Thursday, June 6, 2019

HAIL AND FAREWELL, MY CAPTAIN!

   Nearly ten years ago, it was announced at a spring faculty meeting that our headmaster, Julie Robinson, would be stepping down from her position at Greenville Christian School, and that the search for a new headmaster would take place over the summer.  The first decade of the new century had been a tough one for our school.  We'd gone through four headmasters, shrinking enrollment, a tough economy, and some personal conflict between the school board, families, and teachers. We lost two faculty members, one student, and one recent graduate to tragic deaths. All of us faculty members were a bit nervous, wondering what lay ahead for us and for our school.  Then in July we got word that a new headmaster had been hired from out of state - one Steve Bowers, from Peoria, Illinois.

    I had no idea who this guy was or what kind of boss he was going to be, so after he sent out a "get-acquainted" email to our faculty, I wrote him back and introduced myself.  I invited him out to lunch with me and my wife, so we could get to know him.  And then I posed one question, just to kind of get a feel for what sort of fellow this new Yankee headmaster might be.  It wasn't a deep, theological question, and it had nothing to do with secondary education, classroom management, or personnel policies.  It cut to the heart of the critical issue of personality - would this man be someone I could get along with or not? 

   What was the question, you ask?  Simple: "How many lines from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL can you quote from memory?"

   He came back with six, off the top of his head: "It's only a flesh wound!"  "He's just a harmless little bunny!"  "Your father was a hedgehog and your mother smelled of elderberries!"  "Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time!"  "I fart in your general direction!" "You silly English kunigguts!"  (He also said he could send a few more if I wanted them.)

    I knew we were off to a good start.

    Over the next nine years, I came to know and treasure Steve and his wife Stacie.  They were the best thing that ever happened to GCS during my twenty-three year tenure.  Steve was funny and personable, but also professional.  He had a great relationship with the kids, his teachers, the board, and our parents.  It took a few years for the changes he made to take hold, and some of those changes were initially were painful.  I didn't envy him some of the decisions he had to make.  But they were good changes overall; the decline in enrollment slowly ceased and new growth began.  We raised $100,000 and built a brand-new science lab, then added something our school had long needed, a multipurpose activity center that became a lunchroom, reception hall, auditorium and stage.  We added a beautiful new brick sign out front that exponentially increased our curb appeal.  We went through our ACSI re-accreditation and received the highest marks in the history of our school.  Our graduating classes set new records year after year for scholarship offers; culminating with this year's senior class - 17 students who received over $2.4 million in combined scholarship offers!

    But the changes weren't just in terms of brick and mortar construction.  GCS became a happy place, where teachers enjoyed their jobs and kids enjoyed learning.  Certainly we were not without drama - no place that has teenagers will ever reach that state! - but things got better in so many ways. The traditional April Fool's prank that had been limited to my room grew to a phenomenon that encompasses the entire secondary building and leaves staff and students laughing and shaking their heads every year.  We instituted international mission trips to the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica, and domestic ones to a mission in New Orleans.  We launched a secondary retreat to begin each school year with fun, games, and a time for bonding.  Our in-service days came to include fun team building things like going to escape rooms and doing scavenger hunts.

   Steve always treated his staff members like professionals.  If there was a problem in the classroom that merited intervention, he would step in and try to set things straight, but other than that he respected our expertise and let us do our jobs in our own way - and the school was a better place for it.  No one flinched when Steve Bowers walked into their classroom - you knew he was always there to support and help you, not to "gig" you for something.  If we merited correction, it was done in private, with a spirit of grace and brotherhood.  He prayed for our kids, worried over them, and loved them, and nearly all of them came to love him back.

   Steve's family had some wonderful moments with us, and some very tough ones.  All three of his boys, Rue, Brady, and Ike, graduated GCS.  They were great kids that I loved teaching, and have each become remarkable young men!  But then in December of 2015 Stacie noticed a painful lump in the roof of her mouth.  It was cancer, a rare, malignant, and rapid spreading cancer centered only two inches from her brain.  As all of us prayed and worried, she underwent radical surgery and chemotherapy and months of painful rehab.  Through it all, Steve continued to come to work, even as his haggard expression and red eyes gave mute testimony to the pain he was enduring. Our faculty, school families, and student body united to cook meals, chip in money for bills, and to pray without ceasing for this family we had come to appreciate so much. Stacie beat that horrible disease; she not only recovered but came back on staff the last two years, first as a long-term substitute, then as a faculty liaison.  Her grace and infectious smile were a daily picture of God's incredible love and healing power, a life lesson that she and Steve taught to all of us, students and faculty alike.

   One personal story, just to show what kind of man Steve Bowers is: In the spring of 2016 I was given a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to Israel as part of an archeological field school.  It was an expensive trip, and I was incredibly blessed when so many of my former students, faculty colleagues, GC parents, and church members contributed to my expenses.  Steve and Stacie were hip-deep in their cancer fight and the enormous medical bills were piling up left and right.  But a few days before I left, he took me aside and handed me an envelope with a hundred dollar bill in it.  I protested that I couldn't accept money from them in their hour of need, and he said: "So many people have stepped up and blessed us while we have been hurting; Stacie and I talked about it and we want to share some of that blessing with you.  Spend it on the trip, or to take your wife out to dinner before you leave if you like - but this is our blessing to you."

   Steve is going on from GCS now, feeling his work here is complete.  None of us wanted to see him leave, but we know that his new school - a Christian school in a small Kansas community - is going to be richly blessed by his leadership, and by the wonderful, nurturing atmosphere that he and Stacie create wherever they go. He leaves with the love and best wishes of all of us who work for him and with him for the kingdom of Christ, and in educating these wonderful young people who come through our doors.  God be with you, Steve and Stacie - you WILL be missed!

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Senior Trip, Day 6: All Good Things. . .

   Once more we were up and down in the lobby at 6:45 AM to embark on our last day in the nation's capitol, and the last day of our Senior trip.  We went to the same little sports grill we'd visited the day before for another hearty and delicious breakfast, and then we returned to the hotel to check out, gather our luggage and store it till time to leave for the airport. After that we embarked on the Metro for our first stop of the day: Arlington National Cemetery.  We arrived just in time to witness the laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, followed by the changing of the guard moments later.  There are few sights in America more solemn and moving than this unceasing vigil over the graves of those who sacrificed all for their country.  After the ceremony was over, we made our way to the grave of Greenville's most famous son: Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of the Second World War.  Born less than ten miles outside of town, he worked in Greenville and enlisted in the Army in Greenville before embarking on his remarkable combat career, which saw him receive 28 separate decorations for valor.   After paying our respects to his memory, our group split up and we walked all over the cemetery, viewing many famous graves and monuments, before meeting up to head to the Metro.

    Our next stop was the White House, where we struggled to get a good picture in the midst of the throngs of people, tourists, visiting police and protestors.  It was not a long stop, then we were turned loose and told to find lunch on our own and meet at the Smithsonian Castle at 4:30.  Several of us went shopping for souvenirs, and then stopped and ate lunch.  Jerry and I found a sidewalk table at a popular restaurant that served excellent cheeseburgers, and then we headed back to the Natural History Museum to check out a couple of wings I had not visited yesterday.  Jerry was still feeling pretty tired, so after that he decided to sit down on the Mall and take a break.  I strolled down to the Washington monument and back, just soaking up the ambience of this remarkable city.  Then we went into the Smithsonian Castle (that's the original red brick structure that once housed the Institute's entire collection) and looked around a bit.  After that we simply set and watched the people come and go, and before you know it the group was gathering.  We took a few last pictures - folks were getting tired and grumpy by this point! - and then caught the Metro back to our hotel.  We gathered our bags and were shuttled to the airport (half our group experienced a brief delay when the hotel shuttle scraped another car on the way out of the parking lot!).  Baggage check, security, grabbing a last minute snack, and then we just sat and waited for the plane.  Before you know it, we were descending the boarding ramp and finding our seats.  One last glimpse of the gleaming Capitol dome, and then we were above the clouds and heading back to Texas!

    I'll spare you the story of the return voyage - I mean, airplanes are boring, right?  And late night bus rides are worse.  We got home at 11 PM, and after a round of hugs and goodbyes, we headed our separate directions.  Today it was back to work for me, reviewing kids for their exams and trying to grade the massive stack of papers that lay before me.  Tonight I sat down and carefully sealed 17 envelopes with 17 small gifts and 17 personal letters, one to each graduating senior.  I'll be presenting them tomorrow.

   Tomorrow is senior chapel, and Friday night is graduation.  Another set of "my kids" will be launched into the adult world, and once more I will sit and sniffle a bit as I watch them receive their diplomas.  I've taught many remarkable classes in my twenty three years at GCS, but this one took me on a journey I will never forget.

   I remember the old song that used to play at the end of every episode of the Carol Burnett Show when I was a kid: "I'm so glad we had this time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song; seems we just get started and before you know it, comes the time we have to say so long."

That time is here. Safe journeys, Class of 2019.

I love you guys.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Senior trip, Day Five - A Capital Experience!!

  6:45 is a beastly early hour when you've been hiking through urban jungles for four straight days.  But that was when we assembled in the lobby of our hotel this morning, and then headed to a nearby restaurant for breakfast.  The food was good - fresh fruit, French toast, bacon, and real eggs (not the powdered ones our hotel in New York served!).  After that we came back to the hotel to pack out, and then headed to our first stop of the day: the newly opened Museum of the Bible.  This was a wonderful stop;  there were floors dedicated to the impact of the Bible, the history of the Bible, and the  stories of the Bible, as well as a special temporary exhibit of artifacts from Jerusalem and Rome, the world of the New Testament.  While some artifacts were facsimles, most of the ones in that last exhibit were authentic, and included one remarkable find directly linked to the New Testament: an ossuary that once contained the bones of Alexander, son of Simon of Cyrene - the man who carried Jesus' cross!  I purchased a book on Biblical archeology there, and also told the bookstore manager he needed to stock my novels!


    From there we caught a train to the nation's capitol - or at least, to the foot of Capitol Hill.  It was a long walk to the top, but once there we got some great pictures.  I also took advantage of the opportunity to announce my candidacy for President in the year 2020 (more on that here later!).  Then we descended to the Capitol Visitor Center and had lunch (I got brisket; not the best I've ever had but not bad, either!).  After we ate we lined up for our tour of the Capitol building, which was very nice.  We didn't get to go into the galleries and watch the House in action, but we did get to stand under the magnificent rotunda (so tall the Statue of Liberty could stand up inside it!) and see several famous artworks from American history - plus LOTS of statues!  Once our tour was done, we hit up the gift shop (it was 48 degrees in Washington this morning and rainy, so I purchased a U.S. Capitol sweatshirt - only  to have the weather warm up and hiking keep me in such a lather that I didn't wear it all day!  Oh well, "winter is coming," as Tony Stark used to say!).  I told the kids I'd all invite them back there for my inauguration on January 20, 2021.


    It was at this point that a great rift opened in our group.  Doc Bleier (the other male sponsor and I) wanted to go see the Smithsonian during our four hours of free time, but most of the kids wanted to go back to the hotel and get some rest because they were tired (a couple of them were sick, but most were just tired!).  We dubbed this group "the slackers", and after bidding them farewell, Doc and the four brave students who stayed walked with me down the Mall (and down and down and down) till we got to the Smithsonian Museum of American History.  The kids were anxious to see the horribly cringey statue of George Washington as Zeus which I remembered from my last visit here in 1976.  Sure enough, there he was right inside the door, in all his magnificently ripped, bare-chested glory!


   But there was lots of other great stuff on display there, from Abraham Lincoln's hat (the one he wore to Ford's Theater on that fateful night!) to Dorothy's ruby slippers from THE WIZARD OF OZ, to a Revolutionary War gunboat built by Benedict Arnold and rescued from the floor of Lake Champlain in the 1950's, and a pistol carried by George Washington in the French and Indian War.  We toured this museum for almost two hours and still didn't see all there was to see.  Afterwards we crossed over to the Museum of Natural History, which had a great display called Sea Monsters Unearthed, featuring several marine reptiles from Northwest Africa - including several species of mosasaurs that are also found in Northeast Texas.  I quickly established what every good paleontologist needs to be sure of - that my dinosaur was bigger than theirs!  Actually, the GCS mosasaur that I dug in 1997 was larger than the biggest one on display there, and I have another one that I helped dig that is now in SMU's Paleo lab which is twice as large as the GCS specimen!  (Yes, I'm proud of my giant sea lizards!)


   My group and I had explored the museums separately for the most part, but we regathered at the end of the day and met the "slacker's crew" coming back from the hotel in front of the original Smithsonian building, known locally as 'the castle."  From there we walked about five miles (that's what it felt like, anyway!) to the docks, where we boarded the "Spirit of Washington" ship for a dinner cruise on the Potomac.  The food was quite excellent, and after we ate I went topside and witnessed a beautiful sunset over the nation's capitol.  As the light faded we went below deck where the music had started.


    I cannot dance well.  I have never let this stop me from trying - but my wife usually DOES stop me from trying!  Well, she wasn't there tonight, and once they started playing "Footloose" I was irresistibly pulled onto the floor by the power of 80's rock.  Seriously, the last time I danced this much Ronald Reagan was still President!  I was pretty much alone on the floor at first (except for GCS' own dance machine, RYAN BLAZIER!!!), but one by one the kids came out, even Jerry who felt terrible and had been a horrible curmudgeon all day long.  We boogied and grooved for a solid hour.  I'd take a break, say I was done, get a sip of tea, and then another 80's tune would start up and there I'd go.  All in all, it was an amazing evening with this precious crew of soon-to-be graduates that I (and hopefully they) will never forget!


    But all good things come to an end, and this was no exception.  Eventually we arrived back at the dock, got off the boat, and walked another fifteen miles to the train station (that's what it felt like after the adrenaline of the dance floor wore off!), and boarded the DC Metro back to our hotel.  I decided to sit down and blog it all before I forgot half of what happened, and now here I am, my entire body aching, my feet on fire, and a huge grin on my face!


   Today's funny stuff: Mrs. Hyatt finally counting to 21 on the FIRST try! (that's the number in our party, and whenever she does a headcount we're always one or two short!)  Jerry's quote of the day: "I hate walking.  I hated walking in New York, I hate walking in DC, and I hate walking in Texas!!"  Hannah Evans: "Is this the Rio Grande?" while looking at the Potomac.  (She said she was quoting Mikayla, of course.)  Mikayla also said: "My nose is running faster than I am!"  Sam Pitts saying: "OH!  So that's what P.S. stands for!"  And Nick Bahm returning to the house where his parents lived when he was born "like Thor returning to Asgard!"


All in all, a wonderful, exhausting, educational, and entertaining day.
29,162 steps.


I think I will go to my room and die now.

SENIOR TRIP 2019, Day Four: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington!

  This was an incredibly full and busy day!  We got up early and met in the lobby at 7:30 to head to New York's Penn Station and catch the AMTRAK train to Washington DC.  It was there we met our most memorable New York personality, Station Manager Jermaine Jones.  This fine gentleman not only gave us preferential boarding, but laughed, joked, and inspired the kids with an impromptu motivational speech on "Letting your light shine before all men!" He was so wonderful and positive that one of the girls commented as we boarded the train: "I want to be that guy when I grow up!"  I even got a nice email from him after we left the station wishing us luck on our trip.


    After that, we boarded the train for the 2 1/2 hour ride to DC.  The kids mostly dozed; I read some more in Shirer's RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH, slept just a bit, and watched the countryside go by.  We passed through New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland before finally arriving in Washington, DC around noon or so.  We had a few minutes before the bus arrived, so I grabbed a Philly cheesesteak stromboli for lunch at a restaurant there in the station, and then we were on the bus and headed to the hotel. We drove past the White House and Capitol Building, plus some of the famous monuments, and then had enough time to ditch our bags and take a quick bathroom break.  After that, back on the bus and headed for our first stop: Washington's National Cathedral!


   Words cannot express how majestic this building is.  I have loved the Gothic style of church architecture ever since I watched David MacAulay's CATHEDRAL for the first time with my World History Class over 20 years ago, and seeing the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe is high on my bucket list.  Although the Washington cathedral is of modern construction, it follows the floor plan and architectural design of thousand year old structures like Notre Dame and Chartres.  The soaring arches, flying buttresses, massive stone vaults, and beautiful stained glass windows that take up huge stretches of the walls are beautiful beyond words.  I could have stayed there for hours, just soaking in all the magnificent architectural details.  We attended the Evensong Service, sitting all the way up in the choir (for those unfamiliar with Gothic cathedrals, their floor plan is shaped like a cross - the long upright is called the nave, the crossbar is the transept, and the short, top part of the cross is called the choir).  The music was unearthly in its beauty, and the organ was huge and haunting in its tone.  The service was very scriptural; every song had Biblical lyrics, there were two separate readings from the New Testament, and the homily was inspiring.  I envy my former student John Parker, who attended there every Sunday during his two years in Washington getting his Master's Degree!


    From the sublime to the ridiculous, we left the National Cathedral and went bowling!  (Ridiculous being my typical bowling score, of course!)  We were at a place called "Pinstripes", where the food was pretty good and we got a couple of lanes reserved till 7.  We didn't quite have time to finish our game, but I was second out of eight players after 9 frames (and Mikayla, I would have crushed you in the last frame, just sayin'!!).  Everyone had a good time, and we got a lot of fun and silly pictures.


    Anyway, after we left Pinstripes we boarded the bus for a wonderful tour called "Monuments by Moonlight." Our first stop was the National World War II Memorial, which is a gorgeous and fitting tribute to the men and women of the greatest generation America ever produced.  Some of the quotes on the walls there I had heard before, some I had not, but all were inspiring.  From there we walked up to the Vietnam Memorial, which bears the names of all 58,000 men and women who were killed in the Vietnam Conflict.  I experienced my biggest "goosebump moment" of the whole trip as we were quietly walking up the wall, glancing at all the names inscribed there.  My eyes just happened to light on one name on one of the taller panels - MY name.  "Lewis B. Smith" inscribed for all the world to see.  I was gobsmacked for a moment, and the kids were pretty freaked out too.  Our tour guide looked up the soldier in question, and his full name was Lewis Benjamin Smith - mine is just Lewis Ben, but still, it was a very creepy thought to think that this young New Yorker who was killed in battle  in 1967 bore virtually the same name as a Texan who had not yet turned four years old when he died.


    From there we walked up to the breathtaking Lincoln Memorial.  I am a huge fan of President Lincoln, considering him to be, hands down, America's greatest President.  Reading his soaring rhetoric as it is inscribed on the walls, I find it testament to his greatness that northern and southern states alike contributed to this marble tribute to his memory, which was finished a century ago (which his eldest son, Robert Lincoln, lived to see dedicated).  By this point it was getting very late and the rain was starting to pepper down, so we made a very quick stop at the FDR Memorial, which I want to revisit later today, and then the Martin Luther King Memorial, where the memory of the great civil rights leader is preserved.  It was well after 10 PM when we got back to the hotel, so I got a nice hot shower, posted all my pictures from the day on my FB feed (you can see them there or at the Greenville Christian School FB page), and went to bed, so tired I didn't even try to write this blog post till this morning.


    Funny stuff?  Let's see, when we were struggling to lift our luggage into the overhead racks on the AMTRAK train, Mikayla commented that while she couldn't lift her suitcase overhead, "that's why God invented guys!"  (Kind of hard to prove her wrong on that count, since I helped three different girls get their bags up there!)  Nick's phenomenal ability to find the gutter no matter how he threw the ball down had us all giggling, and someone (I'm not sure who) said of the National Cathedral: "Man, if you farted in here the whole world would hear it!"  All in all, though, it's been a grueling trip. Several of the kids are fighting off a travel bug of some sort, and we're hoping they will all be well enough to finish the journey these next couple of days and be well enough to graduate Friday night!


   Oh, and to everyone who got to see Game of Thrones last night and then spoiled it for me on FB:   I hate you!!

   12,000 steps on Sunday.  No wonder they call it a "day of rest!"


   OK, now off to the Capitol Building!
   

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Senior Trip, Day Three:"We Just Happen to be in the Greatest City in the World!"

  Morning came way too early today!  My feet and legs were definitely protesting from two 20,000+ step days.  But, after my Diet Dr. Pepper and a free hotel breakfast,  I slowly returned to full consciousness and prepared to join seventeen equally groggy seniors on another foray into the Big Apple!

   Our first stop today was at NBC studios, where we got a wonderful tour that included the stage where SNL is going to be filmed here in a couple of hours time, the set of NBC nightly news, and the control room where all of these shows are constantly being filmed, broadcast, and edited.  The high point of the tour was our chance to do a broadcast of our own, with Nick Bahm as the talk show host, Sam Pitts as our announcer, and me as the guest of the evening, with five of our GCS girls forming a band and playing the intro to the show and others serving as technicians and camera crew.  The finished result was emailed to us; I'm going to try and post it to my FB page later.

   After the studio tour, we were turned loose for some shopping and sightseeing on Times Square.  I got to see the theatre where HAMILTON was being performed, and I went souvenir shopping and bought some T-shirts and novelties for our loved ones back home.  We also ate at a wonderful little pizzeria where I had something that I haven't enjoyed since my days in Japan long ago: shrimp pizza!  Then we met back at the Rockefeller Plaza for the "Top o'the Rock" tour - a blazing fast elevator ride to the observation deck on the roof of the Rockefeller Center!  We took our time soaking in the incredible views of New York, Manhattan Island, the Empire State Building, and Central Park.

  After that we had free time till 5:15, and there was a division of opinion.  Some of the guys wanted to see the Museum of Natural History like I did, others wanted to go see the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid with its cool aviation museum.  But the girls ALL wanted to go to Chinatown and go shopping, and the lure of cheap shopping and feminine company was too much for the guys to resist, so we ALL went to Chinatown.  We wandered the narrow streets and alleys and saw lots of cool knick-knacks and Tshirts, and the girls all got handbags and scarves and such. Then Sam decided that his life would not be complete until he saw the apartment that was the setting for the series FRIENDS, so a short train ride and another long hike later we got a picture made in front of a walk up flat that looked almost exactly like every other walk up flat in the entire neighborhood, but the kids were all excited about it, as they were for a street sign that read "Waverly Place" - the setting of another TV show I've never seen!  (Gee, I'm sounding like a real curmudgeon here, aren't I?)

   We met again at Rockefeller Plaza at 5:15 for our supper date at Ellen's Stardust Cafe, famous for its singing waitstaff and excellent food.  I had a cheeseburger that was quite phenomenal, a small chocolate Sundae for dessert, and an excellent rendition of "Be Our Guest" from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.  By the time dinner was done, everyone was pretty tired, so most of us headed back to the hotel to rest up and get ready for tomorrow's  train ride to Washington DC.

   Some takeaways from the Big Apple:  Car horns.  In Texas, we use our horns when we are in dire danger of hitting another car, an animal, or a pedestrian.  In New York, car horns are actually a form of language, used to convey important messages like: "Hey, I'm driving a car!"  To which the proper response is a short blast on your own horn, to say "Me too!"  Eye contact - New Yorkers only look at other New Yorkers.  They generally eschew all eye contact with tourists unless they are A: trying to sell you something, or B: are angry with you for crossing the road too slowly, not buying whatever it is they are trying to sell you, or existing.  Last of all, prices.  Everything in New York is priced one of two ways: outrageously expensive or outrageously cheap.  Usually the expensive items are the ones you want and the cheap ones are the ones you wind up buying.

   Funny moments:  Hannah Packer is the queen of funny faces in our pictures so far, Jerry is far and away the most eloquent complainer, and Camden McBride wins the "Incredible Hulk" award of the day for forcing the subway doors open when they tried to close on him.  Nick Bahm was the best talk show host of the day, and Mikayla referring to the Seattle baseball  team as the "Marine -ers".

23,000 steps today.  I'm so tired my hair hurts.

Goodnight!

Friday, May 10, 2019

Senior Trip, Day 2: "History is Happening in Manhattan"

     Another full day here in New York City with our crew of seniors from Greenville Christian School!  After the very long (or, as I spelled it in my journal entry, "LOOOOOOOOOONNNNNNNNGGGGGGG) day yesterday, we slept in a bit - till after 7 AM anyway - and then came downstairs and got our free breakfast, which was not bad as such things go, although it was a long shot from IHOP!  After eating and making sure everyone was ready, we headed out and boarded the New York Subway once more.  Our destination this time:  The 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

   I remember that day so vividly, a Tuesday morning when my normal routine of teaching was shattered by events two thousand miles away.  Most of these graduating seniors were babies when it happened.  The reflecting pools surrounded by the names of all the victims are a somber reminder of the cost America paid for hatred that day.  The Museum is beautiful, sobering, and catches the full extent of the grief and sorrow of that fateful day. The one thing missing, to my mind, was the righteous anger we all felt in the wake of the attacks.  This wasn't a natural disaster; it was a deliberate act by people who hated this country and all it stands for.  I'm not saying that, as a nation, we should still be consumed with anger and thoughts of vengeance, but at the same time it wouldn't hurt to memorialize what we actually felt at the time rather than some sanitized version thereof. OK, off the soap box now.  The Museum and the area around it are truly worth the time spent there, and I wish we could have stayed there a bit longer.  But there was a lot else to see in lower Manhattan, so off we went.

   As we left the Trade Center area, I was overwhelmed by just how huge "Freedom Tower" is. This is the huge skyscraper built near the site of the Twin Towers, and it dominates the NYC skyine as they once did, dwarfing every other building in the city.
Next stop was Trinity Church, a beautiful American icon that stands a few blocks from the WTC.  The current sanctuary was built in 1730. George Washington attended church there, as did many famous figures of the Revolutionary and Founding eras.  This is also the spot where Alexander Hamilton and his wife are buried.  I have a fascination with Hamilton that goes far beyond my fondness for the Broadway musical about him.  He has long been my favorite founding father, and since January I have been living inside his head as I write an alternative history novel about him.  Standing near his grave was a very moving moment for me, and I told him that I hope I am doing his memory some justice with my literary efforts.  As tradition requires, I left a penny on his grave as we departed.

   Still walking southward, we next came to Wall Street, where we posed for a picture with the famous bull statue.  At Battery Park we spread out and ate lunch and did a bit of shopping; after that we boarded the ferry for the Statue of Liberty.  That was where we encountered our only really bad weather of the day; it rained on us pretty hard for about 45 minutes.  We took a series of soggy selfies, then hopped back on the ferry and headed for Ellis Island.  There we toured the immigration museum and wandered the lovely grounds, taking many pictures of the New York skyline.  By then the sun had come out, drying our clothes and lifting our spirits.  That done, we boarded the subway and headed back up to 48th street to rest at our hotel for a bit.

   We then headed out for our first "dressy" event of the trip: Dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe followed by the Broadway musical ALLADIN.  Honestly, the food was fairly mediocre, but the atmosphere of the place was wonderful, plus it's on Broadway!  We took a ton of pictures and then walked a block or two over and went in for the show.  ALLADIN was far and away the flashiest musical I have ever attended; the stage efffects and illusions were amazing, and the acting was first-rate.  Everyone loved the villainous Jafar and his bumbling sidekick Iago, and both leads were perfectly cast.  After a wonderful evening, we headed back to the hotel, stopping at the convenience store we visited last night to get soda and snacks, then came on back here for the evening.

22,000 steps walked today. We're getting lazy.

Funny stuff?  Let's see, Jerry remains the king of the "made you look" game, although I was able to beat him at it a couple of times.  Rebekah Shreve falls for it EVERY time, though, and he teases her relentlessly.   I thought that Becca Davis was going to belt a lady who body-checked her on the sidewalk, and Sam Pitts stunned us all, especially his girlfriend Zoe, when he said that Aladdin's abs were "the most distracting thing in the show."  Mikayla said she'd seen more of "the alphabet people"  (LGBTQ) in the last two days than she has in her entire previous life, and Camden was pretty sure he saw a homeless guy snorting cocaine on the street.  (I tried explaining to him that homeless people generally snort bath salts, but you can't tell these kids anything these days!)

School may be over for these young folks, but the education continues.  More tomorrow.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

DAY ONE: "In New York You Can Be a New [and very tired] Man!"

  1:30 AM.  That's when my alarm went off today.  It's now 11:00 PM, which means, allowing for the 1 hour time differential, that I have now been up for about 22 hours.  I think. I am rapidly reaching that point of fatigue where EVERYTHING is funny, so before I lapse into uncontrollable giggles at the sight of something as mundane as my socks, let me tell you about the first day of the trip.

   We met at GCS at 2:30 AM and boarded the bus at 3 to journey to Love Field, where our Southwest flight would take off for New York LaGuardia Airport at 6.  There are 17 seniors making the trip this year - Nick Bahm, Ryan Blazier, Jon Bleier, Becca Davis, Hannah Evans, Lucero Limones, Bekah Shreve, Mikayla Pierson, Hannah Packer, Jillian Fifeld, Jerry Rosenbalm, Zoe Pittsinger, Sam Pitts, Camden McBride, Brenna Weaver, Sadie Feezel, and Elissia Harris.  To accompany this amazing crew of Texas youth, there are four adult sponsors - myself, Jennifer Fifeld, the indefatigable Elizabeth Hyatt, and Doc Bleier, my roommate (poor man) and Jon's Dad.

   After a three hour flight, which landed a bit ahead of time and in which I went back and forth between reading William Shirer's RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH and falling asleep (which made for some odd dreams during those brief snippets of sleep!), we got to NYC around 10 in the morning local time.  I told the kids there is really nothing to this flying thing, as long as you don't think about the fact that you are in a fragile aluminum tube forty thousand feet in the air traveling at six hundred miles an hour with two full tanks of highly combustible jet fuel on either side of you.  I think they appreciated my trying to make it less worrisome for them. 

   We got on a bus and inched our way across the congested New York City streets to our hotel, a Holiday Inn Express on 48th street.  We only had time to drop our bags off and then we headed out to eat lunch (it was nearly noon by then and we were all starving).  We headed to an area a couple blocks off of Times Square and ate at several different spots; my group ducked into a pizzeria/deli and I had two large slices of the best pizza I have ever eaten in my life!  After that we met up for our first excursion of the day, taking the subway uptown and touring the amazing Cathedral of St. John the Divine.  Words can't convey how magnificent this church is; you can see some of the pictures I took of it on my FB feed or on the Greenville Christian School FB page.

   Oh, and on the subway we saw a rather interesting personals ad, written out on a piece of paper and taped to the overhead bar on the train, which sparked a lively discussion as to whether the guy who posted it was desperate, or a pure genius. I'll let someone else explain the details.

    After the Cathedral, we hiked through the north end of Central Park - a huge stretch of woods, greenlands, and ponds that covers some eight hundred acres in the middle of New York City. We climbed rocks and trees, chased squirrels, ambushed other groups from our school that had split off from us, and took lots of beautiful pictures.  We met in front of the  New York Museum of Natural History, where I took a picture of the statue of my hero, America's coolest President, Theodore Roosevelt, before we headed back to the hotel to freshen up and wash up.

   Then it was back to the subway to head up to Yankee Stadium for a baseball game!  I will be honest; it was very chilly (about 52 degrees with a stout North wind!) and the game was one of those low-scoring, long-lasting pitching duels, so we left in the 8th inning and rode the trains back to our hotel, getting here around 9:30 local time. We were all pretty punchy and silly by then:  I am not sure which one of us told the worst joke on the train.  My entry was:"How many chickens does it take to cross the road at the center of a Tootsie Pop?"  (The answer is "None!  There isn't a road at the center of a Tootsie Pop!")  Jerry, on the other hand, had this utter groaner of a knock-knock joke:  "Knock knock!"  "Who's there?"  "JOseph!"  "Joseph Who?"  "Joseph Mama!"  (I didn't think it was funny, but I kept laughing harder the more he told it! Fatigue, I tell you!)

   So after a quick stop at a convenience store to buy some bottled water and sundries, we got back here and headed to our rooms.

According to my Fitness App, I walked over 25,000 paces today,

Goodnight!  And check out my pictures from the trip on FB and Instagram!

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

SENIOR TRIP 2019 - PACKING UP!!!!

   Earlier this year, our GCS graduating class stunned me when they asked me if I was willing to be a chaperon on their Senior Trip to New York City and Washington, DC.  I've taught at Greenville Christian School for 23 years now; other than my daughter's class, which I was an official sponsor of, no group of seniors has ever asked me to go with them.  So, after a quick conference with my beloved spouse, I agreed to do it!  Our flight leaves at 6 AM tomorrow.

   So for the last few days I've been trying to get everything ready, from finishing up my annual chore of writing a personal letter to each graduating senior to preparing four class days worth of lesson planes for all my other classes to finally packing up my suitcase tonight.  Now I sit back, draw a breath, and reflect on the fact that it is 8 PM and I have to get up at 1:30 in the morning!!!

   Watch this space for the next few days, I will be chronicling this trip as I did my journey to Israel three years ago.  I'll try to work in an entry every single day (although, if I have to type them on my phone, brace yourselves for a LOT of typos!).  We will see lots of cool stuff and have a great deal of fun; I'll give you all the juicy details here and in my social media feeds.
   Now to try and get a little rest . . . tomorrow is going to be a LONG day!!! LOL

Enjoy the journey with me, three other adults,  and 17 rambunctious 18 year olds on the brink of graduating high school!

Sunday, May 5, 2019

An all-new short story . . . THE SACRIFICE

  One of the assignments I gave the kids during my creative writing class for Enrichment Week this year was to write a fantasy or science fiction story.  Mine was a mashup of both genres.  I hope that you enjoy it:

THE SACRIFICE by Lewis Smith 
 
Bandar was seventeen when he was chosen as the annual sacrifice.  He had always known there was a possibility he might be taken; but like most children in his village, he had lived his life presuming that the lot would fall to someone else.  The Old Ones demanded that one young man and one girl, between sixteen and twenty years of age, be offered up each year in exchange for their protection and blessings during the coming year.  What became of the victims, no one knew.  They were left on top of the Ritual Stone every year at the vernal equinox, and the next morning they were gone.  Some whispered that the Old Ones ate them; others said that they were transfigured to a magical kingdom where they would be servants, or concubines, to the Old Ones for the rest of their natural lives. 
No one knew exactly who the Old Ones were, for that matter, or how long they had existed.  They appeared once each year, during the shortest, coldest day of the winter, and then they were shrouded in robes of light that obscured their features and rendered them both terrifying and glorious in appearance.  They would summon the villagers, and then hand out a golden goblet filled with sweet, amber colored fluid.  Each villager drank deeply; even the smallest infants were forced to swallow a few sips. The goblet refilled itself after each person partook, no matter how many there were.  What was in it was just as unknown as everything else about the Old Ones, but whatever it was, it kept the village free from disease and healed any and all injuries the villagers might have suffered.  The year before Bandar had seen his friend Harlan fully restored after he had broken his back falling from a cliff he was climbing.  Six months of paralysis vanished after he sipped the Old One’s nectar, and the next day he was on his feet, helping Bandar chase down wild nartho-hares for dinner. 
But their magic elixir came with a price, and had done so for many generations.  Each year two youths were taken, never to be seen again.  According to the elders, the exchange had lasted for six centuries or longer.  The words spoken at the choosing of the sacrifice had not changed in all that time: 
“In the days of darkness, the Old Ones came to us.  In that time, disease and death stalked our people, and not one man in a hundred lived to the age of fifty.  The Old Ones promised us health and long life, and such they delivered.  They offered their powerful elixir to spare us from disease, and heal all hurts and injuries, but in return they asked that each year, we give them two of our own.  Reluctant we were at first to give them our children which we prize above all things, and refused. But then two brave youths, Elena and Ramon, both agreed to sacrifice themselves after a failed harvest left the whole village sick and weak.  So they were taken, and vanished from the very ritual stone where the Old Ones had appeared to us, and the next day the Old Ones came, and promised us that the two had not given their lives in vain. They gave us the elixir, and the village was restored.  So every year we cast lots among ourselves, and choose the two who shall depart from us, and with their lives purchase our health, happiness, and prosperity for the year to come. 
Over time, Bandar’s village had grown to a thousand souls, and then the Old Ones had appeared and offered to take a third of that number to establish a second village in a nearby valley.  That village had likewise grown, and now there were four villages that had all grown from the first, each one less than a thousand souls strong.  Bandar’s people were not terribly fertile, although they were strong and healthy and often lived to the century mark.  Most couples would only welcome two children into the world; maybe three on rare occasion.  In recent years, it seemed fertility was on the rise; two women in Bandar’s village had given birth to four children, something unheard of in living memory.  But still, the annual sacrifice was keenly felt among the youths. 
Bandar had drawn his lot two days before – the drawing was always held a week before the equinox, so that the Chosen would have a chance to say their goodbyes and mentally prepare themselves.  Rarely, one would try to run away and avoid his fate; they seldom succeeded.  The villagers knew that one boy and one girl were required by the Old Ones, and after the lots were drawn, everyone kept an eye on the Chosen. But most did not even try; the villagers were a close-knit group, and the ethic of sacrifice was taught from childhood.  Bandar had no intention of running away; he knew he would not succeed, and if he did, one of his friends would be compelled to take his place on the ritual stone. 
“Bandar!” a voice said.  “Wait up a minute!” 
He turned and saw the other Chosen, Kita, coming up behind him.  He had been both grieved and glad when the lot fell to her; grieved, because she was his chosen mate, but glad, because whatever befell the Chosen, they would face it together. 
“Hail, my almost husband,” she said.  The villagers could choose their prospective mates as young as fifteen, but it was forbidden for them to lie together until they were past the age when they could become Chosen.  No one wanted children to be left without father or mother, and the thought of a pregnant woman vanishing into the clutches of the Old Ones was horrifying to this people who treasured each birth.  Bandar had grown up with Kita, and even when they were children he knew that she was the one he would choose to be his wife. 
“Would you like to go and swim together?” she said.  “The water is warm enough now; I went with my sister yesterday.” 
“I would like that very much,” he said with a smile, and they walked on hand in hand to the deep hole in the river, upstream from the village.  They dove in and swam for an hour or more; the water was chilly, but they stayed warm by diving and splashing each other and racing across the river and back.  When they were done, they climbed out and sprawled on the flat rock overlooking the deep bend, where the sun could warm them and dry their clothes. 
“I am sorry that you were Chosen,” Bandar finally said.  “I would rather have left with the thought that you would continue without me and find another whose children you could bear.” 
“I am not sorry,” she said.  “I would rather neither of us had drawn the lot, but when I saw that you were going to be Chosen, I wanted nothing more than for the girls’ lot to fall on my name.  There is none other I would wed, and none other I would rather leave this world with.” 
He kissed her deeply, and they embraced and caressed each other for a while.  He wanted her so badly that it was a physical ache, but they had decided to honor the tradition and part the world as virgins.  It was nowhere openly stated that the Chosen must be free of sexual congress, but it had become conventional wisdom that they must be virgin sacrifices.  So before things could go too far, he pulled away from her and pulled his tunic and breeches back on.  They made their way back to the village together, and then went to their respective homes. 
Two days later, the entire village gathered at sunset at the base of the ritual stone. It was tall and jet black, glistening in a way that none of the natural stones of the valley did.  It towered thirty feet high, and was twelve feet in diameter at the base.  A crude spiral staircase was cut into the side, and strange runes were set deep in its surface.  Bandar and Kita had donned the white robes of the Chosen, and with Ghoram, the village elder, they climbed to the flat platform at the top. 
“Twelve generations ago, our Fathers, the Elders of this village, entered a covenant with the powerful Old Ones, sealing it with the life blood of Elena and Ramon,” he intoned.  “The Old Ones promised us health and long life, and they delivered. . .” 
As the familiar words of The Ritual echoed across the valley, Bandar took Kita’s hand.  Night would fall soon, and by dawn they would be gone from this world forever.  She looked at him, a nervous tear trailing down her cheek.  He smiled for her, and whispered his love as The Ritual concluded and the villagers returned to their huts, to shut and lock all their doors and windows until the Old Ones had come and gone, taking the Chosen with them. 
The light of day faded, and the stars came out overhead.  They sat there, side by side, recalling memories of childhood, dreading the unspoken fate that awaited them.  Shortly before midnight, a brilliant light flooded the Ritual Stone as the air cracked open like a door behind them, and a figure clad in light stepped out. 
“Are you the Chosen?” the shining Old One asked them. 
They scrambled to their feet and faced him.  He wore a single, tight-fitting suit that covered his whole body, and his face was a shining mirror of silver lit from within. 
“We are,” said Bandar.  “I am Bandar, son of Baron, and this is Kita, daughter of Katrina.” 
“You are known to us,” the Old One said.  “Fear not; you are not marked for death.  Follow me through the portal.” 
The Chosen stepped into the light, following the old one, and the hole in the air snapped shut behind them with an audible click.  Once they were on the other side, the shining figure reached up and removed the mirrored mask that he wore. 
His hair was white, his face deeply seamed with wrinkles and lines, but Bandar recognized him instantly. 
Kando?” he said.  “How can this be?  You were only a few years older than me!” 
His boyhood friend smiled, and Bandar knew it was he beyond a shadow of a doubt.   
“A bit of a shock, isn’t it?” Kando said. 
“But you look at least sixty years old!” Bandar exclaimed. 
“Behold the price of knowledge!” his friend said sardonically.  “Ironic, isn’t it, that you call us the Old Ones, yet those who remain in the village live to be ten times as old as we do, once we become Chosen.” 
“I don’t understand,” Kita said.  “I remember when you were Chosen – you were only seventeen!  You are now, what, twenty?” 
“Indeed,” said Kando.  “I turned twenty last week.  You see, my friends, we preserve the knowledge and technology of the ancient world.  Three thousand years ago, our kind had reached beyond the circle of the world and ventured to explore the nearest planets.  We were filled with inventiveness and a restless curiosity, but also with a self-destructive urge that compelled us to wage war on our own kind.  In the end, we were so eager to destroy each other that we poisoned our world, and had to flee to space in order to survive.” 
They were walking down a steel corridor, and when they rounded a corner, Kando held up his hand and a metal plate slid aside, revealing a window that looked down on a vast ball below.  Most of it was a harsh brown color, surrounded by oceans that were a sickly yellowish-green.  But near the center of one of the dead land masses, an island of beautiful, verdant green, split by a winding ribbon of blue, stood out. 
“That is your home,” Kando said.  “You see, space is not safe for the human body.  The poison of the stars – it is called ‘radiation’ – prematurely ages us, and weakens us, and leaves us vulnerable to disease.  For two thousand years, we tried to cleanse one small corner of the planet just enough to allow us to start life over.  A thousand years ago we succeeded, and your village was born.  But even then, the world was too harsh for healthy or long life, so we set about creating an elixir that would repair the damage wrought by the plutonium bombs that had poisoned the earth.  It took us four hundred years to perfect it, and by then we were dying.  Generations of living in space had rendered us feeble and infertile.  Even as we granted you the secret to longevity and health, we were unable to give ourselves either.  So we made a bargain; two of you for each year that we extended our protection and benefit.  All of the original Old Ones are long gone; for nearly five hundred years, we have taken two youths from you each year and given them the gift of knowledge and all the technology of the ancient world.  We give you the means to keep your people safe, healthy, and happy.  There is an adage from the ancient world: ‘Ignorance is bliss.’   We keep you from developing all the things that led the old ones to destroy each other, and in your ignorance, the bliss of the world is preserved, and the planet is gradually healing.  In the last two centuries, the amount of territory cleansed of poison has doubled, and we have been able to establish the additional villages.” 
“Does this mean that -” Kandar began, but Kando cut him off with a smile. 
“Yes, it does,” the Old one said.  “You are now the Old Ones.  Come receive our gift, and the curse that goes with it.” 
And so the Chosen, now Old Ones themselves, followed their friend to the lab where the knowledge of a perished world would be implanted in their brains.  And in the village below, the people mourned the two vanished youths, even as they thanked the Old Ones for another year of life and health.