No doubt that one of the primary reasons I retired was burn out.  I had worked in secondary classrooms the length of my adult life and struggled the last couple years largely due to growing political pressure.  You see, I bought into the idea that hard work paid off and came to realize that I was dead wrong. My hard work didn’t matter. None of my colleagues hard work mattered. My student performance outcomes, though well above the national average didn’t matter.  Nothing moved policy makers except that they could hire two new teachers for the price of me, and many of my fellow staffers.

When the mortgage market imploded in 2008, Southwestern Idaho flat-lined economically.  While teachers, such as myself, fought draconian budget cuts the legislature didn’t listen. They didn’t care. The brutal impact on classroom numbers and lack of materials made no difference, their ears were closed. In fact, the Great Recession instead provided an opportunity to attack our union and kill protections such as negotiations, due process, and arbitration rights. I found that regardless of my expertise and my kids remarkable growth I was handed more students in class (220 every other day) and less time to teach (down 25% a week).

When I realized I could swing retirement I took it.

I worry about what is behind me in public classrooms.  There are enormously bright kids out there begging to be challenged.  These young people are smart, but need skills and information to develop their optimum potential.  However, as long as law makers settle for cheap, keeping salaries spartan, and classrooms packed, I cannot see America preparing for the future. The results will reflect the dismal investment.

In my state the Superintendent of Education denied that teachers were leaving education due to the perceived oppression from the legislature.  And he can tell himself and the entire House and Senate that tale.  It’s just not true. Teachers want to succeed, aspire to excellence, wish to see achievement among their students.  That is why the miserly funding and lack of support by policy makers has had such a negative impact.  No one wants to go into a job already set up to fail.

Teaching as a profession shouldn’t be done at such personal sacrifice.

English 101



I worked with quite a number of English teachers during my long thirty-three year teaching career.  They, as a group of educators, contribute a great deal to the heart of a school.  Over the years it has become my opinion that the purpose of language arts is to cultivate the dreams of dreamers, the hearts of romantics, and inspire the hero in all of us.

Back during my days in high school I recall reading Romeo and Juliet as a freshman.  It surprised me that teen angst played a central role in a Shakespearean play.  I suffered deeply from those same dramatics and felt validated that I didn’t suffer alone, Shakespeare understood.  By my junior year I developed a serious crush on transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau–that dude sought the identical truths troubling my path at the same time.  In college, Flannery O’Conner’s A Good Man is Hard to Find haunted my thoughts for many months after reading.

In light of the power of the written word, I’ve never understood an English teacher’s penchant for dissecting the writing of their students.  Correct their grammar, okay, but the voice on the paper is so personal that trimming and cobbling feels more like slashing and burning creativity.  (Math teachers really hate it when English teachers correct their grammar.  In one inservice an offending math presenter snapped back, “now for your algebra equation).  I get the part about smoothing out sentences, polishing images and descriptions, but how much is too much intimidation and infringement on the writers soul.

This blog sounds somewhat defensive, and I am aware of my sensitivity.  My book is in it’s final edits and reviewers are hopefully at work as I write, plowing their way through my manuscript.  I have refrained from asking anyone from a Language Arts background to review my work, out of fear of a big red bad grade.  Writing River of January has been such a journey, such a sacrifice of my time and heart, I don’t think I could bear to have banal technicalities flaying the story.  I’ll let my publisher/editor suffer through those arcane changes.

The truth of the matter is that I did not set out in life to be a writer.  I was a history teacher.  In my area of expertise my students excelled in expository writing . . . you remember, the old blue book essays.  The mechanics weren’t as important as voice, evidence, and argumentation.  Where my writing lacks is in the finesse of perfect structure–and that is, I am painfully aware, my weakness.

So English teachers of America–give us heart, inspire us, and let us find our voices in our writing. Besides, since the start of this project I’ve written and rewritten so much that I can see sentence structure much more clearly.  It takes hours and hours of writing to become a better writer. Put away your red pen and let the kids write amok.  As they improve, then go back and point out the rules of sentence structure.  For young learners the corrections will make so much more sense.

Gail Chumbley is author of River of January

Sad Tuesday

We had to euthanize our cat yesterday afternoon.  She was old, would have been nineteen years in March.  And despite the fact that we knew the day would arrive, no one told us it would be February 17, 2014.  I had planned to vacuum. 

It’s strange how losing such a little creature inspires such powerful pain.  She’d been around so long, losing her seemed like it would never happen.  I wasn’t prepared.

Odd how accustomed we became to her.  Though small in stature, her presence loomed large around the place. The little thing had a combination meow-plus-purr sound that I found very predictable and comforting.  Her chitter-chatter was as much a part of this cabin as the refrigerator vibrating, or the drip from the bathtub faucet.  The void of her absence today shouts in its silence.

We most likely kept her going far too long.  That was our issue.  There had been earlier brushes with momentary paralysis, glandular issues, and diabetes. Yet the old thing still used her box properly, ate and drank like a truck driver, and talked and talked, rubbing herself on every door-sill and corner in our/her house. 

That little girl surreptitiously weaseled her way so far into my heart, that my sorrow today has thrown me for a loop.  An ice-cold straight razor has cut me from my heart to my stomach, flowing loss and regret.

Writing does help. I now seize the written word as my own form of exorcism and cleansing–banishing my demons of doubt and sorrow. Yet I can still picture her, lying on a towel, looking at us while the vet injected a syringe into her leg.  Her little head lolled over, and my grief erupted.  

Driving back up to mountains we kept telling each other it was the right thing to do.


This is no Fluke


I spent a couple of days with my folks in Washington State, where I grew up.  It’s always good to go, and even more imperative as they age.  However, the part I seem to forget when I visit, is that time portal called their front door.  When I step through, the world suddenly changes, and I have traveled back in time.  The atmosphere inside, at the latest, is around 1970.  That’s the truth–you can ask any of my childhood friends.  Nixon unfortunately is still in the White House, and they still speak of John F. Kennedy with reverence.

Two of my brothers came over and we settled into the family room to answer questions on Jeopardy.  My dad has his evening viewing schedule locked up.  After Final Jeopardy, he flips over to MeTV for an old rerun of MASH.  It isn’t a very humorous episode.  Hawkeye and company are falling apart, dreaming of home, away from freezing Korea.  So I attempt some lighter conversation.  But no one is listening to me, they are glued to Colonel Potter while he dreams of his childhood horse.

The spell eventually breaks and we talk a bit.  My older brother describes another rerun of the Jack Benny Show which was so funny he had to turn it off.  It was too soon after his stomach surgery and it hurt to laugh. We’re talking about Jack Benny, not How I Met Your Mother.

The next verbal  tussle involved the first episode of All In The Family that dealt with homosexuality.  My younger  brother argues that the gay guy was played by Charlton Heston, and I know he wasn’t.  So we go back and forth arguing about that.  He wants to bet five bucks.  But, I’ve got him.  I have my iPhone and internet service.  I find a clip of that particular show and he grows quiet.

I can’t really fault my family for their desire to remain in a past time.  Dad loves his Nelson Eddy movies, and figuring out the vocalists in big band pieces.  It seems that talking played a bigger role in family life and socializing in 1970. Nobody could end the verbal give and take with substantiating, electronically generated facts.

I get it.  I can see easily why I became a History instructor.  I can understand why River of January was a temptation too irresistible to let go. I came by my passion honestly.  And here, in my mountain house? I’d say it’s about 2005.  I know I’m still pissed about the invasion of Iraq, House reruns occasionally flicker from the small screen in the living room, and in a guilty pleasure my Sirius Radio station is set to “Classic Vinyl.”

What year is it at your house?

Another View

ImageI’m back.  I’ve spent the last couple of days visiting my folks and checking out some mom and pop bookstores.  It’s my hope to find some speaking opportunities to promote my forthcoming book, River of January, and perhaps sell a few.

Again, I have posted Lincoln’s picture as I did in my last post, because today is our 16th President’s 206th birthday.  I like Lincoln.  A lot.  I am what one would call a “Lincoln-ista.”  As I write, my standup cardboard Lincoln is presiding over the dining room table.  It is after all his birthday!

A life lesson Mr. Lincoln seemed to apply frequently was understanding other points of view.  He and his wife were both born in the border state of Kentucky.  Slavery was legal in Kentucky until the Thirteenth Amendment abolished the practice.  Lincoln understood the mindset of slave owners, he grew up among them.  He knew the agricultural imperative of forced labor and the violent defense by planters who would lose their customary way of life.  However, Lincoln disapproved of slavery.  To him the issue was not only a moral one, but an economic wrong as well.  He believed all men should enjoy the fruits of their own labor.  Still Lincoln didn’t point fingers and shrilly condemn his Southern brethren–that would have been foolish and frankly unLincoln-like.

Lincoln tended to avoid resentments and harsh judgements.  Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rival’s recounts an incident where Lincoln was to represent a railroad company in a Chicago trial.  When he arrived to court, Lincoln found he had been fired and a “real lawyer,” Edwin M. Stanton was arguing for the company.  Stanton made a snide comment about Lincoln’s crude and hayseed appearance within his hearing.  Still, Lincoln remained in court as an observer, believing he could learn something from a Harvard trained attorney.  Later, Lincoln made Stanton his Secretary of War.  No offense taken, so none festered.  As a member of the Cabinet, Stanton became deeply devoted to this uniquely principled president.

Now how does an examination of two qualities in President Lincoln have anything to do with my book?  Well, more than you might think.  Though Chum never had the stomach for unjustifiable character attacks, he didn’t waste his energy holding resentments.  From my time in his company he never, ever gossiped or spoke badly of anyone that I can remember. His only remark close to snide, was the time he said Howard Hughes kept the Kleenex business booming.  (Anyone who’s seen the DiCaprio movie understands).  Helen however, seemed to be able to take criticism well.  It was a must, a part of the business.  She was a performer and required to stay sharp.  From my study of her letters, Helen often attended other productions to see what she was up against as an artist.  If she read poor reviews the girl took it in stride and learned.  She improved her skills.

I, too would love to be free of resentments and to see the other person’s viewpoint without spite.  Society is a collection of individuals with limitless opinions on limitless subjects. Believing that we are all absolutely right, and refuse to hear otherwise, does little in the way of progress.  Chum didn’t let the obstacles of his time and place discourage him.  Instead he was polite, courteous, and left the naysayers behind.  Helen saw opportunity in adversity.  She tenaciously used criticism and competition as guideposts to her success.

Not one among us have the market cornered on truth.  But, as Lincoln knew, self righteous blowhards who refuse to bend, eventually break.





Leaving town and my computer behind.  I’ll get back on this site next week. 

The book is slowly taking shape.  Early reviews surprisingly acceptable.

If you know of times and places I can present the story and book, respond on this site.

Remember Lincoln on the 12th.

Happy February.