Because I Fought Back in ‘Nam, or, Zombie Bookworms

She’s 18 years old and too nonchalant for gossip, but she has news and she is dying to verify it. I can see it in the furtive, sidelong jerks of her head, and the cast of her eyes as she whispers with her friends. I think, is she really talking about what I think she’s talking about? Or am I imagining things?

None of my business, right? Class doesn’t start for ten minutes; this is her time, not mine.

And then I get one of those text messages. You know the ones: “Hey, I heard…. Is it true?”

And, yes, actually, it is true. But as I sit there staring at the screen, thinking “How does she know?” I see every one of my students in my mind’s eye, just as nonchalant, but just as bursting with morbid curiosity as the next one.

I’ve taught close to 800 different students who still attend this school. That, Folks, is a substantial grapevine.

So at 7:01 on a Tuesday morning, I stand up in front of first period English, and I start a conversation. It’s the same conversation I begin six more times today–and it gets easier every time. It morphs into a stand-up routine, only… more macabre.

It goes something like this:

Soooo…. Um. I have cancer. Like. Not–cancer, like I’m going to die tomorrow cancer, but cancer like, I’m probably going to be missing some school, and when I come back, part of my arm will be missing, and you’ll either all want to know what happened, and I’ll have to tell you, or, I won’t tell you and there will be lots of rumors, so let’s just name the beast, okay?

Actually, you know what? The rumors will probably be more interesting, so let’s make up our own. What other explanations might you come up with for a gaping hole in Mrs. Lybbert’s arm?

Come on–they are high school kids; after the initial surprise, they think it’s funny. They will add  to the list on the board all week. Here are my favorite alternative explanations for my absence/pending arm deformity:

  • run-in with a unicorn
  • street-fight with a panda
  • zombie bookworm
  • encounter with a rabid student
  • she’s all about that life
  • she fought back in ‘Nam
  • she graded too many essays and lost part of her soul
  • light saber injury, she has; beat Darth Vader, she must

So there you have it: the rest of the story. Or the start of a new one.

Feel free to add  your own items to this list 🙂

The Breasts on my Classroom Window

There are breasts on my classroom window. A voluptuous, detailed set, but just one. I successfully removed the others, along with a multitude of other more… phallic sketches.

This artwork shows up regularly because the bus stop is located outside my windows and what else is a kid to do with more than an hour, plus a drawing utensil, on his hands? I mean, besides hop on a buddy’s shoulders and repeatedly ram his behind against the window, which has also occurred.

Heaven help the poor girl who is trying to teach in my room during that shift; it’s her first year, and she not only has to deal with the numskulls inside the classroom, but the ones outside, as well. I can’t blame her for closing the blinds and ignoring the artwork being crafted beyond them.

It’s just a little disconcerting, every morning, to unveil the windows.

In case you hadn’t heard, we’re running 11 periods a day at Moses Lake High School–starting at seven in the morning and ending at five at night. The theory is that at any given time, only 80% of our students are on campus. In reality, at any given time, only 80% of our students are in the classroom.  The other 20%, well… who knows what they are up to? I can only report what’s going on in my remote corner.

You’d think that someone would be supervising common gathering areas like the  bus stop, and I’m sure that happens, but no amount of adult supervision can cover 100% of the behavior of 2400 teens, 100% of the time.

I’d be willing to bet that the culprits are probably fairly rational people, given a different situation–say, a Sharpie plus their dream car. They’d be outraged if you suggested they draw obscenities all over the bodywork or slam their backpack or fanny into the paint job. They wouldn’t do it.

My question is, how do you awaken a sense of ownership in students for school? How do you awaken them to the incredible opportunity a free education really is? How do you convince teens to value something they have not chosen for themselves?

There will always be gaps in supervision as long as students are not self-regulating–as long as they do not see community assets like schools, and opportunities like schooling, as privilege not punishment.

The district is running a bond right now, and as much as we desperately need the space, dare I suggest that we also need an answer to this question, before we erect yet another edifice for our children to kick against in their resentment of the status quo?

Of Balers, Teens, and Broken Things

There is something supremely satisfying about disemboweling a recalcitrant household appliance (you thought I was going to say “teen”, didn’t you? for shame), locating the source of the problem, and setting everything right again. Every time, I get an urge to pound my chest and roar. I should have been a repairman.

photo (12)

My broken motor coupling

Speaking of recalcitrant teens, on the other hand, I took my third to the podiatrist. He was given a new cast and instructions to get no more daring than sponge baths. On the way out to the van afterwards, he says, “If using a garbage bag and duct tape–which is a really good idea, by the way–is like playing Russian roulette, then if I use six bags, that’s like taking all the bullets out of the gun first, right?”  Which is, of course, precisely what he is doing.

Also, sewing zippers into the bottom half of his pant leg, with my sewing machine. He’s only broken one needle so far. When I offered to do it for him, he stayed in his seat. “Relax, Ma, it’s just like a baler.”

And so there he sits: my seventeen-year-old, baling his pants. I’m going to bed.

There is a Crack in Everything

About that molten rock.

I was listening to this speech by Tyler Jarvis, and yes, it starts out all “mathy” (his word, not mine) and technical, but then it set me back on my heels, hard, and made me look at my whole life.

Because here’s the thing: I don’t know how many times I’ve used the story of Jesus feeding a multitude with a couple of fish and some loaves of bread as metaphor for our own lives–how we have to give everything we have to Him, and trust that He will make up the difference. I’ve used it in talks, in Sunday School lessons, and in one-on-one quasi-counselling sessions. I’ve thought that I believed it, and lived it.

Jarvis doesn’t mention fish or bread or miracles even, but he does talk about the complexity of scientific and mathematical problems, and by extension, life, and how we have to come to grips with imperfection and failure and be willing to make our best approximations and act on them in faith, and fail repeatedly in an iterative process of progression that can feel agonizingly slow–or else risk the paralysis of fear. Because so often, we have to act on solutions that we know are incomplete, inadequate and wrong, simply to learn how to refine the next attempt.

I’m not very good on acting on solutions I know are incomplete. I want to map out the solution first, down to the smallest detail, before I begin. There is something to be said about making your very best approximation before moving forward, of course–of not handing Christ one head of a fish, or half a loaf, when you really have quite a bit more under the napkin.

But I realized that what I’ve actually been doing is more akin to looking in my basket, looking up at Christ, and saying, yes, of course I want to be of service to you and all these people; yes, I believe you can make my efforts enough; but seriously, what I’ve got here is pathetic. You and I both know I could do so much better. How about I zip home and make enough bread to feed all these people, and bring it back here before anyone gets cranky? With sufficient faith, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, so therefore I must be lacking in faith (or willpower) if they do get cranky–so please, help me be faster, better, stronger, because I really don’t want to let anyone down.

That’s what I’ve been asking for. And then I go through life exhausted and bewildered because I know God hears and answers prayers, and I’m trying my hardest, but there simply isn’t enough time in the day or enough flour in my pantry to accomplish the miracle. I  am still trying to feed the multitude myself, instead of handing over my inadequate lunch and stepping back into the obscurity of the crowd and letting Him take over. Because in the stress of the unprepared moment, when I have only five loaves and two small fish, not having anticipated the demands of the day, I recognize that I could  have done better.

What I don’t consciously consider is that five loaves or ten, nothing I have is going to be enough. Nothing. In terms of the molten rock, I haven’t looked around me, taken stock of my situation, and crafted an imperfect solution out of what resources I have, and then asked God to illuminate my efforts. I have essentially been asking God to somehow transform me so that I don’t need light.

Did you know, I sat down and drew up yet another plan, after twenty thousand other failed plans, and crammed in every little thing that I absolutely MUST do, and when I added up the required hours, most of the days of the week the total was somewhere around 20. And then, instead of saying, hmmm… that won’t work… I said, Okay, God, you are going to have to make me able to function on four hours of sleep a day. Except Wednesdays… I can only fit in two and a half, that day. You are a God of miracles; if you can make rocks glow and multiply loaves and fish, you can make me strong enough to do this. And I was serious. I’m obsessive like that.

But I’m also losing my mind.

Jarvis closes with the chorus from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”, which I’m not familiar with, but which spoke to me so well that I had it memorized upon hearing it once. It ran through my mind for hours afterward:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Jarvis continued: “Our bells are cracked. But let us ring those bells that still can ring. Stop worrying about your failure to achieve perfection—perfection is not possible in this life. Instead, embrace the light and healing power of Christ that come in through our cracks and imperfections.”
I have one more day before school starts up again. One more day to climb the mountain and hunt down some suitable stones before I embark across the great deep that will be this next semester.

X-Ray Vision and Night in the ER

Heard a truck pull up at about 8pm on New Years Eve. My first thought was, “There’s Jaeger; what’s happened?” but he’s never home that early, and the diesel of the truck was definitely not his little Honda. But then the front door opened, and no strange voices ventured a “Hello?” so I went to investigate. My 17 year-old was standing at the bottom of the stairs, covered in more manure than usual, and shuddering uncontrollably.

The leading lip on a loader bucket had fallen about a yard and a half, directly onto his toes. He had broken the metatarsals in his right foot. Here’s the bizarre thing. I actually said this–offered as my diagnosis. Of course, I also immediately followed that with, “Actually, I made that up. I think metatarsals are in your hand.”

But on some level, I must have known it applied also to feet. And after spending New Year’s Eve in  the ER, I realized an odd thing: I’ve had the same instantaneous understanding of my children’s broken bones every time it’s happened. When Jaidon shattered his shin, and broke his arm; when Quinton and Winslow broke theirs: I knew what bones were broken, and even terminology like “greenstick” and “spiral” fracture. The terms just came to mind. Today, I couldn’t tell you what the names of the bones they broke are. No clue. But for some reason, my subconscious can pull these facts up during times of stress, with perfect clarity.

That’s the other thing–they don’t really seem like times of stress. Along with the perfect clarity is a sense of pervasive calm.

I had that same experience when my husband fell 12 years ago, and began his decade-long convalescence that would transform me from a stay-at-home mother of six without a college degree, into sole breadwinner and a doctoral candidate. When he opened the door,  I was kneeling on the floor, changing the baby’s diaper. I knew, with absolute calmness and certainty, that not only what he had broken, but that my life had changed completely. When the on-call doctor misread the x-rays and sent us home, I was correct about his error.

In these moments, there is such total absence of concern or fear, that I have wondered if my convictions are wrong. But always, on some level, I absolutely knew that the bone was broken, and in what manner. I’m learning to trust that instinct about broken bones. Now… if  only I had that kind of insight about other ills–the ills of hearts and minds. And if only they were so easy to treat–with an x-ray, and a plaster cast!

Molten Rock

I’ve been mentally flagellating myself the past two years because I so rarely can drag myself out of bed in time to do the things I need to do. I get up, I shower, I drive to work, and I pull in to the parking lot fifteen minutes before the bell rings. I work, I parent, I study, I try to get in bed before 10. The next day, I do it all again.

And every Sunday, I refocus and I vow that this is the week. This week, I will get up in time to fill-in-the-blank with whatever guilt trip I’m currently booked for. You’d think I’d just do these things at night, but I’ve tried it. When trying to solve the not-enough-time dilemma, I always go back to the need for more hours in the morning, before anyone else is up. I cannot concentrate if anyone else is conscious. End of story.

The last week and a half, I haven’t gotten out of bed before the sun is up. Most days I toss and turn until my back aches and finally drag myself upright sometime after 8 or even 9. I read a book.  I eat stuff. I make food for my kids sometimes. I read some more. I go to bed as early as I like. The next morning, same story.

My realization for winter break, 2014:  Being well-rested doesn’t actually make it any easier for me to get out of bed in the morning. Clearly, more sleep isn’t helping.

Months ago, in mulling over this problem, I kept thinking of the story of a man who needed a way to light his barges for a long voyage God told him to take. Windows were impracticable for being tossed about in the deep, and so was fire. He was stumped. God having directed the journey, and the design of the barges, he asked God for solutions, but God told him to come up with his own solution.

So he goes up into the mountains and he forges 16 small stones, clear as glass, out of molten rock. He lays them out and says, touch them with your finger, God. Make them shine forth.

God does, and the story becomes marvelous, but for the purposes of this discussion, my point is this: The man puts one rock in each end of the eight boats, and neither he nor his family have to cross the great deep in utter darkness. Even though God directed the journey, man had to forge his own solution–but it was utterly worthless without the intervention of a Divine finger.

The question that keeps niggling at me, as I survey yet another tempestuous semester is, what are my stones? What are the  small and simple solutions that I need to molten out of the mountain God has given me to climb? What “impossibilities” am I overlooking in my search for a reasonably-lit journey?

Because while I do not believe He wants me to cross the great deep in darkness, I do know He has asked me to cross it–and He utterly refuses to tell me how to light the way.

I’ve been hanging out on the shore, and peering down into the blackness of the hull, venturing in, and retreating, long enough, don’t you think?

Starting New

I just spent more than two hours trying to set up an anonymous blog.

Do you have any idea how difficult that is in 2014?

Not the least reason being that everysingleblogname is already taken. All of them. All references to obscure Churchill or Dostoevsky quotes, all biblical allusions, even allnamesaretaken. There are no blog names left, unless you want to tack on a couple of nonsensical digits and end up with something like everysingleblogname38 or allnamesaretaken67. 

I staked my claim to this name years ago, so Mental Maytag it is.

Why a new blog?

Why not just pick up where I left off?

I have no idea. So here I am.

Of Scissors and Swords, Seniors and Insects

Strange things occur in Moses Lake from time to time–but more particularly as the school year winds down. 

It started on Sunday with a dear 89-year-old friend of the family who fought off a samurai-sword-wielding robber with a pair of scissors.The strangeness then proceeded through early morning pool parties in the high school commons, insect infestations, and six fire drills in one day.

If you haven’t seen a news story about the scissor-wielding Mrs. Koba yet, you can read it here. It is possibly the funniest thing I have ever read… well… besides maybe the discipline referral that popped up in my inbox the other day. That was for one of my students who brought a weapon to school. I would tell you the fascinating details, but in doing so, I would probably violate some kind of privacy law. Suffice it to say that when I got the email, I Googled the day’s date to make sure it wasn’t some kind of national AdministratorsPlay-A-Prank-on-Staff-Members day. I’m probably within appropriate bounds to tell you that if you scoured your house for the most innocuous object you can find–that one object you would least likely use as a weapon–that’s what he brought to school and was suspended five days for. Sophomore boys can get really creative during passing time. This is one of those students who currently has 18% and 54 absences in my class, and  yet still occasionally shows up. Every time he comes through the door, I have an urge to beg one question of him:  Why?? Why are you still here?  I love the kid to death, honestly. But really: Why?

Then, it was bring-a-pet-to-school-day. Not an official bring-a-pet-to-school-day, mind you. Just one of those strange student impulses that strike the masses all at the same time. I saw a kitten, a puppy, and a bird. One of the other teachers in our department reported a rat. 

This morning, before sunup, a truckload of sand  was delivered to the school’s entryway–along with a kiddie pool (full of water), a volleyball net, beach chairs, and a BBQ grill. The seniors had a beach party before the first bell ever rang. You  have to admit: that’s a pretty great senior prank: no property damaged, nobody hurt… no dairy cows traumatized by exposure to public schooling.  The thing about dairy cows is that they are difficult to successfully sneak past security cameras, incognito. (Yes, an enterprising senior tried that one year.) 

Thousands of crickets, on the other hand: not so difficult to smuggle. Apparently you can sneak a significant number of live insects into the school and release them simultaneously in every hallway without arousing suspicion on the security feed. I predict there will be some close scrutiny of today’s footage. Mostly because someone pulled the fire alarm six times. Even the students were groaning and begging to ignore it by the fourth go round.

Seniors. You gotta love ’em. Or at least put up with them for two more days. Sophomores, on the other hand, I get to love for 10 and a half more days. 

Not that anyone is counting…

A League of Our Own

It’s possible that I’ve become fully initiated into the league of Sophomores. I say this for three reasons: I’ve begun to use homophones incorrectly, I no longer have any personal boundaries, and I automatically begin all of my writing tasks by mentally trying to compose a thesis statement, followed by three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. (It’s the HSPE; there’s no escape.)

I’m not totally won over by homophone blindness, but I did use there and their interchangeably for just a fraction of  a second the other day. I still cringe at the variants “thair” and “theyer”, but give me another couple years and I’ll be good with those, too.

I’m not quite as comfortable with my shattered personal boundaries, but I’m beginning to realize that my comfort level really doesn’t affect theirs. They tackle me in group hugs in the hall. They ask to borrow my ChapStick and my fork. They offer me bites of their cookies. Generally, I decline and I always draw the line at ChapStick. But they still ask. Speaking of asking, I’ve been getting a lot of borderline personal questions from students lately that have nothing to do with English. Some samplings, just from today:

“Mrs. Lybbert, what do you think is the scariest way to die?”

“Yo. Mz. Lybbert. What’s the meanest thing you ever done?”

“Where’d you go to college?”

“Why did you decide to become a teacher?”

“How old are all your kids?”

“Mrs. Lybbert. You have to answer me seriously: Do you think that girls should, you know, act like girls?”

“What do you do at parties?”

“Mrs. Lybbert!! Mrs. Lybbert!! Ohmygoodness–so what is your favorite animal?”

Lest you think my interrogators might be satisfied with simple or vague responses, let me just tell you that the questions are always followed by a long list of qualifiers–and sometimes, by demands for photographic evidence, as in the case of information about my children. As for qualifiers, the mode of death had to be 1) unexpected, 2) unnatural, and 3) exceedingly unlikely. The mean thing could not have occurred accidentally or when I was a small child. The favorite-animal girl refused to take “small children” as an answer and exacted a promise from me to come with an answer on Monday.

Would you believe I ran the animal dilemma past Google? (Would you believe there’s actually a wiki how-to-figure-out-your-favorite-animal, and that it is fully illustrated by pictures of deeply thoughtful people making lists? And no, it wasn’t helpful.)

Long story short: I don’t have a favorite animal. I can sum up my most visceral feelings about animals this way: White meat tastes better than dark.

I have a feeling that isn’t going to satisfy her.

To top it all off, I have the feeling that I’m doing exactly what we tell our students NOT to do when faced with a difficult homework assignment: I’m attempting to replace deep thought  with an internet search. I’m procrastinating. I’m hoping the person doing the assigning will just forget by Monday.

It’s classic Sophomore homework strategy–right up there with looking in the fridge.

Said over a bowl of cereal.

I’ve become one of them. 


I’ve become convinced that our society has secretly been infiltrated by undercover superhumans. I’m not really sure what they are planning to do once they are all in position, but there is definitely a plot of some kind afoot.

Just this past week I met two of them–one masquerading as a cashier at the Moses Lake Safeway, and the other as a salesgirl at JCPenney’s in Kennewick. The salesgirl sold me a suit for a boy I described with hand motions, and it fit.

The Safeway girl wasn’t obvious at first: There I am, piling my groceries on the conveyor belt, trying to remember what I came to the store for in the first place, when the cashier gives me a big smile. “Oh hey!” she sings out. “How are your sisters?”

“Uh. Fine?”

“Well, was it worth the trip?”

And that’s when I really look at her. Because nine weeks ago, I actually did  have a conversation with a cashier in this store about an upcoming all-sisters trip I was planning. And sure enough, It’s the same girl. I haven’t seen her in nine weeks, and I’m certain I never met her before that, and yet she remembers my trip?

“Yeah,” I tell her. “It was so worth it. It was really good.”

“Did all five of you make it? How was it meeting your half-sister for the first time?”


Who does that? Who remembers conversations with strangers in the grocery store? I can’t even remember what shirt I have on. (I tried that, actually, today in third period: One of my students was waxing eloquent on the fundamental problems of the universe, and suddenly I couldn’t remember what I was wearing. I have no clear memory of why the specifics of my wardrobe were pressingly important but I didn’t want to break eye-contact with the student in order to glance down at my own chest. That could be all sorts of awkward. I was reduced to nonchalantly itching my nose with one shoulder in order to catch a glimpse of my sleeve.) This woman probably not only never forgets what’s she’s wearing, she remembers the composition of a complete stranger’s family. I sort of wanted to buy her flowers.