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We Started an Underground Newspaper and Got Away with It

1a1To my students. I give the friendly notice that I am back in the classroom this morning, getting ready for your arrival on Monday as we start our second semester here at GCA.  The weather forecast calls for snow this morning, and as I glance out the window, I see that it is starting to come down.  They’re predicting up to three inches of snow this afternoon.  A regular blizzard, by Knoxville standards.

I’m in the classroom at this moment, taking a fifteen minute break from sweeping and pulling down any leftover Christmas ornaments.  I now realize how much we got into the holiday spirit here in Room 186 – at least fifteen strings of lights, two boxes of ornaments, three trees, a two-foot tall nutcracker, and even a plush Christmas Yoda.

I look forward to your arrival.  You’ve shown me a lot of creativity in your learning process, from your Bible essays to your New Testament speech presentations, and as we step into 2017, I am giving you some more opportunities to show your inventive ways.

As a middle schooler in Hershey, Pennsylvania, I remember when a teacher gave me a chance to express myself creatively.  For some reason I cannot remember, I approached the usually austere Mr. Byrd in our homeroom #236 class and asked him if I could start a classroom newspaper.  He raised an eyebrow at me, but then nodded and gave the go-ahead. Soon I was designing a one-page mimeographed copy of the newsletter with the wildly imaginative title of 236 News.  It contained just about everything but news about the room, however, because common sense tells you that if anything is news in a classroom of twenty-five kids, everybody knows about it.  This did not dissuade me in the least.  At first it started out as a pretty pedestrian affair – a few jokes here and there, a poem I looked up, maybe a quote from a classmate about a recent quiz or test – and it puttered along every week with no real excitement.  I clearly recall that none of it was typewritten, since I had no access to a typewriter.  It was a handwritten production, sloppy but reliable.

Yeah.  Reliably boring.  I seemed to be in a rut, but didn’t really have an incentive to take the next step, until…

I heard another homeroom was planning on creating their own newspaper.  I had to act fast, or I would get buried in mediocrity.

Ah.  I knew just where to go to find my artistic flair.

I collaborated with my older brothers Bruce and Brent – even though they had never stepped foot inside my classroom and had never met any of my classmates – and asked them to help me make the 236 News something different.

Man, did they make it different.

Fifteen year old Bruce had a growing artistic genius that was being recognized in the school system.  Emboldened by administrative recognition and numerous awards, he started branching out from pencil sketches of flower vases and pastoral settings to abstract art, including fantasy sci fi.

Brent started coming up with new ways to format the paper.  Expansion to a second page.  A survey on whether Batman could beat up Green Hornet.  A poll to decide how the Cookie Monster would stack up in an election against Nixon and Humphrey.

I let Bruce design and add drawings.  He went at it with a vengeance, draping the side columns with elaborate winged dragons and his own versions of Spiderman and Hulk racing across the masthead.  The new format shocked and delighted the kids.  Even Mr. Byrd – who for some reason never really liked me – had a grudging admiration for this off-the-wall production.

236 News was a hit.  We expanded to three pages. Then five.  Then six.  We were getting requests for copies from other classrooms, even teachers.  The rival classroom newspapers quietly folded.  Bruce, Brent and I would spend evenings at the kitchen table, inventing new ideas and weirder drawings.  Bruce even wrote a mini-novel and we serialized it.  Brent added a Scouting column that was greeted with enthusiasm; every one of our readers knew exactly what to do if attacked by a bear in the school parking lot.

When my family moved to Delaware in my junior high years, we brothers did it again.  It happened at an early-morning break time when I paid twenty-five cents for a dull-looking four-page newspaper.   I was reading the Delmar High School gazette ( I think it was called something like “The Wildcat News”) that featured stuff like the lunch menus, “Meet the Coach” and football schedules,when I realized that we could do it again.  One night, Brent and I pulled together a renegade newspaper and named it Cry From the Dungeon.  Bruce added his mind-boggling sketches.  We went right into underground news stuff like in-depth reports on which student had the most detentions, a cafeteria food fight first-person report, a freshman paper-airplane craze, and a study hall wastebasket-shooting Wadded Paperball League. We started a superhero comic strip called Captain Delmar (who battled his nemesis The Janitor).  We had a school-wide vote on the best professional ball players and the worst cafeteria food.

And we sold out every week.

For some unexplained reason, the school administration was okay with all of this.  The leadership allowed me to use an old funny-smelling mimeograph machine and even a ream of paper for us to keep Cry From the Dungeon going.  At my 25th class reunion one of my classmates brought out an old copy of CFTD and we all had a grand laugh.

I enjoyed the opportunity to push the creative bounds and I appreciated the encouragement I received to keep extending further.

Our little church youth group began giving us opportunities to do the same.  After I became a Christian, I realized that this abstract approach to things was even more exciting in the Christian realm!  From Bible studies to home prayer times, things were fun, fresh and unpredictable.  We were allowed to create ghost walks for Halloween, Sunday night teen presentations for the church, an outreach comedy team, and yes, a newsletter.  We decorated the hallways and bulletin boards. We wrote music.  We organized Sunday evening all-church “afterglows.” Each week the ideas were more imaginative and fun.  I will tell you more about these in future blogs.

I recall a narrative in the book of Exodus of a man named Bezalel.  He had been filled with “the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft.” Bezalel was given the joy and excitement of creativity to honor God in unique and artistic ways.  As a Christian, I would soon learn this Biblical truth.  I could use the innovative quirks and ideas in a way that wouldn’t express rebellion or individualism; it could bring glory to God!  The Father was the one who gave me the abstract creative ways of thinking, and I was given the freedom to express Him with these tools.  And you have that freedom as well.

I want you to think about that, students.  We have a whole ton of ways to learn – and show – God’s majesty, His book, His character and His love.  We’ll start exploring new ways of digging into those truths.  Lots of different ways.

And it starts on Monday.  See you then.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brad Kent Zockoll
Copyright 2017

Dr. Brad Zockoll

My Reflections on 2016 in the Classroom: Foolish. Funny.

1a1

I was in a pie-eating contest last month.  Seriously.

I took on the students in an all-school pie eating contest at a student assembly here at Grace Christian Academy.  Five of us stood before a long table in the middle of the gymnasium, hands behind our backs, looking down at a full pie apiece.  To my right were the junior and senior representatives.  To my left were the freshman and sophomore representatives.  These were all teens.  I am fifty-seven years old.  They have youth and an incredible metabolic rate going for them.

But I have one thing they don’t have.

I am obsessed with pie.

They are young.  They have not reached this type of fascination.

I looked at both sides as I took off my glasses, flipped a baseball cap backwards on my head and stared down at the fresh pumpkin pie in front of me.  “You know I’m going to destroy you all, don’t you?”

And that’s what I did, brother.

I destroyed them.  I destroyed that pie, too.

There was just one little hitch I hadn’t planned on, and it quickly became a problem for me.  For those of you who have not indulged in a pie eating contest, allow me to explain the dilemma anyone would encounter in a contest like this.  When you eat pie like civilized people do, you use a utensil to bring it to your mouth.  Obviously, you don’t slam your face down into the middle of your dessert.  There are many good reasons for this, but one of the main things is that you’ll encounter an obstacle that slows down your eating speed.  It’s called your nose.  More specifically, your nostrils.

I’d like you to thoughtfully consider the angle of attack when you push your face into a pie, especially one with the consistency of a pumpkin pie.  Your face goes forward and down, and the pie can do nothing to escape.  But as you push forward, you have these two open-access entrances into your sinuses.  Consider them tunnels if you will, and when you push into something like a pie, the pie wants to enter into those dual little roadways into your face.

With the nose I have, it was like opening up L.A. traffic into a four lane freeway.

As I plowed down into the pie, I realized that part of the food was travelling up my schnozz at an alarmingly fast pace.  I felt a cool yet choking sensation moving toward my eye sockets.  Also, I couldn’t breathe.

But being the cantankerous sort and especially defiant of losing to students little more than one-third my age, I knew I couldn’t quit.  This created a dilemma, because I really do like to breathe.  So I leaned to one side in front of all of those students – if you are delicate, please skip these next few sentences – and I honked out as much of it as I could.  Yes, I blew my nose out, pumpkin and all.

Now, this got a strong reaction from the cheering audience, but I must admit, it wasn’t the sole reason, for at the very same time, the senior student Bethany leaned over to her right and barfed up all of her pumpkin on the gym floor.

(Oh, yes, we Christians are the delicate sort, aren’t we?)

But as soon as I cleared my nasal passageway, I was able to dive right back in.  And, my good friends, that’s the way I decided I could win this challenge, and so I got into a rhythm of eating and blowing, eating and blowing.  I won the contest.

Yes.  The old man won.

Only one small problem as they announced me as the winner.   I couldn’t breathe, because in my gustatorial fervor in the home stretch, I was chawing into the pie at a manic pace, with my nostril expulsion not able to keep up with my hyperactive intake.

As I worked my way off of the gymnasium floor (I had pie in my eyes, and neither was I wearing my glasses, so my exit was a challenge in itself), our math teacher Rachel approached me with a towel.  I could tell my face was a mess by her reaction.  “Here – this will help,” she said kindly.

“I can’t breathe,” I said.  In reality, though, since my sinuses were clogged, it came out like “uh kint breed.”  She nodded sweetly and gestured towards the school bathrooms.  “Perhaps you can clean up in there.”

I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, amazed at how much pumpkin I can actually hang on my face – especially the eyebrows! – and I went through half a dozen industrial-strength paper towels as I tried to clear my sinuses.  This helped a bit, but the coarse texture of the paper towels left me with half a nose.  I was not able to completely clean my nasal passage, either – my sinuses were clogged, making my eyes water for the rest of the day.  And I kid you not, I smelled nutmeg for about forty-eight more hours.

Within the month I was back on the gym floor at another school assembly, side by side with other teachers and coaches as we took on the students in a Dodge Ball game.  Shoulder to shoulder with Scott the algebra teacher and Lincoln the strength coach, I did fierce battle in my socks, skating across the floor while winging playground balls with an arm that hasn’t played organized baseball in over two decades.  I held on through the final stages, but C.J. caught my blazing missile with relative ease.  At least I didn’t get hit.

This is fun stuff, brother.

Fun.

The word “fun” can be traced to the late Middle English word fon “make a fool of, be a fool”.  But if you go back a bit more into the word’s history, you see it also meant “to become infatuated with,” from where we get the word fond.

Both those words connect with my past year here at Grace Christian Academy.  There are times when I played the fool, but it only served to build a deepening fondness for my students.  Make no mistake, we worked at our studies.  Did we hit the books hard?  Of course.  From soteriology to ouranology, we looked at the doctrines surrounding the Trinity.  We researched the ministry of Christ and studied His amazing attributes.  We gave speeches on subjects as diverse as Koine Greek phrases and the Ten Commandments.  It got hard sometimes, even anxious.

But oh, did we have some fun classroom moments this past semester.

We had distraction speeches.  While the speaker gave his delivery, we tried interruptions ranging from a stray dog running through the room to an ROTC officer doing push-ups.  Our speakers held their ground, directing and controlling the mishap.  Then after the grade was given, we would all laugh.

We had classroom competitions.  Each class time ended with a game where points could be earned.  This was a six-class competition, complete with revenges and intrigue.  The top three winners got to participate in a Christmas auction with their points used as currency.  The auction items were donated over the course of the month.  Students won TVs, stuffed animals, boxes of candy, board games, DVDs… you name it, we probably had it.

We had daily coffee and doughnuts in the classroom.  Students would donate their loose change on a honor basis, and we would have enough to cover the expense of coffee and some baked goods – a nice way to start the class time, especially before a quiz on the Koine Greek translation of John 1:1.

We also have some fond memories as well.  Adam shared his desire to go into full-time Christian mission work.  Jared told me about how he used his speech training to be able to give a message before his church.  Benji’s dad came in and sat in on a class to observe.  So did Brooke’s mom.  We had a dress-up day to sit and watch a film of Handel’s Messiah, as if we were in the concert hall itself.  Students were peppering me with questions about Christ during our weekly Q & A time on Fridays.

We would stop class and have a “quiet time” of simply reading the Scripture as individuals – anywhere you wanted to read in the Bible, you had the silence in order to do it.  It restored the joy of getting to know the Bible once again.  I can recall how Bob sat there, intensely reading the book of Luke while noisily crunching kettle-cooked potato chips.  He was unaware of how loud he was.  The other students smiled and ignored it as best they could.  Classes were opening up to seeing Jesus as more than a cliché; they were starting to understand and enjoy the Messiah.

I could continue to list the grand memories, but I’ll stop for now.

What has 2016 reminded me?  Simple.

The joy of the Lord is your strength. That powerful phrase is found in Nehemiah 8:10, and boy, does that ring true to me.  Being part of the Kingdom ministry is an honor.  It’s a blessing.

And.

It.

Is.

Fun.

Happy New Year!  2017 has more joys in store. I’ll try to remember to write about them as they happen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brad Zockoll
Dr. Brad Zockoll

Copyright 2017

My Christmas Card to My Students, The Nativity Bunch

1a1It is Christmas Eve morning and I am writing my online Christmas card to my students – and I will let you peek in on what I am saying.

To my students: I thank you for one of the most enjoyable semesters I have ever had, and I also want to wish you the deepest and most blessed Christmas of your life.  It’s an exchange, really.  You have given me the gift of the honor of being your teacher in the classroom, and I wish for you to enjoy this break from the classroom.

Oh, I love being a teacher.  Every class, every period here at Grace Christian Academy is a new adventure for me, and I say that with all sincerity.  I was not hired to lob chunks of knowledge around the room and hope somebody catches them; I’m here to share the experience of Scriptural discovery and the mystery of the Divine. If I don’t have the excitement and conviction of the Bible truths I’m sharing, then I have no business in the classroom.

We’ve had a great Yuletide season together.  We’ve studied the Star of Bethlehem, Handel’s Messiah, the birth prophecies, and the timeline of the Nativity.  I have enjoyed the excitement of the young scholars as we kept peeling back the pages of history and doctrine, revealing new truths every day. What a great time.

And it’s appropriate that today I send out a Christmas card to all of my students because they remind me so much of the Nativity story.  Let me explain.

You see, they are the characters of the Nativity story, in a sense.

I’m not kidding you.

The gentlemen and ladies of Bible 10 remind me of the personalities of the Christmas story.  I’ll break it down into the various groups…

First, there are the wise men.  I have some students who remind me of the wizened scholars who intensely studied the charts and made the trip to see the Christ child.  These magi are whom I refer to as the “lean-forward” students.  Whenever we open the Scriptures, these are the pupils who will immediately start digging and reading, almost frantically at times.  They want to know.  Just as I imagine the Persian astronomers checked and double-checked their charts, studies and calculations, I have a group of students who give me a furrow-browed intensity in any Bible subject we talk about, from the End Times to the crucifixion event to the Sermon on the Mount.  These are the students who will flip through their Bible and double check my teaching, such as the Bereans did with Paul.

But note:  it’s not just the learning process; these students are going to apply it.

Olivia was writing at a ninety-five miles-per-hour pace.  After class I stopped her and chuckled.  “Liv, if you keep writing like that you’ll break your wrist.  I believe you even took notes about how I coughed.  Why the manic approach to note taking?”

She smiled but also gave me an intense stare.  “This holiday season my family is traveling to see my relatives in the Midwest, and there will be seventy of them.  Seventy, all in one meeting hall.  None of them are Christians, and when we arrive, you can see that they’re ready to do battle – and that’s pretty much what they end up doing.  After the main dinner, they sit back and start yelling at my parents about their faith.  Yelling!  And it’s seventy against two.  Now, to be fair, when my parents discuss the Bible, the group pauses.  They’re willing to listen to answers.”  She patted her notebook.  “This is the first year that I’ll get involved in the debate.  I want to get every Bible answer possible.”

Yes, the magi students come to class with a passion that I love.  It gives me an adrenaline rush every time we get into a new section of Scripture.  Thank you, wise men and women.

Then there are the Shepherds.  This is not to say that these scholars are less intelligent; they just have a different approach.  These students might be new to the Christian faith, or maybe they have just never really been exposed to an in-depth approach to God’s Word.  The Bible narrative reveals the emotion of the shepherds as they were given the news of the great discovery of the Messiah’s birth.  That same emotion comes through in my classroom at times.  What I like – I love about my classroom Shepherds is their surprise – no, their astonishment whenever something is revealed in the Scriptures. We teachers call this the “ah ha” moment and it’s what we live for, really.  Just like last week, whenever I took them through the Scriptural journey of Handel’s Messiah.  Jim was sitting there, shaking his head and writing notes – he was totally unaware of the multitude of prophecies about the coming Messiah.  Even after class he gave me a thumbs up on the way out the door.  “I’m sharing this with my family tonight at dinner.”

One of my favorite stories is of Jeremy’s reaction whenever I was teaching of God’s omnipotence.  “Remember,” I said.  “God not only created the universe, He created the ability to create.  In fact, God not only created something, He also created the nothing that existed before anything existed.

Jeremy put his head down on his desk and waggled a finger at me as he collapsed his head into his arm.  “Hang on for a minute, I need some time to get my brain back in order on that one.”

Brandon got so excited about the Nativity story and the alignment of the Star that he fell out of his chair.

Literally.

He fell out of his chair.

Thank you, shepherds.

Third, we have Simeons in the classroom.  Simeon waited patiently day after day, waiting for the Messiah to come into view.  He knew he wouldn’t die until he saw the Savior, the world-changer.

Well, I have Simeons in my classroom.  They are unsettled until they get to see Jesus.  You can tell in their eyes – they will not finish this school year in Bible class until they get a deeper understanding of this Christ.  Meredith hangs back and asks about Jesus’ reaction to Thomas.  Pat sees me in the hall and asks about the best way to understand Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness.  Tim is walking alongside me at the lunch salad bar and wanting to know about the day of the crucifixion, and how Judas’ bowels gushed out.  Not exactly something you want to think about when you’re going past the tomato hummus.

Bless you and thank you, Simeons.

Fourth, we have Annas.   You know the Nativity story of the widow Anna, who stayed in the temple and was a magnificent prayer warrior.  She had a sorrowful past in having lost a husband, and people would have understood if she had wallowed in grief and become a recluse.  That didn’t happen!  Rather than grow bitter, she opened her life to the love of God and dedicated herself to live a life to glorify the Father. Anna was so sensitive in her relationship to Yahweh that when Mary and Joseph came to the temple to present the baby Jesus, Anna recognized Jesus as the redemption of Jerusalem.

Those that are Annas in my classroom have also suffered.  Much of it is in secret, but it is still as real.  So many students have broken homes, physical ailments, and deep disappointments in life! Yet I have not seen this type of student mope or grate at his or her hurtful circumstance.  Mostly they keep their grief a secret, and see each class as a way to come closer to the Jesus they love.  My heart breaks for the teens who endure hardships day in and day out, but it also amazes me of the joy they exhibit as they walk the path towards the Messiah, enjoying the newfound instruction of how He can mold their life.

Years ago, Tiffany came in and sat down before school.  “My mom is leaving my dad. This week.  And she’s trying to ‘buddy me’ so that we can just be two girls who shop and giggle all the time.  I’m actually having to be a parent to my mom.”

Bert came in a few days later.  “My parents are splitting up.  They’re so angry with one another I think they’d try to kill each other if they could get away with it.  And they keep coming to me for advice – and I’m sixteen!”

Linda is recovering from surgery that will keep her from every playing sports again.  Ben suffered an injury that, too, ended his playing days.  Lori is in remission from cancer.

This scenario happens every year.  Yet in each case I’ve seen the student dig deeper into the love of Christ and in the fellowship of other Believers and grow to a mature and powerful Christian.

God bless you deeply, Annas.

Magi, shepherds, Simeons and Annas … all in my classroom every day.

These are students of the Nativity.  These are students of epiphany – they want new discoveries every day.  I have the sometimes exhausting responsibility of making sure those new discoveries come.  And oh, how I love that.

Like with the Nativity characters, these students never give up seeking Christ for something more.

As I packed up my exam papers on one of the final days before Christmas break, Joe stepped into the room to say good-bye for the holidays.  He paused and confided to me.

“I wanted to tell you something.  You know, a number of students – myself included – really can’t stand those Bible speeches you make us do in class,” he said carefully.  I was about to respond, but held back; he hadn’t finished his thought. “But, well, we all got to talking about it at lunch.  We know we need it.”  He paused and grinned.  “I was so scared when I first got up that my hands were shaking.  But after a few times, I’m okay with it.  And guess what – my pastor asked me to share something in front of our church, and I could do it!”  He cocked his head to one side and nodded.  “I know that if I’m gonna share Jesus, I’d better learn how to speak.”

It reminded me of Clara, who stood in the hall before class with tears in her eyes. She was due to give a devotional on John chapter 3 that period.  She indeed was shaking.  “But I’m going to do this,” she said with clenched teeth.  “I am going to do this.”

And, God bless her, she did.

They all did.  And they still do.

They never give up. They want to conquer.  They want to discover.

That’s why I’m a teacher.

Merry Christmas to you all.  I love you dearly.

 

 

 

 

 

Brad Zockoll

Dr. Brad Zockoll
Copyright 2016

 

 

Brad Kent Zockoll

Kid Christmas 5: The Green Bean Banquet Disaster

1a1We were taking up quiz papers near the end of class and preparing to leave when one of my students raised his hand:  “What was one of the oddest Christmas memories you had as a child?”

I stopped for a moment.  This was a real test for me, you might imagine.  I can hardly remember a Christmas when something funny or strange didn’t happen – it was part and parcel of the Zockoll childhood.

A couple of examples came to mind:

In second grade at the Dallastown Elementary School, I started off the Yuletide season in serious trouble when Mom discovered that I had a little masquerade going on among my classmates.  I was desperately desiring to top the various stories the richer kids were sharing about their gaudy Christmas presents and lavish holiday trips, so I made up a fascinating story that won the day.

I told the class that my family was raising a chimpanzee in our basement.

I’m serious.

What possessed me to dream up this stupid story is lost in my memory.

Why I ever thought I could carry this off without Mom finding out, I’ll never know.  I was  so brash in my tale that I allowed a kid named Todd to come to our rickety old home and stand at the top of the basement stairs to view the marred and aged concrete walls below.

“See?” I lied.  “That’s where the monkey went wild and started scratching the walls.  It’s been hard to train him.”

“Can I go down and see him?” asked Todd, trying to peer into the downstairs darkness.

“Are you crazy?” I cried in astonishment, pulling him back.  “He doesn’t even know you.  He’d tear you up.” Todd nodded slowly and backed up across the linoleum.

The ruse lasted for a good solid week before Mom got wind from another parent, asking about the condition of the chimp.  Oh, yeah, she really wailed on me for that one.  Yes, the Fli-Back paddle again.

Then there was the time during an especially harsh Pennsylvania winter somewhere near my third grade years.  We were all sitting around in the twilight hours waiting to watch either the cartoon Flintstones or a good rousing adventure in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and we heard a stupendous CRASH above us on the second floor, in Brian’s room.  The explosion had a definite glass-shattering sound to it, and panic ensued.  Brian had been put to bed in his crib only twenty minutes before.  As a group we made a mad dash upstairs to his room.  Mom threw on the light.

Brian was standing up in his crib, neither harmed nor especially frightened.  Glass was all over the floor, and in the midst of the mess was the biggest icicle I had ever seen.  It was a freak accident; a huge clump of ice broke off and bounced its way right through the second story bedroom window.  Couldn’t happen again to anyone in a hundred years, but then, consider the family you’re reading about.

But what came to my mind is what I am going to write to you about right now.

It’s about banquets.

Yes, Christmas banquets.  I remember two of them distinctly.  And both of them have stuck in my memory indelibly.

One was a Cub Scout Christmas pot-luck we were attending in a local school cafeteria.  It was to be a nice informal affair – a year-end recounting of the many manly deeds done by the boys in blue and gold.

The Scoutmaster (actually called a Cubmaster, if I recall correctly) had made a quick phone call to the parents of the groups.  “Just bring something to eat, make anything.  We’ll all share and have a great time.”  There was no effort to name the type of dishes to bring.

And it happened.

As all of the pans and plates were laid out, the room grew quiet at the sight.  Every dish – every dish – was either green beans or macaroni.

And not the good macaroni that people take and bake with real cheese and maybe a nice spicy ring to it.  No, this was the low-end cheese-powder rock-hard elbow noodle tripe that stuck in your throat and had you running for the garden hose to wash it down.  There was tons of the stuff.

And the green beans were the off-brand that had that tough leathery taste.  And you could fish out a few sticks out of them, too.

So help me, every Pyrex dish in the cafeteria was second-hand green beans or off-yellow macaroni.  No dessert.  No meats.  No pastas.  No nuthin’.

We all pushed our food around the plate, mumbled some Christmas cheer and went home to raid our home refrigerator.  The Cubmaster was beet red the whole evening.  What a night.

The other memory is not as disastrous socially but nevertheless remains with me as a sad recollection.

I was in middle school at the time.  Snow was falling outside.  We were all piled into the basement of our little Delmarva region country church after the Christmas program and were bellying up to a really good feed:  fried chicken, cakes, baked potatoes, fried chicken, pork chops, pies, fried chicken.

The tables were full and the chatter was loud and happy.  The food was excellent as usual – the Eastern Shore cooks were in top form.

I was sitting near the gaggle of mothers who had pulled the whole potluck meal together, and as I plowed through my third plate of mashed potatoes I overheard the ladies’ conversation.

“Well, we pulled this one off,” said one woman.  “I’m so glad it’s over.”

“Me, too,” said another.  “So now, what’s next – New Year’s dinner?  My goodness…”

“Mmm hmm,” said another.  “And we’ve got to get ready for Valentine’s Day banquet…”

I sat there, shamelessly overhearing their remarks, and I gathered that this was not a joyous event at all.  It was an assignment that had to be met in order to keep a tradition going.  The same with New Year’s. The same with Valentine’s…

It hit me right then and there.  I had heard them talking like this all through the summer at every dinner our church had.  They were never in the moment.  They were always glad the moment was coming to an end, and they were gritting their teeth in preparation for the next event.

And sitting at that basement table, I looked up at the crepe paper Christmas decorations and became depressed.  Is this how grown-ups view Christmas?  A ritual to endure?

I recall that same feeling years later when I visited a local Christian school here in Tennessee. As I was being escorted around, my host bumped into the youth pastor of the church.

“Say, Tim,” said my host, “Are you ready to emcee and direct that Christmas cantata?”

“Oh, Law, I’ll be glad when this is all over,” said the youth pastor, shaking his head and waving his hand. “I just want Christmas to be over.”

I looked at his wearied face and wondered.  Is it really worth it?  You want to bypass the greatest holiday of the year?  You want to rush and race past all this?

It caused me to take inventory, I told my class.  I wanted to know if I were doing the same thing – running through the rituals of the season and not enjoying Jesus Himself. I reminded myself of the verse in Psalm 77:12: I will meditate on all Your work And muse on Your deeds.”  That word meditate means to repetitively utter the reality of the Father – to take time and remind ourselves of God’s glory and His work in our lives.  The word muse is just as powerful and personal.  It means to talk to yourself and discuss with yourself the truths of the great God we enjoy.  Taking time to sit at the kitchen table in the early or late hours of the day.  Alone.

Spending some quiet time to enjoy the Lord.

Yes, we enjoy Him. Both His gift of the Messiah and His continual agape love to us.

And I committed myself from that time on to drop any Christmas activity that would push away my opportunity to “be still and know” that He is God.

I invite you to do the same.

Call it the Lesson of the Banquets.

Kid Christmas 4: The Whole House was Wrecked

1a1It had been quite an eventful week at the Zockoll household.  The snowy weather – one of heaviest to hit the Pittsburgh areas in years – didn’t do anything to cool down the action indoors.  The elementary-age terrors known as Bruce, Gwen, Brent, Brad, and Brian were in rare form all December week.  Newborn Brock was too young to incite any violence.  He would have to bide his time.

This was the week before Christmas.  This was to be the time of reflective peace.

Not on Mockingbird Drive.

Mom was already at a blood-pressure high, baking fudge and making orange marmalade, a local favorite that teachers and Sunday School workers loved.  This was good, but it was also bad.  You see, Mom had entered into the Zone, which we all had seen before.  Her Christmas cheeriness took on a manic demeanor.  These goodies have got to be made, wrapped and delivered and WE ARE GOING TO SPREAD CHRISTMAS CHEER.  

That set the scene at the beginning of the week.  Now let me tell you what happened after that.

Gwen had started the whole thing.  Cute little Gwen, decked out in a snowsuit and a holly-green woolen cap, had cornered a feral cat in the snowy back yard.  Little Kitty did not take to being grappled with mittens, and had made a fair-sized scratch on Gwen’s wrist.  She responded by tossing the feline a good distance into a pile of icy mush while using every bathroom-level word she could muster in her once-innocent mind.  This was strictly taboo in Mom’s List of Rules;  one never used any conversation centering around the toilet, and “poopy” was seen as the vilest of obscenities.  Gwen had used the “P” word.

Mom:  Gwen, come here.

Gwen: (trying to act innocent) Yes, Mommy?

Mom:  Open your mouth.  Now bite down on this.

Gwen:  But that’s a bar of soap, Mommy.

Mom:  If you use dirty words, you have a dirty mouth and it needs to be washed out.  Now bite.

Gwen (bites)  Blurble.

That sort of set the par for the course, and I, a five-year old who was fascinated with the newly purchased black-and-white TV in our front room, was next in line.  I had seen enough of the Man from Uncle to know that I wanted to be a spy, or at least communicate with other spies.  The good ones, I mean.  I knew they were all around the yard – didn’t Napolean Solo say so?  And I desperately wanted to be one of them.  Surely they would take on a new recruit, especially a kindergarten-age prodigy from Hillcrest Elementary School!

My problem, I surmised, was that I needed to contact the Good Guys without getting noticed by the Bad Guys.  I started laying miniscule notes around the house (I used Mom’s good pen on bits of toilet paper, which were then wadded up and stuck under chair legs ) but soon realized that the agents of Thrush could surely read.  Besides, I wasn’t too hot on spelling anyway.

Then I hit upon the idea of making directional markers that would show them the way to my room; that way I could talk to them in private.  But toys wouldn’t work, nor could tape.  They needed some sort of a trail…

… so I spit.

Yes.

Hacking and slobbering, I made a trail of spittle from the garage back door across Mom’s clean kitchen and down the hallway all the way to the boys’ bedroom.  They would find my saliva to be an easy pathway…

I still remember Mom’s wail of rage.

I still remember the spanking with the Fli-Back paddle.

But Brent set the high-water mark the next afternoon in the back yard.  While trudging around the snow, he had kicked up an old golf ball and decided to play a little winter golf.  Not having access to a golf club, he used a large plastic Wiffleball bat that we used to call the Fred Flintstone Bat.  Things went well for the first few strokes, but Brent was having problems getting that lift that he needed for a good drive.

Well, he reasoned, why not just forget this hitting-off-a-tee idea and just pick the golf ball up and hit it like they did in in the baseball games?

And that was just what he did.  He threw the golf ball up in the air and gave it a sharp and satisfying thwack.

Towards the house.

And he heard a definitely unsatisfying CRASH when the golf ball shattered the kitchen window.

And out came the Fli-Back paddle, brother. His rear was as red as mine.

The next day we all lost our dessert privileges when at dinnertime we fell on the floor laughing at Baby Brock launching spit-gobs of Gerber Baby Pea goo from his high chair every time Mom gave him a mouthful.

Then that evening after bedtime when we all packed it in,  Bruce got caught trying a new stunt he had read about in a middle school library book – hypnotizing a person into submission.  He had learned that this was a Magical Art and he very much wanted the Power that the storybook magicians possessed.  Brent was a second grader and and easy cerebral target, there on the lower bunk.  Bruce was leaning over from his top bunk and performing what looked like nether-world incantations to Brent on the lower bunk when Mom walked in.  She had always been spooked about the mystical, and this was the last thing she wanted coming into our house.  Bruce was hauled out of bed and was the next recipient of the You Guessed It.

It was a bad week.  We were each in our respective beds, sniffling.  Things seemed as far away from Christmas as could be.

We heard Mom calling.  This late?

“Kids, get out here,” Mom called at the end of the hallway. “All of you, come into the living room.”

We sat up in the dark.  Did someone else get in trouble.  This late at night?

“All of you,” Mom called a second time.  “Gwen, get your robe on.”

The five of us padded down the hall, dreading the next Yuletide Execution.

We stopped in the living room and looked. Mom pointed. The  front door was open, and we were staring through the screen door at a porch full of people.  They were all grinning widely.

We turned and looked at Mom.  She was smiling delightedly. Before she said a word, a tall man with a scarf and black gloves made a gentle gesture to the group and they all began:

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

The carolers came from a local assembly and felt the call to come to our home along the way and serenade us with heartfelt melodies that had a timeless joy.

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven…

They sang of excited angels.  Of stunned shepherds.  Of determined and worshipful wise men.  Of a world that looked for the Messiah and was now going to get the greatest Christmas present the world would ever know.

We drank it in.  I don’t know how long they sang, but it wasn’t long enough.  But yet it was enough.  It settled our household.  I remember our holiday being gentle from that point on, with the harried atmosphere settling into a contented quietness that we all relished. Isn’t that what Jesus does?  He settles our restless spirit.  And that’s what he did to our home.

Oh, it was a great Christmas.  We all got the proper focus.

And later on, Gwen told me she secretly blew soap bubbles from the foam stuck in her teeth.

 

———————-

 

 

Brad Zockoll 2016
Dr. Brad Kent Zockoll
Knoxville Tennessee

 

Kid Christmas 3: The Worst Christmas Cantata Ever

1a1

There were six of us.  Bruce, Gwen, Brent, Brad, Brian, and Brock.  The winter season had started, and everyone should be happy, right?  We were all elementary age, but even then we knew something was wrong.

Dad was away more and more.  Through the summer months his presence became so unusual that we almost took it for granted.  We figured it must be some sort of work obligation, and would actually cheer whenever he came home – a once-weekly treat!  The joy lasted for only a few minutes, though.  Gwen was soon ushering us outside and down the driveway as far as possible.  Mom and Dad were in a high-volume screaming match which would last for a torturous amount of time.  We had no air conditioning, so the screeches resonated through the screen windows to the edges of our tiny rural neighborhood.  The neighbors were kind; they pretended that nothing was going on.  Some even took us inside until Dad would finally stomp across the back porch, huff into his old dented Volvo and speed away.  I don’t recall him ever staying overnight.

The snow came.  Dad didn’t.  It was over.

Christmas holiday was coming together.  Mom was falling apart.

We kids were soon having private sessions together upstairs, locked in the bedroom.  Twelve-year old Bruce took charge.  “We’re going to make a good Christmas, and everyone is going to be a part.  Even Brock.”  Brock was pre-school age, but he happily agreed, not really aware of the conversation.  He was immersed in a Charlie Brown book he had found under Brian’s bed.  He couldn’t read the words, but Snoopy’s antics were enough for him.

“I’ll make cookies,” said Gwen.  “Sugar cookies, with the sprinkles on them.”

“I will decorate our room,” piped in Brian. “I know how to make a paper chain.”

“I’m going to make Mom a pair of moccasins,” announced Bruce.  “I bought the kit in a Scouting magazine.  Brent, what are you going to do?”

Brent had been thinking.  I sat near him, watching.  He was meditative, and I was fascinated.  I was his clone; I would do whatever he did, and his mind was whirring.  When it whirred, it would be something good.  I remember the time he decided he would collect the play money that Mallo Cup tucked in the bottom of their candy wrappers.  He saved enough to send them in and win a big fat box of fresh, new Mallo Cups, all his own.  Sheer genius.

He stopped and looked up.

“I’m going to be part of the Christmas choir,” he said.

Bruce’s eyebrows raised, and for a number of good reasons.

First, our church – Sand Beach Independent Bible Church – was probably no more than fifty in attendance. There was no choir.  The volunteer music director was forming an ad-hoc committee of warblers in order to present a Cantata.  I had no idea what a cantata was, and what made that different from a regular choir presentation, but it sounded interesting.  Still, this newfound choir was small, and Brent would stand out.

Second, the average age of the Choir sign-ups was approximately sixty-nine.  Brent was ten years old.  This would make for an interesting sight.

Third, Brent couldn’t sing.  There was that.

This deterred him in no way.  He was determined.  Do it for Mom.  I was captivated.

“I’m going to sing in the choir, too,” I announced proudly.  This was met with silence.  I had no musical talent whatsoever.  However, the enthusiasm couldn’t be contained.  The Christmas Cantata was on Christmas Eve – what a present for Mom!

Soon, everyone went to work.  Bruce hid himself away in a corner of the basement, sewing with a large needle and thick leather stringing.  When Mom was away, Gwen would pull together a batch of cookie dough and start making cookies.  Soon she realized she needed help in designing the cookies, and asked for our help.  This was a serious mistake.

Gwen:  I said trees and Santas and snowmen.  Brian, I didn’t say fireplugs!

Brian:  That’s not a fireplug, it’s a snowman!

Brent:  Look, it’s just like Play-Doh!  I made an airplane!

I followed Brent’s lead and veered off-course, realizing that with food coloring you could make anything you wanted.

Gwen:  WHAT is THAT? Two caves?  Why is the stream green?

Me: No, it’s a giant nose!  That’s snot coming out of one of the nostrils!  (Brent falls off the chair laughing.  Brock and Brian scream in delight.  Gwen banishes me from the kitchen.  The Christmas Nose never made it to the oven.)

Baking was out.  Music was in.

I decided to concentrate on the choir try-outs.  Maybe I wouldn’t make it…?

“Don’t worry, “ Brent assured me.  “It was easy.”

I walked in.  Donna the choir director – a thirty-something with blond hair, thick glasses and a determined smile – nodded to me.  She needed every singer she could get.  “Let’s try the key of C.”  I had no idea what she meant.  She plunked a note on the piano and I tried to imitate it.  I know it was bad.

I kid you not, that was all I did.  She smiled and said, “You and your brother meet us early before the Sunday evening service for practice.  Come an hour early.”

So for the next few weeks, Brent and I would trudge the four miles from our house to the church in order to arrive early for practice.

And, boy, the practices were a hoot.  I had no idea what the notes meant.  I think Brent figured out that he could imitate Mr. Simmons next to him, if Mr. Simmons would stop falling asleep. Everybody else kept talking to each other between each song and Donna looked harried. Time was running out, and everyone in town knew our little church was having a cantata (I love that word).  Her musical directing future was on the line, so she had to make good.

“Let’s try the tenors, and be sure to mark your songbooks on your entry.  Use your pencils, “ she said importantly.  I had no idea if I was a tenor, but everyone else was scribbling something in their songbooks, so I scribbled as well.  I drew an airplane crashing into the title words of What Child is This?  I showed it to Brent and he snorted.  He drew an octopus monster eating the first stanza.  We were having a great time.

The weeks went by and we didn’t improve. People kept talking and giggling. Brent and I kept scribbling.

Snow came.  It was the third week of December.

“Look, the last number, really give it energy, lots of power, to end on a strong note.  Please everyone stop talking, please,” said Donna, looking even more harried if it were possible. Her glasses seemed off-kilter.  “This is our last practice.  Where are our basses?”

Mr. Gerhardt shook his head.  “Bass.  Singular.  You only have one, remember?  Balfour ain’t here.”

“Well, where is he?” asked Donna.

“He had to take his medicine,” said Mr. Gerhardt.  “Then I think he forgot about the practice.” Everyone shrugged their shoulders and went back to talking.

Mr. Simmons snored. He seemed relaxed.  Donna didn’t.

Brent and I dutifully kept at marking our songbooks.  I penciled a picture of a Christmas tree in flames along the margin of Silent Night.  Brent responded with an excellent drawing of a wild-eyed Santa climbing the notes in the middle of the songbook between two narrations.   Remembering what Donna said about a last burst of energy, I finished up with marking a reminder for the final number:  Belt it Out, Baby!  Brent snickered appreciatively.

“Leave your songbooks in your seat and just pick them up as you file in during the opening instrumental,” said Donna, wiping sweat from her eyes.

The night arrived.  It was Christmas Eve, and it was snowing hard outside – a picturesque scene that belied the panic in Donna’s eyes.  Brent and I were innocent of the possible disaster to come.  After all, Mom was in the audience.  The auditorium was filled, with extra metal chairs brought in.

Pastor McClure gave a friendly down-home Yuletide welcome.  At the opening number, the choir of ten walked in, smiling to the packed crowd of eighty-two.  As I reached my choir seat, I reached down to pick up my songbook.

This was not my songbook. 

This was not my songbook.  My scribbled, cartoon-filled songbook was gone.

I looked about nervously and met Brent’s eyes.  I could tell he was in the same dilemma.  Somebody had moved our songbooks around.  Our Octopus, Crashing Airplanes and Wild-Eyed Santa songbooks.  We viewed the rest of the choir and gulped.  Someone was in for a surprise.

Donna smiled and raised her hand.  We smashed into the opening like a herd of wild boars who had just been electrically cattle-prodded.

We started with Joy to the World with a dissonance that sounded like somebody had knocked over a metal garbage can filled with lug nuts.  Even I knew it was bad.  The congregation winced but remembered that This is the Season, so they endured.

Oh, it was bad.  The pastor looked like he was watching a train wreck.

We mauled Away in a Manger.  We butchered Angels We Have Heard on High.  You don’t even want to know what we did to the Carol of the Bells.  I’ve heard better melody in radio static.

Mr. Simmons was finally awake and singing.  He was better off snoring.  It would have been more on key.

Then something else happened within the choir.

Brent and I noticed two widow ladies – Mrs. Pike and Mrs. Hattie – bobbing their heads in puzzlement as the Cantata continued.  They seemed not only surprised but confused.  Brent whispered:  “They have our songbooks.”  I was horrified.  They saw the octopus.

They saw the crashing plane.

And the crazy Santa.

And soon they would see Belt it Out, Baby.  I was wondering how soon we could get change churches, or at least move to Taiwan to escape the embarrassment.

But…

… I noticed that they were smiling and glancing at each other.  They realized the mistake as well.  At a pause in the music they glanced back at us.  We winced, and then returned their gaze … and we all smiled.  Hey, they were kids once, too.  And this was Christmas, a time of warmth, of happiness, and a bit of cutting up.

The final song was approaching.  Joy to the World, once again, with feeling.  And that’s what we gave it, knowing that despite the fact that Dad had left for good, that we were dirt-poor and scrabbling for homemade Christmas gifts, and that this choir was a hodge-podge of tone-deaf country folk – well, there was a fact that took us above all this:

We had a Peace that lifted us above all of this.

That Peace reminded us that all of this was only temporary, and that one day in a distant Kingdom, all would be made right.  And, really, that’s what we were singing about.  The Kingdom beyond, and the anniversary of the Birth that made it all possible.

And Joy to the World came out okay.

The cantata was complete. Pastor closed in prayer.

The snow came down.  Mom cried and hugged us.  Everybody else hugged each other, exchanged little bags of hard candy and Christmas cards, and hugged each other again. They shook the pastor’s hand, folding in a dollar or two, and trudged happily out in the snow, humming.  Everything was okay.  We really had a great, grand time.

But in January, Pastor announced that during the holidays, Donna had moved to Missouri.

I wonder…?

Kid Christmas 2: My Grandparents and Professional Wrestling

Grunge vintage television with antena isolated on whiteIt was right after Christmas and we were heading to see relatives in Western Pennsylvania, which included Baba and Grandpap.  You would have loved them:  he a burly grizzled man, she a thin, gentle but tough-as-Pittsburgh steel woman.  My great-grandparents were a hoot.  They were the hardy, honorable sort you would read about in the 1960s textbooks: Russian immigrants who came through Ellis Island, looking for honest work and a chunk of land for settlement.  Mike and Anne Paholich did just that;  they settled right outside of Pittsburgh in the tiny town of Tarentum, Pennsylvania and after years of Grandpap working in the coal mines, saved up enough to buy sixty-five acres for farming.  Ah, we loved piling in the VW bus and tooling across the state to see Grandpap and Baba (Russian for “elder woman”, a term of gentle respect in our family).

I think it was either 1968 or 1969 when Zockoll elementary-age clan ran into our great-grandparents’ home and after hugs, head-kissing and “ah, my boychik” in a heavy Eastern European dialect, we prepared to go run around the corn crib, barn, water pump and other fascinating delights of a farm.

But today was different.

We stopped in the living room. There was a television set.

This was big news.  Up until now, Baba and Grandpap had owned a Philco radio for all of their broadcast needs.  You remember those sets from the decades earlier?  It was about 500 pounds and took about an hour to warm up.  It had a dark walnut stain and had a mysterious white-on-black numerical face that added to the mystique of the old Russian farmhouse.

This was different.  It was like America had stepped into Baba and Grandpap’s house.  The little TV looked almost out of place, that smallish plastic set, which I believe had a screen of about 16 inches.

Mom said they bought it for themselves after the January 7th Russian Christmas.

But my story isn’t so much about why they bought the set.  I want to tell you what they watched.

I can distinctly remember two programs they watched religiously, every time the programs came on.  One was a faith healer’s show, Kathryn Kuhlman’s I Believe in Miracles.  Baba would sit in rapt attention as the show explained the many transcendent events throughout the world, unexplained except for Divine intervention.

The other one, believe it or not, was WIIC’s Studio Wrestling, a weekly pro wrestling program broadcast from the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh.  Whenever we heard Sousa’s El Capitan March strains coming from the living room, we raced in to watch the action.  Baba and Grandpap would cease all farm activities and plant themselves in their respective seats.  There would be Grandpap, firmly in his easy chair, while Baba would sit on a backless wooden chair with a bowl of green beans.  She would peel nervously.  We took our places and made sure they had a clear view of the set.

What a night!  Our hero was a local champion named Bruno Sammartino, whom I remember had this great bounce-off-the-ropes maneuver that always flattened a bad guy.  This met with great approval from Grandpap, who always relayed an appreciative grunt each time it happened.

One of the heroes that got everyone’s attention was a guy who dressed up as Batman, and wisely took off his cape before wrestling.  Each week the opponent would vow to defeat Batman and unmask him.  We sat horrified at the thought.  Batman unmasked?  Baba was just as upset.  We could hear her as the announcer would scream: “Oh no!  It looks like the Shiek has some sort of object and is trying to stab Batman!”

Baba: (stringing beans faster): Oh, yoy.

Grandpap: Hush.

Batman would always win, much to the joy of the elementary crowd in the room.  Even Grandpap stopped squeezing the chair’s arm so hard.

There was also a fun side event: An elderly woman named Ringside Rosie would be heard screaming at each match.  She had a front row seat for every program, and she was a beast, hollering at the action.

My favorite, though, was a tag team wrestler by the name of Stan “the Man” Stasiak, who was also known as the Crusher.  This guy got the biggest rise out of Baba and Grandpap.  He was mean, he grimaced fiercely, and worse of all, he had the Heart Punch.  

He would iron-grip an opponent and then show the crowd his gripping claw of a hand.  He would then squeeze the other guy’s chest as if he were trying to stop the man’s heart.  The guy would scream in dramatic fashion before passing out.  It is hilariously overblown as I remember it now, but it would throw Baba and Grandpap into a frenzy.

Grandpap:  Why the referee not seeing these things!

Baba:  Oh yoy.  Oh yoy.

We kids were yelling as well.  The bell would ring.  Pandemonium in the Civic Arena as well as the Grandpap household.  Then he would go back to the fields, she to the kitchen.

Strange Christmas memory, I know …but don’t we all have quirky recollections of holiday fun?  I chuckle every time I recall those evenings:  it was weird but we had a blast.  It made my great-grandparents that much more special.  It showed a fun dimension we hadn’t seen before.

My great grandparents both passed away while I was in college.  Grandpap died of a stroke.  Baba died only a month or so later after falling and breaking her leg.  She just gave up, though.  The doctors said that she died of a broken heart.  I believe it.  She lost her great love here on earth.

Baba and Grandpap were both Believers, and my many memories of them are warm and in anticipation of a future reunion when I also get to Heaven.  I am going to rejoice and celebrate the Savior with my beloved relatives.

But I have this sneaking suspicion Baba and Grandpap will be walking Heaven’s perimeter, looking for a wrestling match.

Oh, yoy.

 

.

 

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