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.

Beautiful child

At a recent meeting of educators, I heard a woman speak of her child’s transition to a new school. The child came home bubbling with excitement on Day One:

“Mom, my teacher looks like me!”

This is the first time her child ever had a teacher of the same race, the woman said. In fact, she went on to say, with quick finger quotes for emphasis, her child was “the only ‘beautiful’ child in the class last year.”

I understood what she meant: Her child was the only one of their race in that classroom.

I’m a mom. I know the protective, fiery love for one’s own, above all else. A proverb comes to mind: “There’s only one beautiful child in the world and every mother has it.” This mom didn’t say there’d been a problem at the previous school but as an educator I know that a sense of belonging and identity are vital to learning. I know that every school and classroom should strive to value, support, empower, and celebrate each child (as well as the adults). For that is how children learn to value, support, empower, and celebrate each other. That’s humanity at its best.

Which is why, as a human being hearing these words from another, a mother and educator, I came away with one heavy, lingering question:

Aren’t ALL children beautiful?

A boy and his secret

boy & puppy

Boy and Dog, Adigrat, Ethiopia (cropped). Rod WaddingtonCC BY-SA

One day when I was off campus, the school psychologist sent me a text about a student:

He’s looking for you. He has a secret he wants to tell you.

—Gracious.

I texted back: Tell him I’ll see him first thing tomorrow morning.

The student is my tiny friend who came to our school from another country several years ago. He landed in first grade with no English and a lot of frustration. When I met him that year, he was wearing a Superman T-shirt. I pointed to it and said, “Hey, you’re Superman.”

He smiled.

That’s how our friendship began.

I’ve written before about his perceptiveness, such as how he explained, after his bleak performance on a mandatory reading assessment, that he had Big Spanish while I have Big English. His English continues growing “bigger,” just as he’s growing in stature with each passing year. Although he remains physically small for his age, it’s hard to encapsulate or convey the power of his personality. He has enormous presence. He’s a dynamo. Strong-willed, yet a charmer. Witty.  His thoughts are like quicksilver—always moving, fascinating, alive. He’s a keen observer; when he didn’t understand directions in class, he’d watch what other students did and quickly followed suit.

He tells his teachers: “Mrs. Haley is my friend.” He usually greets me by flying faster than a speeding bullet to throw his arms around me with a joyous cry: “Mrs. Haley!”

Then he asks if we can read or write.

That’s alchemy. When the gold finally appears.

So, as to this big secret he had for me . . .

I’m waiting for him when he gets off the bus. He barrels right to me, face beaming:

“I been looking for you! I have a secret!”

Extricating my midsection from his hug, I bend down. “That’s what I hear! So tell, me, what IS this big secret?”

“Shhh!” he says, in overly dramatic fashion, looking around. What a wonderful stage actor he’d be. He’s larger than life. He beckons me to lean in closer. He whispers: “I got a dog!”

I can’t imagine why this needs to be secretive, but, okay, I’ll honor it. “You did? That’s great! I LOVE dogs. What’s his name?”

He looks me dead in the eye. “Her,” he says. “It’s a girl.”

He has no idea what he’s just done. It’s profound. A sign of how well he’s mastering the language, for pronouns are often terribly challenging for English learners. I want to bask in it indefinitely, but I can’t stall now, I have to respond. Blinking, I stammer: “Oh, um—sorry! What’s her name?”

He looks around to be sure no one can hear, and whispers into my ear:

“Mrs. Haley.”

And then he skips away, grinning from ear to ear, this bit of quicksilver, bright as the blinding winter-white sun above us.

I can barely see for the tears welling in my eyes as he blends into the throng of students going to breakfast. I cannot verify that the story is true—that there’s really a dog, that he really named it after me—but this doesn’t matter. The story is his, either way. Born from his heart.

And he shared it.

A gift of pure gold.

That I’ll carry with me, always.

*******

Previous posts about my inspiring young friend:

Big English

Like Superman

Atmosphere

By the worktables in the art room at my school is a window, and above that window is a message from the art teacher to her students:

You are my why!

The words draw your eyes as soon as you walk into the room. They convey more than a greeting; they impart a sense of importance, of being wanted, of being cared about. They are a word-hug of welcome, of belonging, of mattering.

I think about how little is in teachers’ control these days, how the art of teaching is increasingly straightjacketed, hijacked. Expectations on top of expectations, a precariously unwieldy, wobbling mountain, stones heaped one by one, Greek thlipsis until a person’s spirit is crushed rather than one’s actual body. I see, hear, and feel this incremental adding of weight in every day interactions with colleagues. Opening lines from the old Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life come to mind, when the angels, appearing as stars in the cosmos, are talking:

FRANKLIN: A man down on Earth needs our help.

CLARENCE: Splendid! Is he sick?

FRANKLIN: No, worse. He’s discouraged.

—Truth.

A gallery of teacher faces appears in my mind.

Then I see these words on the wall and I think, that’s the breathing room. 

The beginning of atmosphere.

Before learning, before discovering, before creating, before engagement, empowerment, objectives or standards, before all the materials and tools are ever distributed, there’s atmosphere. 

It’s both bigger and smaller than the what of climate and the how of culture. Atmosphere in a classroom still lies wholly within the power of the teacher. It starts as small as the heartbeat of the teacher that keeps showing up to say You are my why.

The heartbeat, the breath, that keeps the entire organism alive.

Craftsmanship

When I was growing up, the dessert everyone wanted at holiday gatherings was my mother’s carrot cake.

I used to sit at the table watching her make it, hoping for scrapings of the batter bowl or to sneak a fingerful of icing. The process took forever. Finally the two layer pans went into the oven, and as the cake baked, the fragrance of cinnamon filled the house—an indescribably delicious smell.

Now I make the cake. Over time I’ve come to think mine is almost—almost—as good as hers.

But as much as I love the cake and want to make it, and as much as it stirs the ghost of my childhood self on holidays past, I find myself sighing and almost reluctant as I prepare for it.

Making this cake is a lot of work.

I make it the way my mother did. Peeling the carrots, grating them on the finest side of the grater so that they become a smooth orange pulp, for no carrot bits should be discernible in the cake batter. I know people who use processors or even baby food carrots, and that may work for them . . . but this is where I appreciate the craftsmanship of my mother’s cake.

That word has been in my mind since a recent meeting when facilitators asked fellow educators a guiding question: “What makes high-quality work?” The answers were plentiful: originality or authenticity, clarity of expression or thought, meeting or exceeding a standard or learning goal . . . and craftsmanship.

It takes time to produce something high-quality. There aren’t shortcuts. I think about writing (because I always think about writing). As with making mother’s carrot cake, writing well is a lot of work, hard work. Refining, refining, grating those danged carrots to a pulp so that they’re not even evident in the outcome, yet they’re the foundation of it. Words worked and reworked and restrung until they finally blend into a seamless, cohesive whole. Without hunks of stuff that trips up readers. To become skilled at anything is to work and work and keep working, all the while knowing how these parts and pieces should come together and that in the end, the effort pays off. Craftsmanship means a serious investment of time, effort, and patience.

There’s an aesthetic feature to craftsmanship. The artist labors long for the effect and beauty of the work. The aesthetics of my mother’s carrot cake are its exceptional flavors and textures, the sensory experience of eating it, for on the surface it looks pretty humble. In middle school I had a French teacher native to Greece (another story for another day, trust me) who told the class that Greek desserts look very plain but are incredibly rich and sweet; when she first came to America and saw our wedding cakes, she couldn’t even imagine what such gorgeous things would taste like. “Then I tried one,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “Bah! Like cardboard!” Aesthetics can be somewhat subjective, then, allowing for personal preference, but I can say this after having read hundreds of student papers across grade levels: When I find one of high quality, from the first sentence all the way through, it “sings.” It stands out. Not perfect, but flowing, clear, and beautiful. I know time and effort have gone into it, and that the author cared about the work.

And this, I believe, lies at the heart of craftsmanship. Caring. With every carrot I grate, I think about how my family will enjoy this cake, the same way I always have. Their enjoyment, more than my own, keeps me at the task. I even make the frosting like my mother did, blending cream cheese, Blue Bonnet margarine, and powdered sugar. That’s tedious, too. Like with writing, I get tired of it all long before I’m through. But I keep at it, not just to be done, but to do as well as I can, because it’s not only for me. It’s something deeply meaningful to me that I am sharing; I need for it to be as good as I can make it. The only concession I allow myself with the cake is buying chopped pecans for the frosting. When I was a child, I helped my mother crack, shell, and chop the pecans. They came from Granddaddy’s pecan tree.

But that tree is gone, as are so many people I loved long ago. The holidays come round and round again with their particular darkness—less and less daylight, the shadows of memory—but there’s a strength gained in expending strength on behalf of others. Caring means giving. Love means sacrifice. There’s a holiness in such work, a healing . . .

My son walks through the kitchen, puts his empty plate in the sink. He sighs. “That is the best cake.”

—Every carrot worth it.

 

Getting in

Keep your eyelids up

And see what you can see.

-Dr. Seuss, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street!

Any writer knows how important it is to be a noticer of things. All things. To catch a sudden spark of inspiration, to fan the flame of an idea until it’s spent.

Around the elementary school where I work, for example, there’s plenty of intriguing things to notice. In this old building a careful observer can find some obsolete oddities.

Such as the dumbwaiter that connects the first floor of the media center to a second-floor loft that, once upon a time, must have been an extension of the library. In my time here the loft has been a computer lab. Until this year. With the arrival of new Chromebooks and iPads in classrooms, the computer lab was disassembled to become the shared space of instructional staff; three colleagues and I are housed there now. The dumbwaiter stands in our space, appropriately silent and still, long out of use. It must have been created as a lift for sending stacks of books or old overhead projectors up and down in decades past. I cannot think of another explanation for its presence. If it were ever opened I’d halfway expect to see Harriet the Spy hiding in there, making her anecdotal notes.

Downstairs in the main lobby, a colorful, student-painted mosaic wraps around the exterior of media center, disguising a flat metal drawer in the wall—an old book depository. As books are now returned at the circulation desk, the handle of the depository was removed years ago so that students wouldn’t keep putting books (or anything else) in there. Every day, throngs of students come and go without ever noticing the plain metal plate embedded in the mosiac artwork that overshadows it and draws the eyes away.

Except for one particular pair of eyes, that is.

One morning, as I stand at the back of the lobby greeting students arriving from buses as usual, I notice that a boy is over at that book depository. I’ve never seen a student acknowledge its existence, so I just watch to see what he’s up to. His back is to me. He’s doing something to the drawer. The lobby has cleared except for a couple of boys who realize something’s going on. They linger to check it out. Next thing I know, the two bystanders are bending over with laughter:

“He opened it! He opened it!”

That’s when I walk over to see. The bystander boys scatter. Sure enough, the first boy has the drawer open. He’s so immersed in his task that he’s unaware of my presence.

“So,” I say, “how’d you do this?”

He starts a bit, automatically hands me two opened, extended paperclips. He’d worked them into the two little holes where the depository handle used to be.

“Where’d you get these?” I query, the mangled paperclips resting in my open palm.

“Upstairs,” he says, somber-faced.

And he shuts the drawer, takes off.

I watch him go, marveling.

He’d planned this.

Who knows when he first noticed the depository and wondered about it, whether it could be opened. When he saw the two holes or when he went to find two paperclips to fashion his own handle. How long it took him to think all this through.

And I wonder about him, whether he pays attention in class or gets in trouble for being off-task, if he’s motivated academically. One thing’s for certain: He’s a critical thinker. This book depository experiment is problem-solving at its finest. The greatest thing a learner can possess, perhaps, is curiosity: What if . . . 

As the tardy bell rings, I walk upstairs, wondering what he expected to see when he opened that drawer, pondering what I saw, just before he relinquished his improvised tools.

He was writing with his finger inside the depository. In the dust of the ages, lying there undisturbed for so long. I caught just a glimpse before he shut it away, and I couldn’t quite make it out, so only he knows exactly what he wrote. I’m pretty sure part of it was a smiling face. This much I know: he accomplished his goal. He got in. He made his mark and there it will remain  for ages and ages hence, or at least as long as the building stands.

One day, perhaps, someone else will come along and notice the depository. And wonder what’s inside. And figure out how to get in, and discover that someone was there before. Likely the boy and I will be long gone by then.

And just now, as I write, I think about books themselves as depositories of thoughts, ideas, and images, places where others have gone before, leaving their marks behind from time immemorial, waiting for us to find them. Indelibly marking us, when we finally get in.

Now as for that old dumbwaiter . . .  don’t even think about it, Harriet, it’s permanently sealed . . . .

What is literacy?

Museum of the Navy

Quarterman shipfitter looks at blueprints, 1943. Museum of the U.S. Navy

“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another and empowers them to achieve things they never thought possible. Communication and connection are the basis of who we are and how we live together and interact with the world.” 

International Literacy Association, 2018

On the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. In the face of changes in staff, in curriculum, in differing perspectives on literacy instruction.

I am defined by literacy. I’ve loved reading and writing all my life. My professional work is literacy: As a coach, I collaborate with teacher colleagues across grade levels on how to best teach English Language Arts in ways that meet the needs of all students.

When it comes to defining literacy, I rely on the International Literacy Association, for no two dictionaries, and hardly any two people, seem to have the same idea of it. Some believe it’s just reading and writing. But it’s so much more . . . .

In the ILA definition several things jump out at me, beginning with

the ability to interpret

in any context

I think of my grandfather.

Over a hundred years ago, my grandfather left school to work on his family’s little North Carolina farm. He married during the Great Depression. When tenant farming, sharecropping, and other odd jobs like painting houses weren’t enough for him to “make a go of it,” Granddaddy rode with men from his hometown to Newport News, Virginia, in hopes of landing steady work at the shipyard.

Granddaddy became a shipwright, responsible for helping build the keels of ships, less than a year before Pearl Harbor. When America entered World War II, production continued around the clock with the invention of a new thing: aircraft carriers.

He made his living; he took care of his own. He retired from the shipyard when I was five. He and Grandma moved back home and there I spent my childhood summers.

In the evenings he sat in his recliner while Grandma and I sat on the living room floor. She spread the newspaper out on the carpet, handed me the “funnies” section, and then she read the rest of the paper in a loud, clear voice to Granddaddy—his years around industrial equipment in the Yard had made him hard of hearing.

I eventually asked:

Why do you read the paper to Granddaddy? Why doesn’t he just read it?

He can’t, Dear. 

Why? Is something wrong with his eyes?

No, no. He just never learned to read, not much, really. He quit school in the fourth grade to help on his family’s farm, you see . . . .

I was stunned. This was the first time I’d known of anyone who couldn’t read.

It hurt my heart for him.

But I later learned that he could read intricate blueprints and build to those precise measurements. That’s what he did at the shipyard all those years.

It’s something I can’t do.

 the ability to identify, understand, interpret

using visual

materials across disciplines

and in any context

My grandfather was always a farmer first; he read the days, the seasons, the weather.

He read nature. When he and I came across strange worms gliding over his front sidewalk, he couldn’t identify them but instinctively knew to leave them alone. Decades later I researched them (land planarians) and learned that if he’d tried to crush or chop them up, every piece would have replicated and they would have destroyed the good earthworms that kept his garden so abundant and healthy.

Signs, symbols, meanings, he understood. Not in or from books, but from life. He possessed visual-spatial acuity. Keen intuition. He read the times in which he lived, comprehended that the way of life he and the generations before him had known was passing forever. He reached for better things. He worked hard. He collaborated with a lot of different people. The shipyard management eventually asked him to be a supervisor, and that’s where his courage ran out. It required regular paperwork. He declined the position.

My heart ached again, deeply, on learning that.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another

and empowers them to achieve things

they never thought possible.

That belief is behind everything I do with teachers and students.

The greatest man I’ve ever known indirectly taught me, years ago, that reading and writing are the keys to opening doors of possibility and opportunity. He also taught me that literacy is so much more, long before this digital age.

We have to be able to read words and ascertain their meaning, but our survival depends on more. We must be able to read the times, read people, read what we see, what we are creating. And make sense of it. We must interpret. That’s the entire, inherent value of reading and writing in the first place.

We must communicate well with one another, recognizing that each of us possesses different strengths, all of which are valuable to helping each other. Communication is the keel on which all good relationships are built. We must speak, but we must listen more, absorb more, understand more.

Communication and connection are the basis of who we are

and how we live together

and interact with the world.

My grandfather survived—his family survived—because of his clarity of vision and sense of purpose.  He knew he lived through unique times. In his last years he preserved his life experiences for future generations not by penning a memoir but by recording his stories on a set of audiotapes. I don’t think he ever knew just how unique, how extraordinary, he was. In my mind I see him now—thick white hair, plaid shirt, gray pants with a black belt, black shoes, his big, wrinkled, work-worn hands folded in his lap, leaning back in his recliner listening to my grandmother reading. In addition to the nightly newspaper, she read the Bible through to him each year.

And so, on the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. I think of the constant adaptation of teachers to the times and the changing tides of literacy instruction; of students, each of whom has strengths and gifts that may not be obvious at first. I think of their futures and know that clarity of vision and a sense of purpose are vital to their learning and well-being. To all of our well-being. I think of my grandfather reading complex blueprints and going forth to build something previously unknown in a vastly changing world. I think about life literacy as well as literacy for life. How we live together and interact with the world.

For, in truth, we are building the world.

*******

Here’s the story of Granddaddy and me encountering those unknown worms long ago: First do no harm.

A fine mess

After being away on vacation all last week, my first order of business on returning home was to check on the four baby house finches that hatched in the wreath on my front door. I’d been chronicling their development daily, so I knew many changes would occur in my absence.

Here is what I discovered:

1) The babies are now well-feathered; their skin-head mohawks have become mere wisps upon their downy crowns.

2) Two of the babies can fly. They sailed out of the nest this morning as I approached. The other two stayed put, their bright little eyes regarding me with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension.

3) Their nest is one spectacular conglomeration of droppings.

To be fair, the droppings are only around the rim; the mother collects them there. What a job, building a wall of excrement. Worse than diapers. When I first wrote of the perfect, flower-graced nest, the pale blue eggs, the hatching of the tiny pink nestlings, I concentrated on the beauty and wonder of life. I pointed out that the collective noun for a group of finches is a charm.

And charmed I was.

There is nothing charming about that nest now.

The fledglings themselves, of course, are enchanting. They’ll soon be gone, the circle of life will go on, and all that will remain of these magical moments is a monumental mess.

But that’s the story of life. It’s messy. It can’t be comprised solely of breathtaking beauty and newness; if it were, we could not recognize these moments for what they are. They’d lose their value. Only when contrasted with ugliness, hardships, and pain can we see and cherish the beautiful when it comes. We inevitably deal with messes, some that occur naturally, some created by others, some of our own making. Therein lie all the stories . . .

Which makes me think of writing. This nest is a tangible (although I do not wish to touch it) reminder of these commonalities:

-Life is messy.

-Writing is messy.

-Thinking is messy.

-Teaching is messy.

To do any of these well, we have to be willing to accept and even embrace the messiness. We must certainly persevere through it to arrive at the beautiful. It takes courage, stamina, and a lot of hard work, to write well, to think well, to teach well, to live well.

The strength to do so, I believe, lies in believing that the beautiful will come. It’s all a matter of trust, of faith. And pressing on.

Although I was appalled by the quantity of accumulated—um, bird-doo—around the nest, I was also amazed that two of my four little finches could fly. Last night they couldn’t; today they can. Tomorrow the others might.

This is a message to me about readiness.

Everyone arrives as a writer, a thinker, a teacher, a good practitioner of life, in their own time. Lots of messes will be made along the way. Sorting this out is what grows us. One by one, as children, as adults, as long as we live, we are continually growing the necessary wings to fly beyond where we are. And it’s truly a collective, collaborative growth; we are to nudge each other when needed, but not too hard, too soon. We’re not to hold back, to hold one another back, simply because we cannot see all that lies ahead and for fear of navigating the unknown. Knowledge comes by trying. By experiencing. By taking risks. There’s an implicit difference between throwing caution to the wind and taking a leap of faith, that being potential self-destruction versus healthy maturation. These finches know. As the day wears on, I watch the two fledglings that can fly going back and forth from the eaves to the nest, coaching their other two siblings on how to do it. See see see, I hear them cheeping. A bit at a time, a bit at a time. At any moment, those last two are going to get up on that nasty, messy rim and let go.

In more ways than one . . . .

So you make a mess. So what? So you’re alive and growing.

Tomorrow you stretch your newest feathers and find you can move on.

To where the beautiful awaits.

Enriched

Coyote pups

Four Coyote Pups by Den. Colorado. nature 80020CC BY

As sixth grade ended, my teacher recommended me for a summer enrichment camp.

“You’ll love it,” she said. “Every day for two weeks, you’ll get to study drama, writing, and photography.”

I desperately wanted to go.

When I brought the paperwork home to my dad, he frowned.

“I don’t think so,” he told me.

“But, Daddy, it’s a special thing. You have to be invited by your teacher and I get to study drama and writing. It’s going to be so much fun. I can even ride the summer school bus to get there every day—please, Daddy?”

“It costs, you know.” He sounded tired.

The attendance fee, I think, was twenty-five dollars. Maybe thirty. It didn’t seem like a lot to me, but I knew Daddy worried about bills. My mother had ongoing medical expenses; my sister and I took weekly allergy shots. I knew not to bother Daddy when he sat at the table with the checkbook—I wouldn’t go near the kitchen at all, for then he wore a worse frown than the one he was wearing now.

No point in pressing him. I went to my bedroom, shut the door, and cried.

Later that day, or maybe the next, Grandma called. After chatting awhile with my father about news, how our all of our relatives were in their little North Carolina hometown and how everybody was there in Virginia, she asked to talk to me.

Daddy handed me the phone. It had a long cord—really long. From its wall mount, the phone cord reached the floor. It would stretch from the kitchen down the hall to my room, where I could sit on my bed and talk in private.

“Hi, Grandma.”

“Hello, Dear,” she said, the warmth of it like June sunlight bursting through a break in the clouds.  “I just wanted to hear your voice.”

My tears welled again. “I miss you.”

“Is something the matter?”

I told her all about the camp, about Daddy saying no because of the cost.

“How much is it?”

I told her.

“I’ll pay for it,” she said, uncharacteristically crisp. I could almost see the lift of her chin, the flash in her blue eyes. “I believe children should have the chance to do some things they really want to do.”

“Thank you,” I sniffled into the phone.

“Let me talk to your Daddy.”

And so it was that I went to the summer camp on the benevolence of my greatest advocate, Grandma.

Riding the bus with high school kids having to attend summer school in order to pass their grades was an adventure unto itself, but beyond that, camp was a laboratory of creativity.

I encountered pantomime for the first time, communicating story with the body, without words. I wasn’t especially good at it but some of my fellow campers—aged eleven, twelve, thirteen—were astonishing. One boy mimed being closed in by a shrinking box so well that the box was virtually visible. I watched, holding my breath, enthralled.

The drama teachers grouped us into fours, gave the groups four words, and challenged us with writing cohesive skits with these four words embedded in dialogue. My group’s words were—to the best of my memory—lion, clock, heart, flies. We were timed on the writing of the skit and the rehearsal of it, including the creation of minimalist props out of construction paper. My group, with me as scribe, wrote a farcical story of a doctor having to treat a patient who was attacked by a lion and who got away by throwing a clock at it, to which the Groucho Marx-esque doctor remarks: “My, how time flies!”

We entitled it “Dr. Heartbeat, Dr. Heartbeat” after a TV series that none of us really knew much about except that it seemed weird and therefore perfect: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. 

We performed last for our fellow campers, to a standing ovation and teachers wiping their tears at our over-the-top slapstick antics. Yours Truly played the hapless doctor.

We studied fairy tales; we wrote and illustrated our own, to be “published” in laminated books we could keep. I wrote “The Littlest Mermaid,” having long been captivated by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Ages before Disney brought us red-headed Ariel, my pink-haired mermaid battled jealous bullies. When I wrote The other mermaids hated her, the writing teacher said, “Hate is a strong, terrible word. Do you think it belongs in a story for children?”

I revised: The other mermaids didn’t like her. 

Ever since, I’ve thought about the power of one word, and when is right or not right to use it. And audience. And whether children should be shielded from the word hate, and when are fairy tales just for children?

In photography class, we campers built cameras from shoe boxes, learning about light leaks and timed exposures. I was able to produce a picture of a basset hound (they don’t move a lot) and my classmate sitting in a tree. The teacher explained that we were “photojournalists”—we’d write about the process of building and using our cameras, what worked, what didn’t, and why. He then encouraged us to write stories about the images we took and developed.

For a final writing adventure, the writing teachers invited us to look through a stack of glossy, full-page photographs. I chose two: One of a single coyote standing in a canyon, the other of four little coyote pups. I was taken by the animals’ beauty and the warm, reddish colors of the rocks.

Trouble was, I knew nothing of coyotes beyond the Road Runner cartoons. The animals in these photos were unexpectedly magnificent.

Thus began my first real foray into research. It began with place: Where do coyotes live? I needed to know. At home that night, I cracked open a dusty encyclopedia from the bottom shelf of the living room bookcase. After poring over the coyote entry, I chose Pueblo, Colorado, for my coyotes’ home. And having learned, somberly, that man is the coyotes’ worst enemy, I had an idea for a plot: Survival. After the mother or the father coyote is shot, the mate takes the pups on a journey to a new home. I also encountered the word ravenous for the first time . . . and when my teachers asked me to read my story for the gathering of families at the program on the last day of camp, I mispronounced it, saying that the coyotes ate ra-VEEN-yus-ly. “I wish I’d heard you read it aloud first,” a teacher apologized. “It’s RA-ven-ous-ly.”

Alas. Reader’s vocabulary.

It was decades and decades ago, but the richness of the camp is with me still: Every day an adventure, with something to discover, to explore, to synthesize into something new; an extension of myself, what I love, who I am. A wealth of learning compounded with interest, over time.

That Grandma made possible, because she believed it was important, even necessary. I later learned how much she wanted to take piano lessons as a child and her family couldn’t afford it. A charitable young preacher’s wife eventually taught her how to play.

And, ever the angel wielding the sword on my behalf, Grandma was willing to take a piercing in return; she sent me to the camp even though she knew it would shorten the time I’d spent at her house that summer.

Because, for some investments, the payoff is incalculable. Grandma understood this.

And even then I understood that I was, in so many ways, enriched beyond measure.

Help

Help

“Help.” James JohnstoneCC BY

As I entered the darkened cinema auditorium, an attendant handed me a pack of tissues.

Foreshadowing at its best.

The tears come at various points throughout the viewing of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—the lovingly documented life and work of Fred Rogers.

Mr. Rogers operated from a profound wellspring of love and empathy for children. At the outset of the movie, he’s young, seated at a piano. The film is black-and-white. With his hands on the keys, Mr. Rogers speaks of modulations: “It’s fairly easy to go from, say, a C to an F,” he says, playing each chord. “But to go from an F to an F-sharp,” he models, “you must navigate all sorts of things.” He saw the new medium of communication, television, as a means of helping children navigate the modulations of life. Fears. Changes. Questions. Emotions. A country at war. Hatred. Not understanding. Divorce. Illness. Death.

I watched and listened with the ears of an educator and the heart of a writer. This is my work, too, I thought, only my medium is paper and pencil. 

Then, after having helped generations of children through the modulations of life, came 9/11.

Mr. Rogers, then retired, was asked to help, his voice, his presence, once again a ray of light, this time cutting through incomprehensible darkness. In the documentary, the sorrow is etched on his face. He spoke of being tikkun olam, “repairers of creation.”

With his words I saw the world in all its brokenness, violence, despair . . . and thought, It begins with the world inside us. Repair begins there, within each of us, before we can work on the world without.

I thought of children I’ve known through the years, finding their voices through writing, facing their fears, overcoming them, gaining strength and courage. Children who have suffered loss and grappled with it in their own words. I’ve read the haunting account of a child being tortured in another country and celebrating his new life in the United States. I thought it was fiction until the third-person changed to first near the narrative’s end; the teenager was writing about himself. A second-grader whose mother was remarrying and her fear: “Will my stepfather like me?” A fifth-grader lashing out at her mother in the very first line of her memoir over how many times they’d had to move, and how it hard it was to have any friends.

And with the words that came from within, anger eventually melted to forgiveness, fears pointed toward hope, insecurities gave way to confidence and validation. With the writing, the stories became those of enduring, of overcoming, of celebration.

Repairing within.

I thought about how some educators look at writing only as a means of retelling what you know from what you’ve read, or a standard to be delivered, assessed, and crossed off a list. No time for this “touchy-feely” kind of  thing . . . yet the one thing that best helps children understand themselves, the world around them, and their place in it, is writing. Freedom versus constriction. Discovering potential, seeing possibilities, problem-solving. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Why is the goal “college and career ready?” How about life ready?

For the modulations don’t end in childhood, do they, Grown-Up.

Mr. Rogers spoke of his own childhood and what his mother told him whenever there was a catastrophe, or news of tragedy, on the air; she said “Look for the helpers. There will always be helpers, even if on the sidelines . . . because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

Look for the helpers. Repairers of the world.

Then be the hope.

And . . . write.