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It Was Time to Retire When . . .

by Sandra Nipper Ratledge

Ask any career educator, and all usually agree that teachers know instinctively the best time to retire. Last fall, I knew it was time for me to retire when we studied folktales in English classes. One long story called "The Force of Luck" depicted a miller and his wife. To introduce it, I had to define a miller. Students knew that a shoemaker made shoes; therefore, by deduction, a miller must make mills. After distinguishing between the suffixes -wright and -er, I explained, "Thus, a person who made mills was called a "millwright;" but a "miller" operated a mill, which was how this miller, the main character, earned a living."

Then, I tried to describe a mill and grinding stones, which they'd never seen -- not even in photos, movies, or on packages of flour in grocery stores. They didn't know what a miller did with a mill. A boy commented, "There's a paper mill at Charleston."

"Oh, yes, Bowater makes paper from ground wood pulp. Right?" He nodded in agreement. "But that's a different kind of mill from the ones in olden days and the setting of this story."

One girl asked, "That's something for grinding pepper, isn't it?"

I replied, "It worked on the same principle as a peppermill. Water power forced huge grindstones to grind one against the other." With colored dry-erase markers, I hastily sketched a picture on the board of a brown wooden water wheel and a mill. In blue, I drew a water source for turning the huge wheel and mentioned the two types of water wheels. I explained that an overshot water wheel turned clockwise while an undershot rotated counterclockwise. Their expressions led me to believe they understood that logic -- especially the boys. Having definitions behind us, I still felt optimistic and ready to approach plot development in that story.

So, I asked, "Do you remember what this miller ground with these immense grindstones?" They had no ideas until I clued them it was a type of grain. Quickly they guessed all kinds of things like wheat, barley, rice, oats, etc.

"Wheat was ground into flour but not in this particular story." Finally, I had to tell them he ground corn.

"And what did he make in grinding up the corn?" I made the mistake of asking.

One boy on the front shot his hand up fast and looked so confident and informed. I smiled and nodded to him immediately. He responded with conviction, "Creamed corn!"

Oh, it took every smidgen of self-control not to burst out laughing, for I was in such distress! The kids giggled at my unusual facial expression -- unsure but guessing its meaning -- and then mumbled to one another. At that very minute, I realized I live in another world. "Class, the kernels of corn had to be dried hard before grinding them between these enormous grindstones; otherwise, they would just turn to mush," I tried to explain. With that added knowledge, some then volunteered with even more assurance and enthusiasm.

The next one raised his hand high and waited anxiously for a chance to counter the other student, "No, it was corn flakes!" he affirmed.

"Oh, no, Dear!"

Another popped out, "Was it popcorn?"

In utter disbelief, I felt my knees weaken. Another student smiled and said proudly, "Oh, I know, it was sugar!"

Several students laughed, so I added in support, "We do derive corn fructose, a type of sweetener, from corn. It's contained in many products like syrup and Sunny Delight juice, but much refined sugar comes from sugar beets." At last, though, I had to tell them this miller ground corn into meal; but they'd never seen cornmeal and were clueless about its use. None of their mothers ever cooked cornbread. I asked, "Do you mean that none of you have ever eaten cornbread?" Around the quiet room, shoulders shrugged; eyebrows arched; and heads shook slightly back and forth. If they had tasted this "new" food, they certainly had no memories of it.

They were all completely baffled by my description of cornbread until I said the word "muffins." Finally, one boy asked, "Oh, is that the stuff like you can get at Cracker Barrel?"

"Yes! Yes, you can," I sighed with relief.

Luckily, so ended the class period. At that moment, I realized I had been speaking a foreign language and to my advanced class, no less. Then I knew I'd been around too long.

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This site is dedicated to the memory of my mother,
Beulah Cline Nipper, a beautiful product of the Knobs.