Wishes

Author Matt de la Peña led the first day of my district’s Teacher Summer Writing Institute and graciously offered to sign books during our break.

Here’s the conversation I had with him as he autographed Carmela Full of Wishes for me:

“I noticed the recurrence of Carmela jingling her bracelets throughout the story. I wondered if it symbolized something in particular, in connection with her imaginings.”

“There’s no hidden meaning,” replies de la Peña. “Carmela jingles the bracelets to irritate her brother.”

I laugh. “Because that is what siblings do.”

He nods. “She removes the bracelets at the end as an act of kindness to him. Here—let me show you my favorite page in the book.”

He turns the book around for me, displaying Christian Robinson’s intricate artwork: a papel picado (cut tissue paper) rendering of a father kneeling, a little girl in his arms.

“The book is really about the importance of family being together.” De la Peña’s face is solemn. 

I run my fingers over the words. “Home . . . I am reminded of history, how slave marriages weren’t considered legal. Families were split apart and people didn’t care.”  I look back to de la Peña. “But family is the foundation of everything.”

Yes,” he says, his dark eyes sparking. “It is.”

This week in America, we observe Independence Day. We celebrate freedom.

It is a sanguine word. Bloodstained. By wars waged to win it, but also by the lifeblood of the people who call a nation “home.” In this freedom is also a consanguine word – for home is where the family is.

As de la Peña so poignantly conveys with Carmela’s mixed-status family. She’s a U.S. citizen, born in this country, wishing, waiting – dreaming – of the day her father will “finally be home.”

At the book’s close, as I look at the dandelion fluff in the wind, Carmela’s sky full of wishes, my mind sees white stars waving on a field of blue, fireworks showering a night sky. I recall that a hallmark celebration on the Fourth of July is family reunions.

And I don’t know why an old line of Kris Kristofferson’s insists on accompanying this vision: Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…

With artistic apologies, I can’t say that’s true in the context of nations and families and home … our hope and our humanity are still left to lose.

On Tolkien

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes, a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring . . . .
—J.R.R. Tolkien

I went to see the movie Tolkien this weekend. My thoughts, while sitting in the darkened cinema, watching it play:

Story is magic.

Reading aloud is magic.

Words are magic.

All are part of writing magic. 

Whatever critics may say of the movie, however accurate it may or may not be in depicting the early life of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, as a writer, I loved it. For me it beautifully captured the way a writer’s mind works.

When young John Ronald sat by the fireplace, utterly captivated by his mother’s reading and enactment of a dragon, I could relate to how the book and her voice spurred images to life in his mind. How flickering shadows on the walls, thrown by a candle carousel, took on the shapes of  mythological beings, how story played in his brain as vividly as this movie played in mine. I understood how these images stayed with him long after his mother died, after he landed as an orphan in a boarding house, even how they grew nearer, larger, clearer on the battlefields of the first World War while he succumbed to trench fever. I admired the artistry of the shadowy images recurring onscreen as part of Tolkien’s memory, recognizing: That is exactly what images DO. Once they spring to mind, they are THERE. They lurk, they submerge, they resurface. They’re never gone; they settle and swirl about again, waiting, waiting, waiting always, for the solidity of a page.

I loved how the movie emphasized the young Tolkien’s passion for words, particularly in a romantically-charged scene with Edith Bratt, who would become his wife. Tolkien speaks of the beauty of the phrase “cellar door.” He is enraptured by the sound of it. Edith tells him that it is not the sound of  a word that gives it beauty, but its meaning—what the word stands for, all that it connotes. This is reiterated in a scene with Tolkien and Joseph Wright, Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford, on the mightiness of ships, buildings, civilizations, history, all summed up in a three-letter word: oak. Connotations, connections, deep, deep roots, power . . . in language, in phrasing, in a single word . . . is this not an ancient alchemy that writers come to know? 

And, at the same time, how captivating is the story of an orphaned boy making it to Oxford, himself becoming a renowned professor of philology (the study of the structure and historical development of language, if ever you’re a contestant on Jeopardy!). It’s the story of a man overcoming circumstances and being a genius, the roots of which run back to Tolkien’s childhood, to the Latin his mother taught him, to the stories his mother read aloud to him.

—Story.  The apogee of language, of words. The ultimate form for which language and words exist. The creative force, perhaps, that calls them, drives them . . .

In the final scene of the movie, Professor Tolkien sits at a desk before an empty page and begins to write a now-famous line. I’ve read his own account of this: he was grading examinations, mind-numbing, “soul-destroying” work, when he discovered a blank page in an examination booklet. Without knowing why, he wrote on it: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. This instantly reminded me of J.K. Rowling, how the idea of Harry Potter just “fell into her head” as she was riding a train. The genesis, the magical conception, of story;  it does not exist, but then, inexplicably, in the blinking of an eye, it does, and the world is changed by it. The Tolkien Society relates that after the professor wrote that line out of nowhere, he then needed to know: What was a Hobbit? Why did it live in a hole? To find out, Tolkien began to tell the story to his children . . . and thus, eventually, was born the archetype of all modern fantasy.

The old that is strong does not wither. Deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes, a fire shall be woken. A light from the shadows shall spring . . . yes. It seems to me that in these words of his lies proof that old stories Tolkien began learning as a child remained strong in him; they didn’t wither. They sparked in him an unquenchable fire. Those roots of his love for language, quests, myth, survived the freeze of profound loss. His memories, experiences, the images from his childhood onward, all are the shadows, the ashes, from which his own stories spring.

So it is with writers.

Even if all who write are not Tolkien.

It’s still magic.

Living literacy

Every year, my school hosts Literacy Lunch.

It is a time for families to come share in the love of reading, writing, and learning in classrooms, followed by a meal together in our cafeteria.

Literacy Lunch has sometimes been a vehicle for explaining English Language Arts curriculum, and shifts in standards, to parents. Mostly it’s a time for students and their families to collaborate on literacy activities. We’ve had poetry slams, writing cafés, and a “Step Write Up” carnival. We’ve invited families to SWiRL (speak, write, read, listen) and we’ve gone “wild” about reading (with the school decorated like a rainforest). 

Even though it’s hosted in the middle of the day, Literacy Lunch remains one of our school’s best-attended events. Three days are designated: One for kindergarten and first grade, one for second and third, one for fourth and fifth. Some families come all three days to spend time with their children in different grade levels.

The comment we receive most often from parents: Thank you for this time with my child.

It tugs on the heartstrings, for a parent to tell you this.

When it came time to think of a theme for Literacy Lunch this year, part of my mind kept latching onto the idea of celebrating families themselves. They are, after all, the fabric of our school community, the thing that makes it unique. They are our greatest resource.

Then, in February, Two Writing Teachers ran a blog series on “Teaching Writing with a Social Justice Lens.” Co-author Kelsey Corter penned “A School Can Be the Change”, a breathtaking post on identity, culture, heritage, power, action, and the vital importance of honoring each other by sharing our stories. It was based on her school’s work and the book Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension by Sara K. Ahmed.

I read these introductory lines of Kelsey’s over and over:

More than something we do, school can be the place where literacy is a way of living; a means for understanding the world and our place in it, that which shapes perceptions and molds identities.

The words turned round and round in my head:

Where literacy is a way of living

Literacy . . . living

—Living literacy.

“Well, that’s it,” I announced to my colleagues. “That’s my vote for the theme of this year’s Literacy Lunch.”

For, in truth, while the children  are growing as readers and writers, their stories, all of our stories, are unfolding each day that we live; our families are a fundamental part of that. Every one is unique, every one valuable.

And so it was agreed upon, and the children got to work on Living Literacy: Celebrating Me in Pictures and Words.

It began with them tracing their hands to make flowers, one for each homeroom—a whole garden of beautiful, diverse flowers.

In our lobby and cafeteria, every homeroom was represented by a flower made from students’ traced and decorated hands. Many students artistically conveyed their personal interests – such as hobbies or a favorite book, like Amal Unbound, seen here. Some students across grade levels decorated their hands with flags from their native countries. 

Teachers and grade levels planned identity-related activities for students to share with families:

img_2220.jpg

Student bios with 3D photos hang from the ceiling of a first-grade classroom.

Many families helped compose student name acronyms. 

In an “All About Me” book, a first grader describes herself.

A kindergarten class asked parents, teachers, and peers for words to describe students. They created camera snapshot posters for a “Picture Me Successful” display (“Drinks a lot of water” may be my favorite descriptor of all! Talk about being observers!).

In third grade, students made booklets of various types of poems and collaborated with families in writing some.

One first grade class published a book of their animal research, with a back section recounting highlights of their year together. These books were presented to families at Literacy Lunch.

Even our tabletop flowers in the lobby and cafeteria were handmade by students.

Second grade families collaborating on “I Am From” poems. 

Fourth grade families collaborated on a “Books are windows and mirrors” activity – analyzing book characters, seeing others, seeing self.

Fourth grade’s hallway display: “My ideas can change the world.”

Fifth graders show families how to create name/identity word clouds in new Chromebooks.

This photo, to me, captures the “Living Literacy” theme almost more than others: Parents recording second graders as they perform a song and dance demonstrating their learning from the study of butterfly life cycles (they also integrated math and visual art). I look at this and I think: WE are living literacy. 

At tables in the cafeteria, families were encouraged to write notes to each other. 

We write when it’s meaningful to us (I hope Mommy is okay, too).

A few notes of feedback from parents

They came. They celebrated. Another Literacy Lunch has drawn to its close – this seemed to be the best note on which to end.

Many thanks to my colleagues for this annual collaborative effort. 

To our families: THANK YOU for coming, for sharing, for being a vital part of the story we live each day. Be happy. Hug. Have fun. Inspire. Love. Sing.

And thank you, Two Writing Teachers, for the ever-flowing wellspring of inspiration, from which I drew the idea for this year’s theme.

My cup runneth over.

Walk with me

“Jerusalem” donkeys live in a pasture near my home. They are so named for the cross formed by black stripes across their shoulders and down their backs. The donkey is a symbol of peace, for they are peaceable creatures, although farmers know they will protect livestock by driving away coyotes.

The donkey currently plays a significant role around the world with the observance of Palm Sunday and Holy Week. The Gospels of Matthew and John both proclaim the fulfilling of Zechariah’s prophecy that the Messiah would come to Jerusalem humbly, riding the foal, or colt, of a donkey. In Mark and Luke, Jesus directs his disciples to a colt “on which no one has yet sat.” Only Matthew records that the unbroken colt doesn’t come on this mission alone: Its mother walks alongside as it carries Jesus through the shouting crowds in the streets of Jerusalem.

It is the image of the mother walking beside her colt—her child—as a calming presence amid chaos, as a needed coach in fulfilling the sacred duty, that suddenly pierced my heart and inspired today’s post.

 

Walk with Me

My world is confined

to the home that I know

until strangers come

to lead me away

—please, will you come with me,

walk with me?

I know not the destination

only that it’s far

beyond what I can see

and I can’t go it alone

I need you by me,

to walk with me.

The crowds, the fervor,

what can it all mean

 but that I’m not safe

in this place of screams

don’t leave me now!

Just walk with me.

Such heavy burdens in this

untamed human world

some worthy, some not.

What’s the difference?

—Show me, I am watching you

walk with me.

A step and a step and a step

at a time,

I find I can carry on

as long as you are here

—because you don’t fear

to walk with me.

It is new to me, 

my burden; but it is light

despite the shadows

you are at peace

—and so am I

for you walk with me.

I know, somehow,

you’ll see me home

when this day, these cries,

this purpose, are done

—so walk with me

walk with me

keep me ever close 

and

walk with me.

Jerusalem donkeys

Mother & baby Jerusalem donkeys. Barbara BresnahanCC BY-SA

A healing presence

One of the kids in our Harry Potter club, a third grader, wanted to know:

“Mrs. Haley, if you could do any of the magic, what would it be?”

That’s an easy one.

“Healing,” I say.

The children think I mean “episkey,” the little mending of a broken nose or split lip (its name coming from Greek for ‘repair’).

But I mean the healing song.

The one without words, that puts the maimed, the mortally wounded, back together; the song that knits gaping wounds closed.

In the books, the strange song, invented by Professor Snape—perhaps the ultimate antihero—heals devastating physical wounds. They’re obvious; the injured people lie around bleeding profusely.

So many people walk around in the real world just as wounded, emotionally, spiritually, mentally.

Sometimes it is obvious.

Sometimes it is not.

I am not a magical character in a fantasy series nor a trained medical professional. I am no alchemist, apothecary, or angel. I cannot dispense healing.

But I write.

My words don’t grant healing, but maybe they can stir hope of it.

I can listen.

I don’t have a healing song, but I can have a hearing heart.

I can be still.

I can be a pocket of calm inside a world of clamor.

It’s not in my power to fix broken hearts, broken spirits, broken minds, broken families. If I could, I would have done so for many I’ve loved.

I can only be a presence, a voice, an encouragement to be strong in the broken places.

—Yes, healing.

—That is what I wish, children.

Image result for if you don't heal what cut you

 

 

 

What delighted you today?

Narnia

Narnia. Mark IrvineCC BY

The sky became bluer and bluer and now there were white clouds hurrying across it from time to time. In the wide glades there were primroses. A light breeze sprang up which scattered drops of moisture from the swaying branches and carried cool, delicious scents against the face of the travellers. The trees began to come fully alive. The larches and birches were covered with green, the laburnums with gold. Soon the beech trees had put forth their delicate, transparent leaves. As the travellers walked under them the light became green. A bee buzzed across their path. 

“This is no thaw,” said the Dwarf, suddenly stopping. This is spring . . .”

—”Aslan is Nearer,” The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

What delighted you today?

That it’s the first day of spring delights me.

The beautiful description of spring coming after a hundred years of winter (but never Christmas) in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe delights me.

That I remember first reading that passage at age ten delights me.

The painting of a child in a green forest clearing, reaching out to pet a deer that may be merely a statue, or might be real, or will become real at the touch of her hand, delights me.

—I’ve decided to notice things that delight me, every day.

As way of stopping to breathe in the daily grind, of pushing back the domineering world, of finding a moment of stillness, even seconds of stillness, to savor something I see, hear, taste, touch, smell—or simply sense within my soul.

Such as:

the three finch eggs in the nest on my front door

birdsong early in the morning

my youngest son asking when I’ll be home so we can go walking

my husband’s laughter

Henry the dog’s ecstasy at any sighting of me

finally writing something down after its wings have beating in my head or heart for ever so long

What delighted you today?

All around us are affirmations, if we open ourselves to receive them. The wondrous exists in close proximity, is even ours for the taking, if we remain aware. As grand as a bald eagle at the roadside, as pure as the light in a child’s eyes, as simple as a stranger passing by with a genuine smile and a “Hello! How are you today?”

What delighted you today?

Might even pay to keep a journal of delight, to read and re-read when most needed, to create a pocket of peace amid the clamor, to strike a spark in the dark.

Every day has its gifts, small and great, that await.

What delighted you today?

—And what delight will you be?

Tiny trio

Omne trium perfectum: “Everything that comes in threes is perfect”

Little bird up in a tree

Looked down and sang a song to me.

—”Little Bird,” Dennis Wilson, Stephen Kalinich, Brian Wilson

The house finch nesting in the wreath on our front door is incubating three lovely blue eggs.

My son (Cadillac Man) and I are walking, doing laps in the churchyard on a sunny afternoon, talking about names for baby birds (see what happens when new life generates in your realm; if you’re human, you take nonsensical ownership).

“It’s too obvious, but I almost can’t resist calling them Atticus, Jem, and Scout,” I chuckle. “I mean, they’re FINCHES.”

“Yeah, you’re right—it’s too obvious,” says Cadillac Man.

I think I hear a small sigh.

“Hmm. Well, there’s Harry, Hermione, and Ron . . . ” I offer.

Cadillac Man’s face remains immobile. I can’t see his eyes behind his sunglasses. He says nothing.

I can see that literary names are a no go, which is a shame, with “the rule of three” and all that. Cadillac Man does not think from a repository of words and phrases gleaned over time from books like I do. He thinks in music. He always has.

We walk a little way in silence; we’re keeping a pretty good pace. Then Cadillac Man proceeds to tell me new things he’s learning in his continuous (borderline obsessive) research on his musical passion, the Beach Boys: “Dennis didn’t get credit for how much musical talent he really had . . . .”

—I have an inspiration. Cadillac Man will love this. When he pauses, I say:

“We can name the baby birds after the Wilsons. Since’s there’s three of them.”

He grins. “Well, these little birds are singers.”

Brian is due to hatch next Sunday. Dennis and Carl should follow on Monday and Tuesday.

Even if they’re female, it will be fun, fun, fun . . . .

Culture clash, of sorts

My new “place” in the school is a loft  above the media center that used to be the computer lab. Whenever I am at my desk checking email or jotting notes, I can hear the media specialist working with classes downstairs.

Last week, while typing away on my laptop, I was dimly aware of a lesson on Cinderella Around the World with second grade, until . . .

“Any questions?—Yes?” asks the media specialist. I can tell by the tone that a hand is in the air.

“Are you a Hufflepuff?”

—Giggles. My own. There’s a whole subculture of Harry Potter mania at our school in which I may have played a small, a very, very small, part . . . .

“Ugghhh, no!” retorts Ms. S., the media specialist. “Ahem, I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with Hufflepuffs . . . .”

—This dialogue!

Another small voice: “What are you, then?”

Clearly the question of Hogwarts house identity is of vital importance. Cinderella must wait until it’s answered.

Which it is, magnanimously.

“I’m a Ravenclaw,” announces Ms. S. “And so is . . . . ” She proceeds to name several of our teaching colleagues. I get a fleeting sense of actually being at Hogwarts, where everyone belongs to a house.  “But Mrs. K. is a Hufflepuff.”

And Mrs. Haley is a Gryffindor, I mentally add, still typing up in my loft, surrounded by Potter memorabilia that kids across grade levels love to peruse.

“What’s Mrs. L.?” one of the kids asks.

“A Slytherin,” says Ms. S.

A collective GASP! from the class.

“Well, there are lots of good Slytherins, you know,” says Ms. S.

I stop typing.

Social psychology with Harry Potter. Breaking stereotypes. That could be a whole unit in itself . . . imagine . . . .

Poor Cinderella. No one seems to mind that her world tour is utterly derailed, at least for the moment.

—I am just waiting for the kids to ask what house SHE’D be in.

The gift

I remember what you wrote but I came to find the book anyway, to read the inscription again.

I hold it in my hands and think about you for a long, long time.

You were the baby who was always smiling, the cheeriest toddler, until I had to launder your blanket. Then you leaned your head against the washer and cried.

You were the little boy in preschool who sat beside classmates on the playground when others overlooked them, excluded them. From the start you noticed the outcast, offered comfort, pulled for the underdog.

You were:

The middle-schooler who won an essay contest for writing about the person you most admire, Pa-Pa. You listened to his stories of service in World War II over and over.

The winner of the Principal’s Leadership Award at the end of your senior year.

The college student who started teaching the men’s Sunday School class at church.

The young man who returned to high school, where your Leadership Award still hangs in the front office, to teach Social Studies. Remember how, when you were setting up your classroom, you cleaned out a cabinet and found your old history exams in that stack of papers?

The teacher who taught your students to dance the Charleston—and who taught your own brother in AP U.S. History (your Dad and I weren’t kidding when we said, “Don’t even THINK about calling us in for parent-teacher conferences”).

The soccer coach who built the program and took the team to the State playoffs for the first and only time. 

An inspiration to so many kids. Their parents still tell your father and me.

—I remember it all.

Teachers don’t make a lot of money; you took an extra job at night.

I remember the call. You’d been taken to the hospital. You’d been assaulted. Emergency surgery, jaw wired shut, liquid diet for six weeks. Having to carry wire cutters if you should vomit, or you’d suffocate.

How you chose to visit that young man in prison, forgave him, became his friend.

How you adopted a rescue dog, reached a crossroads in your life, came back home, quit teaching, enrolled in seminary.

Almost immediately followed by your meeting the loveliest young woman and her little girl.

I think about all these things as setting sunlight spills through the blinds onto this book in my hands, illuminating the words you wrote to me that Christmas, years ago:

It is the first book I read that made me want to change the world.

You may not think so, but you’ve been changing the world since the day you first entered it, baby boy. One word, one breath, one heartbeat at time.

I’m quite sure you always will.

Maybe we should have named you Atticus.  

No matter, for things have a way of working out as they’re meant to. I watch you with your new loved ones. I marvel at the gift of it all, the sheer poetry of life writing itself a day at a time, in the most curious of rhythms—like how pages of a book that stirred your heart long ago should come to us, living and breathing.

In a young mom who loves the same book.

And in a little girl named Scout, crawling into your lap for a story.

Dichotomies

Dichotomy
Dichotomy #3 by Abdulaziz al Loghani. Brett JordanCC BY

Our greatest national resource is the minds of our children.

—Walt Disney

When they are hungry

who would give them rocks

When they cry for a spark

who would spew water

When they strive to see

who would deploy smoke and mirrors

When they would fly

who would clip their wings

When they desire to go further up, further in

who would confine, constrain

When they crave autonomy

who would demand automatons

When their differences resemble a separate peace

who would distill a disparate piece

When the lengths they must travel are not equidistant

who would mistake equality for equity 

When they carry fragile fragments of hope within

who would build a diehard dystopia without

When they begin to perceive diversity as a gift

who would wrap it in sameness

When they aren’t the same

who would construct uniform boxes

When they would breathe

who would affix a lid

When the scraping of the adze and the hammering cease

who will hear the sound of fingernails

from inside

the casket of our dichotomies? 

 

Note: If you read “they” as children, try reading with “they” as teachers.

*******

Literary allusions: Matthew 7:9-10 and Luke 11:11-12; The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis; A Separate Peace, John Knowles; Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell; The Giver, Lois Lowry; To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee; As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner.