Writing your own story

I saw his shirt from across the crowded cafeteria:

Writing my OWN story.

I hadn’t seen him before, didn’t know him, but I had to go over and say: “That’s the most awesome shirt! Do you like to write?”

He smiled and nodded, eyes bright and cheerful: “Yes!”

We had a short conversation about reading and writing. He was new to our school. After this initial encounter he was quick to come ask questions if he wasn’t sure about how we do things here, always greeting me with an earnest face and slightly self-conscious smile.

He wasn’t with us long. On his last days, he asked if he could stay after lunch and clean all of the tables as his grade level headed to recess. He wiped every table meticulously, then straightened all of the cardboard trays in the serving line for the classes to follow.

I understood.

It was something he could control. A positive and productive outlet.

I never got to write with him.

I thought about students over the years and what I learned about their lives from their writing. A girl whose family slept in their car on the journey north to visit relatives for the holidays; how she woke in the morning, shivering, to find frost coating the windows. A teenager whose vivid third-person narrative about a child born in another country, who survives abuse to find a new life and family in America . . . it switches to first person at the end as he rejoices and reveals he was that child. A first-grader who wanted to write about her dog, how the police shot and killed it. Unnerved, I told her teacher, in hopes that this was just a disturbing fabrication. It wasn’t. The child saw it happen.

For all the story-loving writer that I am, I know writing is not a magic cure for the pain and scars of life. It is, however, a real coping mechanism, a positive and productive outlet, a way of seeing and dealing with and finding hope to overcome. Even in the youngest of us, many of whom already know that life doesn’t follow a neat formula, that it seldom follows a clear and sensible series of steps. I often think about what passes for “writing” in schools; it can’t always be a neat response to a text or a prompt. If we are truly to equip children with tools for life, it begins with a real response to their lives in this world. We owe them, for as long as we have them, a place to feel safe, to be loved, a way of having some control in the face of change, to find their own power despite their powerlessness.To write their own lives, even as life is unfolding.

To have hope on the journey as it takes so many twists and turns.

Time is of the essence; we don’t know for how long or short a time they’ll be in our sphere of influence. Good-byes can come without warning.

And so I quickly gathered the best tools I had at my disposal: pencils, notebooks, a couple of favorite books from my shelf. It was my way of saying Godspeed, child. Write your OWN story. Believe. Attend to your heart. Here’s a piece of mine to carry with you.

Edward knew what it was like to say over and over again the names of those you had left behind. He knew what it was like to miss someone. And so he listened. And in his listening, his heart opened wide and then wider still.

You must be filled with expectancy. You must be awash in hope. You must wonder who will love you, whom you will love next.

—excerpts, Kate DiCamillo, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Sick Ada

I don’t know where it came from, this idea for a story about a little girl who likes cicadas.

Except that I was a little girl who liked cicadas. I am a grown-up who loves them; I’ve written about this many times.

Anyway . . .

In my idea (that fell into my head when I was actually thinking of other things), a little girl is having a hard time adjusting to her parents’ separation. It’s connected to a change in seasons when she can’t hear cicadas anymore. Perhaps she will find some shed cicada shells and ponder the emptiness where a living thing used to be. Or how one outgrows things. Maybe she’ll even think that her parents have outgrown their love for her. I am not sure yet of all the meanings and connections; I will have to write and let the story grow and breathe on its own.

I do know, however, that the little girl becomes ill. Is it terminal? Not sure yet. She goes to the hospital. It’s winter. As she’s falling asleep, the heater in her room sounds like cicadas rattling high in the summer trees. It’s a happy sound, this buzzing. She will wonder if dying is not so bad, really, if she can just keep hearing cicadas . . . and then she hears voices. Her mother and father are there with her in the room, together if only for a little while, united in their concern for their sick daughter.

Whose name is Ada.

Sick Ada . . . cicada . . .

That’s as far as I’ve gotten, just grasping at these gossamer images, the barest wings of an idea.

But I think it might like to become a real story.

That belongs to children, for they live at the mercy of adults and the world.

And, of course, to cicadas, which are always buzzing somewhere, and which represent many things, mostly good.

Seems I almost owe it to little sick Ada, waiting there in the wings.

Photo: Girl with cicada bug. Jose Hernandez. CC BY-SA

Why I Write 2019

The National Day on Writing invites me to examine my writing history: Why DO I write, really? And why do I love it?

I don’t know exactly when the desire began, only that it manifested itself early in life.

It had nothing to do with the hateful formation of letters on paper. My handwriting was never pretty. Even now my letters aren’t uniform; I scrawl my thoughts onto a page lightning-fast, before they escape me.

That’s what writing is. Thoughts. Ideas. The attempt to capture and convey images, emotions, sensations.

It has everything to do with words.

I fell in love with words long ago on my grandmother’s lap as she read book after book to me, the prosody of her voice like the waves of the ocean rolling on and on and on. Endless, musical, alive. Her voice buoys me to this day. I hear it still; she is never far away.

At age six I gathered paper and a pencil, sat at the coffee table in my living room, and wrote a story that I’d heard many times. No one said Do This. The compulsion came from within. The writing was for me and no one else. It simply needed to be done and I wanted to do it. So there I sat, laboriously printing my ugly letters, making words to what I believed was the most beautiful story in the world.

I wrote because, in the days before the Internet and cellphones, Grandma wrote letters (with perfect penmanship) in which she included books of stamps so that I could mail letters back to her.

In my adolescence she gave me a diary with a lock and key (two keys, actually, in case one got lost). I flooded those pages with the secrets of my young soul, such as the angry suspicion that my parents had adopted me, whereas my sister was their real child, and: One day I want to write a book. I hope it will be published!

And so I wrote.

One teacher, then another and another, strategically placed throughout my education, said Keep writing. Here’s what you do well. Here’s a thing that can make your writing even better. They asked me to read my work to my classmates, who said Keep writing. Oh, and will you help us?

Throughout my teens poetry called to me. It said: You hear my music. Show me. Come, dance. Don’t think about perfect steps. Just listen and follow what you hear.

—That’s pretty much how I write everything now.

And the books, the books, the books . . . who and what would I be if I had not loved reading so? All genres, all my life. New words, new information, new ways of thinking, new things to explore and imagine. New motivation to write with the same power as the writers who stir something my very core, as our cores are clearly made of the same stuff.

So, to this day, I write. Because I love story, real or imagined. I write with and for children who have their own stories to tell. I write to cope with people and situations that I cannot change and to remember all that’s good in my life. I write my celebrations and my losses. I write not to wage war on the world but to find peace in myself, where finding peace with others begins. I write to forgive myself and others. Not with words that destroy, but those that build, that create, that go on in the belief that the chapter to come will be better than the one before. Even when pain is woven through it, so is joy. Because that’s life. And love. And writing. I want to store it all it before the hippocampi in my brain (I envision these as two seahorses, yes) stop recording my memories and before the ideas evaporate and the words don’t come any more.

Until then, on a sea of words, the rhythm of life rises, falls, and calls: You hear my music. Show me. Come, dance. Don’t think about perfect steps. Just listen and follow what you hear.

And so I do, with a heart full of gratitude.

That is why I write.

A few words

As a literacy coach, one great advantage I have is interacting with students from grade to grade throughout their elementary years. I get to watch their growth and development firsthand. As readers, as writers, as fellow human beings . . .

One great disadvantage is not being a daily part of their lives or having as much impact as a classroom teacher. I try to maximize the joy of student learning in the moments I do have with them, for I am on the periphery of their academic life.

Or so I believed.

This week, after several weeks out with my husband’s hospitalization and convalescence, I went back to school. Feeling grateful to be on familiar ground (somewhat like finally making it to a known island through strange, ominous seas), whom should I see but a little friend I used to call “Superman” because he was wearing a shirt emblazoned with the superhero’s “S” logo on the day I first saw him. He was in first grade then, having come from another country. He was tiny, he knew no English, and his frustration was immense. His face was one miniature thundercloud until I said “Hey, you’re Superman,” and that’s when he smiled.

So, on my first day back, here he is, getting off the bus, smiling, making a beeline. He’d made a card for me. This child, now in third grade, has mastered English to the chatterbox level and still doesn’t like to write (although he loves telling elaborate stories about things like playing soccer in the street with other kids in his neighborhood).

I thank him. I tell him how tall he’s gotten in these few weeks I’ve been away. He grins, hugs me, and heads off to class, uncharacteristically shy.

I read my card and I understand.

Sometimes it’s hard to share your heart out loud. So we write when we have something to say, when the need to express this something outweighs the chore of getting it on the page.

Just a few words, but how I rejoice in them, that he has them.

—I missed you, too, Superman.

Five-card story

For three summers now, my district has offered a week-long Teacher Writing Institute, an invitation for K-12 teachers to deepen their identity as writers, hone their craft, and experiment with form. One of my great joys is co-facilitating this event.

I love to see how teachers rate themselves as writers and teachers of writing at the beginning, then, at weeks’ end, how much higher they rate themselves. They’ve written and shared a lot; confidence has spiked. Which is the whole rationale for the institute: Write first for yourself; grow so you can help the students grow.

Every year I stretch myself a little more with writing exercises and modeling for participants. I try new things.

This time it was Five Card Flickr.

Here’s how it works: Go the site and select Play a Round. Five random photos will appear. Choose one, and another round of five photos appears. Choose another, and keep going until you complete a sequence of five cards.

Then write the story represented by those cards.

When playing individually, you can share your story online with the 5cardflickr community if you like. At the Summer Writing Institute, we opted for selecting the photos as a group, with everyone writing their own version of the story in their notebooks.

Here are the photos we selected together during our round (all credited to bionicteaching ):

5cardflickr 15cardflickr 25cardflickr 35cardflickr 45cardflickr 5

One participant asked a question: “Should we write the story with scenes in the same sequence as the pictures, or can we switch it up?”

“I think that should be up to you, since we’re writing in notebooks,” I replied. “Just know the site won’t allow you to manipulate the order of the photos at the end of the online selection round.” (I had given it a try the day before).

And so, for about fifteen minutes, we wrote.

I wrote, too, as I do everything I ask students—or in this case, colleagues—to do.

Besides, I felt an idea bubbling . . .

Every day I pass by the brothers’ building. Hoarders, the neighbors said. Apartment full of junk to the ceiling. No one ever goes in and we’ve never seen them come out.

I used to stare up at that window but all I could ever see was a bit of lace curtain from a bygone era and the reflection of my own apartment building across the street. 

That was before the smell.

Before the police were called.

Before the medical examiner came and one of the brothers was wheeled out in a body bag.

Dead for a week, caught in his own booby-trap, rigged to keep intruders out.

The remaining brother, white-haired, frail, bedridden for who knows how long, was carted off to a hospital where he died in a matter of hours.

On the day the city sent people in hazmat suits to start cleaning out the apartment, a violent wind whipped through the streets, slapping against the crowd of us gathered on the sidewalk. The brothers’ neighbor, Mrs. Rosales, put her hands  in the air as their belongings were hauled out. A whole human skeleton, jars with alien things in fluid, a stuffed peacock with majestic tail feathers fully fanned . . . I couldn’t determine if Mrs. Rosales was shielding herself from the sight of it all or just bracing herself against the wind. Her scarf whipped out behind her like a red flag, waving.

Of all the objects I saw, the scarf is what I couldn’t get out of my mind that night. For a long time I watched from my apartment window on the top floor, as workers carted bulky things in the darkness, passing in front of floodlights across the street like shadows, like ghosts.

I tried to sleep and couldn’t.

All my life those old men had lived right across from me and I’d never seen them. Heard their dad been a doctor decades ago. Their mother, a socialite. How do people with such comfortable beginnings in life come to such bizarre endings? And who was left to truly mourn the brothers? Was mourning even appropriate, given their circumstances?

In the morning, as I walked to work past the brothers’ building as always, on the familiar, crumbling sidewalks I spotted something I’d never seen beforesome kind of petals. Pink and white, soft and delicate, as if they’d just fallen to the old gray stones where they lay.

Except that there are no such trees in this city.  There are, in fact, no trees at all anywhere nearby.

I stood rooted to the stones, lost in thought, mulling the presence of these petals, when a hand grabbed my arm.

I jumped—and relaxed.

Mrs. Rosales.

“Mamá told me long ago their mother had a tulip tree.” Her voice sounded strange, distant. I followed her gaze up to the window with the lace curtain, the one that reflected my building. Where the brothers were, and were no more.

I wanted to say Why are the petals here now? Where’d they come from? If they came off of that tulip tree long ago, they’d be dried, brown. . . these petals were fresh. They couldn’t have fallen out of the brothers’ things. . . could they?

But I couldn’t speak. I just watched Mrs. Rosales walking away after she patted my arm in parting, as she headed for some unknown destination, her scarf flapping behind her like a waving red flag. . . .

And when I looked back at the brothers’ building, my eyes fell on a rusted gate enclosing tiny old courtyard, tucked into a recess. Why I had I never noticed this before? I felt drawn—called—to go in, to see where the courtyard led. It had to be a secret entrance to the brothers’ apartment, surely.

But on the rusty gate sat a shiny new chain and padlock, gleaming in the morning sun.

I shall never enter, will never know the whys of the brothers, who went with all their stories locked inside of them. Forever.

*******

My inspiration: The Collyer Brothers, 1881-1947, who lived in a Harlem brownstone. I read about these two famous hoarders years ago. Over a hundred tons of trash was removed from their apartment after their deaths. Truth is far stranger, and more horrifying, than fiction: One brother had fallen ill and the other was caring for him, tunneling through the hoarded stuff, when his own booby-trap really did kill him. Without anyone to care for him, the sick brother died there, too. Nearly two weeks later.

At the writing institute, these five randomly-dealt cards on Flickr selected by my colleagues—beginning with the old window, the old brick building—immediately stirred the haunting memory sleeping in my mind. So much of writing is memory and the search for meaning. Once you start writing, you’re never sure what might come . . . what strange petals will drift through, what red flags might start waving, what gates will remain locked to you. . .  although hopefully not forever.

A story will find a way to be told.

Just open yourself, and write.

Dust motes

Dust motes

Dust. ZoiKorakiCC BY

Last week I had the pleasure of co-facilitating my district’s third annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute. K-12 teachers were invited to deepen their sense of identity as writers, hone their craft, and experiment with form. Guest author Matt de la Peña led us through a series of writing explorations on Day One.

Here’s how it went for me as de la Peña used this exchange from “Steady Hands at Seattle General,” a short story by Denis Johnson, as a springboard for capturing images: 

“What about your past?”
“What about it?”
“When you look back, what do you see?”
“Wrecked cars.”

What might those two words mean, de la Peña muses aloud for the benefit of participants. 

“Wrecked cars?” Might they be literal or figurative? 

He goes on: Choose two words to create an image describing your past—when you look back, what do you see? 

At first I wrote ‘Christmas trees’. When I look back, I see them. From my grandmother’s all-silver, 1960s tabletop tree to my real Fraser fir decked in Victorian decor. Christmas trees mean another year is ending. That life and perspectives change continuously. To me they symbolize more than tradition. They mark time. Eras. Celebrations. Losses. Our children grow up; grown-ups from our own childhood pass away . . . between chapters of the unfolding story of life stands a tree.

When I look back, I see it all.

Suddenly I don’t want to use those words, Christmas trees.

In that instant, two other words materialize: 

Dust motes. 

I do not know why.

Except that I can clearly see the image of my childhood living room, a shaft of light between the drawn curtains of the picture window, the dust floating there, tiny specks of gold— 

He’s speaking, de la Peña. Asking if any of us would share our two words.

After a moment, I volunteer. 

“Dust motes?” he questions.  “I’ve not heard this before. I’m curious—why?”

Well,” I say, thinking as I speak, “it’s the image that came to mind, a shaft of light with dust specks floating in it . . . maybe because as a child I spent much time to myself, reading, in the stillness, in silences . . . when I look back, that’s what I see. Dust motes being partly your own skin. Shed cells. Pieces of yourself floating in that light . . . “

His expression is unfathomable. 

He says: “That’s fascinating and eerie. It lends itself to something really creepy . . .”

I consider this a compliment. 

De la Peña shares a model, “What Jimmy Remembers” from Jimmy & Rita by Kim Addonizio (2012):

Girls in white stockings and checkered wool jumpers, round white collars, red bows at their throats. Birds in Saint Christopher’s schoolyard—hundreds of them, black, spread out across the lawn in late afternoon. The brick wall of the steel mill on Dye Street he could see from the living room window, his father in there working, his mother in a shiny black dress coming in at dawn after singing in some nightclub, waking him for school. Shivering and dressing over the heating vent in the front hall. Dark-blue blazer and black shoes. A puppy that died of distemper, put in a shopping bag and into a can in Bushler’s Alley. Cotton candy on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, the barkers calling Hey bub, Hey sonny, Buster, Skip, You. . .The black hearse carrying his father through the snow, a semicircle of metal folding chairs. The green faces in avocado leaves smiling down at him. God in the clouds. Who art in Heaven. His mother, ghost now: wearing a stolen mink, flipping a cigarette from a deck of Lucky’s. His father moving toward her with a match, cupping his palms around the flame.

—All images, fragments, this bit of microfiction.

“Now, using your two words as a title, take a few minutes to write what you remember from your past, but here’s the challenge: Don’t mention those two words in your scene,” says de la Peña. “Don’t worry about proper sentences. Just write . . . “

My pencil is already scratching away against the notebook paper: 

Hand-me-down corduroy Levi’s in baby blue, green, tan, cream. Ashtrays overflowing. Trips in aging Fords to buy discounted boxes of Salem menthols. Complimentary bubblegum cigarettes. A screen of smoke in the air mingled with chicken grease. Ivory Liquid suds in the sink, stiff, dry, stained with spaghetti sauce. Bathroom wall by the tub caving in where a soap dish used to be. The biting scent of Pine-Sol as it’s poured in the toilets, rolling white like smoke, clouding the water like creamer in coffee. Vaporizer in my bedroom, rattling, sputtering. The hallway, broom leaning against the wall, a gathered pile of gray lint.  Bullet in the living room rug, in the floor, if you know where to look. Books. Books. Books. Silences. Shafts of light through the picture window, beckoning from beyond. The wrought-iron lamppost by the concrete steps leading to and from the front door, the heavy, decadent fragrance of my mother’s gardenias in various stages of living and dying on the bushes there. Church carillon chiming, loud and clear, from several blocks away: Let me hide myself in Thee. The pungent whiff of crab from the factory, if the wind is just right. Salt. Salt. On my baked potato, tin foil too hot to touch, on my popcorn, on the wind. The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. All we are is dust in the wind. Words and words in my head and my heart, pouring onto stacks of pages that are always able to hold it all, and which never judge, which just absorb, and save.

There you have it. Dust motes. What I see when I look back, at least in part.

With apologies to Matt de la Peña, for while I didn’t use “motes” anywhere in my remembering, there was just no getting around “dust.” 

But also with deepest thanks to him for creating the conditions for this writing to occur.

Which is what good writing teachers do.

A work of heart

No way out

No way out. Jayt74CC BY-SA

This week I’m co-facilitating my district’s third annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute. The ever-gracious author Matt de la Peña spent the first day guiding us deeper into the craft. He prefaced one portion of the session with “Reading is the ultimate form of empathy”—reminding us writers to get out of the way and let characters be the stars of our stories. He began, oddly enough, with asking us to describe the media center learning space where we were gathered in three or four sentences.

I have loved libraries all of my life. I quickly wrote: Spacious, welcoming, a vast array of books on shelves. A spotless carpet of soft blue; effort is made to keep it neat. This is a place that invites silence, thought, reflection—a clean, well-lighted room.

All right, I confess that I borrowed that last phrase from Hemingway. But the room WAS well-lit . . .  and clean . . . 

Then de la Peña threw down the gauntlet: “We’re going to add an emotional layer. Now describe this room from the perspective of a struggling reader.”

I blinked.

I looked at that description I’d written, the words I’d used.

Welcoming. Invites.

Would I feel that way about this place if I didn’t love to read?

Already I felt something quite different as I slid into the character’s mind and shoes, as I looked through eyes so different from my own  . . . 

It’s huge and full of books and all I want is to be first in line so I can get to the Lego wall or the headphones — across this sea of blue carpet — I’ve got to run on water to get where I’m going or be drowned in books — I can swim in pictures but only for so long. Will I drift and drift forever? Just let me anchor myself to that Lego wall or those headphones, please . . .

—If reading is the ultimate form of empathy, then perhaps writing is the penultimate form. 

All I can say is, for the first time in my life, my need to escape books was necessary. Palpable, urgent.

Alarming.

And I was only imagining.

*******

More to share in subsequent posts, but deepest thanks to Matt de la Peña for his work of heart today — the exercise in empathy and emphasizing the value of emotional diversity in children’s books.

And for “recalibration moments.”  

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.

Reliquary

A little copper box. On its lid, two seahorses free-floating in a bed of tiny, shimmering beads.

When I saw it in the island’s gift shop showcase, it spoke to me:

I was made for you.

But what ARE you? I wondered. A curiously small trinket box? 

Then I saw the inconspicuous card in the shadowy showcase corner—as if it had just materialized.

—Reliquary.

That is when I knew.

“Ahem—can I please see this little box?” I called to the shopkeeper. Once the enchanting object left the glass case it would never go back.

The shopkeeper, an older lady with shoulder-length sandy hair, a friendly face, and a bohemian air, chattered happily as she withdrew the box and placed it in my open palm. One of a kind. Handmade by an artist. A reliquary.

A work of art, I thought, tilting the box in my hand. The beads in the lid shifted like grains of sand; the seahorses drifted over their pearly sea. Meant to hold relics. Something special. Something holy.

I had no idea exactly what. 

I only knew it was mine as soon as I saw it.

Or that maybe I belonged to it.

First of all, the seahorses. A symbol I love, one I’ve adopted as my writerly motif. Hippocampus. There are two in the reliquary lid; there are two in the human brain. They help new memories form. They are tied to learning and emotion.

A glimmering of blue against rolling quicksilver . . . I begin to see, to understand, a little.

Whatever stirs in my brain, in my heart, finds its way onto a page. My notebooks are reliquaries. My blog is a reliquary. They hold my learning—they often reveal my learning to me—as I write. They hold my emotions, my memories, bits and pieces of my existence. My relics. Words.

On a metaphorical level, that is what the box represents. My writer-soul, poured out, made visible, received in a keeping-place.

On a physical level, the box is quite real, tangible, and empty, waiting to hold something worthy. It will come. I will know it when it does. For now my reliquary sits on my dresser. Whenever I pass by, the hippocampi in my brain flutter at the sight of the hippocampi on the lid. For in the vast currents of living, of thought, grains gather one by one to form something solid. Somewhere in the waiting lies an invitation, expectancy, a sudden discovering. A work of art, ever and always developing—because, in truth, we are all reliquaries.

 

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:

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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.