A Message for Teachers

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Recently I retired from a long and wonderful career in public education to pursue a new and exciting career in youth ministry as Minister to Students at Elizabeth Baptist Church in Shelby, NC.  After 32 wonderful years spent as an educator in the Cleveland County School System, I felt the need to leave behind some words of encouragement to those colleagues I left behind.  Some have asked that I make the letter public, so I decided to publish it to my website.  It is intended for educators, but I hope that by reading it, you will in some way sense the hearts of those who devote their lives to educating your children every day.

January 31, 2011

Dear Friends,

Thirty-two years ago this month, I entered my first month of life as a college graduate, and the economy was in a deep recession. Thirty-two years ago tomorrow, I began my first teaching assignment at Shelby Junior High School.  Today, when I turn in my parking tag, hand over my keys, switch off the lights, and walk out the door, I will mark the end of the career I so desperately wanted, worked hard to get, and dreamed of having all through college.

It was a challenge to get a job in January of 1979, let alone a job in a career field that, back then, often generated a hundred applications for a single position.  But, the desire of my heart was to teach.  Psalm 37:4 says “Delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”  I believed that God was actually calling me to become a public school teacher, but at the same time, I doubted that God would actually “call” a person to do anything other than vocational ministry.  Nevertheless, the desire of my heart was to teach, and I derived tremendous personal satisfaction from it. God granted me the opportunity to become a teacher on February 1, 1979, and for that, I will always be grateful to him.

I love teenagers.  I cannot explain why.  It’s one of those “God things” again. That love is in my heart, though.  I didn’t put it there, and no matter how rude, mean, kind, smart, academically challenged, or psychotic they may have been through the years, I have loved them all…maybe not all the time, but I managed to love them nonetheless.  I have occasionally been so mad at them that I wanted to “act unprofessionally,” but I never really did on purpose.  At the end of the day, I went home and prayed for them just the same.

It is a wonder I ever stayed the course, though.  The first day I taught school, I had cafeteria duty with another “first day teacher.”  He and I broke up a girl fight in the parking lot outside the cafeteria, and the girl my partner had grabbed (because neither of us knew better than to do that back then) wriggled out of both his grasp and her blouse.  Then we discovered to our great alarm that she had neglected to wear undergarments above her waist.  She had no doubt been in a rush of excitement to ready herself for school that morning.  To my horror, she began running toward the girl I still had in my grip, seemingly undaunted by the chilly weather and her serious dress code violation.  The young lady in my charge asked, “What do we do?” To which I responded, “Run!” So it was that she and I bolted, and consequently, all four of us went racing wildly across the campus; she and I in pursuit of the principal’s office; my partner’s disheveled and partially disrobed miscreant, wild with rage, in pursuit of us; and my co-worker, bringing up the rear, waving her blouse in the air as though she cared, in pursuit of her.  It is a miracle that we were allowed to return the second day.  But we did.  College had neglected to prepare either of us for that first day.

I have encountered a wild assortment of students.  For the first fifteen years of my career, I had only the students that other teachers did not want.  Literally, the principal asked teachers to choose their worst four students, and they were assigned to me.  I taught (and I use the term loosely) students who had been convicted of animal cruelty, rape, and incest.  I had a student who slept in a coffin at his dad’s funeral home. Another claimed to be a warlock and stole the cat of another student, boiled it, and with its bones tried to put a hex on the girls in my class.  They wore crosses, chanted, and walked up and down the halls like zombies for days.  I had another student who loved to do grave rubbings and whose career goal was to drive a hearse. On a seventh grade field trip to Sunset Cemetery, he rubbed too hard and turned over a six hundred pound tombstone. Thankfully, he was a seventeen-year-old seventh grader (we didn’t always have social promotion), and he was strong enough to help with the newly contrived class project to right the tombstone and replace it upon its base.  By the grace of God, there was not another seventh grader beneath the tombstone when we lifted it from the ground. A few years later, he finally found a part-time job driving a hearse, but when he arrived at the graveside service for his first funeral, he realized to his horror that he had left the body at the church.  He got a speeding ticket in the hearse on his way back to retrieve her, and he was fired at the end of his first day.

But I have also had students whose brilliance was truly astounding.  They have become teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians, ministers, pilots, nurses, chemists, engineers, writers, and even television producers.  One of my students did an internship with Oprah Winfrey and worked at Harpo Productions until transitioning into theatre.  I have celebrated with them in their successes and cried with them in times of failure and loss.  I have had eleven students killed or permanently maimed in traffic accidents.  When the Eagle project was unveiled out in front of the school a couple of months ago, I realized that I had known or taught most of those students who were honored posthumously by that tribute to their lives.

In my thirty-two years as an educator, I have taught every grade from the fourth to the twelfth at least once.  I have taught at both Cleveland Community College and Gardner-Webb University.  I have worked part-time as a field supervisor for UNC-Charlotte.  I have taught math (surprise!), English, photography, and journalism.  I have worked with the school newspaper, helped coach JV football at Crest Junior High (I’ll bet no one knew that!), been in charge of a science club, worked with FCA, and been a part-time youth minister for fourteen years at two different churches.  I have taught remedial English to migrant students, written a monthly article on education for the Shelby Star, taken students to Washington, DC four times, written a book, and had the privilege of working with some of the finest people God ever created.  I have married a wonderful woman, and we have raised a son together who is a product of Crest High School and a freshman at Wofford.  I have been blessed, and I am a rich man, richer than I ever imagined possible, but if a thief mugged me this afternoon and stole my wallet, he would shoot me out of frustration.  I have never had much money to invest, but the investment of my life in the students and faculty of Crest High School represent one of the best investments I have ever made, and with dividends most people only dream of earning. I have earned a lifetime of happiness and joy.

So, as I leave today, it is with mixed emotions.  I still love to revisit the past, and a part of me even wants to stay and cling to the familiar, to the tremendous joy and satisfaction that this career and you, my friends and Crest family, have been these many years, but, life cannot be lived in “rewind.”  It must be lived only in “play.”  We cannot skip scenes or select the ones we want to repeat.  We take it for what it is, as it is.  We try to remember the good times and forget the bad ones. But there have been far more good times than bad, and even in the bad times, there has often been good. I have known Mr. Fisher for only a short time, but his heart seems pure and good. I have noticed that one of his common sayings is, “It is what it is.”  How true.  It is what we make of what we’re given that determines God’s ability to maximize our potential.  I want you to know that you are a precious group of people.  You are blessed to have each other.  If you have never worked anywhere else, you may not realize that. I sense that what God called me here to do alongside you has been done. Likewise, I believe that you have all been put here at this time, at this place, with these students, for a reason.  You may not know the reason right now, and in reality, there could be many.  But you are here, together, as a family, for this moment in time, a moment that will never come again.  Cherish that.

I would like to leave you with three things that I have learned over the years. First, it is important to love each other daily; support each other; consider yourselves co-laborers in one of God’s highest callings.  Teaching is a calling.  Even if you are not a spiritual person, you know deep down in the marrow of your bones that what you do is special and unlike any other profession in the world. Otherwise, you would not be willing to take a vow of poverty to do it. That deep belief in the importance of what we do fuels the energy that keeps us going.

Second, love your students.  You may be the only one who does.  If you don’t or can’t love them, I would gently urge you to reconsider your profession. They know how you feel about them.  Teenagers are some of the most intuitive people on earth. But they can only learn when they feel good about themselves, and if they do not feel loved, they will not learn.  We must make them feel loved and secure, and they are naturally fearful and insecure creatures. They are really just children in large bodies, filled with anxiety and insecurity pressed way down where it is sometimes hard to see.  It is only after we can connect with them that what we care about also becomes what they care about.

Third, fly the plane.  Years ago when I was learning to fly, my flight instructor told me that above all else, fly the plane.  Pilots who become distracted by their gadgets, the scenery, their conversations, etc. are more often than not the ones who crash.  No matter what happens, he said, fly the plane.  The Bible says the same thing, just with different words.  Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”  Don’t allow PLC groups, artifacts, formative and summative observations, PDP’s, IEP’s, or NC Falcon to distract or discourage you.  Don’t even worry about the legislature and the budget.  I was released and rehired four times because of various budget crises.  My salary has been frozen for nearly half of my career. In fact, the first year I taught, they didn’t have enough money to pay but one teacher and needed two.  What did they do?  They hired two and paid us each half a salary.  And I made exactly the same amount of money for six years in a row. And that is happening all over again. But in the end, God always worked it out.  If teaching is where God wants you, you will stay.  If it isn’t, you won’t, no matter what happens with the budget. Our job is to join with God in what he is doing.  It doesn’t work when we try and do it the other way around. You can tell him what you want to do, but if that’s not what he wants you to do or what he wants done, it won’t matter much.  I remember the story of a man who was swallowed by a big fish for something sort of like that.  If you worry, you will just rob yourself of the joy God meant for you to experience today, and today is really all any of us have.  Remember, we only function in “Play.” Make the most of each day. If you let discouragement settle in your heart, your “wellspring of life” will dry up, costing you the joy and energy to relish the day you have.  You end up cheated; your students get cheated; and your coworkers are cheated. You and God lose. The devil wins.

I will miss you.  I won’t be able to avoid that. You and my (former) students are constantly in my thoughts. Even the clothes in my closet smell like Crest High School. I will miss the sounds and those smells.  I will miss the bells and the energy of a class change…how often I’ve taken those simple pleasures for granted.  I will miss the yellow buses, the football and soccer gate duties on crisp October nights, the roar of the crowds, and the sounds of the mighty Chargers on the field behind me. I will miss the band.  I will miss the baby pictures and watching your children grow up. I will miss the hot dogs and baseball games, the proms, graduation night, and the joy of seeing my students stand proudly to receive their diplomas as their parents cry and their teachers swell with pride.  Do we ever stop to think of how truly we have been blessed?  We truly reach out each and every day and touch the future.

As my son walked across the stage last year as a senior, memories of kindergarten flooded my mind and the gravity of the investment so many people had made in his life overwhelmed me.  The thought of so many people with such positive and powerful influences upon the young man I had entrusted to their care for thirteen years was truly humbling, even breathtaking.  To this day, the memories of his teachers are among his most precious, and their influences continue to shape him as he, in his newly discovered independence as a college student, draws upon those memories to contrive the paradigm of decency and maturity that he continues to try and emulate.

That is why our students come back to see us.  Surely they have better things to do with their semester breaks and holidays, or do they?  Their return is deeply symbolic in a way. It signals the completion of a journey, the one that we sent them forth at graduation to begin. They return, proud of their successes, to receive our affirmation that they’re on the right path, the path that we laid out for them, and a path that they’re proud they have been able to follow independent of us.  Their annual migrations are short-lived, for they do not come back forever – only for a year or two. And then the day comes when they return no more, for they have validated to themselves and to us that our bonds were real and meaningful.  In fact, they have become, in many respects, the embodiment of our creative powers.  But their return is also a form of veiled gratitude, the proof that we mattered to them; that we made a difference in their lives; that we were successful.  They, our former students standing proudly before us, represent perhaps the truest measure of our success, and that independence and self-confidence represents a level of validity that far exceeds that of any EOC or AP score.

Yes, there will be much to miss, but more than anything else, I will miss my students.  I will miss investing in their lives and reaping their investment in mine.  But, life is not static.  I learned many years ago that one of life’s certainties is its uncertainty. God has opened another door for me to walk through, and things look mighty good on the other side of it. I am fifty-three years old, but I still love teenagers?  Odd, isn’t it?  Doesn’t make rational sense, does it?  That’s part of why I know that investing in their lives is my “calling.” There is nothing I would rather do.

As I reverently close a chapter in my life and the door to 102, I eagerly and with perfect peace, open another one.  It is time once again for a change, and with God’s help and guidance, I am transitioning out of public education to become a youth minister.  I also plan to try my hand at writing professionally, both fiction and non-fiction, and much of it for teenagers.  Youth minister…seems like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it for someone my age?  I will be the oldest youth minister I know.  In fact, I have taught some of the youth ministers with whom I will be working.  God has a sense of humor doesn’t he?  But as a youth minister, I can love students without judging them.  I won’t have to assign grades, and I won’t have to evaluate students’ performance.  I can just love them the way God created them, and I can teach them how to become the people God has created them to be.  If they don’t pass a class, I can help them overcome their disappointment.  I can pray freely with and for them.  I can talk to them about God and the condition of their souls.  Shakespeare is a great writer, but no one ever made it to heaven because of him.

It has taken over thirty years for me to realize it, but I have finally come to understand that I have always been in vocational ministry, just as we all are in a sense.  We are ministers whose vocation just happens to be teaching.  I am kind of like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. For years I doubted that I was “in Kansas anymore,” but truth is, I have really been there all along.  I have actually been a minister all these years and just didn’t realize it. My mission fields have not been in a formal church setting or in Africa or the Amazonian jungles. They have been at Shelby Junior High School, Crest Junior High School, South Cleveland Elementary School, Crest Middle School, and Crest High School.  If God has called you to teach, then he has called you into the ministry.  Your mission field, though, has a Charger on the door rather than a steeple on the roof.

As I leave, I want you to know that my door is always open to you, and I will always be eager to hear from you, return for visits, etc. Please feel free to call me anytime (704-487-0219, 704-466-8584) or send me an email (dcputnamjr123@yahoo.com or david@elizabethchurch.org).   I would love to meet you for lunch on workdays (if there ever is another one).  Remember to pray for each other, your students, and me.

I love you all.  Continue to be a blessing to each other and to your students as you have likewise been to me.  God will be pleased by that. And you will have a peace that passes all understanding.



David Putnam

Minister to Students

Elizabeth Baptist Church

Matthew 19:14


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Kites…an original essay by David Putnam

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As a child, I always looked forward to spring and kite-flying.  As the flowers emerged with the spring thaw, speckling the greening landscape with yellow and purple, something deep within me longed for a kite.  Even now, with childhood sewn neatly into the tapestry of my past, the spring winds evoke that same longing.  As the chilly gusts part my hair and the youthful sun melts the marrow in my bones, I know it’s time to make my annual pilgrimage in search of a kite.

Few things are as liberating as watching colorful kites dance gracefully in a brilliant Carolina blue sky.  A spring sky.  A sky chilled yet a little while longer by the icy grasp of the villainous winter wind still locked in a battle to the death against the strengthening sun.  But Winter never wins for long in the South.  Spring is young and strong, warm and powerful, virile and colorful.  She is hope eternal, a never-ending expanse of cloudless joy whose purpose, at least for now, is reverently dedicated to paying homage to the kite.  Kites are freedom under control, grace under pressure, and idealism tethered to reason.

Kites represent all that I cherished of childhood, now lost but for the string of discipline wound by those experiences of long ago whose constant pressure taught me the value of freedom under control.  When I was a child, the fields behind and beyond my grandmother’s Cleveland County home were the choicest spots for kite-flying.  Once part of an expansive farm, her house lay just inside the city limits of Shelby, and it was surrounded by a few fallow fields bordered by trees. Except for those remaining fields, the old farm had almost been swallowed by progress, so this spot of undeveloped land was a rare find and unique to city dwellers in its expansiveness.  Often, on perfect spring days – days ripe for kite-flying – almost every child from the neighborhood would gather in Grandma’s fields and blitz the sky with myriad iridescent colors.

The joy of kite-flying was invariably delayed, however, by the necessity of unfettering miles of string that had become tangled by neglect, tangled by impatience, or tangled by the very winds that we so desperately needed and had for so long eagerly anticipated.  The winds were tricky.  Like so many other powerful forces we would later know in life, they possessed the power both to bless and destroy.

As soon as they were exposed to the winds of Spring, the kites were awakened to their need for liberation.  We, in the springs or our own lives, understood.  Our kites were extensions of us, and they, like us, wanted to fly, and fly now.  They waited impatiently on the ground, animated by the tempting breezes, having to be restrained by hands, knees, rocks, sticks, or whatever might serve to squelch their incessant squirming.  They, like us, needed patience,  but they wanted no part of it.  They needed to know that their freedom and impulses would destroy them if not controlled. But, they rebelled until at last it would be time for the much anticipated and long awaited launch.  When turned loose to the stiff breeze, the kites would all but jump into the air, finally liberated from “the surly bonds of earth” that held them captive, finally free to “seek the face of God,” certain in their youthful confidence that the hands that guided them were far more skillful than all of those who had come before them.

Once airborne, it was a challenge, a competition even, to see whose kite could climb the highest and stay aloft the longest.  For those less fortunate, the challenge was simply to get off the ground.  Embarrassing though it may have been, some of us ultimately had to admit defeat.  Our miscalculations had cost us our day, our joy, even our pride.  We would have to try again tomorrow.  Saddened, we failed to realize that, although we thought we needed to fly, we needed to crash even more.  Crashing was costly.  But in many ways though, it was far more valuable than flying,  although in our innocence, we had no real understanding of value.  We paid with our pride, but our loss forced us to acquire the nobility required to accept defeat graciously.

For others though, the launch, usually a massive one in a sudden gust of wind, brought immediate joy.  They learned their lessons in flight.  Apply pressure to soar higher; slacken the line to float aimlessly or sink.  Only through constant pressure could we soar; without it we only maintained altitude, or even worse, sank.

But soar they did!  My, how they flew!  Oh to be with them, up in the pristine sky.  But in our idealism, we already were.  Feet firmly planted on the orange Cleveland County clay, our hearts had already taken flight.  Our spirits soared.  The world slipped from beneath us, and our imaginations took control.

Enchanting us with their magical spring dance, the kites made us easily forget the realities of the field, my grandmother’s field, the field bordered with her coveted Chinaberry trees, the tall Chinaberry trees whose leafless arms reached skyward, black and formidable, hungry for kites.  And all too often for me, the unwary pilot, the joy of my moment was quickly snatched away as I carelessly ignored the grappling limbs.  In an instant, my kite would be snatched away and held firmly like a trapped moth in the grasp of a tree.  Way up in the top, fluttering furiously in the wind, it would remain snagged forever.  Ultimately dashed to pieces by the winds of change, my idealism, my impracticality, and my inattention had cost me my kite.

The lessons of kite-flying are simple, yet profound.  They are lessons that were taught without my realization until life’s experiences connected them with the necessary analogies.

Kite-flying teaches that freedom must be cherished but also respected.  It must be tethered securely to the control line of self-discipline.  Otherwise, its benefactors will never appreciate its power both to incarcerate and liberate.

Kite-flying also reminds us that if we expect to soar higher in life, we must remember that constant pressure tempers us and makes us stronger through adversity and challenge.  Therefore, we must be willing to welcome or at least embrace a certain measure of risk and change.  Always charting a course around the stormy winds of life will surely cause us to level out or sink rather than soar, and we will never learn nor be thankful for the lessons taught only through the eye of the storm.

Kite-flying also teaches us the necessity of slackening the line from time to time.   If we never rest; if we never take time to reflect or renew; if we never release our firm, controlling grasp on life, we will never be able to let out more line, and consequently, we will never have the additional string necessary to climb.

Unfortunately, kite-flying always involves episodes of kite-crashing, and those intermittent failures teach us how to accept defeat with grace, neither fearing nor fleeing from failure, but instead accepting and embracing it as an inherent component of life.

And finally, kite-flying teaches that idealism must be strung to reason if anything useful is ever to come of it; otherwise, the impracticality of our imaginings will get caught in the branches and flutter forever, of no value to anyone.

The winds of Spring can keep us young as we are driven ever higher by the sudden gusts and pressures of kite-flying.  And, hopefully, because of the skills developed over years of practice, when the time comes for us to put our kites away forever, they will resist and cling to the winds of Spring, having to be dragged kicking and screaming from the sky.

My grandmother’s house is quiet now, long after her days of kite-flying have ended, but the Chinaberry trees still stand.  Their hungry limbs rake the wind each spring for kites.  The years have made the fields seem smaller, and the kites, they come no more; but the lessons they taught year after year against those crisp Carolina blue skies will go on forever.  My son is now seven, a prime age for kite-flying.  Years after my kites have been put away, the same eternal lessons will hopefully live on in him, but I must first teach him to fly.

As I sit beneath those old familiar trees, my son by my side, the wind whistles a shrill familiar melody.  Those brittle fingers, high in the Chinaberries overhead, click their warning above an empty field, whispering to the ghosts of kites long gone.  I can almost hear the flapping and fluttering of vinyl and paper trapped in those branches, the laughter of children, and the cries of defeat.

From deep within the frozen fabric of my soul, an old familiar longing begins to thaw.  The wind parts my hair, and I draw my jacket tighter.  The sun warms my cheeks, and I pull my son close under my arm.  The sky is blue. The breeze is stiff.  I think we will buy a kite today.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Blue hills

I have been asked many times if the places and people in Crickets of the Silver Queen represent real places and  people.  The answer is both yes and no.

The people in the novel are purely fictitious.  I did not use a real person as a template for any character in the book.  I drew upon my experiences as a youth minister, a teacher, and a lifelong resident of Shelby, North Carolina to form the composite images from which each character was formed.  Many of the places are also fictitious with ties to real places.  For example, Clinton County is the fictitious place where Broad River, North Carolina is is located.  And in some ways, it is very similar to the real Cleveland County wherein  Shelby is located.  And Shelby provided considerable inspiration for Broad River.  Sometimes, the setting is more closely aligned with Boiling Springs, a nearby community also in Cleveland County.  In subsequent novels, the town of Broad River will assume a more commanding role, and it will more closely approximate these two real places.  Gardner-Webb University, mentioned early in the novel, is a real university that is located in Boiling Springs.  Craggy Gardens is a real place on the Blue Ridge Parkway, but Brackett’s Grove Baptist Church on Johnson’s Knob exists only in my mind. The childhood home of Kenneth Keller is centered around Jonesville and the Bakerstown Communities that presumably exist on or just below the North Carolina, South Carolina state line, however, neither of these places really exists.  I got the idea of a town straddling the state line, however, from Grover, a little community in Cleveland County that actually straddles the state line, but, beyond that obvious feature, there is no further similarity between it and any place mentioned in the novel.

With regard to the settings near the coast, however, Southport is a real town, but some of the historical and geographical information about the town were contrived for the purposes of the story.  Waterfront Park, Whittler’s Bench, and the Cape Fear Restaurant are actual places.  Oak Island, Fort Caswell, and the lighthouse on Oak Island are real, but Brunswick Beach Baptist Church  is a fictitious church in a fictitious town, even though the general area is really in Brunswick County.

I like to use real places whenever possible.  On the other hand, though, I do not want any negative associations to be made between an actual  place and a fictitious event in a novel.  Therefore, I try to avoid this by making less flattering events in my stories occur in imaginary settings.

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from The Writing Desk

Web Fountain pen

Someone asked me recently where I came up with the idea for Crickets of the Silver Queen. Actually, the idea came from several places, but one experience in particular yielded the mold from which the character-types were cast.

When I was in college, I worked one summer in an old mill in Shelby, NC, my hometown. Three of us, all college students on summer break and all from different colleges, worked together doing odd jobs around the mill that June and July for little more than minimum wage. It was in the late seventies and at the cusp of many of the economic changes that ultimately brought instability to the textile industry, the mainstay of much of the South for generations. A few months earlier, the mill had been swallowed up by another, larger firm, and much of what we did that summer related in some way to helping the once locally-owned company and their employees make the transition into new ownership.

Some days, we would sit for hours tediously changing the labels on hundreds of spools of thread, making “canary yellows” into “daffodils” and changing “rubies” into “wine.” At other times, we rearranged stock in the warehouses or counted inventory. The work was mostly physical, brutally  hot, and often tedious.  And for the first time in my life, I really understood what it meant to work a “shift.”  Mine was first shift – from 6:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. –  unless I had to work overtime, and that was almost every day.  But mill work was initially an exciting departure from homework, term papers, and tests. I was tired of college –  as were the other two boys who worked alongside me that summer –  and fresh from final exams, we spent the month of June admiring the simplicity and lure of blue collar labor.  Very little of our work was mentally challenging, and to that end, it was rejuvenating.   And best of all, we got paid.

By July, we had grown to know many of the workers more intimately after dozens of breaks spent washing down cold vending-machine sandwiches in the mill’s smoky canteen.   We ate to the rhythmic melancholy of Johnny Cash on the old Channel Master radio and the endless drone of machinery just beyond the glass-paneled door.

Most of the workers were hard of hearing and yelled to each other as they smoked, ate, laughed, and coughed their way through lunch.  As though the effects of smoking weren’t bad enough, a disproportionate number of them suffered from symptoms of “brown lung” disease developed over years of inhaling the lint and cotton fibers that permeated every corner of the plant.  By the time I went to work in the mill, giant vacuums had been installed to roam through the manufacturing center  on overhead monorails, endlessly tracking the same paths from one part of the mill to another, doing their best to suck the lint and stray cotton from the air through which it floated freely.

One man – I’ll call him “Charlie” – worked closely with us every day. He had lived the mill life for forty-five years, ever since dropping out of high school as a teenager. Every day he listened to us complain about how tired we were of studying. Even though I didn’t hate college, I did my share of complaining about the work load and pressures of being a college student.  I was just tired of it, as was Bobby, the boy with whom I worked most closely.

But Jack, the other summer helper, was different.  He truly hated school and had been forced into college against his will by parents who insisted that he go regardless. He had no idea what he wanted to do in life. He tended to be lazy and slough off whenever he had the opportunity, even slipping back into the warehouse to take naps while we worked extra hard to cover for him.  We were afraid that management might fire us all if they became angry with him.  So, day after day, we put up with him and listened to his constant complaining.   He hated college, mill work, or work of any kind.

One day, Charlie had had enough. With warning or apparent provocation, he reached across the table in the canteen, grabbed Jack by the arm, and jerked him up from the table, egg salad sandwich and all.  Without saying a word or loosening his grip on Jack’s arm, he made us follow him across the mill to an ancient,  rickety service elevator that we took up onto the second floor of the mill.  When the elevator stopped, Charlie folded back the gate that served as a door and led Jack by the arm to an enormous machine.  We followed more out of curiosity than contrition.  Once in place, he told us to stand before the long, loud machine whose constant supervision had come to define his life.

Charlie had two grandsons, loved to fish, and endured every week in the mill so he could afford to load his grandchildren into his pickup and take them camping and fishing on Broad River every weekend. They would spend Friday night and Saturday at the river until he returned Sunday for church and ultimately –  like the mythological Sisyphus returning to his “rock”  – back to work at the “twisting machine” every Monday.  Five days of every week for forty-five years, he had walked back and forth from one end of the twisting machine to the other, placing two or three bobbins at one end and watching the machine twist the threads into one stronger double or triple-twisted thread that wound to a single bobbin at the opposite end of the machine. Charlie only  “lived” two of the seven days in every week, the two days he didn’t have to work.  The other five, he merely existed.

Still holding Jack’s arm with all the pressure his sixty-four years could muster, he ordered him to look at the floor.  From one end of the machine to the other was a long stripe in the floor, a path worn lower by a half-inch or so from the rest of the hardwood, a little trough, almost white from wear and sanded smooth by Charlie’s shoes as they traveled back and forth from one end of the machine to the other. The long, straight path was the only tangible evidence he could produce from  a lifetime of careful dedication to the behemoth in perpetual motion before us.

“Look,” he yelled at Jack while pointing at the floor. “There is my life’s work; there it is. I’ve spent forty-five years working in this mill, and this worn place in the floor is all that I have to show for it. If I had been given the opportunity you boys have, I would have considered it a blessing from God. Instead, though, I’ve got to try and figure out some way to explain to God how I managed to squander my entire life with only a hole in the floor to show for it.”

He looked straight at Jack and told him to make a decision right then and there. He said, “You have two choices, my friend.  Shut up and be thankful for the opportunities that you have. Go back to college and make something of yourself.  If you don’t like that choice, then quit school and come up here so I can train you to take my place when I retire next summer.”

With that, Charlie turned loose of Jack’s arm and walked away. We didn’t see him again that day, but the next day, Charlie returned to work as usual, and so did Jack, but Jack never mentioned school again, at least not in front of Charlie. Two weeks later, Jack fell asleep in a large box of sewing thread and was accidentally shipped to Winston-Salem. He was fired immediately, and I have not seen him since.

Charlie was laid off before the end of the summer, forced into the retirement he had planned to take when he turned sixty-five the next year. It was really a blessing in disguise, though. By the next year, the mill was closed down completely. The new company that bought it out decided to close it down.

Charlie enjoyed the rest of that year with his grandchildren, but he never turned sixty-five. He died in the spring of the next year. He was still sixty-four.

The abandoned mill still stands today, although it has been empty for years. Charlie’s legacy – the worn path in the floor – is right where he left it.

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from The Writing Desk


Web Fountain pen

For the first post, I thought I would share my philosophy of writing with you. I wrote this one night after a long battle with a passage, trying in earnest to find exactly the right combination of words to capture the humanity of the scene.  It took several days and many revisions to find the words that finally satisfied me, but to my surprise, the words printed here came floating to the surface instead.  They have come to serve as a kind of testament to my frustration with the ultimate inadequacy of any art form to imitate life in its true complexity.   But, just as we Christians strive every day of our lives in futility to imitate Christ, writers likewise press on toward the mark, trying in vain to find those elusive words.  The writer must, at his best, accept only a weak reflection of life, for the very words he uses are of human origin and frailty, imperfect just as are their creators.  Writers must, then, with a final admission of defeat, surrender to the task much as the Christian ultimately realizes that he will only find perfection in surrender.  So, as for the writer… 

You write, and rewrite, and write again, writing until you have reached the limitations of the printed word to capture the essence of the human heart.  And when you have reached that pinnacle and stand resolute, unable to move yet another step without crashing to the depths below; when you are standing at the precipice of the heart, looking into it with all the verisimilitude you have been able to muster; and when you, like Moses standing before the Promised Land, find that you can enter it no further, you must stop and resign yourself to the futility of the task…and leave the rest to God.

Image provided by Flickr.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Blue hills

One of the questions that my high school students frequently ask me is why I write.  The simple answer to that question is that it just seems to be the natural way I have of expressing the deep convictions God has placed within me.

I grew up in a family of artists – my mother and brother painted and could draw anything they saw.  Going to art shows and arriving at school with burnt umber on my jacket was normal.  Oil paint was everywhere, and on everything.  My father, a banker by trade, made picture frames to showcase all their painting and drawing.  He was gifted at working with wood, and when he saw a pile of lumber, he saw projects.  I saw boards and imagined bonfires.  I struggled to draw a straight line with a ruler.  Music, guitar and piano in particular, but especially guitar, became the medium through which I could escape the world and find self-expression.  Somewhere, deep within the music, I could find the inner part of me, a place that seemed in some ways strangely connected to God.   

I have come to believe that we are all artistic in some way.  I believe that each person is unique, and to that end, I believe that God connects with each of us in a very personal way so that we know when he speaks and so that we know how to converse with him…without words.  Music provided that early connection for me, and it still does. 

I always wanted to write, however, but I could never think of anything to write about.  Then, about ten years ago, the stories began coming to me.  It was as though the floodgates were opened and the stories were coming faster than I could remember them.  They are still coming to me machine-gun-style.  I have learned to write the ideas down as soon as they come because if I wait, I’ll forget them.  I carry something to write upon everywhere I go.  I carry a digital voice recorder so that, when I’m driving and an idea comes to me, I can dictate it into the recorder.  Occasionally, I download the ideas from these random notes and recordings into a file on my computer and a file folder at home.  Then my next project (one other book is being written now, and four others are in the planning stages) evolves out of those ideas.

I write because God gives me ideas.  When I write now, I connect with him down deep inside, in the same place where I find the music and where the music leads me.  I write because I have to in order to have peace.  I write because God won’t leave me alone until I do.

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Crickets of the Silver Queen


This is the first novel I have published.  It is a Christian-themed, fictional tale set in the South, specifically in the southwestern Piedmont of North Carolina, with some of the action spilling over the state line into northern South Carolina.  It is in the tradition of Southern Literary Fiction.  Having grown up in the same geographical area as the fictional places represented in the novel, I developed a love for the people and places that were dear to me as a child and have remained so throughout the years.  The people and the places in the novel are not real, but I have known people like them all my life. 

So many of the people I have known throughout the years have struggled to “make ends meet,” often working long hours at backbreaking, labor-intensive jobs only to have to come home and work at part-time pursuits such as is the case in this novel with Kenneth Keller’s father, a mill worker who must supplement his income and chooses to do so by farming fields of Silver Queen corn.  Like so many people in the rural South, his (and their) job security was working in a cloth mill in a land where “cotton was king.”  Ultimately, though, many of those mills closed as those jobs moved to places around the globe where cheaper labor could be found, leaving thousands unemployed, uneducated, and too old to start over.  It is this same pattern that ends up being repeated in Crickets of the Silver Queen, and the loss of a livelihood to a padlocked mill becomes the catalyst that sets in motion the drama that unfolds in the life of the Keller family, a drama that ultimately leads Kenneth (and the rest of us as well) to realize that God is truly in control of everything.

I had no idea when I began writing this novel in a time of economic prosperity and seemingly unlimited financial gain that God was planting in me a message that he would allow to be released at such a critical time in our nation’s history.  It is my prayer that as you read it you will be blessed by the message that God planted in my heart and has privileged me to share at such a time as this.

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