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Photograph by Grace Cannan

Early last Saturday morning, the first morning when Fall felt as though it had really arrived, I showed up at Wing and a Prayer Farm for sheep shearing school with Tammy White and the gentleman in the photograph: shearing legend Fred DePaul.  Perhaps because I am still in the mindset of a classroom teacher (it will be a while before I can call myself a shepherd, the new profession I have chosen), I saw so many parallels between the way I learned what I learned that day, and what I know to be great teaching in practice.

First, there was Fred himself.  It is no small feat to wrestle a sheep into shearing position, methodically go about the process of taking its coat of wool off in such as way as to render the wool most useful for spinning, and explain the process to a group of people who have never done this before so that they would be willing (excited even!) to get in line and have a go right away.  Oh, I forgot to add to the above list the act of storytelling, which Fred is a master at.  That is great teaching.

Once he had shown us the way, he guided each of us through the process, encouraging and advising, prompting and cajoling.  It couldn’t  have been easy to watch us stumble over the steps, and struggle to maintain control of the sheep (docile as they are, they are also stubborn and wily).  But, never once did Fred waver in his patience, in his faith that we could accomplish the task.  We made many mistakes, but Fred never made us feel that any of those mistakes made us failures.  That, too, is great teaching.

Then there was Tammy herself, fiber farmer extraordinaire, who had opened her farm and cleared her very busy day so that farmers-in-the-making could have first hand experience in a low-stakes way.

Tammy is in the foreground, in red flannel.

She conferred with each of us, got to know our interests and concerns, managed shearing school even as she managed the work of the farm (with over 100 animals in her sole care, she is a woman with a LOT going on), and opened every aspect of what she does (did I mention that she does a LOT?) to her visitors for inspection and query.  She was honest about the hard work involved, but also about the joy inherent in that work – and that joy was so evident and genuine, that it could not but inspire each of us to want to take on the mantle of that work as well.  That’s great teaching.

As someone brand new to fiber farming, the moment I stepped onto the grounds of Wing and a Prayer Farm, I was both in awe and ready to learn.  Like a great classroom, the farm revealed the messy and fascinating intricacies of the day-to-day work in progress, everything had a purpose, and was used and cared for.  Like a great classroom, it represented the work unique to those who lived and worked there:

There are a wide variety of living things on Tammy’s farm, but should a sheep, goat, alpaca, donkey, or dog wander past, she will know exactly who it is and what they are all about and let them know this with a quick pat or a gentle word.  Having  a caring, genuine relationship with those you work alongside every day is painstaking but essential work – whether it is running a farm or leading a school.

I learned a lot about sheeping from my day at Tammy’s farm…and re-learned some lessons in teaching.

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  Michelle Kogan hosts the Poetry Friday Roundup today.

Today, I will turn in my classroom key and my building pass, and leave the middle school which has been the heart and soul of my teaching life.  What lies ahead is somewhat clear: caring for my aging parents, bringing a farm back to life, writing the books that I have been wanting to write.

Today is the end of one path, and the beginning of another.  Even as I grieve for the turning, hearing (always) the call of the children I have loved and taught and learned alongside these many years, I know that the other path is the way now.  I have arrived at Frost’s diverging roads…I know where I must go.

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The Poetry Friday round-up is hosted by Karen Edmisten.

Yesterday, someone Tweeted out this excerpt from Langston Hughes:

The daily news is too much to bear: too much evidence of how not to treat one another, to think, to live what is (in the grand scheme of things) a rather short time on this good, green Earth.

This evening, in search of poetry that reflected the world I’d like to live in, I found this:

Little Lesson on How to Be by Kathryn Nuernberger

The woman at the Salvation Army who sorts and prices is in her eighties
and she underestimates the value of everything, for which I am grateful.
Lightly used snow suits, size 2T, are $6 and snow boots are $3.
There is a little girl, maybe seven, fiddling with a tea set. Her mother
inspects drapes for stains.
Sometimes the very old and lonely are looking for an opening.
She glances up from her pricing and says something about the tea set
and a baby doll long ago.
I am careful not to make eye contact, but the mother with drapes has
such softness in her shoulders and her face and she knows how to say
the perfect kind thing—“What a wonderful mother you had.”
“Yes, she was.”
Why do children sometimes notice us and sometimes not?
From the bin of dolls: “What happened to your mother?”
“She died.”
The woman at the Salvation Army who sorts and prices is crying a little.
She seems surprised to be crying. “It’s been eighty years and I still miss
When my daughter was born I couldn’t stop thinking about how we
were going to die. If we were drowning, would it be better to hold her
to me even as she fought away or should I let her float off to wonder why
her mother didn’t help her? What if it’s fire and I have one bullet left? I
made sure my husband knew if there were death squads and he had to
choose, I’d never love him again if he didn’t choose her. If I’m lucky,
her crying face is the last thing I’ll see.
The mother with drapes is squeezing her daughter’s shoulder, trying to
send a silent message, but children are children. “Why did she die?”
“She was going to have a baby and—And she died.”
“But she was a wonderful mother.”
I’m holding a stack of four wooden jigsaw puzzles of farm animals,
dinosaurs, jungle animals, and pets. Each for a quarter.
“It’s silly how much I still miss her.” She takes out a tissue and wipes
her eyes and then her nose.
When my grandmother threw her sister, Susie, a 90th birthday party,
one hundred people came, including 5 of the 6 brothers and sisters. At
dusk only a few of us were left, nursing beers with our feet kicked up
on the bottom rungs of various walkers.
Susie said then to my grandmother, “Can you think of all the people
watching us in heaven now? And our mother must be in the front row.”
Grandma took her sister’s hand. “Our mother—Estelle.”
“Yes—her name was Estelle. I forgot that.”
They looked so happy then, saying her name back and forth to each
other. Estelle. Estelle.
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