A Tuesday Sunbeam on the Road to Joy: Victor Hugo on Growing Old

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“I feel myself in the future life. I am like a forest which has been more than once cut down. The new shoots are livelier than ever. I am rising toward the sky. The sunshine is on  my head. The earth gives me its generous sap, but heaven lights me with its unknown worlds.

You say the soul is nothing but the resultant of the bodily powers. Why, then, is my soul more luminous when my bodily powers begin to fail? Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart. I breathe at this hour the fragrance of the lilacs, the violets, and the roses, as at the age of twenty years. The nearer I approach the end, the plainer I hear around me the immortal symphonies of the world which are inviting me. It is marvelous, yet simple.”

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This outstanding French author lived and wrote at the same time as Charles Dickens in England. Both were unfailingly optimistic and believed in the eventual triumph of Good over Evil in human society. Both sought to explore the good in people and wrote about it over and over again. The translation of Hugo’s powerful and sweeping novel “Les Miserables” was a best seller in America during the Civil War, and was, after the Bible, the book most commonly read by soldiers on both sides of the conflict. At the time of his death, Hugo was the best known and most highly admired man in France. All of Paris turned out for his funeral, which was the largest in French history. So when people tell you that novels about good people are boring, tell them not to give up yet–go read something by Victor Hugo. Even beneath Evil’s dirty face, heinous acts, and chilling heart, Goodness endures.

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Following the Union Army: On the Trail of My Great Grandfather

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Sunrise on Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Since traveling to the beautiful place in this picture, and to cloud-shouldered Missionary Ridge to its east–shown in my Heading photograph above–I have been thinking a lot about the individual soldier’s experience of war, and what kind of person my great grandfather was. Samuel Rohrer was a 20-year-old private in the Union Army when he survived the bloody, vicious Battle of Chickamauga, one of the largest conflicts of the War Between the States, and retreated with his fellows to Chattanooga.

In a letter he wrote to his family in October, 1863, a month after that battle, Sam says only, “We have had some pretty lively times since you heard from me before…” He mentions the “Rebs”, too, saying about the experience of being on picket at the encampment, “We are pretty close to the Rebs on picket. We are about thirty yards apart, but there is a little creek between us. We don’t shoot at one another. We have made a kind of an agreement not to shoot pickets unless one side or the other advances, so we trust to each other’s honor.”

(Please click the link for my post on Aug. 6th to the right if you wish to read Sam’s letter)

Standing on the Chickamauga battlefield myself, I was hard-pressed to imagine the even-tempered, honorable, and practical young man of this letter, shooting at others his own age all day long in constant, ear-splitting noise and noxious smoke. Just at dusk, when Sam’s commander, Colonel Philemon Baldwin, received orders to withdraw, the brigade was attacked anew and fought until an hour after dark, with no light but discharging rifles to identify friend or foe. Colonel Baldwin was killed, as was Sam’s regimental commander, Colonel Hiram Strong, who was from Dayton, Ohio, as Sam was. Then, no doubt, exhausted and heartsick, was he to set grief aside, rise early the next morning, and do it all again with the men who survived? Yes, he was, and he did. They all did.

The brigade fought through the second day, too, until ordered to retreat about 5:30 P.M. Sam mentions picking up a revolver from the battlefield for his father, and adds, “If we had not been forced to leave the field, I should have procured several, for they were plenty enough. But as you have heard, you may judge, it was not very healthy to stay and look for trophies.”

It was a trek of several miles from Chickamauga to Chattanooga, where 80,000 weary Union survivors retreated and set up camp on a bend of the Tennessee River. They were effectively trapped, as there were no bridges, and the Tennessee was a wild river then, its present dams still far in the future.

The Confederate Army pursued the Yankees, but did not engage them. Despite the Chickamauga victory, the Union still outnumbered them. The 35,000 Southern troops, though, gamely climbed with their wheeled Napoleon guns (like small cannons) to the top of Lookout Mountain, southwest of the city, and Missionary Ridge to the east. With their guns trained on the Union encampment below, and the memory of victory fresh in their minds, perhaps things didn’t look so bad to the Confederates from on high. However, the range of their Napoleons was not long enough to reach the Union encampment two miles away. They fired at intervals, anyway, perhaps to remind the Yankees they were ready, anytime they decided to move  south into their sights. Then they sat by the guns and waited…and waited…and waited–for two months.

Was that enough respite from the hell of battle to restore spirits on both sides? I suppose no one knows, but Sam did not write his calm and steady narrative of rain, pickets, trust, and honor until October, a month after Chickamauga, when neither army was yet prepared to renew hostilities. No doubt the rest revived his spirit and resolve, as it must have for his comrades. During that time, Union Army engineers were building a pontoon bridge over the river, finishing about the first week of November.

Sam remarks wryly, “From the appearance of things around this place, we will have another time of it worth mentioning.” Then he adds, in the practical manner of a well-rested, seasoned veteran, “When they come, we will do as we have done before, give them the best we have got in the shop.”

Then things happened quickly. General Grant arrived a week later, ousted General Rosecrans, whom he held responsible for the debacle at Chickamauga, and took charge himself, placing his headquarters atop a small hill called Orchard Knob, near what is now downtown Chattanooga.

General William Tecumseh Sherman’s division arrived, and as General Hooker approached the river to the west with his division from Alabama, Sam’s 93rd Ohio regiment was deployed onto pontoon boats and floated down the Tennessee to cover their arrival. What followed on Lookout Mountain is called “The Battle Above the Clouds.” Hooker’s men took advantage of the cloud cover the next morning and surprised the Confederates, who, being short-handed, had no choice but to retreat. Other Union brigades, including Sam’s, fought in the low clouds on the slopes of Missionary Ridge and, after severe losses, forced the Confederate Army south.

A plaque in a front yard a block from Orchard Knob attests to the fact that Sam’s 93rd Ohio Infantry defended General Grant’s headquarters there. Then they joined General Sherman’s division, bringing his total troops to some 110,000 men. Without delay, they  dispatched the Confederates at Kennesaw Mountain and during several smaller engagements, until at last Atlanta fell into Union hands, assuring the eventual complete Union victory over the South.

Visiting the National Military Parks in Tennessee and Georgia is an eye-opening and emotional experience for a descendant of a Civil War veteran who fought there. I found myself mighty relieved to learn that, although Sam marched to Atlanta with General Sherman, he did not continue on with him to Savannah and the sea. Sam was mustered out at Nashville after the war, in June of 1865, and returned to Dayton, where he farmed and led a quiet life until his death at age 65, in 1908, not long before my dad, one of his grandsons, was born.

I suppose those of us who’ve never been to war cannot begin to fathom the mark it leaves on the souls of those, both military and civilian, who are caught up in it. Perhaps it has always been so. Yet now, 150 years after our own most devastating conflict, after even General Dwight D. Eisenhower himself cautioned that we could not go on this way, war continues. What the Roman historian Tacitus observed 2000 years ago still seems sadly true: “The passion for glory is the last from which even wise men free themselves.” And the steadfast, honorable, and loyal foot soldier must follow.

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The Giver: Thoughts on the book and the movie

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I read Lois Lowry’s intriguing YA novel The Giver shortly after it was published in 1994, and immediately adopted it for my 8th grade Literature classes. My students were as taken with it as I was, and we had some lively and thought-provoking discussions about it. Imagine our excitement when we heard that the author was coming to speak at our library, just two blocks from school. We gladly walked, skipped, bounced, and jogged over to join the large audience of other middle school kids to listen and talk with Ms. Lowry. She did not disappoint us, as she is an engaging speaker for young teens. Also, she told us that a movie was in the offing, and that Elijah Wood was being considered for the role of Jonas. We returned to school energized and happy to have a movie to look forward to.

Well, it’s been a long wait, but The Giver is finally in theaters. I wish it had not been so  delayed. If it had hit the big screen in 1996 or so, it would have had much more impact, but the innovative sci-fi movies of the last 20 years and the rise of dystopian video games have, unfortunately, dulled some of The Giver’s sharp edge.

The human society portrayed in this Newbery-winning novel is recognizable as our own world in a future time. A group of humans apparently left their imperfect fellows behind long ago to set up a utopian society where everyone is perfectly equal. The society today has kept the memories, both good and bad, of what the world used to be like. They reside in the mind of a designated person called simply “The Giver.” Once this person grows old, he or she must pass these memories on to a chosen young person, and so the story centers on Jonas, whose job it is to receive all the memories and eventually replace The Giver.

It isn’t easy to tailor a group of humans to perfection, and docility is achieved through a daily dose of an unidentified drug. You cannot get out the door to begin your day without your “injection.” There is no emotion to speak of, but babies are still well-cared for, and the kids are still lively, but they grow into adults who are creepy caricatures of humanity. They speak only in memorized platitudes and ask only formulaic questions. “The Giver” is the story of what happens when the keepers of this society make a mistake.

The Elders, the group who watches and judges, grossly underestimated Jonas. He is appalled to find out from The Giver what human joys, and sorrows, too, have been denied  his community. He’s more sensitive and intelligent than anyone knew, and brave enough to decide to flee to what he hopes is a better place, taking Gabe, a baby he has come to love, with him.

The movie speeds along at a breakneck pace, hitting most of the book’s main ideas too superficially, even though it’s not a long book. Jonas’s evolution from nice, go-along guy to infuriated rebel seems more an erratic decision than the result of deep, thoughtful insight, as in the book. I suspect the movie may have had financial constraints, as it fits too neatly into a 90-minute frame.

I also found the movie visuals confusing and distracting in places, though this may not be a problem for those who haven’t read the book and visualized the scenes for themselves. Still, it’s a good movie for young teens, and encourages them to venture outside the comfort zone of their beliefs and values, just as Jonas does.

This is a movie you should see with your children, and I hope you will read the book together beforehand so you can compare the two. Be aware that it is rated PG-13 for its depiction of a “weaker” twin baby being killed by injection and dispatched in a little box down a chute to “Elsewhere.” This is a sad enough scene in the book. In the movie, it is heartbreaking to witness, as Jonas discovers along with us.

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Sunbeam by Snail Mail

Yesterday I received an unexpected sunbeam that arrived by snail mail. My young friend Sovanreach, who lives in Cambodia, sent me Khmer numbers that he printed himself–and he’s only 4 years old. Here’s his picture, too. The world is full of beautiful surprises I did not even know existed (like Khmer numerals) and precious little children just waiting to bless us with their unique gifts. 

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Sovanreach, a Friend Along the Road to Joy

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 Numbers 1 through 5, written in Khmer

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Three Sunbeams Along The Road to Joy

Sunbeam #1 : Waking up bleary-eyed and stumbling into your bathroom to find…

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“No toofs brushen fer you tis mornin!”

 

Sunbeam #2 : Venturing outdoors after a rain fit for Noah’s Ark to find…

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 God keeps His promises double sometimes!

 

Sunbeam #3: Roller blading to your neighborhood park to find…

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WHOA! THE CIRCUS HAS COME TO TOWN!!

May sunbeams light your own road to joy all through the coming week!

 

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Sam Rohrer at Chattanooga: A Union Soldier’s Letter Home

My great grandfather, Samuel Rohrer, was a 20-year-old private in the Union Army when he wrote the letter scanned below. Sam enlisted in the Army exactly 152 years ago today, on August 6, 1862. According to family legend, Sam and his brother Christian were working in a field on their father’s farm on Valley Pike near Dayton, Ohio, but left their plow in the field and joined other recruits passing by to march into Dayton to enlist. I’m not sure why they would be plowing a field in August, but that’s the story! In October, 1863, Sam’s Ohio 93rd Infantry regiment engaged the Confederate Army in the Battle of Chickamauga (the Union lost), but the Union Army was forced to retreat to a safe encampment near Chattanooga to await the battle there. 

Though Sam had, at best, an 8th grade education, his language has a certain air of restrained elegance about it. I hope you will enjoy reading what he had to say about his duties, the recent battle, and his feelings about the battle to come–all written down, perhaps by lamplight, in his tent in the pouring rain. Please feel free to share the letter with any friends, teachers, or students who may be interested. If you cannot read it well, please email me and I will type it out and post it again for you: catherinereynolds612@gmail.com.

Sam’s original letter has returned “home” to where it was written and rests safely now in the Archives at the Chattanooga/Chickamauga National Military Park, where it will be available to scholars for as long as the Park endures. I think Sam would be pleased. I know the Park curators are, as I’m told this is the only letter the Park owns that was written by a soldier who fought in both battles. You da man, Sam!!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA    Sam Rohrer survived the Civil War, married, and lived to become a prosperous farmer with a family of 3 sons and 2 daughters. His older daughter, Easter, was my father’s mother. Sam died in 1908 at the age of 65, and his large farm was divided into many small residential plots in 1924, so many families live there now. Some acreage was set aside and is now Rohrer Park. 

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An Easy “First Day of School” Language Arts Activity for Middle Grades

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A Few of My Favorite Model Students

Here is a simple, fun, First Day or First Week activity that my 7th and 8th grade classes have always enjoyed. It’s called Class Favorites.

Purpose: To follow your routine first-day topics of discussion with an active project.

Goal: To engage every student in conversation with every other student in the class.

End Product: A list of Class Favorites.

Materials: A Category notecard in for each member of the class–half in one color and half in another is easiest, but you can just divide the class in half or have the students count off in 2’s  until everyone is a 1 or a 2.

Preparation: Write a different Category on each notecard for each member of the class. These may be people–actors, singers, musicians, comedians, sports figures, historical people, famous people, etc.; places such as vacation or local favorite spots or places students would like to visit worldwide; or things–concrete, animate or inanimate, or activities. If you have a large number of students in a class,  make your distinctions between categories finer–for instance, in addition to “Pet” you might have “Breed of Dog”; instead of “Food”, have “Italian Food” or “BBQ’ed Food.” “Sport” may be “Spectator Sport” or “Sport to Play,” “Winter sport”, etc.

Students will need: A Category notecard from the teacher, a pen or pencil, a piece of paper to record favorites and tally totals, and a notebook or other hard surface to write on.

Process:

  1. Pass out the Category notecards.
  2. Have all the “1’s” or First Colors stand up in a circle around the room, facing in and when they are in place, all the “2’s” or Second Colors in an inner circle facing a partner in the outer circle. Push desks gently into center if necessary.  
  3. Now, partners ask each other to name a Favorite in the Category on their respective cards. Each writes down the partner’s answer. Only 1 favorite is allowed in each category.
  4. The inner circle now moves one person to the right. You may have to set a time limit of 2-3 minutes to keep the inner circle from stalling.
  5. Students ask their new partners their favorites and record the answers. Keep track of popular favorites by keeping a running total.
  6. The inner circle keeps moving to the right until everyone is back to the partner he or she started with.
  7. Have students sit down and tally the Favorite totals, name the winner in their Category, and pass their cards and papers in.
  8. Display the Class Favorites any way you wish–write them on strips of construction paper and staple to a bulletin board, write them on poster board, or just type them in a list and post it on a bulletin board. You may also ask a trustworthy volunteer to make a poster, after you’ve reviewed the Favorites yourself.
  9. You may want to use this activity as your students’ first grade, with “10” for everyone who engaged well in the activity and handed in a card and paper. If you do grade the activity, be sure to announce your intention at the beginning.
  10. Students especially enjoy comparing Favorites with other classes–if you have the stamina to complete the activity with each of your classes!

   HAVE A BRIGHT, HAPPY AND SUCCESSFUL SCHOOL YEAR

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