Reading and Writing and Dancing as Long as the Music Plays

The Emigration of a Blount County McClanahan Family to Texas

(This piece was published June 21, 2020, in Blount and Beyond, a free online magazine which can be found at )

During the 19th Century, thousands of emigrants left eastern Tennessee, Blount County in particular, to find their fortunes or perhaps just their peace in the western regions of the continent. I don’t know all their stories, but I do know some, and I propose to share one here, using the sparse details I have.

When I married into the McClanahan family in West Texas, I knew nothing about their origins. I was of English/German extraction, and my ancestors, so far as I knew at the time, all came out of Missouri into north central Oklahoma. I wound up in Big Spring, Texas, when I was in junior high because my dad’s work in the oil field was not steady enough to support his family. I went to high school and junior college with David McClanahan, and eventually we married. Long story short, I became a stay-at-home mom with a college degree. Doing a little home schooling didn’t meet my intellectual needs (That may not be very flattering, but it is what it is.), so I turned to a subject I had been mildly interested in since I was a child—genealogy.

I started with my side of the family, but eventually, of course, I turned to the McClanahan side—and hit a brick wall. Following good inquiry procedures, I decided to ask my father-in-law what he knew about his family. He definitely was not excited to talk about it, but he indulged me for a while. But when he’d had enough, he declared with more vigor than I was expecting, “What do you want to know about all them folks for? They was just a bunch of cattle rustlers and horse thieves!” That, of course, shut down the conversation but definitely not my determination to get to the bottom of that statement. It took many years of work to piece together the story and many pieces are still missing, but it is a truly fascinating saga. So here’s what I learned, in as brief a fashion as I can write it.

John McClanahan was either the oldest or second oldest child of David McClanahan who settled with his wife Elizabeth in the Tuckaleechee area of Blount County. David had come from Jefferson County along with other McClanahan kin in the opening years of the first decade of the 19th century. John was ultimately raised along with his brother Samuel and his sister Martha Jane by a stepmother, Polly Ingrum, who added several additional siblings to the family. John grew up in Tuckaleechee and married Mary “Polly” Snider, the daughter of neighbor Peter Snider, in 1832. John established his own farm, and very soon he and Polly welcomed the first child into what became a typically large family.

In 1841 David McClanahan died in possession of a considerable tract of land, which was apparently divided among John, his brothers and sisters, and the widow. Over the next fifteen or so years, the land records of Blount County show that John steadily bought back essentially all of his father’s land from his siblings. Then in 1860, for reasons only to be guessed at, John sold the entire holdings to J. W. H. Tipton and moved lock, stock, and barrel to Texas. The land that John sold is believed to be in the area where Laurel Lake existed until recently.

The Laurel Lake area near Townsend (Photo by Eddie McClanahan)

By the time John hit the trail to Texas, several of his children were grown, married, and having children of their own. Evidence suggests that John and his entire family may have made the move at the same time or close to the same time, perhaps in a traditional sort of wagon train. One of John’s great grandsons with whom I had the opportunity to visit shared the story his grandmother Phoebe, John’s youngest daughter, had told him. She said she remembered the trip to Texas and that she felt very safe riding in the saddle with her father. I just have to marvel at the picture of tenderness that evokes in my mind that John must have felt for his little girl.

My theory has always been that John and his children perhaps thought they could escape the conflict that was raging in East Tennessee and across the nation at that time. My reading of the history of East Tennessee tells me that most mountain farmers weren’t particularly interested in the Southern cause. Their roots were in the Battle of King’s Mountain in which many of their fathers and grandfathers had fought to free the country from the British, and they weren’t interested in ripping it apart. And when McClanahans did fight, for the most part they opted for the Union cause. John’s brothers David and James as well as John’s son Henry (who didn’t get to Texas until after the war) are known to have traveled to Kentucky to enlist in the Union army.

Whatever the reason, by 1861 we find John, probably Polly, and all of his children, with the possible exception of daughter Mary Elizabeth and her husband John Allen Sparks, in what has come to be called the Corners area of North Texas. It was called that because four counties—Grayson, Fannin, Hunt, and Collin—joined at a single point. Land records attest to John’s purchase of 195 acres in Collin County that year. There is some reason to believe that the Sparks family actually may have gone to Freestone County, further south in Texas.                          

One of John’s closest neighbors was Dan Lee who lived across the line in Fannin County at what was called Lee Station. Dan was about John’s age and had a large family himself. Dan was a cattleman, but not everyone in the region approved of Dan’s methods. There were rumors that he appropriated unbranded cattle that may have belonged to others, branding them as his own.

John Allen Sparks and Mary Elizabeth McClanahan

John and his sons—William, Pete, John, and even the youngest, Samuel—established a farming operation while events of national importance swirled around them. Texas was a slave state, and although slavery was not a major factor in the economy of all of Texas, it did figure prominently in south and east Texas, where most of the state’s leadership was from. Although Collin County had voted against secession, it was in the minority, and shortly after the arrival of the McClanahans, Texas seceded from the Union. Blount County native Sam Houston was removed as governor in the wake of secession because he would not take an oath to the Confederacy.

Although Texas passed a conscription law, no record has been found that William or John ever served in the military for the Confederacy. Pete, however, applied for and received a pension for Confederate service. He reported in his application that he was on “special duty” as a teamster who hauled ammunition from El Paso to the Confederate facility at Bonham. It is not evident that he ever left the state as a part of his service. Given that his brother Henry was serving with a Union unit that he had joined in Kentucky with his uncles, this was yet another case of brothers serving on opposite sides in this horrific war. In addition, two of John’s sons-in-law, Rebecca’s husband John Henry and Lizzie’s husband John Sparks, do appear to have served for the Confederacy probably in Arkansas.

Eventually the war was over; the soldiers came home. No serious battles had been fought on Texas soil, but the place the soldiers came back to would not quite be the same again. The fact that black slaves had been freed made everything different, even for those who had never owned slaves. A group of white supporters of the freed slaves who called themselves the Union League had organized across the state to support the freedmen in their transition out of bondage. One of the leaders of this group in the Corners was another neighbor of the McClanahans, Lewis Peacock, a big blond farmer and blacksmith. Needless to say, Lewis Peacock became an anathema to many citizens of the Corners, many of whose sons had fought and/or died to preserve the institution of slavery. One of the leaders among that group was Bob Lee, son of neighbor Dan Lee. In many respects the McClanahans were literally caught in the middle.

The violence that broke out between these two factions is known in Texas history as the Lee-Peacock Feud. However, it was not a traditional feud; it was in fact a race war in which white supporters of the old Confederacy attempted to intimidate and harass freed slaves and anyone who supported them. One well-researched book on the feud is named Murder and Mayhem: The War of Reconstruction in Texas*, and the reality this title implies is valid. Some say upwards of 150 men were killed in the violence, and that refers only to white men. Atrocities were committed on both sides, but the myths that developed around Bob Lee turned him into a Robin Hood figure fighting on behalf of loyal white Texans against the carpetbaggers and Redlegs out of Kansas, an erroneous perception that persists to this day in the Corners.

Bob was in fact a deserter from the Confederate army, arriving home at little too soon, who gathered around him a collection of men with unsavory reputations known as the Lee Gang. It included a number of individuals who were at odds with law enforcement in the region. Some of these men were Confederate veterans who resented not only blacks but the whites who had avoided conscription during the war by hiding out in the thickets. The thickets were a feature of the landscape in North Texas that were so large and thick with brush and trees that a man could get lost in them. These “Brush Men” were a thorn in the side of Confederate recruiters throughout the war. In June of 1869, Bob Lee was killed by a group of federal soldiers who were guided to his home by Lewis Peacock. In 1871, Lewis Peacock was murdered on his front porch by Lee avengers. But the enmity and violence continued for years.

So, how did our McClanahans fare during this Lee-Peacock Feud? Somewhere in the middle of all this, Pete McClanahan fell in love with and married Bob Lee’s half-sister Mary. Pete and Mary, along with other McClanahans, are listed in 1866 as founding members of the Pilgrim, later Pike, Baptist Church, east of Blue Ridge in Collin County. Also in that year, his sister, Martha Jane, nicknamed Mollie, became the fourth wife of a prominent former slaveholder, George Martin Smith, who lived further north in Fannin County and whose family may not have been on good terms with the Lees. Sometime before 1870, perhaps to get away from the violence, Pete and Mary moved to Freestone County, where Pete’s sister Lizzie Sparks and her family were living. Samuel, Pete’s youngest brother apparently went with them, but Pete, Mary, and the single Samuel were back in the Corners by the time their only child Veola is born in 1879.

The Peter McClanahan Family: From left to right, Mary Jane Lee McClanahan, Veola McClanahan, and Peter Alexander McClanahan

Pete’s brother Henry, the Union veteran, brought his family to North Texas sometime after the war ended, settling near Lamasco in Fannin County. However, records show that once people learned of his Union service, he began to fear for his life; he moved his family to Jack County for several years before eventually returning to Lamasco.

Patriarch John died in January of 1868; we do not know his cause of death nor the place of his burial. We do have a copy of his probate records that includes an inventory of his possessions that were sold to satisfy his debts. Although the land records are not fully clear, the oldest son William seems to have ended up in possession of the 195 acres. In 1872 a Collin County court record reveals that William was found guilty of a disturbance of some sort for which he was fined one penny; I suppose the judge was in sympathy with whatever he had done. Shortly thereafter, however, William also died of unknown causes. At the time of William’s death, there appears to have been a mortgage on the land, and the holder of the mortgage, a merchant in McKinney, filed to become the executor of his estate. The widow fought off that attempt, but at some point, she appears to have lost the land entirely.

In 1877, old Dan Lee got into some kind of an altercation ostensibly over who had the right to cut some hay. Exactly what happened depends on whose version you read, but things escalated to the point that Dan’s adversary shot him in the stomach. Dan was carried home, where he lingered for a week before succumbing to his wound. Who shot Dan Lee? It was Mollie McClanahan Smith’s stepson, Will Smith.

Samuel, John’s youngest son and my husband’s great grandfather, married in Hunt County in 1880 to a widow, Virginia Green Peacock Miller. Almost unbelievably, Ginny, as she was known, was no relation to Lewis Peacock, leader of the Union League. Her first husband, Robert Miller, whom she had married about five years earlier, was reported to have been hanged. I have diligently searched for more details on his death without success. I have no idea whether he met his end at the hands of the law in a legal fashion, or at the hands of one of the gangs of vigilantes who roamed the counties of the Corners with impunity.

The violence and crime visited on the Corners during the Lee-Peacock Feud lasted for at least ten years. This was the sad tale of Reconstruction in Texas. Although some of John’s children and grandchildren stayed in North Texas at least for a while, many seem to have moved further west to more peaceful regions of Texas or even Indian Territory. The railroads began traversing westward through the region in the 1870s and that may also explain the tendency to move west. Some eventually found their way as far as California. But the memories of the feud were rarely shared with subsequent generations. It’s almost as if there was an unspoken agreement that some things were not to be spoken of. My father-in-law knew only that there was a great deal of unpleasantness in his family history that he felt uncomfortable sharing. As I learned more about the family and the unique and barely tenable position they found themselves in during the Civil War and Reconstruction in Texas, I have come to a greater appreciation for the fact that they survived it at all.

*Smallwood, J. M., Crouch, B. A., & Peacock, L. (2003). Murder and Mayhem: The War of Reconstruction in Texas. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.

Memorial Day vs. Veterans Day

Believe me, I understand the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. On Memorial Day we remember those who didn’t come home, and on Veterans Day we remember those who did. But I’m beginning to think that difference may be moot.

Several years ago a World War II veteran, H. Robert Charles, spoke to my DAR chapter. Mr. Charles had been a Marine machine gunner on a ship that was sunk in the Sunda Strait very early in the war. After swimming for nine hours, the Japanese “rescued” him, and he spent the next 43 months in slave labor camps, witnessing and experiencing terrible conditions. When he was freed at the end of the war and came home, he picked his life back up and had a successful career, but he was plagued by mental stress and nightmares. Eventually, he received counseling that restored his equilibrium and wrote a book about his experiences as a part of his healing. Mr. Charles’ presentation was my first inkling that surviving war isn’t necessarily the end of the story.

Don’t misunderstand me; I am grateful when I say that none of my close family members were left lifeless on fields of battle. They all came home. But as we have come to better recognize in recent years, none of them came home unscathed. I remember the stories of my great grandfather, a veteran of the Mexican War, whose pension application listed all the painful ways that his service had affected him physically that earned him the pension. What he did not record in that pension application was the fact that he had become an alcoholic, a fact that impacted his family’s life in untold ways.

My father, also a Navy gunner on escort ships around the world, bawled like a baby in his mother’s arms as he tried to come to grips with the unknown Japanese and German pilots who had died as a result of his efforts to protect our country. Growing up, I occasionally saw evidence of the repressed anger although I did not understand what it was at the time. I am aware of many others who returned from WWII with unrecognized mental angst that was visited unwittingly on their families, because as survivors, they were not expected to have problems related to their war service.

I am reminded of Lt. Dan, the angry fictional Vietnam veteran in the Forrest Gump movie who represented a generation of veterans who were forgotten or ignored for many years. My husband, a Vietnam veteran himself, was not in a combat unit, but there are effects of his service that he has only recently acknowledged.

So, when people want to honor their veterans who did not die in combat on Memorial Day, lets join in the homage with them. Let’s not be pedantic about the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Let us honor all who served–and their families–without reserve.

Shower Musings and Life Lessons

Some of my best thoughts come to me in the shower–probably some of my worst, too, but thank goodness I don’t seem to remember those. You do have to be careful in this process, because ifshowersing you get too lost in your thoughts, you can forget what you’ve washed and what you haven’t!

This morning as I showered, I got to thinking about something that happened while I was in college. You have to understand that I graduated high school 6th in a class of 215. Many of my classmates went on to prestigious four-year universities (or not so prestigious as the case may be), but there were a number of us whose family wealth, or lack thereof, didn’t allow for that option. We were the ones who enrolled in the local two-year college in our hometown. Not too surprisingly, my fellow high school classmates and I made up a major portion of the freshman class at HCJC that year.

Some of us, mostly those of us who had been members of the National Honor Society in high school because of our academic standing, sailed through our freshman year in the same inimitable fashion. Along about April, several of us were invited to become members of Phi Theta Kappa, the junior college honor fraternity. Of course, since this was a two-year school, come fall our newly inducted group would become the leaders of the organization on campus. I was elected secretary, and along with the others, being officers in a campus organization would earn us our own page in the Annual. We were expected to do some service project over the next year, but that was pretty much the sum total of our customary activities.

Then one of our group, I think it was Mack, got an idea. Over the summer, he called the new officers together to share his plan. Why, he asked, should we be content with just running a little group that really didn’t have much impact on the campus community as a whole? Why should we always sit back and let the “popular” kids win all the class offices and run things? After all, the underlying theme went, weren’t we the smart ones? Shouldn’t the intelligent, intellectual people be in charge?  All the popular people had going for them was personality.  As the smart people, we could certainly do a better job! We needed a plan for a takeover, and he had one. A member of our PTK group would run for each of the class offices, we would win, and class decisions would be in our hands! We all bought it–hook, line, and sinker.

So, at the beginning of school, several of us signed up to run for one of the class officer positions. We managed to get our folks on the ballot. Then we got together and made election posters, wrote speeches, and campaigned our hearts out for a month or two.

Election Day rolled around, and we were resoundingly defeated. We tucked our proverbial tails between our legs and went back to just running PTK for the rest of the year.

So what did we learn from this experience? I’m not sure about the others, but I learned a several things. First, I learned that personality counts–a lot. Second, I learned not to take myself too seriously; there’s always someone who can knock you off your self-appointed perch. Third, planned coups don’t go well unless you have grassroots support.

Despite the clearly negative outcome, I think this may represent a powerful lesson in democracy and politics. I wish this kind of hands-on, authentic experience were available to more students. But I’ve continued to think about this, applying it more personally. Stay with me–We’ll fast-forward a few decades.

Since about 2003 I have been involved in a national professional organization that has offered me the opportunity to learn from and network with some of the most respected leaders in my field. After a few years of absorbing what I could, I began to take on some volunteer roles in the organization by serving on committees and in other capacities. Each new job gave me deeper insight into how the organization worked and the benefits to be derived from participating in more involved ways. After several years of this, I was nominated to run for a Board of Directors position—twice—and twice I lost. When I was asked to run a third time, I questioned whether there was any point, but I agreed to let my name be entered. Apparently this time I had enough name recognition that my candidacy was successful. In the meantime, I was asked to take on another major responsibility for the organization that took three years to bring to fruition but was well worth the effort. The task required me to make contact with scores of members, and I’m sure that also built name recognition. This past year I was asked if my name could be put forward to run for vice-president. I agreed, and this spring I won the election to a role that will, barring unforeseen events, lead to the presidency.

So, how does this series of events differ from my earlier foray into “polytiks?” I think I can relate it back to the three points I made earlier. First, over the years I think I have developed a personality that doesn’t rest on how smart I am but how I am smart. I like to think I’ve learned how to be more personable and to support others in their work, while also doing the best job I can do without thrusting myself forward, as we had done years ago in PTK. Second, my goals are not wrapped up in “getting ahead” or being successful, with all the headiness and pride that attitude exhibits. If it happens, yea! But if not, I’m okay with that, too. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, I have learned to be content in whatever role I find myself, as long as I am contributing. Finally, I have put in my time “in the trenches” where I found and developed genuine relationships with other members of the organization from all over the country. Thus when the time was right, the grassroots support was there. I must admit it’s better to enjoy the thrill of victory than the embarrassment of defeat. But I’m not sure the victory would have happened without the defeat. Lesson learned. Only took a lifetime.

Hmmm, wonder what tomorrow’s shower will dredge up?

Learning at Home: Does It Count?

The WSJ just posted an article with the title “At Schools Closed for Coronavirus, Online Work Won’t Count,” and it made me mad! I think the attitude at the root of this headline and the thrust of this article is emblematic of a way of thinking about school and learning that is detrimental to our country and to education stakeholders at all levels. That way of thinking is founded on the concept that education and learning is only important if it gets you something or somewhere.

While teachers all across this nation are putting in extra hours and energy to figure out how to help their students continue learning while they must stay home, this headline undermines everything they are trying to accomplish. They realize that school is not about grades and test scores, and it’s not really about getting a good job when you graduate, although those components are real. They realize that when the learning stops, the students may and probably will cease intellectual stimulation and growth. Many research studies on the so-called “summer slump” document that learning gains during the school year are reversed to a more or less degree over the two to three months during the summer when students are not in school.

As the article explains, the administrators of schools affected by this unprecedented situation are well aware that the stop-gap measures they are putting in place are not equitable for all and, for that reason, will not make the completed assignments “count” in terms of grades. But the implication here is that students only “work for grades” while they are in school, and that implications sells students short, too. By and large, students want to learn and will engage with a learning opportunity when they see the value of it. Many of the teachers I am in contact with actually feel more free to design engaging and creative lessons that they may be unable to provide in the regular classroom because of limitations that are the result of the oppressive demands of our testing and accountability environments.

The WSJ article assumes that students only learn when they are made to or bribed to in order to be rewarded externally for their efforts. I think it perpetuates the attitude that an education is not worth attaining just for the benefit it offers of becoming an intellectually, emotionally, and empathetically aware citizen. When we buy into that mindset, we are devalued as human beings.

So, yes, learning at home counts. It counts in the sense that the more we learn, the better people we become. I think that’s pretty important. I think it counts.

Saga of the Bees

honeycomb insect bees honey

Photo by Pixabay on

In doing some cleaning out today, my husband ran across this piece I wrote back in 2004. We thought my readers, if I still have any, might enjoy it.

I have to admit that when I read the first chapter of The Secret Life of Bees by sue Monk Kidd, I discounted the realistic possibility that bees could or would actually take-up residence in a person’s home. I shouldn’t have; I know better now.

One of the things I learned when we moved to a home that backed up to a large lake was that the critters who had formerly lived there regarded us as the interlopers to be ignored. They would just as soon share our domicile with us as not. This can be a little disconcerting or a city girl. Co-existence was never an option for me. I don’t think I was aware of the many varieties of spiders, ants, crickets, cockroaches, waterbugs (I refuse to call those huge 2-1/2 inch monsters cockroaches!), wasps, hornets, etc. that God in His wisdom has created to populate the fields of nature. Despite where God intended them to be, they all seemed to feel my home was fair game. I learned to deal with them with appropriate cans of bug sprays and bombs that managed to keep most of the invasions to a minimum.

I did acquire a grudging appreciation for them, I admit. One morning not long after we moved in, I stepped out onto the deck at the back of the house, which was surrounded by a rail composed of 2x4s nailed together to form rectangular frames about every three feet. In every space where two rails joined, a spider had created an intricate web. I wouldn’t have realized how total was their victory over my deck if we had not had a heavy dew that morning. Every strand of every web was draped with beads of moisture, glistening and twinkling as the rays of the rising sun fell on them. The effect was magical; it was as if I had stepped into a fairyland. Okay, I thought, you can have the deck, but you can’t have my house! I continued the battle, and continue it twenty years later, I might add. They never give up!

Of course mice loved our home, much to my oldest daughter’s chagrin. Those we fought with mouse traps and bait. I can tell you that the only thing pleasant about the odor of a bait-dispatched mouse in the wall behind your dish cabinet is the knowledge that one more has bit the dust.

In tackling the repairing and remodeling of our fixer-upper lake house (which, by the way, is a never-ending process), my husband discovered that we had other guests. After his excursion into the floor joists between the two floors, he proudly displayed two snake skins, each about four feet long. No, I don’t know what kind they were–nor do I care! Obviously these creatures had decided to strip right under my bed! Where did the go next? I immediately began an inventory (which I repeat periodically) to locate any possible hole or crack in our living quarters that a snake might conceivably crawl through and stop it up. Snakes can crawl through some mighty small holes. The scariest days are the ones when my husband leaves the garage door open for extended lengths of unattended time as, I suppose, an open invitation to any curious snake, some of whom have accepted the invitation, to have a look-see or find a safe house. My husband, you see, does not have the same feelings about snakes as I do, but I’ll save the snake stories for another day.

The attic of our house had, early on in its existence, been taken over by mud robbers, a kind of wasp that makes a new of mud. Some of their nests were as big around as baseballs. When we replaced the roof a few years ago, we threw so many mud robber nests into the back yard that it looked as though we had had a gray hail storm. I hesitate to estimate the sheer weight they added in the attic. Mud robbers, by the way, can literally make a nest anywhere–handlebars of bicycles, stored water hoses, under the edge of irregularly stacked magazines. The only thing good about these ubiquitous wasps is that at the center of each compartment of the nest is one dad spider.

The cedar siding that our house was originally covered with apparently had a number of gaps at the edges, which various mammalian varieties found attractive. I have watched squirrels duck into holes and heard them at night in the walls. I suspect rats as well, though I can’t prove it. In an effort to combat these invasions and improve the energy conservation of our home, we decided to install vinyl siding. We were very pleased with the result. The crisp, white siding looked wonderful, and we were sure we had foiled the critters. Not so much. One night last winter as I sat soaking in my bath tub, I began to hear a kitten mewing. It sounded as if it were coming from directly beneath me. Sure enough, a wild housecoat had given birth to a litter of kittens right under the bathroom floor! We watched for the mother cat and determined where she was getting in, but didn’t want to stop up the hole until the kittens could be moved. The last thing we needed was the smell of decomposing feline bodies permeating the house. So, for several weeks my baths were serenaded by mewing kittens. Finally the cats were big enough to begin to move around, so we were able to get to them, remove them, and close up their entry hole. We thought we were done with them. Wrong!

A few weeks later, I was keeping my seven-month old grandson and had laid him down for a nap on a blanket in the living room floor. When he woke, I picked him up and noticed that he had several odd little brown specks on him–fleas! Yes, the entire house had been taken over by fleas, upstairs and down. Apparently the cats had left their own unique version of a thank-you note. It took two bombings to get rid of those pesky fleas.

It was the Saturday before Memorial Day the the Bee Saga actually began. My husband was looking for something on the back porch under the deck. Something brushed his arm and he looked up to see a bee, which had bounced off of him and buzzed on its merry way. He noticed that the bee had a number of compatriots and they all seemed to be entering and leaving a small space between the top of the downstairs siding and the underside of the upstairs deck. In fact, they appeared to be swarming!

He went inside the house, removed a portion of the suspended ceiling, and shown a flashlight between the floors down toward where the bees were entering the house. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of bees, busily working a large, white honeycomb.

After the Monday holiday, we called the county extension agent, who gave us the name of an exterminator who was supposed to be skilled in bee removal. Yes, they said, they could do it. There would be a $75.00 trip fee and the total process usually averaged around $300.00. Pretty expensive bees, I thought. In the course of the conversation, the lady on the other end of the phone explained that what they did was to vacuum the bees out of their hive using a special vacuum that did not have a propeller so the bees would not be hurt. Once the bees were gone, then the comb with all the eggs, larvae, and honey would have to be removed by hand. This would probably involve tearing a large hole in the ceiling or wall, depending upon where the bees had lodged. Their fee did not include repairing the hole.

As we evaluated our options, my husband began to think that perhaps he could do the job himself and even salvage the bees to set up in a hive in our back yard, (I should tell you that my husband missed his calling. He should have been a farmer or a wildlife management agent.) The next day he stopped by the vacuum cleaner shop and learned that most shop vacs operated without a propeller, so he could conceivably use his shop vac to remove the bees. He began to make elaborate plans for a bee rescue operation. He went to the library and got a couple of books on bees, the names of which I had found in the bibliography of Ms. Kidd’s book. We looked on the Internet for prices of bee-keeping equipment. A complete bee-keeping outfit would set us back only about $499. And that did not include a bee suit. Now the price of the bee operation had shot from $300 to $500+! Something was definitely wrong with this picture.

Later in the week we made contact with an ancient beekeeper who, we were told, might sell us an old used beehive. When my husband explained our bee problem and what the bee remover had planned to charge for his services, the beekeeper said, “Shoot! I can get ’em outta there a lot cheaper than that. I can do it for $175.” In my husband’s mind, he was thinking–bees out of the house, set up in a hive, for only $175–what a deal!

The beekeeper came out sans beehive, much to my husband’s disappointment. Going in through the ceiling of a ground-floor room, he poked in a piece of insulation soaked with a substance with an odor that bees do not care for. The idea was to drive the bees off. This procedure was about 50% effective. The bees seemed determined to stay with the hive.

Plan B was to use an insecticide. This was not what my husband had hoped for, but since he was not “the expert,” he acquiesced. The beekeeper sprayed the hive from the outside with the insecticide. In an effort to escape the deadly fume, the bees flew into the house, only to die in droves on a window sill. With the bees finally dislodged, the next sep was to remove the honeycomb. My husband pulled it out, piece by piece, while the old beekeeper sat in the porch swing and watched. There was about five pounds of honey and honeycomb–all unusable because it had bee sprayed with insecticide.

The beekeeper took his $175 and went on his way. My husband was left with the job of plugging up and caulking all the spaces where the bees–or other creatures–might try to get back in. I was left with the dead bee clean-up. The bees were left without a home. I suspect the beekeeper was the only one who came out unscathed on this one.

So, I am left wonder about (dread?) the next episode in the on-going saga. What creatures will next invade the sanctity of my abode? Possums? Raccoons? I’m just lad I don’t live next door to the Black Lagoon!

Playing with Poetry

Reading George Ella Lyon’s Where I’m From, I came across this statement: “The truth is, play and work are not opposites.”

That resonated with me because for much of my life I have been accused of not playing enough, of being too serious. “Lighten up,” they tell me. “You don’t need to not work so hard! You should have more fun!” I’ve tried to explain to people who tell me that, what’s fun for you is not necessarily fun for me, and vice versa. When I am working on something I enjoy doing–for example, writing or even analyzing data, I am experiencing a depth of enjoyment that is as much of a rush as when others engage in more familiar enactments of play. I feel that same flood of dopamine as does a person playing a game of baseball or another knitting or crocheting.

Lyon asks us to look at the visages of children who are playing at building things or acting out stories they know. Their faces are intent and, yes, serious. Their actions are planned, intentional. This is important work for them that we, perhaps in error, call play. She says that we begin to lose the sense of this kind of work/play as we approach puberty and become sensitive to the fact that others are judging us by what we do. Thus, she says, we “rush to judge ourselves first in hopes of measuring up.” This is when we start accepting the ideas of others as to what is work and what is not. The “adult” dichotomous attitude seems to be that work is drudgery and play is fun. This attitude, Lyon goes on to explain, stifles creativity.

My personal belief is that the root of creativity is wonder. I remember being astonished as a new teacher when I asked my students “Do you ever wonder if…” and they looked at me with blank stares. By 7th and 8th grades, they had already internalized the concept that questioning what is or why is unacceptable. In order to create, we must never cease to be amazed at the world and the people around us. We must never stop asking, why is it this way? How do I feel about this? What can I, should I, do about it?

Poetry is a way of doing that. Poetry is harnessing the affordances of language to touch another soul about something important to humanity, and it takes work and creativity. But it’s also the highest form of play I know. Lyon also recommends that we play/work with the seemingly mundane things around us, searching for deeper meaning in them–an old shoe, a childhood memory, a routine activity. Playing with it may require some serious thinking (work) to find just the right words, the rhythm and cadence of those words, what they will sound like when spoken–because poetry is meant to be heard, more than read. (I have a strong belief that poetry existed before the written word.) But the work is really play–trying out new ways of saying something important, just as a child tries a block here or there to see how it fits, or as a knitter tries out different ways of stringing together the familiar stitches.

But I also think poetry is a way of processing and dealing with important, life-altering events that we experience. Then it is a work/play experience, rather than the other way around. The work here is sorting through the thoughts to make sense of them, but playing with the words that mean those thoughts often allows us to recognize important insights about those experiences.

A number of years ago, I lost a good friend. Annie Weed was a fellow church member who hosted our Bible studies. She had lost her husband before I came to know her, but she was anything but your little old widow lady! She was vibrant and optimistic and always had a smile and a laugh for everyone. Then she died. It was unexpected, shocking. We were all caught off guard by the sudden finality of her death.

I remember driving home from work a day or two later and coming to the intersection where I turned onto Liberty Grove Road. The tree was gone! The huge old cottonwood that had stood facing that intersection as long as I had been coming this way had been unexpectedly bulldozed down to clear the land for a new housing development. There, instead of a friendly old landmark, was a ravaged and empty stretch of barren land in front of me. It was shocking. Somehow in my mind the tree and Annie were connected. I had two losses to deal with, and I dealt with them by writing a poem that helped me process them both. The missing tree became a metaphor for Annie as I carefully worked to find just the right words to reflect my thinking.

So, I may not be a prolific poet like George Ella Lyon, but I am a poet. Because all it takes to be a poet is to pay close attention to the objects and events around you, wonder about them, and find the most precise metaphors available to tell about them within the parameters of the kind of poem that seems to fit. Is it work or is it play? Or is it both, as Lyon maintains? You decide, but I can tell you that working to write Annie’s poem filled me with a sense of release and fulfillment that was real and pleasurable, much akin, I think, to what a skier feels rushing down a mountain or a potter shaping a new bowl on a wheel. It’s my kind of fun.

Are Graphic Novels for Everyone? Bazinga!

At the conference where my colleague and I presented on graphic novels yesterday, just as we were finishing up, one of the participants asked whether graphic novels are for everyone. My colleague answered, “No, definitely not, because many, like my granddaughter [whom we had discussed earlier], prefer to visualize their own images.”

That is certainly true, but I wish we had had more time to discuss that question. My colleague is right–not everyone likes or appreciates graphic novels, possibly because they have become so steeped in reading print that, to them, the images get in the way. That may be in part because we as teachers have consciously or unconsciously trained them to feel that way. As we teach students to read, we slowly but systematically take the pictures away. Then we tell them to “make pictures in their heads” as they read. Hmmm.

On the other side of the question our participant asked is what we have found to be true about reading graphic novels. American graphic novels have grown well beyond the simplistic comic books many of us grew up with. Plots have become sophisticated, characters are complicated, and images carry much of the meaning. They are not easy to read, as many people think.

Graphic novels have their own conventions related to panels, gutters, and balloons, which have to be learned. To comprehend them completely, the reader must analyze the images carefully and synthesize them with the words. Reading them takes the ability to make inferences and think critically, and these abilities are actually what makes them valuable in today’s classroom. They can be used to teach the kind of critical thinking required for our constant exposure to the multimedia with which the 21st Century surrounds us.

So, the answer to our participant’s question may be “yes” but with the important caveat that those who do not read graphic novels may be missing out on some valuable and important learning for living in today’s multimedia world.

As another participant suggested yesterday, maybe there’s a reason, beyond the Big Bang Theory’s screen writer’s preference, that the favorite hang-out for Drs. Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and (not doctor) Howard is the comics store.

Connecting Cows and Children


agriculture animal animal photography blur

Photo by Matthias Zomer on

I have been reading Temple Grandin’s book Thinking in Pictures, and this morning I ran across this statement: “If an animal balks and refuses to walk through an alley, one needs to find out why it is scared and refuses to move” (p. 167). Dr. Grandin has been making the point in the book that much of her success in designing cattle handling facilities is rooted in her ability to be able to see the world from the cow’s perspective. She then goes on to say, “Unfortunately, people often try to correct these problems with force instead of by understanding the animal’s behavior” (p. 167). This statement brought to mind an incident that was shared with me by a preservice teacher recently.

This preservice teacher (we’ll call her Monique) reported that she often subs for a local school district, and although she is an Elementary Education major, if they call her to sub in a high school class, she goes. In this particular instance, the high school teacher she was subbing for had left good lesson plans for her to follow. Monique explained the assignment to the class and all the students seemed to understand and started to work–except one who announced loudly and forcefully that she wasn’t going to do the assignment. Monique could have responded equally forcefully by informing her that she was indeed going to do the assignment or face the consequences of a potential trip to the office. That certainly would be the reaction of many, if not most people in this situation.

Instead, she waited for a bit, and after the rest of the students were working, she approached the offending student’s desk and asked her quietly if there was a problem. The student spat back her answer: “I told my teacher yesterday I didn’t know how to do this and she said she would help me today! And now she’s not here!”

Monique nodded and said she understood how frustrating that was. Then she said, “Maybe I can help you with it. Will you let me try?” The girl agreed and together they resolved the student’s misunderstanding and she began to work on the assignment.

In Grandin’s book she relates the seemingly unreasonable outbursts of many autistic children to the instinctive fear of prey animals such as cattle to unexpected changes in their visual field. She suggests that such outbursts may be the result of an over-reaction of the fight-or-flight mechanism of the so-called “animal brain” in humans. I’m thinking that such behavior isn’t confined to children on the autism spectrum. Perhaps before we jump to the conclusion that children who act out like this are simply being defiant, we as teachers need to observe and question what may be at the root of such behavior. It may be based in our own evolutionary history. In the case of the student in the anecdote above, she was angry and felt let down and feared being unsuccessful yet again. I suspect that may have been enough to trigger the fear mechanism that led to her “defiance.”

I told Monique how proud I was of her to have reacted calmly and with thoughtfulness. I told her she had learned a valuable lesson in human behavior. The student was angry and felt betrayed by her regular teacher, but Monique was able to see beyond the outburst and try to meet the underlying need. I think that may be a more important lesson than all the lesson plans and assessments I as a teacher educator may ask her to complete.

From Gunships to God


Spoiler Alert: In light of the season, this piece has a decidedly religious focus.

Most of my friends are well aware of my penchant for genealogy. I’ve been making family charts since I was nine years old, sitting on my grandmother’s front porch interrogating her about her distant aunts and uncles back in Missouri. My children have suffered through many a trek through overgrown cemeteries and musty courthouses, and over the years, without the help of, I have nailed down most of my ancestors as far back as six to eight generations, some even further. Although that’s fun, like the satisfaction of completing a jigsaw puzzle, one of the more satisfying experiences comes in the form of intriguing and fascinating stories that show up unexpectedly. One of those popped up yesterday about a very distant cousin on my Robinson/Harlan line.

His name was Thomas Gregg and he was born during the American Revolution in 1779 into a Quaker family who lived on the border of Delaware and Pennsylvania; he died in western Pennsylvania in 1857. Between those two dates was lived a life of challenge, success, defeat, surrender, and ultimately peace.

Tom left his home in Delaware to follow his uncle John Gibson to Fayette County in western Pennsylvania around 1799. Sometime after arriving there, he married Margaret Moore and they began their family of either 13 or 18 children–reports differ on the exact number. Tom may have farmed as most settlers did, but he seems to have had a knack for working with metals. He built a nail factory and developed a thriving business, which made him comparatively wealthy for the time.

But Tom wasn’t content to make nails; he was an inventor. In 1814, he applied for and received a patent for an “armor clad warship,” with four smoke stacks and no sails. This was a number of years before the development of the Monitor or the Merrimac and only seven years after the invention of the steamboat. The plans for the ship were recommended by Congress to the Navy, but the Navy wasn’t interested. Much of Tom’s money went into promoting this ship but to no avail.

Tom didn’t rest on this one invention, however. In 1832, he also developed and patented a design for a blast furnace for use with the anthracite coal available in western Pennsylvania. He built a foundry to implement it and devoted himself to producing iron. One family story says that while Tom was away on business in Delaware, his foreman at the factory fled to England with all the designs and paperwork for the furnace, which he then used to make himself and others rich without recognition of Tom’s design. The story may or may not be true, but it is known that Tom’s financial position declined significantly in the fifth decade of the Nineteenth Century.

Up to this point Tom’s story is much like that of many entrepreneurs–boom and bust followed by another boom and yet another bust. But for Tom, it seems, this reversal of fortunes became the source of deep introspection. He thought deep and hard about his Quaker roots as he roamed the rocky hills of Fayette County in solitude, searching for answers to explain what had happened to him. Eventually he came to understand his need for “the salvation of God. He was converted on the 23d of March 1845, upon the summit of a high mountain, near his residence. The spot he afterwards called the ‘rock of faith’” (From the writings of Tom’s son, John C. Gregg).

In commemoration of that event, Tom, clearly not an uneducated man, wrote the following poem, which was preserved by his granddaughter and shared on by Mark Welchley:

“Burdened with sin with guilt-distressed.
I searched in vain for full release.
But still the weight was on my breasts
I found no joy or lasting peace.

I wandered to one quiet spot
And mused with sadness day by day.
The mercy of my God I sought
And lingered there to weep and pray.

One evening and the sun went down,
The moon and stars came out above.
And wresting there with doubt and gloom
I longed to know a Savior’s love.

A trembling seized upon my frame
In agony I prayed that night
When to my troubled spirit came,
The answer as a flash of light.

With heavenly joy my heart overflowed
My tongue unloosed, began to praise
The goodness of a pardoning God
To Him: this monument-Praise”

Now journeying on in blessed hope
With all my powers to Jesus given
I trust his grace to raise me up;
Redeemed and saved-at last-in Heaven”

Reading this poem, my own heart was touched. I wonder if the Spirit of humility and surrender that Tom Gregg came to know can still change hearts today as He did for this beaten, discouraged man in 1845. I have to believe He can.

A year later Tom joined an Episcopalian church. Two of his sons became ministers, and the story of his genuine conversion is what is remembered by his family more than the “what might have been” of his inventive genius.

Alexa: Not Quite Ready for Prime Time?

pexels-photo-266176.jpegI confess, I was nervous when my daughter and son-in-law gave us the Amazon Echo Dot for Christmas last year. I was fresh from reading about IOT (Internet of Things), the capability of innocent-seeming objects embedded with Internet capabilities, including toys, to respond and react to/with their owners, as well as reporting these interactions to some database on an unknown server (somewhere in Uzbekistan?) for analysis and use in marketing or who-knows-what. Consequently, I was reluctant to set it up. I wasn’t excited about having a device in my home that literally listened to everything that went on in it and could report it to anyone else who wanted to listen.

But my other two tech-savvy daughters were so excited about theirs and all the wonderful things it helped them do, that I finally gave in. I deleted my phone app where I kept my grocery list by manually entering the items I needed, and allowed Alexa to take over the job. I could call her by name and ask her to add something to my list. She would politely inform me that she had added orange juice to my shopping list, and sure enough, almost immediately orange juice showed up on the new Alexa app on my phone. Cool! Okay, that’s not so bad, although I realize that if the Echo Dot is syncing to my phone, my grocery list is probably on some unknown server somewhere waiting on some algorithm to analyze my planned purchases and email me coupons.

I tried out a few other affordances of Alexa. I asked her to play some Elvis Presley and some Beethoven. Her choices weren’t always mine, but I could always say “Alexa, stop!” and she obeyed with alacrity. I refused to use her to buy anything, which would entail revealing private credit information, but occasionally she would waken on her own and let me know about wonderful bargains I might be missing out on. I just ignored her.

Then I discovered her timer capabilities. That was a real plus! Setting a timer while I was cooking involved putting down whatever was in my hands, wiping or washing

them, and punching the buttons on the timer on the stove; handy it was not. But with Alexa, I could use my voice. “Alexa,” I would say to get her attention, “Timer, thirty seconds.” Thirty seconds later she played a cute little tune to let me know thirty seconds was up. “Alexa, stop,” I tell her, and she complies. Loving this timer option!

Recently, my older daughter and I were having a discussion on speech recognition (SR) software. As a teacher of special ed students, she had been experimenting with using it to support her students in their writing. Although their writing seemed to be improving, she was wondering if somehow using SR was cheating them from learning to spell on their own. I shared with her an article I had just read where these issues were discussed both positively and negatively. The authors came down in favor of SR, with caveats, suggesting that as long as the students re-read and recopied their writing, they were getting much needed practice in spelling and decoding words.


Reading the article helped me make the connection between SR and Alexa. The Echo Dot and other similar devices are built on this technology. The improvement in SR

technology over the last decade has been phenomenal, but let me tell you, it isn’t perfect! Example en pointe.

For supper this evening, I was looking for something quick and easy. I decided to heat up some frozen quesadillas. It wouldn’t take much time to do, according to the directions, but it was a little involved. First, I had to put one frozen quesadilla on a plate and thaw it for one minute and fifteen seconds in the microwave. Then I was to transfer the quesadilla to a hot frying pan, heat for two minutes and thirty seconds, turn it over and heat for another two minutes and thirty seconds. Seemed pretty straight forward, but I had four to heat, so I thought I could heat one in the microwave,

transfer it to the skillet and cook the first one while I put another one in the microwave. I could use Alexa to time the skillet cooking. It should work like a charm, right?

The first round went well. I actually forgot to preheat the skillet, so I had two thawed out in the microwave by the time I was ready to have Alexa start timing. “Alexa,” I said, “Timer, two—“ Before I could complete my instructions, Alexa said, “Timer. For how long?”

“Two minutes, thirty seconds,” I answered. “Timer, two minutes and thirty seconds starting now,” Alexa said. Two minutes and thirty seconds later, just like clockwor

k, Alexa played her little tune.

“Alexa, stop,” I told her. She did. I turned the quesadillas and then said, “Alexa, timer, two–”

Again she interrupted me. “Timer. For how long?” If you’d just listen until I finish talking, I was thinking.

“Two minutes and thirty seconds,” I said.

“Timer, ten minutes and thirty seconds, starting now.”

“Alexa, stop!” I cried and tried to start over. “Alexa, timer, two—”



Yes, she interrupted me again. “Timer. For how long?”

“Two minutes and thirty seconds.”

“Second timer, two minutes and thirty seconds, starting now.”

I give up. Maybe I should just go back to using a watch or an egg timer until Alexa can tell the difference between two and ten. That will certainly be safer…

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