June 2006

A Teacher Affects Eternity

Bobbi Spiker Conley

Bobbi tells about the educational life lessons she received from her father & his siblings (Brad, Lynn, Jean, Boots & Ann.J)

Realizing that much of the history of our ancestry has long been misplaced, misfiled and simply forgotten through the generations, my sister, Melanie Spiker-Fouse began searching for answers. She has spent years trying to locate the missing branches of the family tree. And in the process, she became more aware of the need to preserve what she has learned, not only about past generations but of the people that were born, that lived and that died in the years since her own birth.

Melanie envisioned a book of memories written by and about those family members. She hoped the stories would not only provide entertainment, but that they would teach us a little bit more about ourselves and about those we call kin.

She asked all of us to include our memories in the album. In contemplating how I could best contribute, I thought about how my own story would affect future generations. What would they learn from reading my words? And then it hit me. The ultimate goal of Melanie’s work has been to educate and to preserve. What better way to add to this theme than by preserving the best of my own education – those life lessons I learned from my father and his siblings?

I must presume that they were intentionally educating me but I doubt they realized how much they influenced me, or even how much their teachings would influence the future. By guiding me, they have influenced how I’ve taught life lessons to my own child and, in turn, what she will teach her children and so on. Henry Adams said, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

Perhaps when present and future generations read the following stories, the next lessons we learn is how positively we’ve all been influenced by those we never should have forgotten.

Uncle Brad

I never knew my grandfather, Jacob Spiker. He had passed away before I was born. But from the stories I was told, I imagined he must have been a lot like my Uncle Brad – strict, stern and stubborn on the exterior but with a gentle, generous and giant heart hiding just below the surface. That is, perhaps, the reason I looked to Uncle Brad to step into the grandfather role for me. And I believe he may have viewed me as the granddaughter he did not yet have. We shared a special bond unknown to but a few in our family.

I am told our connection began as the result of a child’s innocent comment. Understand that as a seven-year-old, I was quite the proper young lady. I was mannerly and respectful. I was honest and sincere. I was also sheltered from the real world and had little knowledge of “unladylike” actions. So it was a great surprise to everyone the day I said my first “bad word.”

I was in charge of a second grade bulletin board project. The other students in my class were not following my instructions. They were lazy and too slow in my opinion. Apparently, this caused me a lot of distress and I brought my frustration to the attention of my parents and to Uncle Brad who was visiting at our home. I violently shook the stack of papers in my hand to show everyone the large volume of work that still needed to be completed. Angry and disappointed, I threw the papers into the air and loudly exclaimed, “Oh, to hell with it.” As the discarded pages floated to the floor, the room was eerily silent but for a small gasp from my mother. After several uncomfortable seconds my father asked where I had heard such a phrase. I did not know but it felt appropriate. Uncle Brad was unable to contain the guffaw of laughter. And, I am told, it was the moment I dazzled him.

After that day, Uncle Brad and I became best friends. We talked at length about life and spirituality and the events of the world. He told me a little about WWII, always careful not to reveal too much that might be overly disturbing to me. I told him about my many adventures at home and at school, always careful not to reveal too much that might get me into trouble. We read books then shared our opinions about them. He read to me and I read to him. We told each other great stories and agreed that one day we should write them down and publish our own books for others to read and enjoy. It was our shared love of story telling and of reading that prompted a very nice surprise.

Out of the blue, I started receiving monthly editions of Readers Digest Magazine in the mail. My parents hadn’t subscribed to it. In fact, no one could tell me why I started receiving them – but they were definitely addressed to me! My very own mail. All mine. And each magazine had soooooo many stories in it. I could read and read and read. It wasn’t until a year later when the subscription was renewed that we learned Uncle Brad was the donor. Oddly, when I called to thank him for it, he denied knowledge of his gift. In his lifetime, he never did confess to this secret, and I believe it’s probable that only my parents and I ever knew that Uncle Brad had done this for me.

He surprised me many more times over the years. Pink carnations arrived after I had won a writing award in 8th Grade. A heart-shaped box of Russel Stovers candies was delivered on one particularly lonely Valentines Day in college. I received many cards of inspiration, most of them recognizing our “shared” birth date (April 28th and 29th.) But none were signed. None acknowledged the giver. He always denied sending any of them.

As I said before, Bradford Spiker was a stern and serious man. He didn’t tolerate laziness or idleness. He expected a lot from others and commanded respect. I would even say he was a grouchy and sometimes cantankerous man. And I admired him for it all. He taught me it’s more amusing to growl like a bear when it may be more appropriate to purr like a kitten. He taught me it’s more rewarding to work hard and play hard when it may be easier to vacation on the couch. Above all, he taught me it’s far more admirable to secretly give from your heart when it would be more self-important to take the credit for doing it. He may not have known how much I admired him and he may not have realized how much he taught me, but I am a better person for knowing him.

Uncle Lynn

When she was three years old, my daughter, Haley, thought he looked so much like her Grandpa Bob Spiker that it seemed appropriate in her mind to label him “the other Grandpa” (something she continued to call him even as a teenager.) I would agree that Uncle Lynn did resemble my father in many ways. No one could doubt from their looks that they were brothers. But there was also an almost eerie connection between the two. They found the same jokes hilariously funny – even when everyone else failed to understand the punch line (not so much eerie as weird.) They seemed to know what the other was thinking and would sometimes finish each other’s sentences (a little bit eerie.) And even when they were miles apart, they seemed to sense when the other was in trouble (okay, now this one is really eerie.)

They behaved like best friends. But then Uncle Lynn seemed to be everyone’s best friend. I don’t believe I ever saw him without a smile on his face or his hands extended to help someone in need. It was his can-do attitude and positive outlook on life that made him a much-desired companion. Like everyone else, I found great pleasure in his company as well. I didn’t always think his jokes were funny but I did always think he was a lot of fun.

According to Lynn Spiker, life should be entertaining. From making homemade apple cider to feeding lambs, he could quickly and easily turn each so-called chore into a game or a race or simply frivolous play. I liked games. And I loved to play. He was happy to oblige.

Unlike his no-nonsense brother, Brad, Uncle Lynn thought playing “house” was great fun (even when the role of “son” is being played by a suit-and-tie-clad 58-year-old and the role of “mother” is being played by a kool-aid mustachioed six-year-old.) Unlike his always-glamorous sister, Jean, Uncle Lynn felt a task wasn’t done well if you didn’t get a little mud on your clothes (even when he knew my mother would scold him for allowing me to track some into her house.)

I guess you could say that I saw Uncle Lynn as my partner in crime. When Daddy complained that I chattered incessantly about “nothing at all,” Uncle Lynn encouraged me to continue my oration until I was certain he’d understood what I was talking about (of course, he was grinning at my father’s rolled-eyes response.) When my cousins snarled that I was too young to join in their ghost story tales, Uncle Lynn hid me beneath a blanket so I could listen in, poking me at just the right moment to sit up and scream “Boo” (of course, he was chuckling at their jump-out-of-their-skin responses.) And when my mother said a proper young lady never uses her sleeve when she has the sniffles, Uncle Lynn showed me how to do the finger-to-the-side-of-one-nostril, sling-it-to-the-ground blow (of course, he was rolling on the floor laughing at her open-mouthed response.)

Life is full of challenges. We can either accept defeat or search for an alternate path over the hurdles we face. Uncle Lynn taught me that I didn’t need to feel too small or insignificant or frightened to tackle such challenges. And for good measure, he added, “If your brother and sisters are still being mean to you, go ahead and tackle them too. Literally.”

Aunt Jean

As the youngest of four children, my siblings avoided me like the plague. Busy in their own “grown-up” lives, they rarely took any time to play with me (or perhaps it was just wasn’t “cool” to associate with the “baby,”) so I had to find ways to entertain myself. Aunt Jean to the rescue. A retired teacher, she had tons of old textbooks in storage that she passed on to me. I am certain my eyes popped out of my head when she showed them to me for the first time. Can you imagine? The books had all the answers in the back!!! So this is why teachers seemed to know everything!

Forced by an unresponsive brother and two sisters to play by myself, Aunt Jean’s books were perfect for a fantasy classroom. I spent hours instructing my imaginary students, giving them tests, grading their papers and scolding them for misbehaving. I was happy that, like my own teachers, I had the ultimate knowledge and understanding of all things. My pupils would learn everything I could capture from these textbooks and I sucked it all up like a sponge.

Through “teaching,” I became my own best student. Although the books were no longer part of the educational curriculum and some of the facts were a bit outdated, they reinforced what I was being taught in the “real world” by my own teachers. But even more helpful were the lessons that did not come from the books; the most enlightening lessons were the ones Aunt Jean provided by example.

Using the analogy of the classroom being like the globe, she told me each person on earth is both a student and a teacher, learning and educating at the same time. And just as we make daily choices in school (do the homework or cry that the dog ate it, stand up to the bully or just walk away,) how well – or how poorly – we do in life is based on similar choices.

As a teacher managing disruptive students, she proved bold strength and lady-like elegance easily go hand-in-hand. In life, she explained, we may need to be firm in taking control of a situation but it’s not necessary to be arrogantly spirited. And, she stated, when reading and correcting students’ essays, there are times when expression and knowledge are remarkable enough to overlook some errors. No one is perfect. We can choose to find the beauty and grace in others instead of pointing out their mistakes or every flaw.

Throughout her (seemingly hundred) years of service in education, “Mrs. Haught” was a mentor and teacher to mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, brothers and sisters. Each generation agreed that she was “the favorite,” the “most beloved,” and “simply the best” teacher they’d ever had. This writer never sat in her classroom but I, nevertheless, had her as a teacher. As an eight-year-old fascinated with textbooks that contained “all the answers,” she gently reminded me that in real life, a book with “all the answers” does not exist.

I agree with her former students that she was one of the best. After all, what she taught me about life choices as a child has stayed with me as an adult. And like her example, I try to make good ones.

The Twins

My father and I shared one common fate, that of being the youngest child in the family. He acknowledged it wasn’t always the easiest role to play – the “baby” is often left out, picked on or simply ignored – but it was sometimes a fun role to play, once you got the hang of it. To avoid becoming invisible, the youngest child may go to great lengths to be seen and heard. Some call it acting-out. Some call it deviant behavior. My dad called it getting even.

I must have heard a gazillion stories about my father’s boyhood antics. I wish I could remember them all. But I did take many of them to heart, storing them up just in case I could use them one day on Mother, Cathy, Jeff or Melanie. I admired my dad for his creativity and at the same time was shocked that my “children should always obey their parents” father would even think to defy his own parents.

Try as I might, I was never quite as successful at getting even as he was. For example, Daddy told me he hid under the farmhouse porch for an entire day as a boy to avoid going to the evil dentist (“We didn’t have Novocain in those days,” he’d said.) They couldn’t find him for hours and even when they did, no one was small enough to go under there to get him out. When my parents forced me to go to the orthodontist for braces (and believe me, it was forced,) Daddy stood outside my hiding place threatening me with death either by starvation or (an imaginary) rabid flying squirrel that may have found its way in there with me.

Then there was the time that Daddy scooped up a tiny, hairless, baby mouse from the corncrib presenting it like a treasure to his ever-curious sisters. When asked what he was hiding, he said, “It’s candy. Open your hands and I’ll give you a piece.” (Warning to older siblings – if the baby brother willingly offers to share his candy, accepting the gift may not be the greatest idea.) I am told Daddy needed to find another place to hide once that mouse wiggled in their palms. Of course, this was one hilarious antic I would have loved to repeat. But we didn’t have a corncrib. I couldn’t find any mice. And my siblings knew I’d never willingly share anything with them. That left Mother. Thinking her adorable daughter was bringing her a wildflower, imagine her surprise when I tossed a pussywillow bud at her, screaming “BUG, BUG, BUG” at the top of my lungs. As always, getting-even schemes aren’t without great personal risk. Like Dad before me, I couldn’t find a hiding place fast enough.

Dad didn’t keep his position as the youngest for long. His parents welcomed twin girls into their home. Delene and Delane were quite young when they joined the family, and my father relished his new role of protective older brother. But his concern was to protect them from the older kids. Once a prankster, always a prankster. The girls weren’t unaffected by his continuing harassment.

I knew them only as Aunt Boots and Aunt Ann (thusly nicknamed, I am told, after comic strip characters.) Until I was older, I never knew their “real” names and I hadn’t been told that they weren’t my father’s biological sisters. That fact seemed insignificant. My grandparents’ blood may not have flowed through the twins’ veins but the family bond certainly did. They seemed to be the final two puzzle pieces, perfectly completing the picture.

Like my father before them, they soon knew the “misery” of being the “babies” of the family. But unlike my father, they more easily conquered any perceived threats, choosing to “get over” instead of choosing to “get even.” It was their spirit that taught me the importance of fortitude. It was their insistence that taught me to persevere. Their very existence taught me that love of a true family is boundless.