Friday, March 28, 2008

Winter wonderland?!!

I like snow. I really do – when it’s in season! But to wake up to a world of white, no matter how lovely each snow-lined branch appears, just doesn’t seem right at the end of March and after Easter! I long for the daffodils – but the crocuses haven’t even appeared yet!

As I lay in bed last night looking at the snowflakes drifting down, the bones in my body ached. My rheumatism caused pain deep inside my bones, arthritis ached in my old joints. My body seemed to be a barometer, pained by this unseasonal weather.

The sun is hidden once again by our drab wintry cloud cover. The dirty snow has been covered up, the dull earth made fresh and pure by the cover of white. But this is wrong, all wrong! We have to suffer through the stages of mud to get to the greenery of spring.

Oh where are the robins today?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

In my spare time

Since gardening has been out of the question (it was snowing earlier today!), I spend most of my spare moments reading.

I’ve always liked to read, but I wasn’t quite so fanatical about reading until I stated homeschooling. Now I read:

  • to determine whether I want to assign my son that book (and sometimes I don’t)
  • to stay ahead of him in books that he is reading
  • to find books that I want to assign to my daughters during the next school year

Since my two daughters read faster than I do, I have to get a head start!

I won’t list all I’ve been reading because I want to share about one particular book that I stumbled upon on Before We Kill and Eat You by H.B. Garlock was not a book I’d ever heard about, and I always have misgivings about buying little known books by missionaries. Don’t get me wrong. There are fantastic tales of heroism and faith in many autobiographical accounts by missionaries, but often the writing is so amateurish that it stands in the way of the story. So I began reading Before We Kill and Eat You with a bit of skepticism. I had, after all, just read several well-known literary works by famous authors, part of Jacob’s future literature curriculum.

“In a land called ‘the white man’s grave,’ the only insurance against malaria, cannibals and death was faith in God…” stated the back cover. I learned that back in the 1920s when Henry and his wife Ruth went to Liberia, about one in three missionaries who went to Africa died within the first year of service. One in three! Those are not odds I’d like to place on my life. Yet hundreds of missionaries went. Henry and Ruth were two that beat the odds, and lived to tell and write about their adventures. And they were worth reading.

God comes through for those who depend on Him. Having been to developing countries on mission trips, I’ve seen how destitute people do not depend on doctors to cure them; they pray for healing, not “wisdom for the doctors.” They cry out to the Lord for help, and don’t depend on social services. Often there are none. No, the Lord is their provider and their Healer, and because there isn’t all the “baggage” in the way like we have, they truly believe that He will help. And He doesn’t disappoint them. Miracles do happen.

Reading the miracles that happened in Henry Garlock’s life in Africa was truly uplifting. If only I could depend on God in the same way, I often think. If only I had that kind of faith.

I’ll share only the bit that is on the back cover of the book, one of those stories that truly makes you realize that God comes through for those who cry out to Him:

[The Pahn warriors] made a mad rush toward me with drawn knives, shouting “Kill him. Kill him!” The leader lunged at me with his cutlass raised to behead me. When it seemed that end had come and my head was about to be severed from my body, I closed my eyes and committed myself to God, repeating over and over again the one name that is above every name, ‘JESUS, JESUS!’ Suddenly there was a deathlike stillness.

That’s all there is of that story on the back cover, but in the book the story goes on. What struck me was not only that the cannibals halted like statues, but that a few moments later, a man seized Henry by the ankles and pleaded with him to have mercy on him and his men, and to spare their lives – and Henry had done nothing but call out to Jesus! What had these Pahn warriors seen? What did God show them to terrify them so?

Stories like this make me want to chuck it all and move to Africa with my family to experience that kind of power.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


First day of spring? Ha! It’s just as dreary, gray and disheartening outside as it was yesterday, the day before, last week, last month… The sun is hidden behind that toneless, overcast sky that characterizes our city all through the winter. The ground is only partly covered with snow, snow that melted and solidified, snow that is dirty and dull. And the ground, where visible, is such a lifeless color that it’s neither green like the grass nor brown like the earth. Not seeing the sun for days and days on end is dispiriting. It affects not just my attitude, but my entire being.

The first robin of the season graced one of our backyard bushes, however, offering a glimmer of hope for the season to come. Someday.

There’s not a flower in sight.

Since early March, even during our all-too-frequent snowstorms, I could hear the Canada geese making their way back north. The sound of their calls from up in the sky, both day and night, is heartening, stirring in a way that I can’t quite describe. It buoys me up, lifts my spirits, perhaps only momentarily, but in a way that touches me deep inside. The robins’ return is also encouraging.

But indoors, we’re still burning wood, still congregating around the wood-burning stove as in the depths of winter.

Oh, for a warm, sunny day…

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Time yourself

“It’s too much! All I do is schoolwork all day! I never had this much work in public school. I never had to read books for history. I just read a textbook. You give me 20 pages to read for history, 20 pages to read for English. Then there’s Geometry and Spanish and all the other stuff! I can’t do it! It’s too much!!”

The whining has been going on for some time, but it came to a head on Monday. I can see that Jacob is learning so much more for history by reading a book (Stalin: Man of Steel, by Albert Marrin at the moment), yet he complains it’s too much. Everything I give him is “too much,” but reading for history especially irks him.

“All I give you is 20 pages of reading for history,” I explained. “You said it takes you an hour to read 20 pages. That is your class work for the day: read the 20 pages. Then for English, read another 20 pages in another hour. Believe me, the reason you’re doing schoolwork ’round the clock is because you’re staring out the window, chasing the cat, squirting water on the wood-burning stove to ‘raise humidity’… You don’t work continuously. I’m always hunting you down and telling you to get back to work! In school, you sat through your classes, and whether you paid attention or not, class was over in 50 minutes. Here you have to work for the 50 or 60 minutes per subject.

“You were in school from 7:30 AM until 2:30 PM with, say, an hour for lunch. That’s six hours of school. Then you always had homework,” I said, frustrated by Jacob’s complaints and by his poor time management. “You don’t have more. You’re just not managing your time well.”

Jacob’s younger sister once said that she could do the work I assign him in two hours; he spends all day at it, all evening, and then takes a book to bed to “catch up.” And indeed, I do believe that Larissa could do the work in two hours. She’s that fast a worker. She rarely has homework not because she doesn’t have assignments, but because she finishes them in school or on the school bus. She’ll even use an extra 5 or 10 minutes of unproductive class time to do her homework assignments. Jacob, on the other hand, stretches out the smallest assignment by playing with the cat or finding a variety of other distractions.

He angrily took the list of assignments and put a time against each item:

It added up to 8 hours 25 minutes – which equaled his former six hours of school and two-and-a-half hours of homework. I didn’t even mention that I work eight hours per day for my company; look over his schoolwork, schedule assignments, and read books until I can’t hold my eyes open so that I know what to assign him; and I cook supper. So how many hours do I “work”? Life is not about having fun.

My husband was listening to all this, and he challenged Jacob: “You take the timer. Set it going when you’re doing schoolwork. Shut it off every time you stop – when you add wood to the stove, when you go to the bathroom, or if you take a break. Then let’s see how much time you really spend on schoolwork.”

Jacob did that yesterday. For all his complaining, the timer read 6 hours and 20 minutes.

Monday, March 17, 2008

He’s reading

But it’s not a surprise. Today I brought home a book that he’s wanted for some time: the Driver’s Manual. I stopped by at the Department of Motor Vehicles to pick up this book and the forms we need to fill out to get Jacob’s learner’s permit. He is so excited about turning 16 in a few weeks! I’ve never seen him this excited about anything else before. Finally, the kid who loves cars will get to drive one.

I’m excited for him.

And I’m terrified…!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Eating our lab experiment

Today’s Biology experiment was to look at yeast under a microscope. Jacob dissolved the yeast in two cups of warm water and added sugar, then made up slides of the yeast after five minutes and after half an hour. It wasn't a very exciting lab; the yeast looked much the same after 5 minutes and after 30…

“It’s kind of sad to pour out this perfectly good yeast,” said Jacob as he stood poised with the glass of yeast in water over the sink when the lab session was over. “I could make pizza dough out of it. There’s a recipe on the yeast package.”

And so our morning school plans got a bit derailed as Jacob took out a bowl, some flour, the board for kneading dough, and the pizza pan. We already had the pizza sauce, pepperoni, and mozzarella cheese in the house. The best part is that Jacob is making the pizza himself; he already learned how back in 8th grade in public school.

So Biology turned into cooking class.

It’s pizza for lunch. Yum!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Customizing curriculum

When I pulled Jacob out of public school several weeks ago in the middle of tenth grade, my intent was to continue teaching the courses he was already taking. Thus, for Global History, which in our school system is a two-year course that ends in tenth grade, I went right into World War I where he had left off. After finishing that, his textbook introduced Lenin and Communism in what was to become the Soviet Union. But it covered it so superficially. Jacob needed to know so much more about the regime that my parents escaped and that my husband lived under until he came to the States in 1990. A few pages in a textbook weren’t enough.

Since I had come across the idea of teaching history through literature – that is, biographies and books about history rather than a textbook – what better way to read about the history of Communism in the Soviet Union than through Albert Marrin’s biography of Stalin, Stalin: Russia's Man of Steel? But before I assigned the book to my son, I quickly read the book myself so I’d be familiar with its contents. I was intrigued.

Meanwhile, I had just finished reading Cry, the Beloved Country, set in South Africa in the 1940s, the book I had planned to assign my son for English this week. But as I read about Stalin, the father of the gulags in Siberia, it occurred to me that there was no better time to assign Jacob the book A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by renown Russian writer and survivor of the gulags, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It was on the reading list, but I had planned to assign it much later. Assigning it now makes more sense. Jacob can read about South Africa later, perhaps even when we study apartheid in history! For now, the Stalin biography and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich would go together so much better.

But wait! Wait! Tolstoy is mentioned in Stalin: Russia's Man of Steel, and since Tolstoy predates Solzhenitsyn, who is also mentioned in Stalin, I’ll pull out my collection of The Best Stories and Tales of Leo Tolstoy and pick out a few short stories first! Then after Jacob reads, say, three short stories, I’ll give him A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. That will expand his horizons even more!

Just like that, I’m changing Jacob’s curriculum, tailoring it, weaving together Global History and English so they support one another, complement each other to create a broader experience for my son. Homeschooling allows me to do this, especially when I’m the master of the curriculum and I’m not following a rigid program. And it helps to have read all these books myself.

Outside my 40-hour work week as a tech writer, my time spent scanning Health and Biology texts, my writing of schedules and exams, my cooking and household chores and family time, it seems that all I do is read. I don’t know about my son, but I’m sure getting an education!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

History is exciting after all

“Mom, listen to this,” my son interrupted my morning work at the computer. He had The Yanks Are Coming by Albert Marrin in his hand, the book I assigned for history.

War is full of accidents, Jacob read. When millions of men struggle with powerful weapons, something always goes wrong. A defective grenade may explode in its owner’s hand when he pulls the pin. Pilots strafe their own ground troops. Artillerymen misjudge their aim and drop shells on their own troops. This is called “friendly fire,” although the shells kill just the same as if they came from enemy guns.

Someone, somehow, had made a terrible error. The Lost Battalion began to receive a heavy doses of friendly fire. Shells hit trees, sending them toppling over as if felled by a giant axe. Shells landed in foxholes. One man vanished in a flash; another had his chest blown out by an American shell.

Everyone tried frantically to dig himself deeper into the ground – everyone, that is, except Galloping Charlie. He was on his feet, bounding from foxhole to foxhole. “Take it easy, there, take it easy,” he said to a whimpering Doughboy. “We’re all right. This won’t last long.”

Rushing toward the headquarters hole, he motioned the pigeon man to follow him with this birdcage. Whittlesey’s message said it all: “We’re along the road parallel 276.4. Our artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.” The message was clipped to the leg of Cher Ami, the last pigeon, the Lost Battalion’s last link with the outside world. Cher Ami is French for “Dear Friend.” And that little bird proved itself the dearest of friends that day.

Not that it seemed that way at first. Cher Ami rose into the air and then, for some bird’s-own reason, settled on the limb of a blasted tree. The major and its keeper threw pebbles at it, ducking all the while from the shellbursts. At last Cher Ami took off and flew away. The Germans, seeing it leave the American position, turned all their guns on the tiny creature.

Cher Ami saved the day. It arrived at its loft with an eye gone, its breastbone shattered, and a leg shot away. But it arrived with Whittlesey’s message. The barrage was called off after four hours.

And there’s more about the pigeon. Jacob flipped forward a few pages.

Cher Ami also had its reward. The hero-pigeon went on to become a celebrity. The French gave it the Croix de Guerre. Black Jack ordered that it be returned to the United States in a private cabin aboard the transport Ohioan. It received the best medical treatment the country could offer, including a beautifully carved wooden leg. When Cher Ami died in 1919, its body was stuffed and put on honorable display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

“I wonder if it’s still there,” Jacob mused. “I would have liked to have seen it when I was in Washington.”

“I didn’t realize they used carrier pigeons during the First World War,” I said, truly amazed. “That’s so low-tech. What a change in the way war is carried out since 90 years ago!”

All through the morning, Jacob interrupted my work to read me passages from The Yanks Are Coming.

Time was running out for the Lost Battalion. The last scraps of food had been eaten two days earlier and the men were starving. Those who could manage it gnawed the bark off trees or munched handfuls of grass; a lucky few nibbled on wax candles. Men were so weak from hunger and groggy from lack of sleep that it was hard to walk even a couple of steps. Men would rise, only to trip on a pebble. The medics ran out of painkiller and bandages. Fresh wounds had to be covered with dressings taken from the dead and folded so the old bloodstain didn’t touch the new wound.

At midday thirteen American planes dropped food packages to the Lost Battalion. Corned Willie, monkey meat, butter, biscuits, chocolate, cigarettes rained from heaven. The famished men watched the food parcels come down – right into the German positions. The Germans, who hadn’t seen such delicacies in months, were grateful for the early Christmas presents. When an inexperienced machine gunner aimed at the planes, a veteran knocked him down, shouting, “Don’t shoot the delicatessen-flyers!”

The Germans, refreshed by the fine food, ended the day with a flamethrower attack. Storm Troopers charged from the woods behind streamers of orange fire. That was a mistake, for the Yanks, angry at losing their food drop, took out their anger on the flamethrower teams. None survived.

He read about Alvin York, who used his sharp-shooting rifle skills to capture 132 machinegun-toting Germans. That was no small feat.

He read about Eddie Rickenbacker, who disobeyed orders and took off in his plane after armistice had been reached to get a bird’s-eye view of helmets being thrown in the air and Frenchmen hugging and kissing Germans.

I don’t recall Jacob ever reading me so many passages from a book before. It’s so rewarding to choose a book that he was excited about, a book that made history come alive and gave personalities to people, a book that brought you close to the events.

“Did you ever read any history books in school that you enjoyed this much?” I asked Jacob.

“No,” he replied.

My heart ached because I love history. But it wasn’t because of classes in school. History only came alive for me after I graduated high school and began reading accounts of historical events in books on my own. Books like the one Jacob was reading.

“But I liked some of the historical videos,” Jacob added.

“We’ll be watching some videos, too,” I said. “And listening to some books on tape for a change.”

Oh, the possibilities when you homeschool!

Monday, March 3, 2008


I must be doing something wrong. By the end of each weekend, I feel beat up, tense, exhausted, and demoralized. I will have spent every free hour – that means, any hour that I’m not grocery shopping, running errands, cleaning the house, cooking, or attending church – preparing for homeschool: writing tests, skimming next week’s health material, scheduling Biology reading and labs, figuring out Global History reading assignments, and determining English work. I spend a ridiculous amount of time on planning, learning at least some of the material and creating the table of times, topics, and due dates.

And any week night, you’ll find me reading – reading literature classics or books about history so that I can have an intelligent discussion with my son about the assignments I give from these books – and frankly, so that I can give an intelligent assignment in the first place.

I have no life, no time to myself. Rather, studying and scheduling is my life. And the worst part is that my son perpetually complains about all the work. When he was in public school, he didn’t complain much about his workload; he just did it. But now that I’m in charge of the work, he wears down my nerves with his grumbling and protests. Oh, he does the work, but he’s perpetually behind. Am I really overbooking him? But he won’t cover the required material by the end of the year if I let up. And he’s let me know he doesn’t want to study all summer. Frankly, I don’t want to go through this all summer either.

When I go back to work on Monday, it’s a reprieve. A rest.

Only five more years of this, if I homeschool the girls…
What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
— Albert Pike, Scottish Rite Freemason (1809-1891)