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Memoir & Narratives

Watching and Waiting at Persimmon Hill Berry Farm

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My husband wants to pick some blackberries, so he gets another bucket from the shed and heads to the ten or so rows of blackberry bushes toward the less-frequented part of Persimmon Hill Berry Farm in Lampe, Missouri. I wait for him under a cedar tree at a picnic table with our two one-gallon buckets brimming with the blueberries we just picked. It’s a sunny, humid day. Among the rows of Collins, Northblue and other varieties, the air is thick and still. Oppressive. But while I sit in the shade, a gentle breeze chills the dampness on my neck and arms.  I observe and listen to the mid-morning activity of blueberry pickers.

A mother walks purposefully by. She is wearing a stiff, white Anabaptist bonnet and a long, navy blue cotton dress that covers her neck, shoulders, arms. Its hem reaches to her mid-calf and draws my eye to her footwear: hot pink, sparkly flip-flops. Her son wears long shorts, a plaid shirt, and a gray cap. They chatter in a loose and quiet German. The woman’s daughter, about four years old and the younger of her two children, wears a burgundy dress in the same style as her mother’s. Her blonde pigtails bounce with every step she takes in her sandals. She lags behind her mother and brother, dawdling to carefully study three little girls sitting at the picnic table to my right. Like baby birds, they perch atop the table, lifting their freckled cheeks to their mothers to be evenly coated with  sunscreen and dutiful vigor.

The bonneted mother turns for the daughter and curtly calls her to hurry. Drawn to attention, the little girl’s eyes dart upward and her mother grasps her hand, pulling her alongside. The girl stumbles, hops, and dances to catch up to her mother’s long, deliberate strides. They turn into a row and disappear among the bushes near the far-end of the acreage where the berries are at their heaviest and sweetest.

My husband returns with a bucket half-filled with shiny, bumpy blackberries, many the size of elongated golf balls. It won’t take many to make a pie, which is what he intends to do this evening. We gather up our buckets and head for the house to pay our bill. I glance back across the valley of blueberry bushes. I see the mother’s starched white bonnet hovering over bushes and I appreciate her determination to accomplish the day’s tasks with her two little ones in tow.

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Memoir & Narratives

I’m losing my mind. Thanks, Google.

magnifier-389908_1280Everyday in my middle school language arts class, we open the hour by doing a warm-up activity that consists of some quick grammar exercises and cursive writing. On the Smartboard, I post an inspirational quote for the students to copy onto their paper in cursive. The name of the speaker of the quote also appears on the screen and one day recently a student asked me, “Who was William James anyway?”

Since we do this activity daily, we copy many quotes and sometimes, to be honest, they can come from some fairly obscure people from all walks of life, living and dead. I told the student I had looked up the name on my phone earlier, but I had since then forgotten what I had learned. It hadn’t been the first time that some Googled information had escaped me, so I rolled my eyes, and reached for my phone to look it up again.

After letting my students know that many consider William James the father of American psychology, I told my students, “I’m tired of forgetting things that I look up on the Internet.” And then, as my captive listeners quietly continued honing their cursive, I attempted to theorize aloud (it’s my classroom, after all) the reason why I couldn’t remember who William James was.

And here’s what I came up with: because there was no true search to discover his identity. In fewer than sixty seconds, I was able to Google the name and then, thanks to two or three websites or documents, gain a brief cursory knowledge of the psychologist.

Then I relayed to my students that today’s learning “process” is so vastly different from how it was before the Internet. I followed that by telling them in my best “back-in-the-day” voice, that finding the answer to the question used to involve a visit to my bookcase where I would hope to find an entry in an encyclopedia. If no luck there, then it would necessitate a visit to the library, a 15-minute drive away. Once there, I would again hope to find the answer somewhere within those walls . . .  in the stacks, the card catalog, or maybe the computerized system known as ERIC, which didn’t really provide answers so much as places to find answers. I even recounted to my students the time I phoned the Atlanta,  Georgia Police Department to locate up-to-date burglary statistics for an article about home security systems I was writing for a glossy Atlanta lifestyle magazine.

In other words, I attempted to show my students that before the Internet there was an actual, honest-to-goodness search involved when one needed to learn. Digging. Page-turning. Jotting. Re-reading. Checking. Now that was a search. Today, all that investigative, thrill-of-the-hunt searching is a thing of the past. As a result, I now surmise that the information I learned was retained because real effort and time (not to mention gasoline) were spent in those searches back then.

So what, my students ask? If you forget, you can just look it up again.

“True,” I reply.  After all, why remember anything when there’s nothing at stake in forgetting?

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Memoir & Narratives

How to win a spelling bee: always ask for the definition

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It’s almost — no, it is — annoying. If there’s a misspelled word out there, I see it, groan, and usually point it out to my husband, Mitch, who is accustomed to my persnicketiness (yes, it’s spelled correctly; I looked it up). Now I’m not talking about truly obscure, rarely seen words. I would probably have to grab a dictionary to look those up, but when it comes to the words we occasionally see misspelled in our daily lives, such as judgment, believable, conceive, I always notice them. It’s similar to when I walk into a room and immediately spot a tiny spider up high on a wall. I have a gift for that, too. But the spelling gift is not really a gift; it’s a curse. That’s because I’m seeing words misspelled more and more, especially on my USA Today app and in those news messages that crawl across the bottom of the t.v. screen. People, proofread. Please. Three times.

When I was in eighth grade I went to the Kansas State Spelling Bee in Topeka, Kansas and competed for the state title with one student from every county in Kansas. There are 105, believe it or not. On about the fourth round, I went out on the word velveteen. Didn’t ask for a definition. I was so unnerved by being given a word that I hadn’t heard before that I simply forgot that asking for a definition is one sure-fire way to buy yourself some time to think it through. After all, I had heard of velvet, and if I had known my word was the actual full name of the luxurious fabric, then I would have known to spell it v-e-l-v-e-t-e-e-n and not  v-e-l-v-a-t-e-e-n.

And there went my dreams of spelling fame. No trip to Washington, DC. No monetary prize. But then again, no more lunches poring over a dictionary with Mrs. Mayberry, my English teacher, while everyone else played dodgeball and socialized in the gym. No more nerves thinking about the upcoming bee, where the rules are many, and the rule-watching parents are more. But I would have loved to have won because I have a crush on words. I really do. And, of course, I was able to spell the word that won the bee: silhouette, which isn’t a word I see often… but if I do see it someday and it’s misspelled, well, I’ll catch it. And groan.