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Home Spirituality Sermons Riding Butterflies
Riding Butterflies

Written by Rev. Rosie Rimrodt   

I have on two occasions this past year had the opportunity to stay at the Maine home of Lindy and Dave Anderson, members of First Parish. Both times I slept in the room of Lindy’s late mother Barbara Marshman.It was a great honor to sleep in the bed she had slept in. She was a remarkable person. I had a few brief encounters with Barbara near the end of her sixty-six years of working with children and youth as a religious educator. She was a curriculum author and mentor to hundreds of religious educators.

The year before she died she was working with a junior high class at Follen Church. They lit candles to remember the people who had inspired and influenced their lives. Marshman reminded the young people that they, in turn, were already an influence in the lives of others who looked to them as models. They extinguished the flame with these words, “I will live on in the lives of others, so it makes a difference what I say and do.”

We live our lives not really knowing who we are influencing by our words and deeds. The immortality we are investing in, Marshman described as “like dropping pebbles into a pool and watching the concentric circles spread out and out until it is hard to tell when they really disappear”.

We all have people in our lives like that, people who have an influence on us for decades. Sometimes we are completely unaware of whose influence is being played out in our lives. But sometimes we know, we remember. They have been our teachers and mentors. You all have those people. I remember my high school science teacher, Mr. Bo Cameron. His love for science was electric. Learning was fun in his class. He made me love science as well—to love inquiry and the workings of the universe. Mr. Bob Geuder was my drama teacher. He was sensitive and creative and loved looking into what makes human beings act and react to situations. It is because of him that I love stories. I knew a professor of home studies, Miss Taylor, when I was in college. I never had her for a class, I was not much into home economics in those days but we became friends. At one point I thought I needed to drop out of school for lack of money. She wouldn’t hear of it and loaned me the money to stay in school. But the most important thing she taught me was humility. During those years I was an anti-war hippy, who wore beads and protested. I was sure my opinion on everything was right. She would have me over to dinner and introduce me to some of those home economics ‘chicks’ that she was teaching. She forced us to talk to one another! One liberal hippy and one conservative future homemaker of America. These encounters taught me to always listen to all sides of an issue. Truth is often camouflaged by our stubborn convictions. And these conversations forced me to respect the intelligence and integrity of those women whose career path was to create a healthy and happy home environment for those she loved.

Most of you have heard by now that I will be moving to Knoxville, Tennessee at the end of this year.There are many things I will miss about being here in New England and there is a big pull for me to live in the east Tennessee region: The National Storytelling festival held in Jonesborough, TN every year. I started attending the storytelling festival many years ago. On my first visit I met a man named Donald Davis who told a story about his fourth grade teacher. The story made a profound impact on my life and how I view my work. I would like to share it with you.

“Schools today are different from the way they were back in the fifties. They have something today that they didn’t have then: young teachers.

Though he didn’t really know what they did with young teachers in Haywood County, he always suspected that they sent them off somewhere to ripen for a while. But now he believes the teachers retirement system may be partly to blame because, you see, back then, teachers couldn’t retire. They just kept coming to school until, one day, they finally couldn’t come any more.

That gave them a real advantage. They had been around long enough to have some important experiences--like having taught the principal, having taught most of the members of the school board, and being about ten years beyond being afraid of the Supreme Court.

Miss Daisy Boyd was in her forty-second year of teaching fourth grade at Hazelwood School. During that year Miss Daisy taught the A’s through the G’s. And so she had in her class little Donny Davis. There were no high groups, no low groups, no carefully balanced groups--just purely alphabetical ones.

Donnie and his classmates went into her room on the first day of school, an old room that had been there as long as she had, and there she was in front of them, a little, worn-out-looking wisp of a woman, and they began to wonder if this tiny person could really handle thirty fourth-graders.

After they had all been seated at their desks, the door from the room into the hallway was still standing open, and out of the hall and into the room--trying to find a safe place after living in an empty school all summer--came a mouse. Poor thing: it hadn’t invited all those little boys and girls to come to school, but there they were, and there it was, running around, trying to get away from them. The mouse came through Miss Daisy’s door and ran along the base of the blackboard behind her.

By the time that mouse got to the corner, Miss Daisy had turned and seen it, but she didn’t make a sound.She just eased open the top drawer of her desk, took out two brown paper towels, slipped over to the corner, squatted down and surrounded that mouse, caught it in those paper towels, walked back over to the front of the room, held the mouse up, wrung its neck, and dropped it into the trash can. Do you think they were going to mess with her after that? No way.

Donny’s whole year in the fourth grade was built around Miss Daisy’s imaginary trip around the world--a trip that began with a train ride to New Orleans aboard the Southern Crescent. Then, they boarded a ship and sailed to South America.

While they went along every day in their imaginary travels, they made long lists of all of the places they passed through, all the things they saw, and all the people who had ever lived there who had ever done anything important, and throughout the whole year, they never figured out that they were making their own list of spelling words that were harder than the words in the spelling books.

And all year long, when they figured out how far they had traveled each day, how much it took to buy train tickets and boat tickets, and, even later, how to change money from one country to another, she didn’t tell them they were working math problems that were more complicated than the problems in the math books.

Miss Daisy had never been out of Haywood County in her life, except for four years, forty-two years before that, when she had gone to Asheville Teachers College to learn how to teach the fourth grade. But during all those years, she had ordered by mail thousands of picture postcards. It wasn’t possible for them to go anywhere, from the smallest little town in Mississippi to a temple garden in Japan, without Miss Daisy being able to dig through her boxes and finally come up with a ragged-edge postcard to show them what that place looked like.

On the third day of their voyage, a little boy named Lucious Moody Grassty came scooting through the door. He had a wool knit hat pulled way down over his ears, and he wouldn’t take it off. He went past his desk, stood right in the corner of the room, and wouldn’t come out.

Miss Daisy came in, took one glance at him, and said, “Now, boys and girls, today is the day we cross the equator. And when we cross the equator for the first time, we have a big party for Neptune, King of the Deep.”

She went into the coat room and began bringing out things the kids had left there at the end of school for forty-two years. Old raincoats. Broken umbrellas. Old galoshes. She began dressing everybody for the big party for Neptune, King of the Deep. She pulled out the window shades to show them how they used the sails on the boats to catch rainwater and make bathtubs, and she told them how some of the sailors had their clothes run up the masts. Why, for this party, some of them even shaved their heads. And she pulled off Lucious’s wool knit hat, and his head was shaved. Everyone was jealous. How did he get picked to be the one?

It was a long time later before anyone learned that the day before, when Lucious had gone home from school, his mother had found lice in his hair, shaved his head, and washed it with kerosene. But Miss Daisy, without pausing for a moment, had taken this little boy with a blistered head and transformed him into the hero of the crossing of the equator.

Within a few days, they had arrived in South America and begun their journey up the Amazon River. Miss Daisy said, “Now children, the Amazon is the longest river in the Americas. There are butterflies there so big we could ride on them.”

“But, Miss Daisy, what if you take the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and put them together? Wouldn’t that be the longest river? That should have been one river anyway.” They asked.

But Miss Daisy always answered, “No, no, no. That’s two rivers. Two names, two rivers. The Amazon is the longest river.”

And it didn’t make any difference to Donny where they went from there--down through South America, across to the tip of Africa, up the Congo, or down the Nile--the Amazon was always his favorite place, because his art project for the year was making a butterfly so big you could ride on it.

A few years before, Donny’s Uncle Frank had tried to invent a way to fly. He made a machine, something like a primitive hang-glider, except it had a piano hinge down the middle so the wings could flap. He made a frame out of copper tubing and pieces of orange crate, glued about two million chicken feathers all over it, and put the harness from a pack frame on the bottom so you could strap it on your back. And he was ready to fly.

He got on top of the front porch and was going to take a short flight to a maple tree. He told them later a downdraft got him. Lucky for Uncle Frank, it didn’t kill him. Lucky for Donny, it didn’t tear up the wings.

On Friday afternoon, Donny begged and begged until his daddy took him to his Uncle Frank’s house, and then he begged and begged his Uncle Frank until he hunted up those old wings and gave them to him. He took them back to his house and went to work. He took off the harness, built a body out of big mailing tubes with the ends stopped up, made antennae out of two coat hangers, painted those wings orange, green, purple, yellow, and red in swirls of patterns, and by Sunday afternoon he had a butterfly so big you could ride on it.

He knew he couldn’t ride the school bus with his butterfly on Monday morning, so his daddy took him to school. He drove his old Plymouth with the window rolled down, holding the butterfly outside and trying to go slow enough to keep it from blowing away.

His Daddy wasn’t in a very good mood by the time they got to school. But Miss Daisy loved the butterfly, and she took a big coat hanger, hooked it into the butterfly’s back, and hung it up over the middle of the room. For the rest of the year, it floated there over the top of the whole class.

During the next several weeks, they traveled throughout the Mediterranean, across Eastern Europe, into Central Asia, China, and Japan, across the Pacific, and during the last two months of the year, they took a long imaginary train ride across North America, from Canada to Mexico. And finally on the last day of May, there they were in Hazelwood School where they were all the time.

The school year ended, and Donny soon finished grade school, then high school, and began college. One summer, Donny by then he was calling himself Don, was working as a busboy at the Mount Valley Inn in Maggie Valley. And one afternoon, just before opening, he was outside sweeping off the front steps, getting ready for the first customers to arrive, when a big green Roadmaster Buick came roaring up. He knew who it was--there was only one of those cars in all of Haywood County. It was Meg Clayton, one of Miss Daisy’s sisters. She got out of the car and came around to the other side. The other door opened and out stepped Miss Bessie, another one of Miss Daisy’s sisters. Together, they opened the back door, took something out of the backseat, and started coming toward the restaurant. He ran down to meet them. As he got closer, he saw what they had. Between them, hanging on to their arms, they had what was left of Miss Daisy. She was just a tiny little woman, nothing but skin and bones--a wisp of a person, with her head drooped down, her toes barely touching the ground as they carried her along, bringing her out to supper.

Miss Bessie knew Don and spoke, and then she turned to Miss Daisy and said, “Look, Daisy, look! It’s one of your old boys. It’s one of your old boys, grown up.” Miss Daisy raised her head and looked at him, but her eyes were white, colorless, and dead.

Her head dropped down and Miss Bessie said in a loud voice, “Daisy’s had a stroke.”

Don didn’t know what to say.

“When did she have it?”

“About six years ago, just after she retired.”

And they took her inside to feed her supper.

He passed by their table occasionally, trying not to look, trying to do what he had to do without watching.But finally he had to go to the table one last time to clear off their dishes and to see if they wanted dessert.

He rolled the cart up to their table and started slipping off the dishes, and all of a sudden, he could feel somebody looking at him. He looked up and saw Miss Daisy, her eyes as clear and as blue and alive as they had ever been. And from way down inside of her came a tiny little voice. “The Amazon is the longest river.There are butterflies there so big we could ride on them.”

Her eyes went blank and her head dropped down, and he went to the kitchen as fast as he could go. Mr. Gibson, the cook, was looking out the door, watching, and he kept muttering to himself. “Oh, isn’t it sad about poor Miss Daisy. Oh, isn’t it sad.”

And Don thought, no, it isn’t sad. He had thought it was until a moment ago, but now, he knew it wasn’t.For he had remembered how when they were in the fourth grade, they would ask, “Miss Daisy, why do we have to learn all of this? Why?”

And she always said, “Because--because one of these days you’re going to be able to go anywhere you want to go and you must know where you’re going.”

No, it isn’t sad about Miss Daisy. He had seen that she is now in a world in which she can go anywhere she wants to go and she knows where she’s going. She can even ride the butterflies”.

 

One thing I am going to miss about living in this area is being able to visit the grave of someone I never knew but nevertheless has been an enormous influence on my life. While others go to Sleepy Hollow in Concord to visit the graves of Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott, I am below visiting the grave of Elizabeth Peabody. It was partly because of her story that I decided in my fifties to change careers and become a minister.

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody lived a decade short of a full century from 1804 to 1894. In many ways I envy her time and place in history. She lived in New England during the rise of Transcendentalism. Her circle of friends included the Unitarian minister Dr. William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, her brother-in-law Horace Mann and her other brother-in-law Nathaniel Hawthorne. Peabody and Fuller were two of the very few women included in the “old boys” Transcendental Club gatherings. This was a great concession to the feminine mind and a most unusual gesture on the part of New England gentlemen at this point in history.

Peabody lived her life in the field of education. It has been said of her that her greatness lay in her ability to find genius in others and assist in its flowering. She was fifty-five when she heard of a German educator named Friedrich Froebel. Peabody was so taken by the remarkable behavior of the young daughter of German immigrants that she remarked to the mother, “that little girl of yours is a miracle, --so child-like and unconscious, and yet so wise and able, attracting and ruling the children, who seem nothing short of enchanted.” The mother replied that it was no miracle but simply the result of being brought up in a kindergarten. “A kindergarten, what is that?” Peabody asked. “A garden whose plants are human. Did you never hear of Froebel?” In 1859 the kindergarten that is commonplace in every elementary school in America did not exist here. For the rest of her life she championed this cause. This kindergarten movement caught up all the threads of her life: her work as a teacher, the influence of Dr. Channing and his Unitarianism, her identification with the Transcendentalist revolt and her friendship with that circle and her conservative idealism. Her conviction about education and particularly the Kindergarten movement were founded on her belief that through education humanity could make a heaven on earth. She believed that if people only knew ‘the right’, they would never do wrong. She assumed, along with Horace Mann, that a people taught to rule themselves could eradicate poverty, prevent war and see to it that dictators should rise no more. And Dr. Channing had held that the child comes into this world free of sin. Evil, then, must be given to the child by means of an evil environment. These beliefs influenced her to open, with her sister Mary, the first English-speaking Kindergarten in America. But she became increasingly aware of her inadequacy caused by her lack of preparation and knowledge of procedures. She needed more than the books she was reading. She needed to see the Kindergartners at work. During this period the “Kindergartners” referred to the teachers, the tenders of the garden of children. So at age sixty-three she sailed alone to Europe to learn first hand the philosophy and techniques of the movement to which she would devote the rest of her life. It was on her urging that in 1870 William Harris, superintendent of the St. Louis schools, incorporated the kindergarten into the public school system, the very first public school system to do so.

Kindergarten is the beginning of our formal education. At the other end is graduation. But graduation to what? What do we do with it all? Gary Kowalski writes, “Ever since I graduated from college, I have had a recurring dream. My wife has had it, too, as well as a lot of other people I know. In my dream, it is time to take an exam and I am unprepared. I have not gone to classes all semester. I failed to do the reading. Usually, I am even a little confused about the subject matter. What was being taught? Who was teaching? What was I supposed to learn? No answers are provided. Now it is too late to make up for lost time. With a sense of approaching catastrophe, I realize that although I am about to be tested, I haven’t a clue how to pass.

What is the meaning of this peculiar dream? I was never that nervous about taking tests in real life, because I was a fairly good student. Why does it seem to be a fixture of our collective unconscious? Surely it concerns something more than lingering classroom jitters.

I think it is a dream about the Great Examination that each of us must face. The items on the exam are the Ultimate Questions: Who am I? What do I want? What am I afraid of? To whom (or what) am I committed? Where is my own highest good calling me?

This is not just a dream about academic anxieties or forgetting the dates of the Magna Carta. It is about forgetting our own reason for being.

We have one lifetime (that we know about), and no make-ups are allowed. Is it any wonder we are all tossing and turning in our sleep? By the time morning comes, we have to be ready to give some account of ourselves. Sooner or later, we have to answer for how we choose to spend our lives.”

 

Elizabeth Peabody, Barbara Marshman, Miss Daisy, Mr. Gueder, Miss Taylor, Mr. Cameron, I salute you all.And to all the teachers and mentors that have influenced your lives, I salute you as well. You have spent your life well. Blessed Be.

 

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