The Harry Potter club

harry-potter-club

Every semester a new group of them arrives, fresh-faced, wide-eyed, often clutching owls or wands, quivering with excitement and  ready to be sorted into one of the four houses … no, they’re not at Hogwarts. These are third, fourth, and fifth grade students who signed up to be in the Harry Potter club at our magnet school.

A colleague and I are the founders, the “co-deputy headmistresses” of the club, formed in conjunction with the school’s mission to expand arts and science integrated opportunities for the students. Staff chooses what to offer; students can sign up for anything from cooking classes to a foreign language to astronomy. Since it began, the Harry Potter club has operated at maximum capacity. Once we know students’ names, they receive their own rolled parchment letter of acceptance (as yet not delivered by owl, but we headmistresses are working on that).

My colleague and I expected to have fun – after all, we chose a theme that was fun for us. We expected that the kids would have fun, and they do. From Day One when they are sorted with the help of an online quiz  – we call it the “technological Sorting Hat” and we always end up with an alarming number of Slytherins, prompting discussions about character traits – through sessions of making their own wands, Quidditch pencil brooms, golden snitches, and patronus pictures, the students savor every moment. One of us, a teacher or student volunteer, reads aloud from the books while the club members work on their crafts. As students are sorted, someone reads Harry’s sorting experience to the group; when students make wands, one of us reads the scene where Harry goes to Ollivander’s for his wand. All students chime in right on cue, because they’ve seen the movies and they know: “The wand chooses the wizard.”

What my colleague and I didn’t expect were the far-reaching effects. Parents frequently tell us: “My child is SO excited about being in the Harry Potter club!” We didn’t expect the depth of the discussions students would initiate on their own, regarding various characters and their motivation:

“Professor Snape was really protecting Harry the whole time, not trying to hurt him.”

“That’s because Snape loved Harry’s mother – they knew each other when they were little, before she knew Harry’s father.”

“It was Harry’s mother’s love that protected him – she died to save him, and that’s why Voldemort couldn’t defeat Harry.”

One would have expected students to be drawn most by the magic, the fantastic, or the old good vs. evil theme, but at the ages of eight to ten or eleven, the students talk more about love, the huge, shining thread that winds through the stories and ties them all together.

My colleague and I certainly never anticipated one student’s attending the club from its inception to the day he left for middle school. As the club is in high demand, repeaters are not usually allowed. One of his teachers made the appeal: “He doesn’t like school, but he loves the Harry Potter club. He’s always here on club days. Can he please be in it again?”

His mother said: “It’s all he ever talks about – the Harry Potter club.”

Our young friend turned out to be a jubilant Gryffindor (as is yours truly, for the record). By his third go-round in the club, he was made Head Boy; he coached newcomers on club matters. He occasionally stopped by my room to discuss Potter trivia and other topics of his interest, always smiling. When he graduated from the fifth grade, my colleague and I presented him with a Hogwarts T-shirt. He wore it for the ceremony.

Just before his departure, our veteran member was asked why he loved the club so much. His brow furrowed in thought for a moment before he replied: “It’s this whole story about a boy who loses his parents and everything is hard for him all the time, but he still tries to save everyone. He’s so brave.”

He paused. We listeners wondered, with tears brimming, what sage, profound connection might be coming next. Our Head Boy just shrugged: “And there’s no Star Wars club.”

Ah, perspective.

Reflect: The power of story is limitless. Read a story to someone. Tell yours. It matters.

 

Why I write

writing

I write because it’s the closest thing to magic that there is.

From words spring worlds.

Worlds of understanding, perception, knowledge – of humanity and of myself. I write to explore the world without and within, the real and the fantastic, the important and the insignificant, the extraordinary and most certainly the ordinary. Where there are ideas and images, there are words – lanterns for encircling thoughts, illuminating objects and scenes, mystically shining from one mind to another.

I write because the narrative voice in my head is continuously composing, often drowning out other important things.

The power of story compelled me to write when I was six years old, sitting at the living room coffee table with a pack of wide ruled paper and a fat pencil. A few years later, a teacher said, “What vivid descriptions! Keep writing.” Every year thereafter, a teacher strategically appeared to give a refining bit of feedback: “Wonderful writing. Here’s a way you can make it even better … and keep writing!”

I kept writing, even when my dad grumbled, “Why are you wasting so much notebook paper?”

Today, I write with children. I witness their discovery of their own voices, their courage in putting pieces of their souls on a page. I share in the excitement of their creations, in every little triumph over challenge. I work to empower teachers as writers, for the empowerment of student writers, that all might tap into the magic.

And I keep writing.

I write to wrap a cloak of immortality around everything I have loved – what was, what is, what will be.

I write to scatter the ashes of all my yesterdays, to walk in the light of all my tomorrows.

I write to celebrate having lived.

In honor of National Day on Writing, October 20.

Reflect: Why do you write? What have you wanted to write, but haven’t yet? Carve out a pocket of time today and begin. Tomorrow, repeat.

 

The secret gates

ditch-gate

Into the ditch. jam343 CC BY

When I was a child, my neighborhood flooded regularly.

I lived on a block where all the backyards joined at a long ditch. When I went to play with a friend, I took a shortcut by running alongside the ditch and jumping over it, taking care not to land in it, for the ditch was lined with thick, black mud; if it did not stink outright, it certainly smelled organic, stagnant. Sometimes fleabane, tiny, hairy daisies, grew along the banks. That’s about it for ditch decor.

Whenever a heavy rain came – and a few times during a moderate rain – the ditch overflowed. Storm drains in the curbs overflowed as well, until water covered the streets and most of the yards. My friends and I had fun wading through it as we walked home from school, sloshing as much as we could.

My father, however, was irate every time.

As soon as he saw the water backing up, he got the city on the phone.

“Listen, I’ve called before,” he’d snap at the City Official on the receiving end. “You ought to have a record of it. This whole neighborhood is flooded AGAIN. Get whoever is paid to do it to open those drainage gates.”

Every time, the City Official pleaded ignorance about said gates.

I watched Daddy’s florid face redden. “You people always act like you don’t know what I’m talking about, but I am telling you, there are flood gates controlled by a switch and somebody up there knows how to use it. There’s NO EXCUSE for a place to flood like this. Open the gates!” He glanced through the picture window in the living room. “A canoe is going down my street right now. So help me, I will get in it, come down there, and find that switch myself.”

A canoe was going down our street, neighbors having dragged out their camping stuff, rowing merrily along. A teenage boy in waders, hip-deep in the water, pulled younger siblings on a raft behind him. To my horror, one young neighbor tossed a puppy from the front steps out into the water to make sure it could swim. It could; that the puppy swam back to its owner amazed me.

Daddy’s voice got louder, his face redder, until he hung the phone up in disgust, but within an hour of his call, the flood began to diminish.

As the water level went down, so did the color in Daddy’s face. In his eyes was a glint of victory, or perhaps vindication. The City Officials had, yet again, scrambled to open the secret gates they kept forgetting about. Good thing they had my dad to remind them.

Did the gates actually exist? Did they lead to the nearby river, or where? I never knew for sure, but the timing between my father’s phone calls and the floodwaters receding is intriguing, suggesting more than a fluke.

Our regular neighborhood floods were mild annoyances in comparison to the devastation experienced by anyone whose home has been lost or whose life has been endangered. The forces of nature are beyond human control, despite the best of foresight and man-made safeguards. On a small scale, my father did what was within his power to change a situation. One voice, persisting. Today I think of the labyrinthine educational system, of American politics, the overwhelming need for change when so much is at stake, and those who are suffering. What are the gates to clearing the way, and where lies the switch? Change is a force within human control. As Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery penned: “All things great are wound up with all things little.”

Believe, be the voice, reclaim what is of value, before it is lost.

Reflect:  Water is a symbol of life, as well as adaptability, healing, and cleansing. When things become overwhelming, one of these might well be a switch to seek. Which might be yours? How might you help others?

 

 

 

 

 

Haunting forevermore

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in … June, 2013.

My older son and I, teachers inspired by a love of The Great Gatsby,  celebrated the arrival of summer vacation by driving from North Carolina to Rockville, Maryland, where we visited the grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Having accomplished this mission before nine o’clock in the morning, my son asked: “What do you want to do now?”

“You know,” I grinned, “Baltimore is only forty-five minutes away. Poe is buried there.”

Thus was our Dead Writers Tour born. Off to Baltimore we went.

In contrast to a midnight dreary, the morning sun was blinding at the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground. The old Gothic-Revival church, the gate, the trees, the headstones, all cast the blackest, sharp-edged shadows, as if intentionally evoking the last lines of  “The Raven”:

And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor

Shall be lifted – nevermore!

And there, to the immediate right of the entrance, was the author’s grave under a large, shadowy monument bearing a plaque with his likeness. One wilting yellow rose and a couple of little rocks rested on the base.

Poe is buried with his wife, who was also his cousin, aged thirteen when he married her and twenty-four when she died, and her mother, his aunt.

“This isn’t the original grave,” my son pointed out. “Poe was first buried somewhere behind the church. He was moved here to to the front later.”

“That figures,” I said. “The man was unsettled for most of his life. He couldn’t even be settled in death.”

Just then a black bird flew by to land on another headstone, where it sat watching us from the stark shadows.

“Is that a raven?” I whispered.

Quoth my son, wide-eyed: “Geez, Mom!”

“No, it can’t be,” I assured him. “Ravens are bigger than that … I think. Let’s go find the first grave.”

This cemetery is old, dating from the late 1700s. The pathway from the entrance to the back is narrow,  leading past massive domed slabs somewhat reminiscent of Quonset huts. Years and weather have left black streaks running down the sides of these burial slabs to form odd swirls and patterns. Ghostly patterns, painted by nature’s fingers.

“Check out this stain,” I said, pausing. “Does it look like a skull to you?”

“Oh, wow – it does!”

Rounding the corner of the church, we came upon a marble table with thick legs and a top so sunken in the middle that it seemed impossible for such a heavy substance. A plaque informed us that this “gravity-defying” monument was mentioned in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! article. A Revolutionary War veteran is buried beneath this oddity.

From there, my son and I could see Poe’s original grave, as the crowned headstone is embossed with a raven. On nearing the cenotaph – the empty tomb – the words arching above the bird become visible: “Quoth the Raven – Nevermore.” The stone informs visitors that Poe rested in this spot from 1849 to 1875.

“Do you remember reading about the mysterious person who showed up every year on Poe’s birthday, wearing a cloak or something, to leave roses at the grave?” I asked my son, a trivia expert extraordinaire.

“Oh, right – the Poe Toaster. He wore a hat and white scarf. He left cognac, too.”

“At this marker or the other?” I wondered.

“This one, I think. He came for decades, until just a couple of years ago. No one ever figured out who the Toaster was.”

“That’s hard to believe, in this day and age.”

“What’s really strange is that just before Poe died, he was found in the streets of Baltimore, out of his mind, wearing someone else’s clothes, and no one ever knew why.”

“It’s haunting, but mostly sad,” I pondered aloud. “Something straight out of his own work.”

We turned to leave, walking past a line of eroding tombs and vaults on the far side of the little cemetery. Some stone vaults had iron closures that appeared damaged. My fanciful imagination took flight: Had someone tampered with the doors, trying to get in – or out?

I shuddered despite the brightness of the day, recalling something my grandmother told me when I was a child afraid of the tiny graveyard across from her house in the country: Never fear the dead. Fear the living.

“I don’t think I’d want to be here at night,” I said to my son.

We simultaneously picked up our pace toward the exit.

“Nor would I.”

Back at Poe’s final resting place by the gate, my thoughts turned to his poetry, the glorious rhythm of “The Raven,” which drew me as a child the first time I heard Vincent Price reading it on TV. The poem wields mesmerizing, unique power. It is meant to be read aloud. Once when I was working to help third graders comprehend a text they were reading, we encountered the word raven.

“What’s a raven?” they wanted to know.

“It’s a bird – a black bird,” I told them. “There’s a famous poem about a raven.”

“Read it to us!” demanded the kids.

After a quick Internet search, I read the opening stanzas.

The children listened, spellbound. When I stopped, one of them sighed:

“Oh, Mrs. Haley – that sounds just like music.”

It does, indeed.

Ever after, the kids greeted me with “Hi, Mrs. Haley! Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary!”

Having paid my respects at last to Edgar Allan Poe, I walked back through the gate, just as the church’s bells began striking eleven – as if the word master himself was sending a message:

Keeping time, time, time,

As he knells, knells, knells,

In a happy Runic rhyme,

To the rolling of the the bells —

Of the bells, bells, bells —

To the tolling of the bells,

Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells–

To the moaning and groaning of the bells.

It couldn’t be coincidence – could it?

Today is the 167th anniversary of Poe’s death.

Reflect: What written works sing in your head, call to you, haunt you? Why?

 

A poem of friendship

Through clouds of gray will softly shine

a gentle silver tear of mine,

leaving lines to slowly trace

an empty soul, a lonely place.

A golden glow you gave to me

to help me through eternity –

light and warmth with which I try

your own sweet rains to somehow dry.

And we two have learned to see

the me in you, the you in me.

A golden ray through a silver drop

create such colors; they cannot stop.

What blazing brilliance we have sown,

this iridescence of our own!

Combine our souls and we will show

our strength lies in our rainbow.

-Written when I was fourteen. The UK’s National Poetry Day brought this early effort back to mind.

Reflect:  What metaphor captures the beauty and power of your dearest friendship?