Teaching Cosmic Possums

“That bright little piece of a story or theory might be picked up and sewn into a warm crazy quilt of practical teaching skills.”

by Sandy Whetmore
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cosmic possum is someone who leaves the Appalachian hills and country life for a more modern lifestyle. This term-coined by Jane Hicks in a 1998 poem—particularly refers to a first-generation college student. While still holding on to the essential values ingrained in native Appalachians—family comes first, every penny counts, and beauty is where you find it-the cosmic possum also understands the life-changing value of knowledge.

I teach cosmic possums at a community college in east Tennessee. Some days, I find the biblical advice “Let not many of you become teachers” (James 3:1 NASB) to be particularly apt. I teach future teachers, and part of my job is to help college students decide whether their heart for children, love of learning, and need for a paying job are enough incentives
to take on the challenges of becoming a teacher. After a semester spent looking closely at the realities of the profession, quite a few decide teaching is not for them and walk away. There have been times when I wish I could, too.

However, teaching is not just what I do; teaching is who I am. God has called me to teach. He has not only gifted me with skills, temperament, and opportunities to teach; He has placed something indescribable in my spirit that continues to pull my heart back to teaching through all the seasons of my life.

A few years ago, a visiting pastor prayed for me in the altar. He told me, “You have this mantle covering you that you’ve worn all your life and you’re so comfortable wearing it! It’s a calling to minister to children-a double portion of your father’s gifting.” And that is as close as I can come to describing it myself.

While my father was not a teacher in a formal classroom, he was involved at church in some form of children’s ministry as early as I can remember. When my little brother was born, I started teaching him, modeling my father’s methods. I’ve always taught. It’s as natural as breathing. Yet, that doesn’t mean it is always easy.

Life in rural Tennessee is difficult. The effects of devastating poverty, poor access to emergency care, high drug use, low levels of education, and high teen-pregnancy rates present real challenges.

Times are tough in Tennessee, but God always enables those He’s called to be light and salt. My personal experiences give credibility to the stories I tell about teaching. I can show my students how concise writing is like working with a tight budget, how creating a great lesson plan is like adapting a coveted recipe, and how synthesizing material to write an essay is like piecing a beautiful quilt.

For me, making a difference means creating possibilities for the next generation right here where I live. I know some of the bits of knowledge I share might end up in the scrap basket. Someday, however, that bright little piece of a story or theory might be picked up and sewn into a warm crazy quilt of practical teaching skills. Confronting poverty, crime, and ignorance is challenging. But God’s calling on my life has proved He’s well able to equip me for it!