Lilly, a first-year school teacher is roped into chaperoning a backpacking trip over the Spider Gap glacier. Unfortunately, she cannot find a sitter for her purse-dog and must smuggle him along on the trip.
All her friskiest 6th grade students are participating as well as a handsome ski instructor who resists her efforts to organize their trip in a mathematically pleasing manner.
Can Lilly evoke a thirst for learning within her skeptical students, when she herself can barely survive the rigors of the trail?
Sixth Grade Psychosis
Lilly completed another head count. Twenty-five, still one shy. Had she directed anyone to the bathroom? She checked the yellow basket on the corner of her desk. Five hall passes on bright yellow lariats stared back at her, their laminated edges crisp and perfect. If only the rest of life were just as faultless.
“Miss Park, I’m finished!”
Lilly glanced up and started. She smoothed her expression and addressed a girl in a purple hoodie who had draped herself across her desk so that she hung upside down with her long blonde hair pooled across the carpet.
“Thank you, Emily. Would you please place your page in my turn-in basket and use the remaining time to read, while upright?”
Emily rolled her eyes and unhooked her toes from the back of her chair. Without something to brace against, the girl slithered to a heap on the floor.
Slowly, oh so slowly, Emily righted herself and proceeded to the turn-in basket. How the twenty-six students of class C could all universally despise mathematics after only a single week of instruction, Lilly couldn’t fathom. But despise they did, and this often took the form of agonizingly slow obedience whenever she was blessed enough to get student compliance in the first place.
The online classes she’d had for her student teaching were so fabulous—each child relishing in the world of numbers, each parent waxing eloquent upon her fine organization and love of the subject matter. Even her accounting job with the IRS had not produced such difficulties. Lilly shut her eyes and counted to ten as Emily moseyed back to her desk. An image of Joshua’s lived face flashed through her mind. Yes, accountants faced difficulties as well, but very rarely in the form of flips and summersaults.
The rest of the class sat hunched over their desks with pencils in hand, mostly. A few students had tucked their pencils behind ears, one girl speared hers through a massive pile of dark hair, and one boy looked to be using his writing implement to sketch a cartoon of a two-inch-tall school teacher being used as a soccer ball by a rampaging herd of troll-sized students. She should confiscate the masterpiece, but not right now. First, the missing student.
Class C would leave in less than five minutes and class D had the most unruly students by far. She had to corral the missing child before sending everyone on their way. Three minutes left. Hmmm…If I were a twelve-year-old numberphobe, where would I hide?
Lilly bent as unobtrusively as possible to peek under the desks. Only pencil shavings and a few dropped notes. She glanced under her own desk, behind the supply cabinet, and into the corner by the garbage can. Nothing. A movement caught her eye. Was that a shoe swinging back and forth above the supply cabinet?
A green high top with long, dangling laces was indeed swaying back and forth, like one of those cat clocks, only the leg of a 6th grade boy counted off the seconds instead of a kitty tail.
Lilly marched across the room and stood below the offending sneaker. “Mason, are you finished with your division refresher?”
The green sneaker continued to swing. Would it be unprofessional if she seized his leg to make it stop? Lilly imagined the parent teacher conference.
“So, tell us one more time. How did our son get a concussion and two broken legs while working on a math page, Miss Park?”
She gazed up at her student, scrunched into the tiny space between the ceiling and the top of the cabinet. He was reading quietly, just as she had asked, and yet…the location was not ideal. “Then I must insist that you use your time expanding your mind and vocabulary with a book in hand and your body within the confines of your desk.”
“But what if I fall?”
“You climbed up without mishap. I imagine that you are fully capable of descending with both caution and alacrity.”
“Oh, dear, big words.” Mason said using his famous Granny voice. The same voice that had caused more than one student to spray lunch punch from their nose in the cafeteria. “If I plunge to the ground and break all my bones, why, that would be all your fault, wouldn’t it, Miss Park?”
The bell rang.
Lilly spun back to the class and shouted over the sound of desks scraping the floor as students rocketed from their seats. “If you haven’t finished that division review, have it in my basket on Monday morning and please enjoy an industrious and pleasant weekend.”
No one answered.
Lilly sighed and turned back to the supply cabinet.
Mason grinned from his perch.
Lilly tried to put steel into her gaze as she addressed him. “Would you like me to call the custodian and secure a ladder for your descent?”
Mason rolled over on his back and braced his sneakers against the ceiling. “Maybe...”
The classroom door crashed open.
Lilly shut her eyes. She knew exactly which student had entered.
“Another sighting!” Logan Conrad shouted in his echoing radio show voice. Both the radio voice and Mason’s granny voice had featured heavily in her nightmares all week, which made perfect sense as they were often heard together. “Our humble school has the honor of witnessing another sighting of the famous and fabulous Virgin Mary! What could it mean? Why are we, of all the students in the world, so very blessed?” Logan paused to hum in a dramatic fashion and then make jazz hands while gaping at her.
Mason cracked up and slid off the cabinet. “Nice,” he said, punching his friend in the shoulder as he exited.
Logan plopped down in the front center desk and stared at her in feigned awe.
Lilly ground her teeth and ignored him. Why, why, why had she helped Grandma set up that accursed social media account?
Gran didn’t realize the havoc she had wrought last Christmas during Lilly’s first visit to Alpendale. No one had volunteered to play the Virgin Mary for the living nativity at Grandma’s church. Gran had immediately extolled Lilly’s virtues to the pastor on the church’s social media page. This had included an ill-considered joke about Lilly being perfect for the job since she actually was a virgin. That particular post had received a plethora of comments and less-than-romantic marriage proposals. It even inspired amused youth group kids to create an oh-so-hilarious video and accompanying rap.
Lilly had thought that students did not enjoy badly rhymed verse. She had been sorely mistaken. Apparently rhyme lived on, wherever there were blushing first-year teachers to shame. No, she wasn’t ashamed, per se, just mortally embarrassed that something so personal was now in open discussion across the vast reaches of the social media world.
Class D took their seats.
Logan plopped his chin in his hands and gazed up at her with a raptured expression. Lilly pointed at his page and nudged the pencil across the desk toward his hand. With a sigh, he picked it up and looked down at the problems she had carefully selected.
After about ten minutes, Lilly roved the room, assisting students with the entry task. She had some fine mathematicians in the class, some of them were even friendly, but none of them contradicted the dissenters. That was her job as the teacher, but Lilly wasn’t certain how to accomplish the task. What did one do when one’s archenemy was a giggly twelve-year-old?
The last bell shrilled through the school, echoing down the beige hallways and causing every eye to stray toward the closest window. A warm breeze danced through the aspen leaves and a patch of cerulean sky beckoned.
Lilly answered a few last minute questions, directed her students toward the turn-in basket, and wished everyone a pleasant weekend.
About half of the students rushed out the door, leaving the remainder loitering at their desks and chatting.
Lilly emptied the homework basket into her laptop bag so she could grade the papers at home.
A tall man ducked his head through the door. He had a scruffy goatee and his hair was pulled back into a hasty man-bun.
Somehow the affect was not as silly as Lilly expected.
Not at all like the fake bunches of hair attached to double-brimmed hats downtown that featured the slogan “I’m their leader, which way did they go” and were commonly worn by flocks of confused tourists. The aforementioned man bun was an interesting shade of nutmeg brown. Like coffee with multiple stir-ins. Cream, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla.
Lilly sniffed, spicy aftershave…no. Lilly seized her wandering mind and placed it firmly back upon the task at hand. No one wanted aftershave in their coffee, no matter how tastefully applied and delectably fragrant.
Mr. Man-Bun scanned the remaining students until his eyes stopped on Emily. “Hey Em, time to go.” He held up a wad of nylon straps and metal bits, jangling the mass in the air as though this were explanation enough.
Lilly scrutinized his clothing ensemble, hoping for a clue about the tangle of equipment.
Cut-off jeans, a faded pink T featuring a grinning cartoon cat dumping a tray of lasagna into its open mouth, and tight neon shoes that hugged his feet like a second skin.
Emily rummaged around. “Just a sec I’ve got to find...” She plunged her arm deep into the desk.
Lilly knew for a fact that all it contained were three candy wrappers folded into little hats and a single square of purple gum. Lilly had determined that her students would clear their desks out every single Friday and so far, a week into school, she had succeeded.
Hmmm. What was Emily waiting for? In fact, why was she even here? Class C had vacated her room long ago. Lilly glanced around the room. No, no they had not. About a dozen children remained and more than one class C student was hidden among them.
Mr. Man-bun nodded toward the door. “The rocks won’t wait, Em, and we have to get back in time to pack.”
Emily continued to rummage.
Mr. Man-Bun gave a theatrical sigh. “Meet me outside. I’ll be by the Jeep. Just make it snappy.”
Emily spoke in a faux whisper to Cloe and Natasha, whose desks abutted her own. “My uncle is soooooo bossy about “the rocks.” You would think they were alive or something the way he goes on. “Respect ‘The Rock’, Emily. Don’t day dream when you belay. ‘The Rock’ doesn’t take a nap, and neither can you. If you forget, ‘The Rock’ it’ll jump out and bite you.”
What on earth did Emily mean, “The Rock?” Surely this mysterious uncle did not intend to use that tangle of harness for rock climbing purposes? Not with a twelve-year-old? He wouldn’t drag a poor innocent child along on his dangerous pursuit of adrenaline, right? Not when they might plunge to her death at any second.
Lilly shut her eyes. No, the school day was complete.
Emily’s foolish outdoor pursuits were no longer Lilly’s concern. She grabbed up the adorable straw hat her mom had mailed from Seattle. At her movement, a strange paroxysm came over the remaining students.
Each child leaned forward slightly. Odd?
Lilly took a moment to admire the straw boater in her hands. It accompanied her favorite shoes so nicely her mother had mailed it express so the package would arrive during the first week of school. Even so, the lovely accessory had only reached her mailbox the night before. The straw was a crisp, golden yellow, and a silky ribbon brought in just a splash of color. Lilly took a deep, cleansing breath and set the new hat upon her head. The hat squelched as she settled it in place, like a PBJ sandwich in the fist of a rampaging toddler on a hot day. Lilly grimaced as the memory of that long-ago babysitting disaster resurfaced. She tugged her hat off.
Long strings of chewed gum stretched from the straw boater in her hands to the top of her head.
Lilly pulled harder.
The gum only stretched, firmly entangled in her glossy, black hair.
A giggle shattered the silence.
Lilly glanced up to see a dozen delighted smirks. She turned the hat over. Inside, about the same number of gooey chewed up globs of gum stuck to the delicate straw weave. Of course. The project probably took them all day. If they were this fascinated with the order of operations in their math work, with ratios and proportions, dividing fractions, rational numbers, and pretty much anything with a number in it, her students would all have A’s.
Question 1: Lilly is volunteered for an arduous backpacking trip, when her only outdoor experience is walking her dog in the park. Have you ever found yourself in charge of something that is wildly outside your comfort zone?
Answer 1: As a young teen, I was made a senior camp counselor because I was responsible and listened to authority. I was not experienced however and it was terrifying to be in charge of all these young girls. I think that God wants you in that place though, where you must acknowledge your inability, gulp down your fear, and rely solely upon Him.
Question 2: Have you ever had a hiking mishap?
Answer 2: Many of the adventures in this book came from the real hikes that I enjoyed with our youth group as a teen. Yes, I sleepwalk. Yes, a friend of mine sleep ran across Spider Meadows in the middle of the night. Yes, I stood with our youth leader at the very edge of a 2,000 foot cliff. Yes, a friend showed up for a hike with an army backboard instead of a pack. Yes, I slid down the Spider Gap glacier sitting on a coat, although I was able to go much slower than poor Lilly and never smuggled along a pet.
Question 3: Have you ever had an outdoor adventure with a purse dog?
Answer 3: Yes! My mother owned the dog that inspired Strudel in this book. Maggie was a six pound ball of fluff and our family babysat her for over a week once. My children were helping and I remember with horror the moment one of my sons sidled up to me and said: “Maggie is an excellent swimmer.” I of course wanted to know how he discovered this fascinating tidbit of information. Apparently, he had tossed her into the creek. It was March and there was still some snow on the ground. It became his responsibility to hold the shivering little dog inside his shirt as we drove back to the house. She was apologized to with lots of treats and snuggles and warm towels. Maggie survived and even enjoyed the rest of her visit, curling up on the boys’ bunk beds during story time and pretty much ruling our home after that.
Question 4: What is the most beautiful natural location that you have ever been to?
Answer 4: I have been on some amazing hikes, but I have to say that standing at the top of Spider Gap and looking out across the wilderness is so lovely, it actually does take your breath away.
Question 5: Was that location easy to reach?
Answer 5: Not at all! First you hike into Spider Meadows and the trail crosses many many seasonal creeks (I wrote down the actual number in the book) and it is almost impossible not to get your feet wet. Then you hike across the meadows the next day. Then you hike up the Spider Gap glacier the day after that and you have to do it at the right time of day and during the correct time of year for it to be safe. Finally, when you reach the top of the glacier and the alpine breeze zips through your hair, freezing the sweat on your brow, you turn around and the whole world is laid out before you in all its glory. So amazing, but not easy to get to at all.
Question 6: Do you think the arduous nature of the trek to places of beauty adds or detracts from their loveliness?
Answer 6: I live near a lovely little tourist town that is smack in the middle of some gorgeous mountains. It is beautiful, you can drive right to it, but amidst these mountains are parking lots and bratwurst stands and thousands of people stumbling around with cameras and ice cream cones. Driving to this little mountain town does not even compare with hiking into a wilderness area. The vast sweep of nature is simply overwhelming as you stand alone upon a peak, just you and God and all of His splendors.
Question 7: Does the difficult nature of hiking reveal something concerning our journey with God?
Answer 7: It isn’t just standing upon the mountain that inspires you. It is hiking in soggy shoes and on dusty trails. Sleeping under the attack of a hundred mosquitos and putting that pack on your back the next day. It is stumbling over rocks and pushing through a cloud of biting flies. It is blinking the stinging of sweat out of your eyes and then finally topping that rise and staggering under the glory of the mountains and the crisp slap of the alpine wind. There is beauty in the journey as well and this is true for life with God. We will lose something if we think that life is supposed to just deposit us upon mountain tops like a helicopter zipping from lovely peak to lovely peak. Sometimes you have to hike it, to truly understand it, or perhaps to realize that you cannot understand it and to come to grips with the fact that this is OK.
Question 8: Do you think that people who want God to be simple and easy get the full impact of His majesty?
Answer 8: Just as something from the mountains is lost when you can drive up to them and order a hotdog from a stand while you gaze at their beauty, we miss something of God if we will only take Him in through prepackaged, bite-sized, easy to swallow pieces. He is more than we can imagine and it is foolish to pretend otherwise.
Question 9: Have you ever faced a moment when you wanted to give up and persevered? How would you have been different if you had given up?
Answer 9 My husband took a friend of ours backpacking once and I remember him saying: “If I can’t get him to the top, I know he’ll never go hiking again.” It was true, he wanted to turn around and leave because the trip really was miserable. But after the pain and the dirt and a sleepless night against a rocky cliff and trembling limbs as they kept climbing on, the fabulous beauty of the summit snatched all of those hardships away and left him breathless. So much of life is like this. God has wonders of the heart and soul for us as well, if we will just put one foot in front of the other and keep going, there is so much beauty amidst the horror, but sometimes the journey grows very dark before we get there.
Question 10: Lilly must use strength she did not know she had to rescue her fellow leader and the children. Have you ever had to rely on lessons learned in difficult times for some crisis later on?
Answer 10: Facing the death of a parent at a young age is a terrible thing. Enduring a long night wrapped so tight in depression that you don’t know if you will be able to take the next breath and the next after that is excruciating. Watching people you love tear their lives apart leaves you so helpless. But when someone who is drowning in a personal darkness wants to talk, you dare not come to them with preachy little bits of advice and greeting card sentiments. It is these times of suffering which make you real to them. Do not despise the times of darkness, for out of them one will rise stronger and more like our Lord than ever before. Though the pain is terrible, God will not let all this garbage go to waste. He brings beauty and joy out of the ashes and sorrow that surround us.