Magical literacy and learning, part 2

As my colleague and I present at a reading conference for educators this week, I watch the participants’ faces. Eager. Expectant. Reflective. Smiling and visibly misting over in turn, as my colleague and I talk about the diversity of the third, fourth, and fifth grade students who sign up, some of them multiple times, to be in our Harry Potter club. How they develop a sense of identity, of belonging, how the club became a “thing” at our school . . . 

On the first day of our club each semester, we “co-headmistresses” give the kids a quiz adapted from one we found online. We plug answers into the website so that every child is sorted into his or her own Hogwarts house. Students familiar with the books or movies are triumphant to know they’ve landed in their favorite house (usually Slytherin; we seem to have an abundance of those), and even students who are just encountering the world of Harry Potter for the first time have an unmistakable look of pride on their faces. They all write their names on the Hogwarts crest in the areas designating their houses. I read Harry’s sorting experience to them, and then we talk about how members of each of the four houses have specific traits or characteristics, and how we’re sorted according to these attributes:

We read each column of traits. It’s a lofty word bank. I ask, “Who knows what these words mean?” The students who know, share; the words that no one knows, I define.

Then I ask: “So, do you see yourself in these words? Do any of these words describe you?”

A vigorous nodding of heads. One sweet-faced little girl says, emphatically: “Yes! I’m ruthless!”

It’s all I can do to not collapse with laughter.

For part of developing a sense of belonging is first developing a sense of self-awareness. Why I think and feel the way I do—because these drive my actions. If I understand myself, then maybe I can begin to understand others. In books, in real life.

Not to mention that character traits and character motivation are woven throughout the reading and writing standards.

The newly-sorted club members move onto talking about Harry, Ron, Hermione, Draco, and their stories. Why they make the choices they make.

For everyone has a story, and as the club rolls on, the students begin sharing bits and pieces of their own lives in conjunction with the characters’ experiences:

One time I . . .

I had something like that happen . . .

In my family . . .  

And somehow this “thing” spreads from the confines of our club into the school at large.

In my daily work as a coach, I am in and out of classrooms across grade levels. In third, fourth, and fifth grades, the club members greet me excitedly, with an air of ownership. Their non-club classmates say: Mrs. Haley, I am reading the books for the first time! I just saw one of the movies again! Hey, Mrs. Haley, they have new Harry Potter shirts at Walmart—my mom’s gonna get me one. Come check out my Harry Potter socks! 

When I walk through lower grade hallways, a second-grader will occasionally pop out of line just long enough to say, “Next year I’ll be in third grade and I can be in the Harry Potter club!”

Once a teacher brought a kindergartner to see me—a boy, the spitting image of Harry himself in miniature, black hair, glasses and all. He was even wearing a gray shirt adorned with tiny lightning bolts.

He looked me dead in the eye and said: “I love Harry Potter more than you do.”

I dared not argue.

I’ve dubbed this “thing” permeating the ranks of children across the school “the Hogwarts phenomenon.” Again, Harry breaks barriers, open doors that might not have opened otherwise. Children seek me out to borrow my books, to see my ever-growing collection of Potter memorabilia, just to have conversations.

I think of one of our rare Ravenclaws, a shy girl who came out of her shell in the club, who later realized how much creativity was bottled inside of her, and that it could, and did, pour forth in writing (she’ll be published one day. Trust me).

My colleague recalls four siblings, three brothers and a sister, who were all members at various times, how the club became their family legacy.

I remember how, when we first created a page of spells that Rowling made up for the books and put them into visual representations to see if the kids knew or could figure out their meaning, that one boy said: “Hey—Aguamenti—that sounds like my word for water. Agua.” Indeed, that’s what it meant. This sparked a deep discussion of word origins and vocabulary, such as incendiary meaning “to cause a fire” and luminous meaning “giving off light or glowing.”

My favorite story of all (I’ve told it many times) is about the boy who stayed with us for four semesters, because he despised school and was frequently absent, but never on club days. His mother said: “The only thing he ever talks about is the Harry Potter club.” In his final semester, we made him Head Boy; he co-facilitated with us, reading to the new members and helping them make their crafts. We gave him a Hogwarts shirt on the day of fifth-grade graduation. He ran immediately to the bathroom to put it on.

He walked across the stage at the ceremony wearing that shirt.

We had no idea, really, where we were going with this club in the beginning; when our school started clubs as part of our magnet theme, my colleague and I just thought it would be great fun to read bits of Harry Potter books to kids, make some crafts, and simply enjoy the experience.

Then all the magic just . . . happened.

Teachers, remember:

What inspires you will inspire the kids. Passion is contagious. Tap into it.

Find a way to make it happen for them.

As we end the presentation, we give our participants—educators from across the state of North Carolina—the choice of going to the official Pottermore site to find their own Hogwarts house or Patronus, or making some of the crafts we make with our students. The glee in the room is palpable; how many presentations have you been to where you can make a pencil broom, a golden Snitch, a feather pen, a wand, a winged key, an ornament with your house colors, or eat a homemade chocolate frog? 

The teachers bubble over with ideas to take back to their schools. A couple of them are actually from a women’s prison; they think now they will start a Harry Potter club for inmates.

Again I think of major themes in the books.

Hope. Redemption. Overcoming. 

Love.

“Thank you,” the participants say, over and over, on their way out, carrying their new Potter loot. 

One teacher says, “This was just so inspiring.”

I say, “That is THE word that matters most to me . . . so thank you.”

“It is our choices, Harry, that show who we are, far more than our abilities.”

Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling

Magical literacy and learning, part 1

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Yesterday my colleague and I presented “Magical Literacy and Learning: The Harry Potter Club” at the North Carolina Reading Association. While we waited for the preceding session to end, I watched other educators gathering in the hallway outside the closed door where our session would be held. I could hear whispers: “Harry Potter . . . Harry Potter . . . .” For a second, it was almost like being in one of the books or movies. Here’s a portion of what we presented, in narrative form. There’s more to come . . . .

For seven semesters now, a colleague and I have hosted the Harry Potter Club for third, fourth, and fifth graders at our school as part of our creative arts and science magnet theme.

When clubs began in 2015, teachers who volunteered to do clubs were told, “Pick something that interests you. Something that you enjoy.”  Here’s a small sampling of club offerings over the years: cooking, gardening, etiquette, beading, creative writing, acts of kindness, paper airplanes, tie-dye, iPad movie-making, weightlifting, astronomy.

My colleague and I wanted to integrate arts and crafts with reading enjoyment, so that’s how our Harry Potter club was born. We figured we’d read some passages from the books and have the kids make something. That’s all the vision we had, in the beginning.

The club became so much more.

Last winter, a former student of ours, in his first year of middle school, was killed in an accident. My colleague and I, mourning, recalled that he’d been in our club more than once. We remembered how much he enjoyed it, how much he smiled, how he asked questions. We went back over our club rosters to see when he’d attended, and that’s when we discovered something that we hadn’t exactly realized before.

Maybe it’s due to our school improvement-trained brains, but, as we looked back at lists of club kids, I said, “Hey . . . there’s something significant going on with subgroups here.”

That, of course, led to further analysis.

Here’s what we learned about our club:

70% of attendees are male.

54% are non-white or minority.

Over half have identified learning or behavioral needs.

Siblings of nine families have attended.

Boys chose Harry Potter over sports camp, Lego mania, football, and tech. Several of them made this choice more than once; they asked to be in our club again and again, even when we said, “But you’ll just be making the same crafts as you did before!” They said: “I know! I just want to be in the club.” Children of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and races identify with the predominately white Potter characters and their struggles, because the underlying themes speak to all children, all people: Friendship, teamwork, love, hope, redemption.

During club sessions, after I’d read a portion of a book and the kids were busy with their craft—painting a wand, tracing wings and attaching them to keys, making pencil brooms or gold-foil Snitches—discussions developed. Unscripted, organic discussions. Many of the children had seen the movies, some had read the books, some had done neither, but everyone talked. Everyone had questions, observations.

Professor Snape in particular fascinates the children (I often have to say, “Snape. His name is Snape. Not Snake”):

“He was so mean to Harry and Harry thought he hated him, but really he was protecting Harry the whole time.”

“Yeah, because he was in love with Harry’s mother.”

“What do we learn from Professor Snape, then?” I interject.

Pause.

“Even when somebody seems bad, they really might be good. You don’t always know what’s in their heart,” pipes a voice.

I see their heads, bent intently over their craft, nodding.

The children speak of how much Harry’s mother loved him, how she died to save him. The mothers in the series are some of the strongest characters: Molly Weasley, Narcissa Malfoy. In the end, Narcissa saves Harry in order to save her own son.

It’s a safe place, the club. A place of belonging. It doesn’t matter if you’re academically gifted or have an IEP, if you’re an extraordinary reader, or if you struggle with reading. Here, with the read-aloud, the crafts, the discussions, the playing field is level. Here, everyone excels at something.

I think of how the magic was probably the pull for many of the kids, at first.

Or maybe the crafts.

But something deeper keeps them coming back for more.

Seven errors

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Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite writers.

In Outliers there’s a chapter entitled “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes” in which Gladwell states: “The typical accident involves seven consecutive human errors.”

He’s writing of Korean Air, which had a disproportionately high number of plane crashes before the airline “turned itself around.”

Gladwell says that the seven errors are the result of a lack of communication and teamwork, not a lack of technical skill or flying knowledge. One or two errors doesn’t lead to disaster; the trouble is that they keep happening, and this compounding causes the crashes.

I am thinking that making seven consecutive human errors can lead to other kinds of accidents.

Such as the one I had last week.

A quick setting of the stage: My school participated in a county-wide book drive for students who don’t have books at home. We collected 1500 books. I had to count and store the books until they could be delivered to the drop-off location; a colleague helped me in this effort. We used a lot of boxes, as overfilling would make them too heavy to lift. The only place to store so many boxes was under a stairwell, where they waited, sealed and ready, for a member of the PTA  board who graciously offered to pick them up for us.

Now, I test the theory: Were there seven consecutive errors in communication and teamwork that led to my accident? Here’s what happened:

  1. The PTA person never gave me a time for picking up the books.
  2. Another person volunteered to help pick up books. I wasn’t told this.
  3. When the person I wasn’t told about showed up, the receptionist sent the custodial staff to move the boxes of books from the stairwell. I wasn’t told this, either.
  4. I went to investigate why the boxes were being moved. The custodial staff said they didn’t know this person who had arrived for the books.
  5. The person turned out to be a very helpful parent, but, having to unravel what was going on, and not expecting the books to go that day, I couldn’t remember where I put the form with the book count. This parent needed to take it to the people at the drop-off. Where was that form?
  6. My colleague said she taped it to one of the boxes. But which box? It had to be found. Simply making a duplicate form could result in an incorrect, doubled amount at the drop-off.
  7. I rushed into the stairwell, under the staircase. I moved box after box. When I couldn’t find the form, preoccupied with where it might be, and with the parent already there to get the books, I stood up in a hurry—and bashed the top of my skull against the bottom of the staircase.

Hard enough to knock me down.

Hard enough for my teeth to smash together.

Hard enough to chip a crown.

I say an accident involves seven consecutive human errors in communication and teamwork, all right.

The aftermath: My mouth hurt the most at the time. When I finally checked the top of my head, I couldn’t even find a tender place where it struck the staircase. No concussion. No bleeding at all. And the crown was replaced by a gracious dentist who was willing to take me, a complete stranger, as an immediate emergency case.

I’m fine.

The missing form?

It was on my table the whole time, right where I left it.

I am

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They’re so excited to see me, because this is Something New.

I come to kindergarten to support a new teacher and students struggling to master sight words.

Today, we work on am.

We read the word several times. I ask my six little friends at the table to think of sentences with the word am:

I am wearing a dress.

I am a boy.

I am eating a banana.

One little boy says, “I am a good reader.”

His face is full of light. Of hope. This is what he believes, that he is a good reader.

Dear God, never let anything squelch this hope. 

He is more than a data point

more than a projected

 subgroup statistic

 system failure

evaluation to be held against a school, a teacher.

I look at this child.

I say, “Yes. Keep reading, keep trying, and you will get better and better.”

He grins from ear to ear.

We keep working on am. We write the sentences that they compose themselves. I am writing them on strips as they write them on paper. They trace mine with a finger; I cut the words apart. I scramble and they reconstruct. We read a short book where I am recurs over and over.

“This is fun!” says another little boy, beaming.  “When will you come back?”

I am. I am. I am. I am. I am. I am.

Yes, you are.

You are here.

You are little human beings with a big future.

You are full of potential, possibility.

I am honored to have this time with you.

Get words

Imagine what is over there

Imagine what is over there. Kenneth BarkerCC BY

Last night I met with a small group of teacher-writer-colleagues from my district.

We started our discussion by writing words that resonate with us.

-Quickly.

Mine are:

fierce    happenstance   reverence   awe   perceive  magic  hope   uplift   inspire               contemplate   possibility   believe

I don’t know why this was hard or why some of these words came to me (happenstance? Go figure. Must just be the sound of it. What other reason could there be?).

Then we had to pick the word that was most significant to us.

Mine is

      hope

for in every aspect of my life, I am hopeful. If I could impart one thing to others, it would be hope.

Hope is vital to the human spirit.

My colleagues and I talked about our work with students, other teachers, and our own writing. Where we’ve been, where we are now, where we want to go.

       uplift

               inspire

Going home, the lively discussion and energy circles round my mind. Something in there is trying to find a landing place.

                         contemplate

The “something” is tied somehow to student reactions . . . the ooooohhhh moment that’s such music to a teacher’s ears . . . like when a student connects a thing he/she loves to a book, or to writing . . . this week in fourth grade, it was me asking Why is opinion writing important? with a student responding You write about what you feel deep in your heart and another student saying Like music. I can write about why I love music. I want to write songs and me saying, Well, maybe you need to write your opinion piece AS a song.

—beat—

OOOOHHHH

       reverence

                             awe

And then I think, fierce is an odd word for me to pick yet it was the first one that came to mind. Why is that?

Fierce love like mother for child, fierce dedication to excellence, fierce desire for learning.  Maybe that’s why.

The something circling in my mind is materializing. I think it’s another word . . .

                                                    perceive

Not that word.

The word is—well, awfully simple:

Get.

Get?

Yes, get.

Get what?

Get them reading

Get them writing

Get them talking

Then get out of the way.

Oh, I get it.

My colleagues and I talked about that.

And

Get out of the box.

Because that’s where all the

          magic

happens.

We don’t make it happen.

They do

but only after we tear down the walls

of windowless boxes

so that they can see the glimmering horizon beckoning

and be free to

imagine

what is over there.

                       possibility

And that they can

get excited

get through

get there

if they only

      believe

And that comes only from the stirring the ocean within

Not by sea-spray on the wind without

never never by

                           happenstance

RSVP

They sit at the table before me, these two boys, with their books open.

The book’s too hard for them. I know this. But they’re fifth-graders now, having been in intervention groups since first grade, and this is a book they really want to read. 

So we’re reading it together.

The book? Wonder. By R.J. Palacio.

We stop to discuss words and phrases that they have questions about, such as “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

I don’t get it,” says one of the boys. “Why is the mom talking about a tree? What tree?”

You’ve studied figurative language in class, right?” I ask. The boys nod. Their expressions are perplexed. “Sometimes words and phrases mean something more than what they actually say. That’s the case here. Think of a tree loaded with apples. If an apple falls off, what eventually happens to it?”

Someone comes to eat it,” offers the other boy.

Maybe,” I laugh. “But let’s say the apple stays on the ground where it fell and no one ever comes to eat it. What will happen?”

They think. I can almost see their brains scrolling.

It’ll go bad, won’t it?” asks the first boy. 

Yeah,” says the second. “Like, brown and mushy.”

“So,” I press on,”what’s inside of that rotting apple?”

“Seeds?” says the first boy. 

The second boy says “Oh!”

“What?” asks the first boy.

The seeds. They get in the ground and grow into more trees.”

Now you’re getting there.” I lean in. “You know about life cycles from science. So what will these new apple trees do?”

Grow more apples!” says the first boy.

Yes. The new tree does exactly what the mother tree does. It grows the very same kind of apples. So when August’s mom says ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’ when Julian’s mom doesn’t RSVP to August’s party, what is she really saying? Think of what you already know about Julian.”

He acts like his mom!” says the second boy.

For a second, tiny rays of light beam across both boy’s faces, driving their clouded expressions away. Then . . . 

“What’s an RSVP?” asks the first boy.

You’ve never heard of it before?” I ask.

He shakes his head.

I turn to the second boy. How about you?” 

He shakes his head, too.

“It’s what people put on a party invitation so that the people throwing the party know how many other people are coming, so they know how much food to buy or how many prizes to get.”

Their faces are blank. 

It’s French. RSVP stands for répondez s’il vous plaît: Please reply. When you get an invitation with RSVP, you’re supposed to let the sender know yes, you’re coming or no, you’re not. That’s what’s happening here in this chapter. August’s mom has sent the invitations for his party and people are saying their children can’t come. Julian’s mom doesn’t even answer.”

Oh,” says the first boy.

It hits me then.

Hard.

Guys, have you ever gotten an invitation to a birthday party or anything?”

 They shake their heads. 

I look at them for a long moment while my mind races. My thinking process is like a bubble map sprouting out in every direction, bubbles upon bubbles, thoughts multiplying exponentially.

What some children— including my own—may take for granted as a natural and fun part of childhood isn’t every child’s experience. Superman, Captain Hook, the Titanic, even—alas!—Barney the Dinosaur themed-parties clamor in my mind. 

These two boys have never had, never even seen, a party invitation.

 This is a matter beyond understanding the heart of this scene in the books before them.

It’s now a matter of understanding how the world generally works. Of broadening their world. 

 I recall a university professor giving a keynote address to would-be educators years before. He described his impoverished childhood and taking an aptitude test in elementary school. He told of this question: “What color are bananas?” I can’t recall the four answer choices (one of which was presumably yellow and the right one) but he chose “black.” Because that is what he knew; his father could only afford the bananas that were reduced when they began to spoil. He’d never seen a yellow banana.

How could he know?

How can these boys know what an RSVP is, or care? Until now, it’s never appeared in their world. It has no significance, no relevance.

All right, then,” I say. “That’s enough for today. We’ll read more and talk more about this chapter tomorrow.” 

They gather their things and head back to class.

That night, I make two invitations, personally addressed to each boy:

You are cordially invited to attend a popcorn and book celebration

with Mrs. Haley at

(the time of our group meeting, two days away).

(On an additional slip of paper):

RSVP – I will ____ will not ____ be able to attend.

The envelopes are on the table at their places when they come the next day.

“What’s this? ” asks the first boy.

That’s our names on there,” says the second.

Well, I guess you have to open them to find out,” I say.

Rustling, tearing. Reading.

What’s this word?” asks the first boy, pointing.

Cordially. It means ‘warmly’ or ‘in a very friendly way.'”

A popcorn party?” says the second boy, eyes lighting up.

A popcorn and BOOK party,” I tell him. “We’re still going to read.”

Can we have Dr. Pepper, too?” The first boy bounces in his seat.

That all depends,” I smile, “on my knowing how much popcorn and Dr. Pepper I need to buy. How am I going to know?”

Oh yeah . . .” 

With their pencils, both boys check I will be able to attend on the slips. The second boy slides it across the table to me. The first boy follows his lead.

Great! All my people RSVP’d that they’re attending! So tomorrow is our celebration. Just promise you won’t get popcorny fingerprints and Dr. Pepper on our books.”

They giggle.

Together we read a little more of August’s struggles. All the while my heart is hoping that right now, and tomorrow, and what little bit of time we have together in the tomorrows beyond, will lessen their own. And that their learning will become one long celebration, filled with wonder.

Snow day GIF documentary

If you work in education—in central North Carolina, anyway— you know that the merest rumor of snowflakes sends people into a frenzy. Mostly because 1) We must go buy bread and water in vast quantities, or at least the necessary ingredients to make big pots of chili; and 2) We want to be home quickly, because we really don’t know how to drive in this stuff.

Just to be safe, systems dismiss early, sometimes before any flakes fall.

Such was the case yesterday. The masses went home to stay glued to weather reports and social media, all the while asking: When will the snow start? How much will we get?

And the question of all questions: WILL SCHOOL BE CANCELED TOMORROW?

So, as a few flakes dropped in various areas, but not in others, as the evening wore on, the waiting intensified.

I amused myself by reading tweets to the school district about when a decision would be made about school closings. Many had GIFS such as these:

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Those, by the way, were sent by staff. Not students!

Then the announcement came: There were, in fact, enough snowflakes to cancel school today!

Someone tweeted this as the parent reaction across the district:

John Ritter.gif

Poor parents! And poor John Ritter, for that matter . . . is anyone else out there astonished that this will make fifteen years since he died?

By and large, however, there were hundreds of celebratory tweets from students with variations of GIFs such as this:

Peanuts

Many of those tweets said something like: “THANK YOU! You saved me and my grades!”

Okay . . . that really begs more investigation as to exactly how one snow day can save a GPA . . . and why grades are the whole emphasis of education . . .

Then there was this cheery admonishment from the school system: “Everyone stay safe! Kids, don’t forget to read!”

Truly warms the cockles of your heart, doesn’t it?

Except for a long thread of student responses like this:

“Don’t expect us to read, though.”

Reading that sentiment was, to me, like being impaled by a jagged icicle. My reaction:

Why.gif

Why do the kids hate reading so much? When they say “reading,” what do they actually mean? After all, they text constantly, they’re a huge presence in social media, and their choices of graphics to communicate feelings are both entertaining and dead-on. Today’s average student is quite literate, digitally.

I think—I shiver as I say this—that the aversion is to reading books. Whether it’s actual books or those on a screen is a moot point. My question is: How have we, educators, failed on such an epic scale to promote a love of reading, to the point that our students, especially those who NEED to read more, view it as such a hateful chore? As long as they feel this way, when will our students ever, hopefully, pick up a book that they simply want to read?

The year is young; there’s no time like the present. Snow days are ideal for thinking of ways to revamp instruction to help the kids get excited about books and develop a love—or at least a very strong like—of reading. Will they all? Truthfully, probably not. But that’s no excuse for not striving for something far better on their behalf:

Books are great.gif

Harry Potter and the Banned Books

Anthropologists, historians of religion, and professors of literature will all tell you that the rule in traditional cultures, and even in cultures such as ours, is that story, in whatever form, is meant to instruct and change us.

-John Granger, Looking for God in Harry Potter

The Harry Potter series celebrates its twentieth birthday this year. It’s been appearing on banned book lists for as long, regularly condemned for promoting witchcraft and satanism. I knew of the controversy long before I read the series – to be honest, I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in a fifth-grade classroom for the first time about fifteen years ago, read the first couple of pages, and wasn’t especially gripped either way. Not until Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was about to be released did I take the real plunge. I had attended a conference with a group of children’s lit MFA candidates, who described the coming of the final book and their anticipation of it with eyes gleaming like those of beatified saints:

“I ordered it and when it’s delivered, I am going to lock myself in the bedroom – I told my family not to bother me, I am going to be reading this book, and I need to be left alone.”

I swear I saw tears shimmering in their wide eyes.

So, with a just month to go before the release date, I read all six preceding books, even went to Barnes and Noble to get my own copy of Deathly Hallows at midnight on the release date.

In short: The books are magical, all right, but not in the sense of spells, wands, sorcery. These appear in the books but aren’t the real draw, are not what the books are really about. The draw – the thing that puts the gleam in the diehard fan’s eye – is caring about the characters, the needing to know what’s going to happen to them. The age-old theme of good versus evil, making choices to preserve life or to destroy it. The big umbrella from which the stories hang is love – think of why Voldemort really cannot win in the end.

What we take away from the Potter books is that as long as as there is love, there’s hope. A young boy with a lot of hard knocks in his early life is willing to sacrifice himself to save others. He’s successful, and because he is, in his not-exactly-perfect-hero example, we know we can be, too. After all, he’s just a child.

The books don’t entice children to practice magic; they entice readers to be their better selves, to strive, to overcome darkness within and without.

I was an avid reader ever since I can remember. Every summer when I stayed with my grandmother in the far, coastal reaches of North Carolina, she took me to the tiny, dusty county library. I checked out stacks of books, more than I could carry by myself – Grandma had to help. One year I saw a title that compelled me. I had heard about the movie,  that people at my church said it was really bad; I knew people were afraid of it. Naturally, it piqued my interest. I put the book in my stack and, wonder of wonders, Grandma didn’t notice, or I surely wouldn’t have been allowed to have it.

That book was The Exorcist.

It was well beyond my developmental level, to say the least, and it was the first cover I opened when I got back to Grandma’s house. After maybe four minutes of attempting to decode words with multisyllabic chunking, before I even knew that was a real strategy, I was horrified by the images I could and did glean. I closed the cover and hid the book from my sight, fervently wishing I could just leave it outside until the return trip to the library.

I was maybe ten years old.

What I learned at that young age is that you have to be your own judge.

This is something that Harry does exceedingly well.

Every book that we read changes us; we take away some learning, some new thinking, some depth of emotion. Agreeing or disagreeing with the content, our given tastes in that regard, are not primary considerations – our freedom to decide is. We must be careful of what we are advocating – for, if a book containing stories of magic, sorcery, and evil acts should be banned, then that includes the Bible itself.

 

 

 

Big English

Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic. – J.K. Rowling

He finishes his reading assessment and peers over at my screen where all the words are marked red.

I had to tell him every one of them.

He’s only been in this country for a year.

He is tiny, but his dark eyes are bright, intense. They catch and perceive everything. I can tell.

He considers all the red on the screen, then turns those knowing eyes on me.

Before I can say, “It’s okay, don’t worry, you’ll learn,” he reaches over to pat my arm.

“You,” he says. “You have big English.”

He pats his own chest. “Me, little English. I have big Spanish.”

I point to myself, to finish his thought: “Me, I have poco Spanish.”

He grins at me, and I smile back.

We understand each other in a way beyond words. We are okay, in perfect company, because of this wordless knowing between us. No assessment invented by man can capture the height, the depth, the strength of the human spirit. There is no real reason why trust should suddenly be born in such a moment, but it clearly has been.

“I tell you what,” I say to my tiny new friend, for that is what he is now, “I will help you with English and you can help me with Spanish.”

His grin broadens. His eyes shine.

I hold up my hand: “Deal?”

He laughs, slaps my hand with his own. “Deal.”

And he vacates the chair beside me, going off for the rest of his school day in a sea of Big English. Like a salmon, he has a hard battle, upstream all the way.

I expect he’ll swim, rise, leap – I see it in his eyes, sense it in his spirit.

I wonder what the future holds for him. Something of great importance, great value – I can feel it tugging.

Whatever part I can play, let me play it.

Let the magic begin.

Beacon

Kerosene lantern

Kerosene lantern. hare 🙂CC BY-SA

In reflecting on my reading and writing life, I am most thankful that my tastes cover a pretty wide spectrum. As a child I devoured everything from Dr. Seuss to Highlights, from cereal boxes to Funk and Wagnalls Medical Encyclopedias (yes, really), from fiction series to biographies, from Reader’s Digest to dictionaries, as I marveled over the many meanings a single word can have. 

None of these were required reading in school.

All of this is what I chose to read, was compelled to read, from an insatiable hunger for the experiences, the ideas, the information, the emotions, the beautiful and the stark way of stringing words together, long before I thought about how hard authors work on hammering those words and phrases into something with just the right impact on readers.

Now, as a writer, my tastes run the gamut as well.

With Lit Bits and Pieces, I am usually reflecting on or exploring meanings of every-day experiences. Creative nonfiction, mostly.

Today I am sharing a short piece of fiction – for, truthfully, fiction is forever beckoning me with a capricious and winsome smile.

This was inspired by a personal challenge, a house I once lived in, and being told a long time ago that when she was a little girl, my maternal grandmother sometimes assisted her midwife mother.

-Enjoy.

Beacon

The captain’s wife was going to die.

Lily and her mother couldn’t save her.

They tried.

Vestal administered tinctures she’d made from leaves and bark as six-year-old Lily rubbed Miss Rebekah’s swollen belly, repeating over and over in her mind like a mantra: Little baby, please get borned . . . your Mama’s trying so hard.

Lily’s arms ached. The odors of sweat, blood, and tincture hung heavy in the close room. Miss Rebekah had chosen the highest, hottest point in the house and she couldn’t be moved now. Lily breathed through her mouth instead of her nose to avoid the metallic taste of blood and salt on her tongue. She kept kneading: Little baby, please, PLEASE get borned . . . .

The hours wore on; the sky darkened and thunder rolled in from the Atlantic.

Storms frightened Lily. Vestal said she mustn’t let it show. “When you live by the ocean, Lily dear, storms are always violent. Become accustomed to it. This is where thunderstorms are born, child.”

The wind moaned like a ghost under the eaves; rain slapped against the windowpanes. Lightning burst and sizzled a split second before the thunderclap shook the house. Lily jumped but she didn’t cry out. She sat trembling while Vestal calmly lit the kerosene lamp on the dresser.

Rebekah, sinking deeper in the feather bed, whispered, “Miss Vestal, would you move that lamp over to the window, please, so Captain Turner can find his way home.”

Captain Turner was at sea. Lily knew he wasn’t due back any time soon. Even if he was, he’d never see this lamp through the storm.

Vestal hesitated.

“Please.” Miss Rebekah’s whisper was barely audible, more air than voice.

Vestal carried the lamp to the sill of the window overlooking the widow’s walk. Beyond her mother’s silhouette, Lily could see the surf illuminated by lightning, billowing, foaming, crashing. Lily thought about the women at the marketplace who dressed only in black, murmuring to one another that this Carolina coast was treacherous even without storms.

Women who had watched for ships that never returned.

Rebekah groaned. Vestal flew back to her. The groan was so deep and prolonged that Lily’s courage finally collapsed. She cowered with her hands over her ears while Rebekah, just nineteen, married less than a year, made one last, valiant push before her life ebbed away. Lily knew it was all over when Miss Rebekah lay silent, her pinched face turned slightly toward the window where the lamplight flickered, then stood still.

Vestal gasped: “Lily!”

Lily scrambled to the foot of the bed. There in her mother’s hands was a tiny, motionless body. In all the births she’d witnessed, Lily had never seen anything like this.

The baby had no face.

“Oh, Mama, what’s wrong with it?”

“She’s a caulbearer! All my life I’ve heard of this! Cauls bring good luck, Lily, and healing powers. Whoever owns one will never drown. We must save it for her Papa.”

Lily watched as Vestal gently peeled the membrane, intact, from the baby’s face. Sweet-smelling fluid trickled from beneath the caul. When the veil lifted and she faced the world at last, the baby shuddered, reddened, flailed at the air; she drew a rasping, croup-like breath, then gave a mighty squall, startling Lily.

Vestal beamed.

Almost instantly, there was another sound: heavy boots pounding up the wooden stairs. Captain Turner burst into the chamber, rivulets of rain and seawater running from his hat and cloak, so out of breath he couldn’t speak. He simply sank to his knees on the floor in the circle of light cast by Rebekah’s lamp.

Lily was little, but she believed in miracles, believed that she was witnessing how many, right now? She eyed that lamp, glowing so serenely through the gloom. She knelt by the struggling captain. With a tentative hand, she dared to pat his arm:

“Welcome home, Captain. Everyone’s made safe harbor now. I think maybe you should call this baby Stormy, sir.”

As if in agreement, the flame in the lamp flared and danced.

******

Note: My original version of “Beacon” ended up placing in a flash fiction competition sponsored by Women on Writing – just one of the ways I’ve tried to push and challenge myself as a writer. Here’s their pretty fun response: The Muffin/Women on Writing Interview.