Monday, September 11, 2017

A Lesson from First Grade

This question appeared in Richard Rohr’s reflection on “Hope in Darkness: Grief”,  Friday, September 8, 2017

"What are the ways in which your losses have transfigured your soul?”

With 80 plus years as resource for reflection I am not without material. My guide in answer to the question, and the question frames the answer, will be personal events that transfigured my soul both personally and professionally as a hospital chaplain and an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church.

Like the immune system in our bodies, this will have both specificity and
Non-specificity, particularity and universality, both/and rather than either/or.

Starting with the particulars, my early years, 8 and 1/2, were lived on a 160 acre generational family farm. My great grandfather, James Franklin Whitmer and Harriet Munn were the first owners to my knowledge. I am not sure if they homesteaded in the 1840's. 

The farm was located 9 miles north of Wilton Jct., Iowa. Back then it was known as Wilton Jct. They have since dropped the Jct. 

I started school at 5 years of age, entering first grade. We did not have kindergarten. My teacher was Miss Spencer. I have never forgotten her name. She is a key person who helped transform and influence my soul at an early age. Her influence continues to this day. My only mistake was not to get word to her in later life. But my mistake does not deter me from passing on the gift she gave me in first grade --- A listening presence.

I am guessing this was in the spring of 1936. My father took a load of corn to Bennet, Iowa, for sale. My little dog Topsy tagged along. Topsy was a rat terrior given to me by my Grandfather Whitmer. They were his favorite breed of dogs. On the way to Bennet Topsy was run over by a car. When I came home from school that day, my father informed me what had happened. I remember running back to school to tell my teacher. She must have listened deeply. Her presence as I told my sad, tearful story, remains in my memory. The story is part of the foundation for a story listening group, a grief resource group, and a grief recovery group at St. Luke’s Hospital, now Genesis Hospital in Davenport, Iowa. I will also include the first Hospice in Scott County as another outcome and a Clinical Pastoral Education program. 

My first three years of learning in a one room school house are never to be discounted. There were 16 students at the time in grades from one through six. I was in the largest class of five, three boys and two girls. We had individual desks and when class time came we all went up front to the recitation bench.

From that beginning I would move to four different schools before finishing high school in Muscatine, Iowa, the home of the Muskies. Grades 3-4 were in Muscatine, 5,6, and 7 were in West Liberty. Grades 8 and part of 9 were in Nichols, Iowa. There was a continual uprooting and change for my more introverted ways. One of my ways of coping was to make humorous comments. They helped establish a relationship with my peers but the teachers had a different response. Back then, in grade school more than once, I was up in front of the class standing in the corner. I never did figure out what that was supposed to accomplish.

Somehow the moving about, the loss of the family farm, my father's grief and depression, and frequent loss of friendships, made me more sensitive to the importance of relationships and transitions. An understanding of transformation came much later.

Several years after becoming a hospital chaplain the Befrienders came into existence. Another story. They were trained to listen to the stories of hospital patients. Our  discovery, the majority of stories shared included some kind of loss and grief.  We then formed an educational reflector group called the grief resource group in January of 1975. Within a year we started a grief recover group with six people meeting in ten week segments. That changed to every other week all through the year. Grief as the natural response to loss and change is the universal we all experience.

The Grief Recovery program still continues in the Genesis Health System in a expanded way. The CEO of the hospital experienced the death of a child in an accident and that event generates his support and expansion of the grief recovery program. Losses can transform our souls and our way of responding.

I will have more to say about our learnings from the grief recovery group. The most exciting discovery, and Aha!, was learning the language of transition and transformation from the people who were making the journey. Reflective listening was our mode of discovery.

I name the experience with my teacher in first grade for the outcomes of activities in my professional life as a hospital chaplain. Her listening presence established an awareness that remains to this day. I don’t think it was written into her lesson plan for that day.


Marlin Whitmer
retired hospital chaplain and founder of the Befrienders, story listerners, in 1966

No comments:

Post a Comment