A Teacher’s Greatest Thrill

Some people work for a large, satisfying paycheck. Others work for the public and private recognition they receive from appreciative customers or clients. And some others work for the opportunities for rapid advancement to even higher levels or the deep, inner sense of accomplishment that their jobs give them.

I must admit that I’ve never been driven by a paycheck, titles and positions of prominence, the process of climbing the ladder of success, or prestigious perks that any job promised. (I guess my only ambition in that respect was to have an office with a window, which I never did achieve until I began freelancing and could look out the upstairs window of my house!) Maybe I just lacked initiative or ambition. The various points along the continuum of my working life have never offered a whole lot of recognition, either public or private. As an admitted introvert, perhaps that’s the way I preferred it.

Instead, the greatest thrills I’ve had in my career have been seeing my former students excel in their callings. Some  former students of both sexes have excelled in business, law, government, education, and pastoral ministry. Many of the girls have grown up to become godly mothers. But the thrill has been most gratifying when those callings found former students using what they had learned and working for a cause greater than themselves rather than pursuing merely materialistic endeavors.

My wife and I had to privilege of hosting one such former student for lunch this past weekend. We first got to know Lisa when she was only a second-grade student. She was enrolled in the second-grade class next door to my wife’s room. Lisa’s parents were good friends of my parents and attended the same church. I got to know Lisa when she was a student in the junior and senior English classes I taught. She was a model student: quiet, soft-spoken, but articulate when called upon; attentive; inquisitive; eager to both learn and excel at her studies; and always striving to do her best.

Perhaps the most illustrative symbol I had of Lisa’s dedication as a student was a research paper she did for me during her junior year. Whereas many students gave the assignment little forethought, waited until the last minute to choose a research topic, and then muddled their way through the process and produced mediocre papers, Lisa had a workable topic early in the selection process. She worked faithfully and consistently through the process of preparing the paper. And the result of her work was exemplary at every step of the production process. For years thereafter, I used Lisa’s paper as a model for other students. This past weekend, I mentioned that paper in our too-brief time of conversation, and Lisa admitted that she still had it among her collection of memorabilia. She had done her best, produced exemplary work, and was rightfully proud of the end product.

But Lisa did more than write an exemplary research paper. She graduated as valedictorian, attended college, and excelled, earning her degree in nursing and pursuing a successful medical career. She later taught a biology lab class for our local homeschool cooperative on the side. Partially as a result of her enthusiasm and thoroughness in that classroom environment, one of our own daughters majored in nursing, earning her BSN and having her own career in medicine.

But Lisa had even higher expectations for herself. It was during that year of teaching the lab class that Lisa sensed a higher call, the call to medical missions work in Bangladesh. Leaving a successful, well-paying career in nursing, she ventured out in response to that call and has been pursuing it faithfully ever since.

From that mission field, Lisa sent her supporting churches and individuals regular written updates of her work, the needs there, and the successes she witnessed and was a part of. She hosted numerous government officials, both of the host country and of the United States, including former U.S. senator of Tennessee Bill Frist. And her newsletters always exemplified the best practices of writing: they inspired, informed, persuaded, and occasionally even entertained. They grabbed the readers’ attention early and held it right to the very end, and they persuaded her readers to pray for and support her work on the field. In all her years of service, she has never been below 100 percent support, an unusual feat, if you know anything about foreign missionary work.

Lisa is driven by ambition, but it’s not an ambition for personal advancement or aggrandizement; it’s an ambition to pursue even greater opportunities for service to others. She is now back in the United States seeking to pursue her PhD in nursing education, which will open doorways of service as an international nursing consultant, opportunities that would otherwise not be open to her. Her career has not been about herself; it has been about others.

As my wife and I listened to how God has led in Lisa’s life and ministry, we could not help but be proud of her and her accomplishments. We know that we played only a small part in her work–in fact, her achievements have been more in spite of our involvement than because of it–but we rejoice in seeing how the Lord has blessed her work. She and her ministry have been more than repayment for our work as teachers.

Perhaps John the Apostle stated our feelings best: “I have no greater joy that to hear that my children walk in truth” (3 John 4). Although we have no blood relationship, Lisa has been like one of our children. And she’s done us proud. More importantly, I think the Lord Himself would say of her, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”



A Brief Step Back in Time

My wife, a second-grade teacher, usually has her mind, even during her summer vacation, on school-related matters. Sometimes, that leads us on excursions to scout out sites of potential field trips for her classes. I usually go along for the ride, unless it somehow deals with history.

That’s what we were doing yesterday. For several years, she had heard about the Hagood Mill, a location that she thought might be a good field-trip venue for second graders–an example of a small mountain settlement, including restored log cabins, grist mill, a cotton gin, blacksmith shop, pottery shed, and even a moonshine still. It even sounded of interest to me. After all, my own ancestors came from such humble beginnings (minus the still, I hope) in the mountains of western North Carolina, and it’s always good to remember where you’ve come from.

“Since Saturday is your birthday,” I said to her, “I’ll even take you out for lunch at some quaint local eatery near the rustic village.”

My wife readily agreed, and off we went, camera in hand. Since it was hot and projected only to get hotter, we took water bottles. “Don’t forget a couple of power bars,” I called over my shoulder as I headed for the garage. She got the water; she hadn’t heard my comment about food, so we had none.

The village was out in the middle of nowhere, much farther out than I ever dreamed it might be. En route, we passed a couple of seedy-looking eateries, one calling itself a cafe, the other named a diner. “Keep them in mind,” I muttered, hoping that we would find something better farther down the road.

Arriving at the site, we entered the office and inquired about a tour. It was supposed to be a self-guided tour, the lady at the desk told us. We looked around the gift shop briefly. It didn’t take more than a brief glance to cover everything inside. Then I asked the lady what she could tell us about the site before we embarked on our self-guided tour. My eyes glazed over quickly as she mumbled about something or other. But then she mentioned something that caught my ear: petroglyphs.

“Would you like to see the petroglyph exhibit?” she asked. “I’ll show them to you if you’re interested.” She moved toward the door before we could reply. We followed dutifully.

Petroglyphs are drawings left carved on stones by ancient peoples. (In our area, that could have been Cherokees, but it might also have been some earlier peoples.) The meanings of the drawings are unknown. Were they mere artistic renderings? Were they messages of some sort? “Good place for hunting.” “Good place for medicinal plants.” “Dangerous place for poisonous snakes.” (That was my thought as I later wandered in and out of and around the various buildings! They and the nearby stream provided excellent hiding places on a hot day for the venomous, slithering creatures.) I watched my steps as much as I did the historic features of the place.

The exhibit in the building that had been erected over the large, rounded stone on which some ancient inhabitants of or wayfarers through the area had drawn the petroglyphs was as-yet unfinished. What was there seemed interesting at a glance, but we had no time to do more than glance because our hostess ushered us through a door with a sign reading “Program in Progress” and into a dark room. As my eyes adjusted to the alternating yellow, red, and blue lights that were scattered around the edges of the exposed rock, I noticed that suspended over the edges of the rock on three sides of the room was a concrete walkway lined by a metal rail. A recorded narration was playing over the audio system. With a wave of her hand and a hasty “Goodbye,” our hostess disappeared. We spent several minutes looking for the petroglyphs, taking photos when we found them, and finished listening to the narration. (The photo shows one set of them, human figures enclosed in some sort of domicile with a little cupola on top. Many others were too small and faint for the camera to pick up.)

We then returned to the outer room, read the displays, and watched the audio-visual presentation. Leaving the petroglyph exhibit, we proceeded through the grist mill, cabins, and other buildings. We had seen many similar structures elsewhere before, most notably in the Smokies, but it was still interesting. The grounds around them were meticulously manicured, and volunteers were spreading mulch, picking up twigs and leaves that had blown down in a recent storm, and otherwise working to keep the grounds beautiful. (Shown here are a few representative glimpses of the buildings we saw.)

My wife injected a moment of levity into the otherwise somber and serene scene. I feared momentarily, however, that I had lost her. She seemed to have fallen for someone more suave and debonaire than I, a young man from the hills. But after a brief fling with him, she returned to my arms.

By the time we had finished, it was past my normal lunch time, and my stomach was letting me know it. We retraced our tracks, hunting for a place to eat. We hadn’t seen any but the two questionable-looking eateries on the way in. Both of them were by that time crowded to the gills with numerous construction crews. We chose to persevere and find something closer to home. We ended up dining at two other places we had long wanted to visit but hadn’t for lack of opportunity. Hunger has a way of creating the opportunity. We grabbed an Asian wrap and a Great American cheeseburger at the Whistle Stop Cafe followed by ice cream dessert from Pink Mama’s, both quaint and unusual businesses in Travelers Rest, South Carolina.

Now we know.


Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

Books Re-Read

It finally happened, just as I had long fear it someday would.

Several times, I have blogged about having too much to read (for example, https://dlpedit.wordpress.com/2018/05/11/so-much-to-read/). I’ve often feared that with my voluminous reading habit, I would someday read (or worse, buy) a book that I had already read or (worse yet) already had on my shelves.

On a recent trip, my wife and I stopped at an outlet mall beside the interstate to stretch our legs. Amid the plethora of shops was a bookstore. We strolled through its aisles, not to buy but just to browse and stretch.

I breezed through the history and Bible study sections untempted by any title, although those are the sections in which I’d normally be most tempted to buy something. After all, I had only recently donated 13 boxes of my books to charity in an attempt to downsize my library for retirement. I had no intention of buying any more books!

But when I was passing through the section of reference books, a title grabbed my attention. My hands lifted the book from the shelf, and my eyes skimmed its pages. The title sounded vaguely familiar. And I seemed to recall having seen the cover before. But neither the author’s name nor the table of contents rang any bells of remembrance.

The longer I studied the book’s pages, the more I heard it crying out to me, “Buy me! I’ll help you with your writing!” That plea–and the 60-percent-off sticker in the upper right corner of the cover–won me over. I walked out of the store with yet another book.

Shortly after returning from our journey, I began reading my new acquisition. It was pretty good. I began to underline key points and to jot down in my notebook ideas for writing projects that the book brought to mind.

But in the back of my mind I kept hearing another little voice crying, You’ve read this before! Finally, I decided to silence that annoying voice once and for all. I climbed the steps to my office and scanned the dusty shelves. The newly purchased book was nowhere among my other literary trove. Then I pulled the journal in which I write the titles of every book I read as soon as I’ve finished it.

And there was the title of the book I’d just bought. I had checked the book out of the local library a little more than a year earlier. Then why hadn’t I remembered it?

This just shows that it’s sometimes good to read some books more than once. Obviously, I hadn’t received that book’s full benefit the first time I read it. Or maybe I hadn’t been paying sufficient attention. Or maybe it just wasn’t the right time; now, however, time and circumstances were just right for the book’s message to “click” with me.

Francis Bacon famously said, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” I might add, some books apparently are to be read more than once.

I also know of another Book from which I would benefit from a second reading–or, rather, numerous readings. Even daily readings. God’s Word. Human authors can teach me some things; God’s Word can teach me so much more. It teaches me everything I need to know for this life. More importantly, it promises eternal benefits, what I need to know for the life to come after this earthly life is ended.

Why not join me in reading the Bible–again and again?

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson


The Evolving Writer, Part VI–Write for the Intended Audience

If a writer wants his or her message to be understood, one must keep the readers in mind and write to them on their level. Failure to do so results in misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and possibly the total loss of the readers as they, in either frustration or boredom, quit reading.

Many writers make one of two mistakes regarding their audience. They write either above their audience members or down to them. Neither extreme is acceptable.

The writer must know who his or her target audience is. Before you begin writing, ask yourself who will be reading your work. (Whom do you want to reach with your message?) Write using the vocabulary and the sentence structure appropriate to the target readers’ educational level, matching your vocabulary to their vocabulary and prior knowledge of the subject. Don’t assume that the readers know as much as you know about your subject. On the other hand, don’t underestimate them or their knowledge.

Okay, it’s confession time: One of my pet peeves is the writer who tries to impress the readers with his knowledge and vocabulary. Please don’t try to wow or con your readers in this way. Be yourself, and use the terminology and style that is most appropriate to your audience. Remember that your goal is their understanding, not the elevation of your reputation as a scholar or literary genius.

Someone (I’ve seen this quotation attributed to several different people, including the ubiquitous “Anonymous”) once said, “Never try to impress your readers with the profundity of your thought by the obscurity of your language. Whatever has been thoroughly thought through can be stated simply.”

If you keep your intended readers in the forefront of your mind as you write, you’ll avoid this pitfall, and your writing will be brief, concise, precise, and understandable.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

The Evolving Writer, Part V–Be Precise

Precision in writing is as important to good writing as brevity. In fact, precision, and it’s cousin clarity, inevitably produce brevity. The evolving writer will strive to develop all three qualities. Failure to do so will result in confusion and misunderstanding.

In writing, precision means using the best word for your intended meaning. This usually will not be the first word that pops into your head. It will be the word that you discover on your second, third, or an even later revision of your original work.

Mark Twain famously said (and has been quoted widely ever since he uttered the words), “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

For example, we are often tempted to write something like this: “I feel that we should. . . .” What we really mean, however, has nothing to do with our feelings. Rather, we mean something that has occurred in our logic or reasoning. The more precise term would be “I think (or believe) that we should. . . .” We have way too much acting on feelings; what we need is more thinking.

Here are a few ways to get you started on your quest for more precise writing.

  • Use active voice. Rather than writing “The ball was hit by John,” write “John hit the ball.” That construction not only makes the sentence shorter by a third (brevity) but also gives the opportunity to be more precise, as illustrated in the next suggestion.
  • Use vivid verbs. Rather than writing “John hit the ball,” choose a more precise term for hit. The word hit could be interpreted in many ways, whereas more precise options, depending on your intended meaning, might be tapped, tipped, bunted, dribbled, whacked, clobbered, creamed, or a host of other terms, each of which creates a slightly different image in the reader’s mind.
  • Avoid euphemisms, jargon, and cliches. These are the lazy writer’s tools. Euphemisms are words that soften the real meaning, such as writing passed away instead of died.  Sometimes, a euphemism might be appropriate, but such “softeners” tend to open the door for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Jargon is tired, overused terminology that often is confined within a specific profession. Akin to jargon are worn-out idioms and cliches. Rather than using these, come up with new, more precise ways of saying things.

These are just three ways you can make your writing more precise and lively, thereby achieving both brevity and clarity. Begin to use verbal calipers in your writing, striving for precision, the best way of saying what you want your reader to know.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson


The Evolving Writer, Part I

If one is making progress in his or her writing, that writing is constantly changing in many ways. It will be changing in content and subject matter, in form or media, and in quality (and perhaps even in quantity).

I was reminded of this fact recently as I thought back to what has happened to my own writing since I submitted my first article in 1981, thirty-seven short years ago. (It seems like only yesterday that I felt the thrill of opening that acceptance letter that is now framed and hanging on my office wall, a spark of encouragement when I’m getting down about my writing.)

I had had minimal formal education in writing–the required college composition courses and the one journalism class offered by the college at the time. And a lot of papers that I had had to write for my other classes. That was a solid starting point, but it was what I later learned in the School of Hard Knocks that most changed my writing. All the “booklearning” in the world will never take the place of experience.

I began writing about economics, taking common economic principles and stating them simply, illustrating them with everyday examples from my experiences as a young social studies teacher. Later, I began writing about the art of writing, sharing with other struggling wannabe writers the lessons I was learning as my teaching career evolved. (By then, I was teaching writing within the English curriculum. After all, I had a minor in English and was a published writer, so the administration assumed I could teach writing, too.) Then, over time, I started writing about educational topics for fellow educators across the nation. Occasionally, I also wrote pieces for religious publications.

All the while, I continued to tackle those other topics about which I’d been writing. The shift that was occurring in my writing was more an adding to, a broadening of, than a series of complete changes in subject matter.

Simultaneously, I found myself changing in the media toward which I directed my writing. Whereas my initial focus had been on journal articles, over time that focus also broadened. Prompted by a temporary job change, I began writing ad copy, including radio ad scripts, as advertising director for a multimillion-dollar, family-run business. Later, as an editor of technical and scientific documents for a large government contractor, I had to help nonwriter scientists communicate their complicated material in understandable terms. Still later, I wrote textbooks and curriculum guides for junior high and high school students before writing my own books.

Through all of these changes, I was learning, and my writing was evolving. By comparing the wording of my original manuscript submissions with the final edited, published results, I saw how magazine and journal editors had improved my pieces. And I tried to do in later writing what they had done. By complying with editors’ requests that I shorten certain pieces (sometimes by as much as half or even two-thirds!), I learned how to make my writing more concise, direct, and precise. By following suggestions that I eliminate direct Scripture quotations and simply paraphrase the principles that those texts contained, I learned how to insert spiritual lessons into secular publications.

Not all change, however, is good. Sometimes we change for the worse. But our writing can still benefit and improve even from bad change if we recognize and learn from our mistakes. The biggest mistake is not in making the mistake but in not doing anything to correct it. If we try something new and it falls flat, we must either learn from it and do better next time or drop it and move on. Don’t keep repeating the same mistake.

If your writing is not changing, you’re not improving or growing as a writer. Only with change comes improvement. I’m still learning, and so should you. There are no know-it-alls in life. Learn something new. Try a different genre. Test a new market. Keep growing and improving.

This fact is true not only in writing but also in every other area of life, including intellectually and spiritually. If you aren’t growing, you’re dying; if you’re not moving forward, you’re sliding backward. Don’t wither and die as a writer. Change and grow!

I hope in future posts to share some of the lessons that have caused me grow. I’m still learning, but maybe some of what I’ve learned will help you in your writing, too.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson


So Much to Read!

At times, I get frustrated by the amount of reading material that pours in through both my postal mail and my e-mail, every item demanding my attention. There is so much that I can’t keep up with it. And I find myself piling up reams of material in a “To Be Read” file, either as a pile of paper or overflowing electronic files or a crowded computer desktop.

In just one recent week, my mailbox and computer in-box brought more reading material than I could devour in a month of Sundays. The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Southern Writers Magazine, Imprimis, Journal of Southern History. And more. Throw in a dozen or more once-, twice-, or thrice-a-week e-zines I subscribe to and numerous blog posts I follow, to say nothing of article manuscripts and book galleys to proof. And I haven’t touched on the ubiquitous posts on Facebook and LinkedIn. Or keeping up with all the news of the world, nation, state, and local community. Or the voluminous amount of reading I must do in my research for my articles and books and blog posts.

My day is prescheduled for me. If I allow it.

Every so often, I force myself to stop everything else to plow through those accumulated piles, reading a few, skimming others, and merely glancing at still others before deleting them or relegating them to the legendary File 13. I wonder why I bothered to save them in the first place.

I’m convinced that part of my inability to remember things as well as I once did is this innundation with information. (It can’t be purely the rest of aging!) Our minds are overloaded, just like an overloaded electrical circuit. And you know what results when that happens! Zzzzzzt! There’s a short circuit.

So what’s the solution? People have offered several. And I’ve probably tried them all, some more than once, before I again fall off the wagon and begin to see the “to-be-read” pile growing again.

  • Go on a vacation. Media free, computer free, mail free. But the pile is still there, just much bigger than before, when I get back. (No vacation lasts forever.)
  • Prioritize reading material. But that requires taking time to at least skim the material to determine the place it deserves on the priority list.
  • Hit DELETE. Unsubscribe. But then you feel uninformed. Besides, you might accidentally delete something really important. Or the magazine is offering such a great deal to extend your subscription that you just can’t pass it up.

I’ve found (not to say that I’ve perfected this point; otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing on this topic, would I?) that the key, as with most things in life, is moderation. I must resist the urge to sign up for every free e-zine, to follow every interesting blog, to subscribe to every magazine, no matter how interesting and helpful they promise to be. To stop all of them cold turkey would be intellectual suicide.

I must prioritize. In e-mail, only items that are directly business related must be answered. All e-zines will have to wait their turn. All appeals from social or political causes must wait even longer. And spam e-mails that are trying to get me to sign up for a book, training class, or “special report” that will revolutionize my writing and make me a millionaire, DELETE!

But there is one bit of reading that must get the No. 1 slot every day, regardless of what other things are pressing: my reading of God’s Word. Watchman Nee’s motto was “No Bible, no breakfast!” And legendary preacher Charles Spurgeon said, “He who rushes from his bed to his business, and waiteth not to worship, is as foolish as though he had not put on his clothes . . . and is as unwise as though he dashed into battle without arms or armor.”

With so many good things to read, how could I fail to read the best thing?

I also must limit the time I spend on social media and resist the urge to watch every hilarious cute cat video that gets posted. I must even limit how much time I spend in writing my own blog posts. Although I try to do my best writing on this to create a good impression and entice more readers, thereby expanding my writer’s platform and showing that I’m a professional, I also realize that it’s only one arrow in the arsenal. And a blog post’s lifespan is about a day (if that). Besides, it’s meant to be casual and conversational, not academic and literary perfection. So what if there are some dangling modifiers or typos? You get what you get, such as it is, in the amount of time I can afford to devote to it. That’s what I’ve done on this post anyway.

Now I have to shift gears and resume reading for the research I’m doing on my current writing project. But first I must check my e-mail and Facebook. Priorities, you know!

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

“New” Old Ways

“In their never-ending search for better ways to teach, educators are tempted to be enamored of anything new and to eschew what they perceive to be outdated or old-fashioned. Sometimes, however, some of the best ‘new’ teaching principles turn out to be long-forgotten or neglected old ways.” (from Teacher: Teaching and Being Taught, p. 267)

I’ve often wondered what today’s teachers do when the power goes out in their classrooms and they can’t use their computers and smart boards and projection screens. When the technology fails, does learning stop? Take time to consider the old ways of doing things, and be prepared for every occurrence. Keep the learning process going no matter what!


(Available from Amazon.com)


The Beauty of Dirt

“Don’t touch that-!” a mother says to her little toddler son, who is playing with a stick that he found on the ground.

“Now don’t play in the dirt,” a grandfather says to his little granddaughter as they step off the deck of their house and into the backyard.

In both instances, the message being sent is well-meaning, clear, and unmistakable: Dirt is bad.

Upon reflection, I now beg to differ. There are different kinds of dirt, and they can be either good or bad. Too often, however, we too quickly assume the negative.

God made man from the dust of the ground (that’s dirt!), and, as one old farmer put it, “God don’t make no junk!” With the creation of the earth, God stopped making dirt, so we’d better take care of what dirt we have.

Sure, there are some impurities and other dangerous things in dirt, but we can’t condemn all dirt as bad just because of that. In fact, where would we be without it? Even with the advances made in hydroponic agriculture, we still need dirt to grow most of our foods. We need dirt for construction of homes and roads. And think of all the things that are made using different kinds of dirt. For example, bricks and tiles. And think of the things that are extracted from dirt–things such as gold, silver, lead, and iron ore. And diamonds!

We tend to get all worked up over dirt. Dirty hands. Dirty fingernails. Dirty faces. Dirty diapers. It’s not dirt itself, however, that is bad. It’s where it is and when it gets there that present a problem.

It’s not so bad for a child to have dirty hands if he’s playing. That’s a child’s way of learning. He’s feeling the dirt, getting to know it, its texture and qualities and characteristics. He scrapes it into a pile He scatters it about. He throws it into the air and watches how it falls back to the earth again. He throws clods of it. He builds highways in it. He makes hills and mountains of it. It gets into his pores and under his fingernails. He eats it.

Stop! That’s far enough!

There are limits to what one can and should do with dirt, even in an otherwise good pursuit.

I played in the dirt when I was a child. I built those highways for my Tonka and Buddy-L toy trucks. I tossed dirt clods into the air and hit them with sticks or threw them, pretending that they were hand grenades, and watched them “explode” in a cloud of dust. I slid in dirt when we played baseball. I got it under my fingernails and in my pores. Sometimes I even got it in my mouth, such as when my brother and his friends convinced me to play football with them and it evolved into a game of “pick up and smear–Dennis.” But I can’t remember ever eating it–or even wanting to.

No one had to tell me, “Don’t eat dirt, Dennis.” I just knew not to. Just as no one ever taught me not to eat worms. If I had tried to eat either, I’m sure that someone would have stopped me.

To an overprotective parent or a fastidious person, perhaps dirt is ugly. But to an archaeologist dirt is wonderful. To a mineralogist, it’s great stuff. To a farmer, it’s beautiful.

Jesse Stuart wrote of “the beauty of dirt.” He was a man of the dirt of the rocky hills and mountains of Eastern Kentucky. He saw that dirt was the root of man’s sustenance, the place of man’s labors, the home and playground of God’s creatures. He, like other people of the soil, recognized the beauty of dirt. Just as a sculptor looks at a lump of clay and sees a bowl or a pitcher or a vase, Stuart looked at the soil and saw corn and beans and okra and maple syrup and sassafras tea. The soil produced weeds and thorns and thistles as well, but they were the price one paid for the use of the good things that the soil produces for man.

Stay clean, of course, but learn to see the beauty of dirt.


Reclusive poet Emily Dickinson wrote a short bit of verse titled “Nobody.” It proclaimed the virtue of being a “nobody,” someone who had no special significance or influence and received no public recognition. That’s how she wanted to be perceived because that’s what she thought she was.

I have often felt like that. I’m not famous for anything. I’m not widely known. Even when I go “back home” to the community where I grew up, no one knows me. When I left there to go to college in another state, no one, not even my closest friends or track teammates, kept up with me or what I was doing. Forty years later, when the hometown newspaper published an article about the release of my first book (along with my phone number and e-mail address, courtesy of the editor, who was a family friend), only two former classmates contacted me. Like Dickinson, I’m “nobody.” Are you nobody, too?

But then I’m reminded that God often uses nobodies, sometimes without their even knowing that they are being used.

Robert Fulghum wrote in All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, “You may never have proof of your importance, but you are more important than you think. There are always those who couldn’t do without you. The rub is that you don’t always know who.”

First, you are important to your spouse, even if he or she sometimes doesn’t seem to acknowledge your value. Then you are important to your children–or, if you don’t have children, your sibling’s children, or those of a friend or a neighbor. Even little kids whom you don’t know–or maybe haven’t even seen before. But they see you. They watch you.

To quote Fulghum again, “Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.”

But that also goes for the adults around us. They’re watching what we say and do. They notice how we deal with frustrations, disappointments, tragedies, and joys. They see how we treat others, not only our closest relations but also those who work for us or with us or for whom we work.

One day, in response to a statement by someone on Facebook, I replied, “It’s nice to hear from former students.” I wasn’t fishing (or is that phishing?) for posts from my former students but merely stating a fact. But I got several responses from people who had once survived one or more of the junior high history classes that I taught. Many of them responded. Soon, their posts turned from private messages to me to reminiscences among themselves about things that they recalled from my classes.

Many of the things that they mentioned I had long forgotten–but they had not. It was fun to be reminded of the incidents. (And a bit shocking as I read about how those junior high students now had children of their own who were older than the parents had been when they were in my classes!) It was especially humbling to know that a few of them had become teachers–even one a history teacher!–because of my influence.

I had never known, perhaps might never have known but for that Facebook exchange.

If you don’t think that you’ve had or are having an influence on someone else, think again. You might not be aware of the influence you’re having or have had in the past, but it’s there nonetheless. You might be a nobody in the world’s eyes, but even nobodies exert an influence on someone. Silent, unsung, unheralded. But important and influential to someone.

Teacher and author Jesse Stuart was right when he said, “I am firm in my belief that a teacher lives on and on through his students. Good teaching is forever and the teacher is immortal.”

I hate to disagree with you, Emily Dickinson, but no one is really a nobody–not even you.