Elegy written in the countryside

Tobacco barn

A friend tells the story of a visitor from England who, while riding through our rural North Carolina community, asked: “What are all those quaint, narrow houses in the fields?” My friend chuckled: “Those aren’t houses – they’re tobacco barns.” 

I thought: They’re really elegies written all across the countryside.

I love tobacco barns. Within a short radius of my home stands a grand one with a shiny tin roof, another crumbling in a timbered wood, and another housing two mules – seeing this makes me feel as if I’ve stepped back in time. So, with serious apologies to Thomas Gray, I attempt to pay homage to tobacco barns on this last day of National Poetry Month.

Along the winding roads, bereft, they stand
Beyond their use, and most beyond all care,
Just empty shells of creaking wood, unmanned;
Gone gold, within, leaves sweetness in the air.

The fires no longer burn, nor flues convey
The curing smoke, the farmer’s cash-crop dreams;
Those hands and hearts that worked all night and day
Lie spent, burned out, unremembered, it seems

But for the spectral structures standing yet,
Hand-hewn ghosts, whispering to passers-by:
“Press on, work hard before your sun shall set,
Live, love, build well.” – I hear the old barns sigh.

Reflect: What in your landscape, your neck of the woods, speaks to you? What does it say? Why? Listen – and write. 

 

 

My book bag

Bookbag

Everywhere I go, my customized book bag is a topic of conversation.

First of all, it’s literally a BOOK bag, sending the message “I’m a reader.”

Then people realize what the “book” is about. A play on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, my book bag bears the title “Magical Worlds and Where to Find Them.”

Opening a book, for me, is akin to Newt Scamander opening his suitcase – we step in and walk through magically expanded worlds. Whatever the book, it’s a passport to the minds and souls of other people, where I find myself reflected not always as a writer or thinker but as a fellow human being on the common, complex journey of life.

That’s the message I want to send to my young students, who are frequently in raptures over my book bag: Read. Expand your world, your mind.

My book bag actually sends more than one message:

Bookbag spine

It’s an homage to my favorite fantasy writers and the worlds they created, old and new.

Much is written and debated, perhaps, on the importance of reading fantasy. Here’s a favorite quote on the subject:

The problem with people who are afraid of imagination, of fantasy, is that their world becomes so narrow that I don’t see how they can imagine beyond what their senses can verify. We know from science that there are entire worlds that our senses can’t verify. 
-Katherine Paterson

The magic is a draw, certainly – in regard to Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, who wouldn’t want to experience singing stars and merfolk, a centaur, talking animals? Who wouldn’t want a chance to feel the tingle of the box of dust from the lost island of Atlantis and ride on the back of a huge owl? Truth is, the bigger, deeper exploration is not the mysteries of the magical world but the real workings of the human heart – we read fantasy to escape our world, to live in another for a time, and all the while we’re looking into a mirror. This is where our thinking truly broadens – in understanding self, then in pushing the parameters of possibility.

Dr. Seuss said:

Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.  

The lines between the fantasy stories we love best and the world we live in are much blurrier than we realize. It’s where the impossible and possible merge – who’s to say where all the boundaries really are?

Which is fun, sometimes even comforting, to think about.

So everywhere I go, I carry a little fantasy, a little magic, with me.

Via my book bag – a messenger bag, indeed.

Bookbag back

slice-of-life_individual

Committing assumicide

Through the window

Through the window sepia. Jo NaylorCC BY

Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.
Isaac Asimov

This quote brings a little girl to mind.

She shows up in my classroom early for her reading intervention group. I am hunkered over my laptop fighting with a SMART Board activity I’ve created on word families.

“Hello,” I say, without looking up, frowning at my screen and the uncooperative technology. “Come have a seat. The others will be here in a few minutes.”

She sits right next to me, a small warmth at my elbow. “What are you doing?”

I sigh. “Trying to fix this activity for your group to play – it will be fun. Something’s not right, though. I’m trying to figure it out.”

She watches while I attempt to cut a word from one side to paste on the other. Unsuccessfully.

Even as I fight the program, I wonder what she is thinking.

She struggles terribly in all academic areas, an ESL student with processing issues beyond the language barrier. She is soon to be tested for disabilities.

“What is that line in the middle?” she asks.

“It’s a dual screen – two screens instead of one.”

“Oh. You are trying to move this word to here?” She points from one side of the screen to the other.

“Yes. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” I say in exasperation. I glance at the clock – I should have caught this problem sooner! “I’m going to have to quit now – I’m out of time. Your group will have to do something else instead.”

Without removing her eyes from the laptop, my student reaches over, clicks on the obstinate word, then drags and drops it on the other side.

“There,” she says, matter-of-factly.

I stare at her. “How did you know that? Have you seen a SMART Notebook before?”

She shrugs, laughing at my expression. “No. Just a try.”

The group was able to play the interactive word game. That day my little girl was a much more willing participant, with considerably more confidence.

The outcome could have been quite different. In my frustration, it would have been easy to answer her questions with Oh, never mind. It’s too hard. I could have thought, There’s not much need of my explaining. You won’t understand.

Had I done so, I would never have known that she had this ability, that she could “see” what to do with the new software when I couldn’t.

I would have committed assumicide.

It happens every day.

Teachers assume that students who struggle in academic areas struggle in all things – and thereby limit the students further. Although the thought may never be verbalized, it lurks in the mind: They can’t do that . . . so surely they can’t do this . . . .

A friend of my family was born with cerebral palsy. His father was an avid golfer who decided early on that he would treat his son as if he didn’t have the disability. As soon as the boy was big enough, his father started teaching him the game.

I have often wondered how many eyebrows were raised at the time: What is that man doing? His child can barely walk or dress himself – why in the world would he teach him something requiring as much precision as golf? That boy will never be able to hit the ball! I wondered if some people may have been angry over the injustice.

If so, they eventually learned that they’d committed egregious assumicide.

The boy grew up living and breathing golf. He remains a local expert on the game with a room full of trophies won in multiple tournaments, long after his father had passed away.

Yes, that’s right – a room full of trophies in a precise game like golf, when the two halves of his body don’t work together for him to climb stairs and his hands shake when holding a cup so that it can only be partially filled, lest he spill the contents.

When I needed a fast P.E. credit one summer to complete my teaching degree, the only thing available, to my great chagrin, was golf – and this extraordinary man coached me through it. I have page after page of his painstakingly handwritten notes and drawings on “the fundamentals of golf.”

When I was growing up, my parents had the In the Wind album with Peter, Paul and Mary singing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” As a child, I loved the three-part harmony and haunting lyrics:

How many times can a man turn his head

And pretend that he just doesn’t see? 

Maybe it’s not always a matter of not seeing, but seeing wrongly – seeing the deficits, not the potential.

For the teacher, what isn’t working too often overshadows what might. Sometimes we see but don’t act because we don’t know what to do, or because we believe our efforts won’t matter. We assume we are defeated before we begin. Sometimes our focus just isn’t where it needs to be when worry, exhaustion, fear, discomfort, directives, even the need for self-preservation and validation, occlude our vision. Sometimes it’s hard, in the throes of teaching – and of living – to stop and breathe, to listen, to see, to let go when we’re so focused on whatever it is we are trying to make happen. Accordingly, we close more doors than we open – for ourselves as well as for others.

We assume, and something dies.

I decided at the end of eleventh grade that I wanted to go to college. Higher education wasn’t talked about at my home, wasn’t encouraged. The general expectation is that I would keep taking courses like business typing (which I bombed, miserably) to become a secretary.

I needed to take several college prep courses in twelfth grade even to apply for college, and the college prep English teacher wouldn’t let me in his class.

He had the reputation for being the hardest teacher in the school. He reluctantly met with me, frowning over my transcripts. “You haven’t taken the prerequisites for this class or demonstrated that you can handle this caliber of work,” he commented, handing the transcripts back.

“Y-yes, sir, I know,” I answered, trembling. “I hadn’t planned to go to college until now.”

He eyed me over the rim of his glasses. Piercing blue, absolutely no-nonsense eyes.

“Tell me why I should let you into my class.”

“I’ll work hard. I can do it,” I said.

He sort of snorted. “A lot of students before you thought they could do it, too, and transferred out of my class, even when they had prepared for it.”

“Please.” It was all I knew to say.

He shook his head. “I am doing this against my better judgment,” he grumbled, and signed my special permission form.

That year I encountered the great poets, studied sonnets, wrote so much about the spider in Robert Frost’s “Design” that my teacher noted at the end of my interpretation: Exhaustive analysis! I memorized and recited – in Middle English – the first thirty-four lines of Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. I hung on my teacher’s every word about London during the time of the Black Death; his descriptions were so vivid that the images remain clear in my mind to this day. For my final paper I wrote about the function of King Claudius in Hamlet – and when our teacher announced that four students tied for the highest score on the paper, I was one of the four.

He returned my paper on the last day with this comment: “For someone who had to have a special conference to get in this class, you have done remarkably well. You have surpassed expectations.”

All of which leads me to believe that the First Commandment of teaching should be Thou shalt not commit assumicide.

Perhaps it may even need to be the First Commandment of humanity.

slice-of-life_individual

Deeper than data

Moonrise

Moonrise. magnoidCC BY-SA

Papers are spread across the conference room table. The projector shines a graph – a student’s reading assessment history – on a screen. Discussions center on interpreting the erratic data points on a trend line in relation to the aim line toward a goal, the rate of improvement, and whether or not this student is a retention candidate.

A colleague turns to me: “What do you think? You’re the literacy person.”

I consider the numbers, the color-coded risk categories, where this child falls in all of it.

“I don’t know,” I reply. “I haven’t heard this child read.”

Silence. Eyes are on me.

“I need to know what exactly this child is doing during reading, how the child approaches it, feels about it, what the actual strengths and weaknesses are. Until I do, I cannot say what I think. Data is information but it doesn’t tell the whole story, only little pieces at specific points in time. I have to listen to the child.”

I leave the meeting to do just that.

The child is eager to read and turns out to be highly accurate, reading slowly and deliberately; the time that it takes this child to finish reading is why a high risk is indicated on some measures. In fact, the child can read and fully comprehend text above grade level expectation. The only enemy is time, and that’s only an issue in assessing. The desire to read, the ability to self-monitor, and an obvious work ethic so early in life will take this child far.

I think of Brené Brown, professor-author, who says: “I am a storyteller. I’m a qualitative researcher. I collect stories; that’s what I do. And maybe stories are just data with a soul.”

Data is the dust jacket; behind it there’s a story, and in the center of the story is a little soul.

It takes another soul to reach it.

I listen to another child reading with great flow and prosody, to discover that this young reader isn’t making meaning beyond the surface of the text – and struggles a bit even to retell what’s explicitly there. This child, whose data looks near-ideal, “in the green,” is of far greater concern. Supports need to be put in place immediately or this child will fall through the cracks.

On paper – on the dust jacket – this child looks just fine.

A few months ago, as I was printing data reports in the computer lab, I saw a young man walking with a class down the hallway. Subs are getting younger and younger, I thought, gathering my papers and returning to my room to begin analyzing them. Two colleagues joined me at my table.

The young man came into my room, smiling. “Mrs. Haley, do you remember me?”

I look at him. A little face, frowning over a book, springs into my mind. “Yes, I do! Goodness, you’ve grown up!” Mentally, I am counting off years – Good grief, how long have I been doing this?

Turns out he’s not a sub, he’s a high school volunteer. I breathe a little easier about the passage of time. He was one of my first intervention students at this school.

“I am planning to go to college to teach,” he says with a grin. I marvel at his poise. He exudes young professionalism.

“Really? What do you want to teach?”

“Reading. In fifth grade. I think I can help the kids love it. I really didn’t love it until I was in high school and suddenly I couldn’t read enough – I read all the time.”

I am awed. “That’s amazing! I am so glad to know. The kids need you. What a great role model you’ll be.”

One of the colleagues at my table asks: “Was there a particular teacher who inspired you?”

His face – once so little and serious, nearly scowling as he sat at this very table – lights up with a beatific smile.

“Yes. Mrs. Haley.”

My colleagues’ eyes tear up. I cannot even blink, cannot quite process this.

“But – you said you really didn’t enjoy reading until high school,” I manage.

“It took a while,” he laughs. “Reading was hard for me when I was little. I didn’t think I’d ever be good at it. You were the one that gave me the confidence, the one who said I could do it. I kept trying.”

Behind the data is a story. Behind the story is a little soul. A precious one.

Sometimes we never know how the story unfolds once the children go on. We only play a part for a little while, but how priceless is that tiny window.

If data were the whole story, I wouldn’t be a teacher, wouldn’t be writing this now. My parents didn’t go to college; one didn’t finish high school. The odds were against me. But my parents bought books and magazines, my grandmother read to me long before I went to school, and teachers challenged me all along to strive for more.

Another meeting, another table strewn with papers. I stand up. “I have to go now. It’s time for me to read with a student.”

This student and I read every day, if we can. He struggles with vocabulary but his primary issue is lack of confidence – he doesn’t want his peers to hear him.

I am running late. When I find him, he tries to hide a smile.

“I thought you forgot,” he says, as we settle at the table.

“I was in a meeting,” I explain. “I had to leave it.”

Pure astonishment is on his face. “You left a meeting? To read with me?”

“Well, yes. Your reading is important. Let’s get going.”

He looks at me, wide-eyed. “I can’t believe someone would do that.”

“You’re more important than the meeting,” I say.

He smiles in spite of himself.

And he reads.

I listen.

slice-of-life_individual

Celebrate today

Dogwood

Dogwood. JenniferCC BY

The first day of April – glorious. A sky as blue as it ever gets, hardly a cloud to be seen. Dogwoods and redbuds, bare just days ago, flowering profusely. On the breeze, the scent of blossoms, almost like perfume – winter daphne, I think.

All marking the end of desolation. Nature composes a theme of renewal with color, fragrance, amber light and birdsong.

At the close of the day, I celebrate its beauty. I celebrate the inherent message of hope with the arrival of another spring. Even the news carries a rare inspirational story about a man opening his front door to find his dog, missing for four years, back home on the porch. He sat down and the dog put her head in his lap – what an emotional celebration that must have been.

Today is also the first day of National Poetry month. I have recently discovered a lost booklet of poems that I wrote as a teenager. All things considered, this particular poem struck me as one appropriately celebratory  – winter is over, spring has returned; a lost dog has returned home; my lost poems are found.

I wrote it when I was sixteen. Back then, I called it “Yesterdays.”

Yesterdays are gone

Leaving nothing but memories behind

And, if meant to be, a chance for tomorrow.

So weep no more

For what once was,

For it may be

Once again.

Celebrate today.