both these milestones took place in a single journey, as I was a sponsor for the class of 2019's Senior Trip.  Gallivanting around the Big Apple with a crazy crew of 18-year-olds was one of the most fun things I've done in a long time, and it was also a chance to bond with a very special group of young men and young ladies one last time before seeing them venture out into the world.  Later that summer, Patty and I went on a trip to Galveston, TX together, and spent three wonderful days on the beach, enjoying the sun, the surf, and each other, delighted to be away from home together again.  2019 was also the first year in a long time that I not only did not pastor a church, but actually had no church responsibilities at all - no Sunday School class, no Praise Team, no VBS, or anything else.  However, after church-hopping for over a year, Patty and I both were looking for a place to settle, so in October we found a new church home, First Baptist Church in Campbell, Texas, and I have a funny feeling that a Sunday School class probably lies in my near future.  All in all, 2019 was a difficult year, but it was also a wonderful one.  Thanks for the memories, oh departed arbitrary time division!

     Now as I enter 2020, I want to also take a look back over the entire decade that began 10 years ago in 2010.  At that time I was still in my 40's and had two kids in high school; I had just accepted the pastorate of a small house church in Lone Oak, TX, and was supplementing my teaching income by raising goats and buying and selling Indian artifacts on eBay.  Over the next decade I would -

* Become a published author, writing six books and seeing five of them into print through a wonderful independent publisher, Electio Publishing.
* Get my lifetime teaching certificate from the Association of Christian Schools International, which means I will never have to worry about keeping track of CEU's (Continuing Education Units, the bane of every private school teacher's existence) again!
* Go through my first church split as a pastor, and also preside over my first-ever purchase of a new church building
* Find a ton of nice Indian artifacts, and also quit selling any of my personal finds (the good points are just too few and far between to give up!)
* See both my daughters graduate high school, enroll in college, start dating, get engaged, and see one of them get married
* Meet a lot of new friends and deepened my relationships with some of the old ones
* Speak at the funerals of both my Mom and my Dad
* Celebrate my 35th wedding anniversary
* Make a wonderful trip to Israel and visit dozens of sites mentioned in the Bible
* Go on two Senior Trips, one with my daughters' class to Disneyworld, and then the other one last spring, that I described above.
*  Go on a diet two years ago and drop nearly 50 pounds, and manage to keep most of that weight off!

   All in all, it's been a good year and a good decade in my life.  I am grateful for my wife, my family, my friends old and new, some close by and some far, far away.  I am blessed in more ways than I can count and vexed in only a few.  So as all of you ring in 2020, I hope the new year finds you at least as happy as it finds me!  Bring on the Twenties - we're ready!!!

   Oh, one more thing - since my last book underperformed a bit, maybe you'd like to help its sales rank by ordering a copy or three.  Here's the Amazon link; your support would be greatly appreciated (and it really is a fantastic story!!).

https://www.amazon.com/Gnostic-Library-Capri-Team-Adventure/dp/1632134942/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1524088284&sr=1-2&dpID=516enit2kzL&preST=_SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch





Tuesday, December 24, 2019

SOME THOUGHTS ON CHRISTMAS EVE . . .

   It's been a very different sort of Christmas this year at the Smith household.  My family held their big gathering Saturday down in Houston, since a majority of us scattered Smith siblings and offspring now reside in that area.  Patty and I weren't able to make it for a variety of reasons, mainly because travel is becoming increasingly difficult for us given our responsibilities as caregivers.  Then my daughter Rebecca is now gone from the nest, living with her husband Joseph in El Paso, so our house is a little more empty than in previous years.  On top of that there is the matter of  sickness - I've had a nagging cough for several weeks now that I can't quite shake, and my poor wife has had pinkeye, asthma, and bronchitis going on for two weeks now - one thing gets better and the other gets worse, it seems!  So, with all this in mind, we have no big gathering planned tomorrow, no host of company coming over, just us four here at home quietly celebrating among ourselves.  It would be easy to feel melancholy about this year's lack of shared cheer.

    But then I reflect, in the words of my favorite musical, "how lucky we are to be alive right now!" We have been most richly blessed in more ways than I can count.  Despite mild seasonal illnesses, we both remain in solid health overall.  I just turned 56, but I have the blood pressure of a teenager and I can still put in a full day hiking on the river and keep up with guys half my age.  I'm still married to my high school sweetheart, and after 35 years we still love each other, and more importantly, we LIKE each other.  We just went to see the last movie of the STAR WARS saga in the theater together in the same town where we saw the first movie in the series 42 years ago, as a couple!  We've raised two beautiful daughters who are loving, big-hearted, and fun to be around.   We have a wonderful church home, we both enjoy our jobs, and we have food in the fridge, presents under the tree, and a roof over our heads.  As an author, I have published five novels in five short years, and have a head full of stories waiting to be told yet!

    So as I sit here on Christmas Eve, thinking about what has gone before and what lies ahead, I think about all my friends and the people who matter to me, some of whom have far more reason to be melancholy than I do.  I think of one of my very closest friends, whom I will not name here, separated from her kids and her husband while serving our country on the far side of the world, and I pray for her safe return.   I think of my favorite artifact-hunting partner, battling serious illness and trying his best to live life to the fullest despite his daily battle with pain, and pray for his health to improve.  I think of the precious family in my school whose eleven year old son is fighting for his life against childhood leukemia (#prayfortrevor!), and I pray that this will be the year their lives return to normal.  Despite their woes, each one of these precious people has taken the time to celebrate this remarkable season of the year with good cheer and brave hearts, which makes my grousing earlier today about "the worst Christmas ever" ring pretty hollow in my own ears.

    Most of all, I think about the remarkable event that we celebrate during this season.  You see, two thousand years ago history was torn asunder as the Creator of the Universe stepped down to earth and took on human form.  As the Apostle John put it, "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth."  I believe that - every word of it.  I've been laughed at for my faith on more than one occasion; I've been ridiculed and told that I was brainwashed into belief as a child.  I've been told that I am incapable of rational thought because of the simple fact that I believe in God.  But none of that matters to me.  I am a historian, a scholar of the past, a student of antiquity.  I believe that the Jesus of the Gospels IS the Jesus of history, and I believe that He did what the Gospels say He did and that He was who the Gospels say He was.   That belief has sustained me throughout my adult life and will sustain me till the day I die!

     Everyone shares their faith in different ways.  While I have served as a pastor and a teacher for many years, I believe my greatest gift is the gift of storytelling.  So whether I am sharing the Christmas story from the pulpit, or talking about the Crucifixion in front of my World History class (at a Christian school, I might add!), or writing about the adventures of a fictional crew of Biblical archeologists, or re-telling the story of Christianity's early years from the perspective of a jaded Roman bureaucrat, my faith permeates everything I do, and is interwoven into every story that I tell.  Because what I believe IS who I am. Because I believe, not just in "the Spirit of Christmas," but in the One whose birth we celebrate this season.

   So wherever you are, whatever you are doing, whether you are at home or far away, whether you are with your loved ones in the flesh or in spirit only, whether you are well or ill, I want to take this chance to wish you and yours a VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS, from our house to yours, in the name of the CHRIST we celebrate today.

    May all your days be merry and bright.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A Sneak Peek at my Newest Novel, PRESIDENT HAMILTON!

    I've been working on this story for almost a year now and it is turning into a true alternative historical epic! So here is a sneak peek for all you faithful readers, and especially for you HAMILTON fans:

The year is 1811. In this chapter, President Hamilton visits the state of North Carolina, even as the United States has been sucked into a war with Spain over the  Florida territory.  While there, he is called on to give an oration on the Fourth of July, 35 years after the Declaration was signed.  He uses the opportunity to push for his program of voluntary emancipation for the slaves of the South:

                                           CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE
 

          Hamilton stayed in Raleigh until the Fourth of July, at Governor Smith’s request. An endless series of balls and parties were given in his honor, and when he was not being serenaded by bands and politely declining requests to dance, the President took the time to meet with as many members of the North Carolina legislature as possible.  He sounded them out individually on the topic of emancipation and found that many were still considering their positions.  Always charming, ready with a smile and a quip, a legal precedent, or a passionate argument – depending on his audience – Hamilton exercised his years of political savvy and considerable powers of persuasion to move them in his direction, as once, long ago, he had pleaded, cajoled, and bargained New York’s reluctant legislature to ratify the U.S. Constitution.

          He had agreed to stay in town long enough to deliver an oration on the Fourth of July, and then was heading south to the Cape Fear river, whence he would catch a ride on a special barge the governor had commissioned for him down to Wilmington, and from there he would take ship to Charleston, South Carolina.  He was anxious to get closer to the border where word of military developments could reach him sooner, but he also wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity to speak to the citizens and lawmakers of North Carolina on the emancipation issue.

          By the time the Fourth rolled around, word of his presence had spread throughout the state, and a crowd of nearly ten thousand gathered on the Capitol grounds to hear him address the assembled dignitaries there – governors past and present, most of the state’s congressional delegation, and the entire state legislature were seated before the special platform that had been erected on the capitol building’s front steps.  The state militia passed in a military review, and Hamilton returned the crisp salutes of the soldiers with great affection.  A select group of Revolutionary War veterans, mostly now in their fifties and sixties, marched by under the banners they had carried during the war.  Hamilton saw a few familiar faces in that crowd; he did his best to make eye contact and give an individual wave or shouted greeting to each man he knew.  It was a hot day, but there was a pleasant breeze and the humidity had dropped enough that the heat was much more bearable than the previous week.

          Governor Smith spoke first, and he paid a moving tribute to the spirit of American independence, and then he saluted the veterans of the Revolution who were in attendance.  Finally, he spoke glowingly of Hamilton:

          “For the second time in our state’s history, it is our honor to welcome the President of our United States to our capitol!  On the thirty-fifth anniversary of our nation’s independence, we salute this unparalleled patriot, a courageous warrior for liberty in both peace and war, the architect of America’s prosperity, President Alexander Hamilton!”

          Alex stood and bowed as the applause of the crowd washed over him.  For a moment, his mind flashed back to his childhood; he recalled his hardscrabble upbringing on the streets of Nevis, his relief when his mother had relocated them to a much better home on St. Croix, and the devastation that had overwhelmed him when she fell ill and died.  He remembered the terrifying hurricane that swept the island when he was a teen, the horizontal rain lashing his skin and the roof of their house being ripped off by the storm’s raw power.  The essay he had written about the storm for the Royal Danish American Gazette had first brought him to public notice and had generated the wave of public sympathy that had eventually sent a penniless orphan to New York to get an education – and that was where his odyssey began.  Now it had brought him here, as President of the United States, about to address a vast crowd of people on the anniversary of the independence that he had helped win for his adopted country.  It was so overwhelming that Alex simply stood there for a moment, blinking as the applause continued.  He looked down at the carefully prepared speech he had labored on for a month, and then folded it and put it in his pocket.

          “My friends,” he began; “fellow citizens, patriots, noble veterans of the Revolution, volunteers of the North Carolina militia, and Americans all;  I cannot express to you the honor I feel for being accorded the opportunity to stand here before you today.  I have always prided myself in my ability to craft appropriate words for any occasion, and I had labored long and hard on a speech to share with you today.  But I have decided, instead of reading prepared remarks, to simply address you from my heart.  Thirty-five years ago on this day, the immortal words of Thomas Jefferson were adopted by the Continental Congress, informing the world that a new nation had been born, conceived in liberty, dedicated to the noble idea that all men are created equal, and that our rights and liberties are not a gift of government, but rather our divine inheritance from the God who made us.”

          The crowd rose to its feet, applauding again as he paused for a moment.  When they resumed their seats, he continued.

          “I was a lad of twenty years when I heard those words for the first time,” he said.  “I had already made the decision to take up arms to defend the rights of a nation where I had barely resided for a year but already come to love.  Even as we struggled and fought and killed for this notion of a nation that we had only begun to build, I knew that America, as deeply as I loved her, did not fully live up to the noble creed which we had declared to be our founding principle.  Perhaps this was what Thomas Jefferson intended all along, I have come to realize – that the words of the Declaration were not a statement of a goal realized, or a mission accomplished, but rather a quest, an ongoing experiment to refine and build upon the foundation of liberty that was laid on the Fourth of July in that glorious year of 1776!”

          The crowd applauded again, and the assembled veterans joined in with loud huzzahs.  Hamilton nodded in appreciation, and then continued.

          “We live in an age of marvels, an age where reason has put superstition to flight, an age where men can still acknowledge the sovereignty of the Almighty and yet recognize that He has gifted us with an  extraordinary measure of free will, the power to shape and alter this world we live in – the right to change our course in order to more fully embrace the spark of divinity God placed within each of us! We can now embrace our God-given intellect and appreciate our God-given freedom more fully than any generation in the history of mankind!  We have harnessed the power of steam to drive boats against the wind and current, Doctor Franklin showed us how to capture the essence of lightning, and who knows what marvels await as we continue to explore the full extent of the gifts God has blessed us with?  The children of the nineteenth century will see change on a scale that our fathers could only dream of!”

          “Yet, despite our remarkable achievements in the arts, in science, in technology and invention, we are still a primitive people in one aspect – we deny liberty to our fellow men in the name of profit!  How can we truly call ourselves free when we buy and sell men, women, and children at the auction block?  How can we hold ourselves worthy of God’s love when we violate the very Golden Rule taught by our Savior Himself?  I would never want to be a slave, so I have committed to never owning a slave.  What I would ask on the Fourth of July is for the people of North Carolina to embrace this idea of liberty as well – that we are only deserving of freedom when we grant it to those we hold in our power.”

          There was some scattered applause, and a few jeers, but most of the crowd kept their silence, Hamilton pressed his point, hoping that the silence meant that some, at least, were considering his appeal.

          “I have heard the arguments in favor of slavery passionately made by men who truly believe them to be true,” he said.  “I have heard how slavery benefits the benighted sons of Africa by exposing them to the twin lights of Christianity and civilization; how the sick and elderly among slaves are lovingly cared for by their kind masters; how labor gives purpose and dignity to a life that would otherwise be spent in squalor and pagan misery.  I have heard that the slave in the South is better off than the mill worker in the North, who has no guarantee of care or compassion in the event of sickness.  I do not doubt the integrity or sincerity of the men who make these arguments, but I would pose a question to them, a simple inquiry that cuts to the heart of the inherent flaw in their position:  Have any of them ever been a slave?”

          “If slavery is as benevolent and beneficial as its defenders make it out to be, why do not poor Southerners, suffering in economic distress during hard times, ever once volunteer to become slaves?  And why do those who are held in bondage constantly seek to regain their liberty, knowing the penalties that await them if they are recaptured?  If freedom is as dangerous and fraught with peril as the slaveholders claim it to be, why do slaves constantly risk all to gain it?  If slaves are happy and content in their state of bondage, then why has every plantation in Virginia which has adopted my plan of emancipation seen its productivity increase, and its rate of desertion drop from what it was in the days of the lash and the bloodhound?  And let me ask the single most important question of all – would any of you, my friends and fellow citizens, volunteer to become a slave?  Is there any inducement that could compel you to place yourself on the auction block to become another man’s property?  Of course not!  Then why, if none of us would ever choose to be a slave, should we choose to inflict that condition on others?”

          “North Carolina stands on the brink, my friends, of a momentous decision. While I know some here in the South have accused me of tyranny, of coveting other men’s property, and even of outright theft, the fact is that they are wrong.  As I recently told an elderly black man who stands on the brink of emancipation, I too have a master whose will binds me.  That master is an idea, a concept, a set of principles and rules embodied in the United States Constitution. Although it is the fondest wish of my heart that every man in America be free, I will not force a single person to give up his slaves against his will.  It is rather up to you, the people of North Carolina, and the legislators that you have elected, to make the momentous decision.  Will you rise up, and help America live out the meaning of its creed?  Will you take a stand for liberty and justice?  Will you see your children and children’s children guaranteed to enjoy the blessings of liberty, granted to us by Almighty God?  Or will you bequeath to them the whip and chain and the auction block as their inheritance?  The choice is yours, but I would ask you today, as we celebrate the liberty we won at our blood’s expense, at the loss of so many good men, from our own British masters, to strike a blow for liberty!  Help America rise up and truly embrace the creed that we fought a Revolution to establish.  Rise up, as free men, and share the gift of freedom with those who labor among us.  Sow the seeds of hope and future prosperity for ourselves and our children, and they will rise up and call you blessed.”

          The crowd surged to its feet, and cheers enveloped the President. He looked at the sea of joyous faces and realized that he had won.  Oh, there were still a few scowls scattered among the crowd, but the vast majority were applauding his sentiments, and the legislators behind him were taking note.  God willing, another Southern state would emancipate its slaves by the end of the year. 

          He knew that South Carolina would be a much harder sale to make – its slaves were more numerous, its planters more conservative and aristocratic, and its people more dependent on slave labor.  He doubted that the state would ever voluntarily free its Negroes, but perhaps he could win a few souls over during his visit; perhaps a small handful of planters would embark on the experiment of paid labor, and if they did, perhaps the example of prosperity they set would encourage others.  Eliminating slavery in the deep South would be a generational project, and Alex prayed that future Presidents would continue to work at it as hard as he had.

          The applause began to die down, and Alex stared out at the crowd, smiling at their enthusiasm.

          “My friends, you have filled my heart with gladness today. State legislators, I pray that you will take note of the enthusiasm for liberty that has been expressed here this morning when you take up the Emancipation Bill in your next session. To all who have listened to me today, and to all who are not here, but will read what I have said in the newspapers, I ask you to calmly and rationally consider the proposal before you.  In giving freedom to the slave, you will ensure freedom to your posterity.  Now, as we celebrate the Independence of our great nation on this Fourth of July, let us lift our hearts in appreciation of the gift of God that is freedom!  I thank you for the privilege of standing before you today, for the enormous honor that has been granted me, to lead this great nation of ours.  May God bless you all and may His face shine with favor on the United States of America!”

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

A SEASON OF CHANGE . . .

    I haven't written here much lately; the fall of 2019 has been unusually busy.  For my literary fans; I am still writing!   I have been pecking away at my latest novel, PRESIDENT HAMILTON; it seems every time I get closer to a conclusion another plot twist inserts itself and I have to add another chapter or two. That's the thing about changing history - it's hard to know when to stop!  Changing one thing changes everything; as I constantly remind my students, history turns on tiny hinges.  But the story is progressing nicely and should hopefully be done by Christmas, or at least by the end of the year.

     What else?  Of course, my teaching job keeps my pretty busy most of the time.  This fall I have five courses that meet every day and one that meets two days a week, plus I am teaching a night class at the local community college on top of that. I teach 7th grade Texas History, 8th grade U.S. History, 9th grade World Geography, 10th grade World History, 11th grade dual credit American History, and a course I created a few years back simply called "Modern America" - it's a survey of pop culture, history, sports, and politics from the 1970's to the present.  I came up with this class because, like virtually every college history instructor I know, it's really hard to cram in everything from Reconstruction to the Present in a single semester.  Most college instructors I know rarely get past the fifties; in a good year I'll get to Watergate - but that still leaves around 45 years of history untaught.  Modern America covers the gap, so I make sure that my high school kids graduate knowing about everything from Iran/Contra to 9/11, from the first Star Wars movie to PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.  I have a ton of fun teaching this course.  This spring I will be adding 12th grade U.S. Government to the schedule; it's always fun teaching government in an election year, and we'll get to track the primary elections first hand and enjoy watching some of the debates.

    Besides writing and  teaching, my wife Patty and I have found a new church home at First Baptist, Campbell, TX.  After spending almost 25 years in the pastorate, it is a relief to just be a church member again.  Patty plays for the Praise Team, and I have been asked to share a couple of Sunday morning messages by Bro. Danny, our pastor.  But both of us are involved only to the extent that we choose to be; it's nice to know that someone else is in the hot seat for a change!  The folks here are friendly, and the church is just the right size for me - they run around 50 people a Sunday.  Not too big, not too small.  From the very first time we visited it just felt like home.

   But the main reason that I haven't written here much lately is because of the gigantic, life-changing, home-rearranging, bank-account-emptying event that now looms less that two weeks away: MY DAUGHTER IS GETTING MARRIED! 

   Patty and I had twin girls in 1994, Rachel and Rebecca.  Both girls eschewed dating in high school and then acquired boyfriends the year after they graduated.  Both girls stuck with the first guys they dated.  And now both girls are getting married!  Rebecca will walk the aisle and become Mrs. Joseph Reyes a week from this Saturday, on Nov. 30, and wedding preparations have kept the whole house hopping!  Joseph is on active duty in the U.S. Army and is stationed in El Paso, TX.  Rebecca will be moving out there with him right after the wedding, setting up housekeeping in a nice offbase apartment.  Rachel will be marrying her beau, Shawn Grantham, in March and they are looking for a place here in Greenville.

   It's a true season of change for Patty and me.  Both girls have never lived anywhere but home, and knowing Rebecca will move out in two weeks and then Rachel following her in March has thrown us both into a tizzy!  All the usual wedding preparations and accompanying stress are underway; and in addition to seeing both of our girls finally launched from the nest comes the responsibility now thrust upon us of finding home caregivers for my aged mother-in-law.  It's been a busy, stressful time this fall, and the next two weeks are going to be absolutely crazy!  But, that being said, it's also exciting, as change always is.  We will find a way to move on, to take care of the things and people we need to take care of, and continue facing life together as we have done now for nearly 35 years.

   No one knows what the future holds, but we know Who holds the future.  With faith in God and confidence in each other, we continue to move forward.

 I'll keep you posted as to how things work out.

  

Friday, October 18, 2019

FOR TEACHERS: THE TOP TEN FORBIDDEN REPORT CARD COMMENTS!

       As we wrap up the first quarter of the school year, and begin the tedious task of filling out our student's report cards, all teachers hit that moment when they open the "Comments" box and have to come up with a way to tell Mom and Dad that their precious little Johnny (or Janey) is either not performing quite up to academic snuff, or perhaps could use some serious behavior modification.  That is when the age-old dilemma sets in - exactly how HONEST do I want to be?  There is a fine line between acknowledging the seriousness of a child's problems and being hauled into the administrator's office to face a  firestorm of parental ire.  So, this post is especially for all of you newer teachers who may not be quite sure exactly where that line falls.  Here are the top ten comments that you NEVER, EVER want to use on a student's report card!

10. "Dumber than a box of rocks!"  OK, this is just clearly out of bounds, even if, in the heat of being told that Genghis Khan killed John F. Kennedy, you might want to say it.  And, you can't pretty it up by substituting "a bag of hammers" or "a bowl of potato salad."

9.  "Obnoxious little twerp!"  Again, you may occasionally feel this way, but really, ya JUST CAN'T SAY IT!!!  (And, again, substituting other words for "twerp" doesn't make it acceptable.  Instead, focus on what needs improving: "Johnny needs to learn not to put boogers in Suzie's hair!" or something like that.)

8.  "This student should go far.  Australia would be a good start!"  OK, this one begins in an acceptable fashion, but the second half spoils it.  Jut think that part.

7.  "Did you drop him on his head as a baby?"   First of all, if the parent actually DID do this, they probably feel incredibly guilty and bringing it up is not a good idea!  And, if they didn't, they will resent both what it says about their parenting AND their child's abilities.  This one will get you hauled before the principal for sure. 

6.  "Have you considered home schooling your child?  You're really missing out not seeing him every day."  Nice try.  The kid is in your classroom so the parents can A.  Work to earn a living, and B. Not have to deal with the stuff that made you ask this question!

5.  "I hear that XYZ School down the road is much better equipped than we are to deal with Janey's unique learning style."  OK, this is classic buck passing, and parents will see through it in a minute!  Not only that, your administrator will NOT appreciate your trying to reduce enrollment, and XYZ School probably has a little Janey of their own that they will lob in your direction in a heartbeat if you send them yours!

4.  "Are you SURE Johnny is related to his older sister?"  Yeah, we all have those families where the big brother/sister is one of those overachievers that make us feel like Mr. Chips, but then their younger sibling makes you contemplate the joys of early retirement, or maybe even homelessness.  Again, parents resent the implication.  Just snag one of his fingernail clippings and send it off for a DNA test if you really want to know!

3.  "Perhaps Johnny needs a new hobby to work off some of that energy - maybe alligator wrestling or cliff diving in Sri Lanka?"  Chances are they've already got him doing a few of those things; if not, they're not going to sign him up just because you suggested it!

2.  "This semester, Janey has reached rock bottom and appears to be renting a jackhammer to dig even further."  OK, this is a bit more acceptable than some of the above, but you might want to dress it up a little bit.  No parent likes to be told their kid has dug a hole they have no hope of climbing out of!

AND THE NUMBER ONE REPORT CARD COMMENT YOU SHOULD NEVER, EVER USE:

1.  "Theoretically speaking, of course, how much would you miss him, really?"


Some things are better thought than spoken.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

OF CHILDREN, TIME, AND A RIVER . . .

      Yesterday, for the twenty-fourth time since being hired on as a history teacher at Greenville Christian School, I loaded up my junior high history class and headed out with a gaggle of parent drivers convoyed up behind me towards the North Sulphur River.  For those who don't live here in North Texas, the Sulphur is a large, artificially channeled river bed.  Once a winding East Texas creek, looping all over the bottom like an epileptic snake, in 1928 local farmers got tired of the Sulphur overflowing its banks and drowning their crops every year.  So they hired the Army Corps of Engineers to come in and straighten the river, cutting a smooth, straight channel for over 40 miles to help the rich bottomland drain faster and spare their crops.  Of course, when you straighten flowing water, you also speed it up, and when flowing water speeds up, it erodes the banks faster and carries more debris downstream.  The channel that was completed in 1929 was about 20 feet wide and 10 feet deep in the middle.  Today, the North Sulphur Channel is about a hundred yards wide at the top - wider in places - and it cuts down through 30 to 40 feet of topsoil, Pleistocene clay, and Cretaceous ocean floor.  It gets deeper and wider every year as the floods carry more and more bank and river bottom away.
  
    What was an absolute disaster for soil conservation proved to be a wonderful boon to those of us who collect fossils and Indian arrowheads.  Thousands of Native American points, knives, and tools have fallen into the river and been deposited on the gravel bars that cover its bottom over the years. Many have been recovered by collectors, but many remain to be found.  Fossil bones and shells from a variety of upper Cretaceous marine fauna, ranging from the fearsome fifty foot long mosasaurs to giant oysters and tiny seaworms, are also scattered throughout the gravel.  To the searcher with sturdy boots, a keen eye, and the patience to focus on staring at rocks for hours on end, the quest is nearly always rewarded with something amazing.

    Of course, more importantly for 7th graders, the river is also swarming with frogs, baby ribbon snakes, the occasional turtle, and lots of that lovely and mysterious substance that somehow finds its way onto skin, hair, and clothing during the course of the day - MUD!  I have watched 7th graders find lots of cool things over the years - fossilized shark's teeth, mosasaur vertebrae, Indian arrowheads, mastodon enamel, you name it - but the one thing they seemingly ALL find is a way to get completely coated in mud!  They scoop it, throw it, roll in it, get stuck in it, and do everything but EAT it! 
   Every Sulphur River trip is different.  Last year, the river was just coming off of a 30 foot rise, and there was only one set of tracks ahead of us.  The gravel had been thoroughly tumbled, and the river bottom ripped up and redeposited.  We found eight mosasaur vertebrae, five arrowheads, and dozens of other bits of bone, teeth, shells.  Every student went home with something! Water was flowing freely, and the kids got muddy but were able to wash it off in the flowing stream.  It was one of the most successful river trips in recent history - and I had my friend and videographer, Holly Rice, along to chronicle the day.  You can see the video footage from that day on my YouTube channel here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbZoE8p1m8E

   Of course, I doubt anything will ever equal the field trip I took back in 1997.  Conditions were dreadful, it had been a dry summer and only one small rise had happened since school started.  The water had just come up a couple of feet, enough to put a thick coat of mud on top of the gravel bars and make it that much harder to spot fossils!  But then I happened to look in one of the small flowing water channels between the gravel bars, and just enough bottom had been peeled up to expose a complete Mosasaur skull just coming up out of the shale!  I screamed myself silly that day, and with the help of one student and a couple of parents, I dug up the entire skull and hauled it out of the river before sunset!  I don't have any video footage from that day, but you can see the skull and hear me tell the whole story of finding it at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7Z28c2LdbE&t=17s

   Yesterday's trip was unique.  Conditions weren't great - the river hasn't had a solid rise big enough to turn over the bottom since early July.  The gravel bars were covered with weeds and grass burrs, but the last rain had put just enough water in the river to rinse things off a bit.  There were footprints everywhere; many, many hunters had scoured the gravel ahead of us. But no one can find everything; we started finding small fossils almost right away, and by the end of the day we had picked up an impressive collection of shark's teeth, one mosasaur tooth, one arrowhead and one preform, numerous invertebrate fossils, and many small fragments of fossilized bone.

   But the thing that will stand out in my memory from this trip was the SNAKES!  Right away when we got there, I spotted a small ribbon snake that had grabbed a frog in its mouth as I entered the river.  I grabbed it and it spat out the frog, and I showed it to all my students and posed for pics before letting it go.  Then I caught a small banded water snake not five minutes later, and after that it was on.  Eight snakes, two water snakes and six ribbon snakes, were caught before the day was out.  It got to the point that the kids would holler: "Here's another snake, Mr. Smith" and I'd holler back: "Is it striped and little?" and when they said "Yes!" I'd say "Then you can go ahead and play with it!"  One girl, named Avery, caught a baby ribbon snake and carried it around with her for over an hour, naming it "Salazar" and planning to take him home and keep him.  Their relationship tragically ended when Salazar got tired of being carried and nipped her on the hand; it didn't break the skin but she did get the message and released him.  Junior high romances rarely last!!

    All in all, it was another memorable trip.  We got back to the bridge, and the kids changed into dry clothes (under the careful supervision of chaperons of the same gender!), and then we posed for pictures in front of a bit of graffiti that's now been painted on the bridge for a decade or more - some optimistic soul wrote: "Meagan, prom?" and someone else - possibly Meagan - wrote a huge "NO!!" next to it.  I now have eight straight years of pictures of my kids posing by that painted exchange. They are all hilarious!

   And of course, the favorite part of the trip for the kids AND sponsors is the stop for burgers on the way home.  Braum's Ice Cream and Dairy Store serves hamburgers and fries (good ones, too!), plus some of the best ice cream in Texas.  The kids chowed down and the weary chaperons joined them, happy that another year's worth of memories had been successfully made.  Best of all, we got back to school at 3:10 - five minutes before the bell that marks the end of the school day!

    Over the last twenty-four years, many students have come and gone through my classroom, and many wonderful and fun memories have been made.  But the one day that they all remember, long after they graduate, is the day of the Sulphur River trip.  Speaking of which, only 364 days or so till I take the next batch of kids up there . . . .