To love that well

Drema Gaye Spencer

Drema Gaye Spencer. Her first name means “reverie,” or dream. Her middle name, “merry, lighthearted.” Her surname is Old English for “guardian,” “object of awe,” “dispenser of provisions.”

She stands on the precipice between childhood and womanhood, facing the camera directly, her hooded eyes steady and confident. She does not know it yet, but she will be like the mountains framing her background, where she and her seven siblings loved to run, calling to each other across the distance, teasing, playing jokes, laughing with wild abandon at their own mischievous humor. As intense pressure, heat, and time formed the ancient Appalachian coalfields, so the course of her life would forge an internal fuel, the deep, burning drive to keep going under the weight of crushing adversity.

It’s the early 1940s. World War II is in full swing; her three brothers have enlisted in the Navy. The family has survived the Great Depression in the place it struck the hardest, where the economy has always been precarious. When she arrived with the January snows of 1926, her coal miner father hadn’t had steady work in a year due to frequent safety shutdowns; the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health Safety and Training references nearly 700 fatalities for 1925.

She’s just a teenager with a head full of dreams for the future.

Maybe she could teach English literature and composition—What fun that would be! Maybe I’ll even visit England one day.

Innately musical, singing harmony with her sisters in church, she also harbors aspirations for the stage. She knows she has true dramatic and comic talent, which, along with her natural beauty, lands her roles in high school plays. Her blue eyes sparkle: Well, I AM a good actress. Very good. Eventually, of course, I’ll get married and have children. I do want children . . . Sometimes she can almost see their little faces, these someday-children. I hope one’s a boy with brown eyes.

So she looks at the camera and smiles, the mountain beneath her feet, her childhood behind her and her whole future lying ahead.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

-William Butler Yeats

The reality is that just a few years after this photo was made, she married a man who would be killed in a mining accident, leaving her with a toddler and a baby at twenty-three.

Several years afterward, she married a widower, an Army man with two older children. Eventually they had a boy and a girl together.

Her boy with brown eyes.

When her husband completed tours of duty in Korea and Vietnam, she cared for the six children by herself.

When the brown-eyed boy was four, he developed acute bronchitis, necessitating an emergency tracheotomy. His temperature spiked to 107 after surgery. The nurses packed the child in ice. The hospital doctors told her that her little son might not make it. She sent for his father, away at Army summer camp; a police escort was dispatched to meet him at the airport. As the boy drifted in and out of consciousness, she sat by his oxygen tent, praying, weeping.

The boy survived.

She wrote him a letter on the inside back cover of a book of Bible stories.

4:00 a.m. In hospital.

Dearest . . .

When you are well and safe at home again, I’ll read you this little note I’ve written to you during the hours I sat by your bed and watched you sleep so soundly . . . Mommy and Daddy have been so scared . . . We love you so much, our little son . . . Little angels have been all around your bed since you have been sick and Jesus sent them to watch over you and keep you . . . soon all the suffering and fright you have had will pass from your little mind but Mommy will always remember and thank God for giving you back to me.

Your Mother

She could never speak of the ordeal without tears.

Staggering losses were yet to come.

When the brown-eyed boy was twelve and his sister nine, and all the others grown and on their own, her Army man died suddenly, instantly, with a heart attack.

Widowed twice—each time with a boy and girl at home to care for.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

-I Corinthians 13:7

When her sobbing son asked, “Who’s going to take care of us now?” she wrapped him in her arms.

“God will. And I will.”

And she did.

Survival ran in her veins like coal beds through the Appalachians. She dug deep within herself, tapping into the hardy DNA passed down by her ancestors, into the wellspring of her faith, into the fierce love for her children, and carried on. When her son was consumed with fear of something happening to her, she said:

“I have prayed and prayed that nothing will happen to me until you’re grown. And I am convinced that God will allow it.”

For the next ten years, she poured herself into her children and her home.

Still she laughed. Still she sang. She called her brothers and sisters, who still teased each other with jokes old and new. She gardened. She arranged flowers. She organized a women’s political group, taught Sunday School, went to her son’s basketball games all through high school.

She managed, and managed well.

When her son said he found the girl he wanted to marry, she gave him her blessing and the diamond engagement ring that his father, the Army man, had given her.

The brown-eyed boy—now the man—gave the ring to me on my twentieth birthday, long, long ago.

For the boy who lived (apologies, J.K. Rowling) is my husband; the woman in the photograph is my mother-in-law.

When I came to know her, I first admired her elegant, impeccably-kept house, which she was forever redecorating. And the food, the food, oh, the food! Her table always looked like something from Southern Living, down to the coordinating linen napkins and rings. Her iced tea was always blissfully sweet and there must always, always be lemon slices with it. I came to appreciate her ever-present wit, her spunky humor, her fashionable attire. Being well-put together was a priority to her. I browsed her bookcases on every visit, knowing she’d have a new bestseller for me to devour. I was instantly at home in her home.

When she was sixty years old, a third man proposed to her. She hesitated. “I’ve buried two husbands. I don’t want to bury a third.”

But he was a good man; she took a chance on him. For the next three decades, they celebrated the coming of grandchildren and the first great-grandchildren.

Three years ago, she was widowed for the third time.

There were no children at home to care for now.

She was, for the first time in her nine decades, alone.

With housekeeping being too much for her, it was time to go to the home of one of the children or to assisted living.

And her genes, or her Appalachian roots, or the rising dementia—or all three—kicked into overdrive.

She would not go.

The house had become her whole identity. It was where she’d provided for the last of her children. It symbolized her strength, her ability to survive. This was her mountain; she would not be moved. She dug in her heels. Deep.

Until the stroke.

After surgery, when her family was allowed to see her in intensive care, she greeted us with a smile. “I can’t believe I’ve had a stroke! Can you believe it?” she said, as if she were sitting in the den at home, making everyday conversation, even as the nurses watched her monitors. Blue eyes sparkling as bright as ever, she reached out her warm hand to grasp mine. “Hey, you’ve got a birthday coming up. We’ll have to celebrate.”

I held her hand, marveling.

She rebounded for a short while, working hard at her rehab, thinking she could go back home. She couldn’t. She went into a nursing home instead, for, as the weeks wore on, her strength waned.

So did her mind.

The one thing that waxed bright and hot was her fighting spirit. She grew more determined to go home, even as she grew weaker, less hungry, more and more tired.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

-Dylan Thomas

She raged. She burned within like a coal seam fire, until her energy was spent at last.

Lying in her nursing home bed, she stood on the mountains again, seeing her brothers and sisters in the distance. She called their names over and over—only the ones who’d already died. She carried on conversations with them.

“I can’t go on up,” she told these siblings that the rest of us couldn’t see. “Not just yet.”

She knew us, called us by name when we last gathered with her, at Thanksgiving. Within the hour, she couldn’t recall who we were, or why we were there.

Still she sang.

There is coming a day, when no heartaches shall come

No more clouds in the sky

No more tears to dim the eye

All is peace forevermore

On that happy golden shore

What a day, glorious day, that will be . . . .

“My throat hurts,” she said. “I can’t sing any more.”

“It’s okay,” said her children. “You don’t have to.”

They moistened her lips and mouth with water.

And still she sang.

If we never meet again this side of heaven

I will meet you on that beautiful shore.

And then she sang no more.

She rested a while, then, with her eyes closed, turned her face toward her brown-eyed son, my husband.

“Where do you live?” she asked.

“North Carolina,” he replied, smiling through his tears.

“Oh, my son lives there,” she said.

“Yes. I am your son.”

She opened her eyes the tiniest slit. “Well. You’re all grown up.”

It was the last thing she said to him.

I have prayed and prayed that nothing will happen to me until you’re grown. And I am convinced that God will allow it.

A few days later, my husband, his younger sister, and my son, the youngest grandchild, sat by her bedside all morning, watching her labored breaths. Finally they told her, “We’re going to go eat lunch, Mom, but we’ll be right back.”

The minute they finished eating, the nurses called. “The time is near.”

They came. They took her hands.

She took two labored breaths, and was gone.

She’d waited for them to have their lunch. To the very last, making sure her children had what they needed.

She never taught school.

She was never an actress of renown.

She never made it to England.

She lived one of the most extraordinary lives I’ve ever known.

The diamond on my finger shines as bright as it ever did; I can only hope that a portion of her strength, her courage, her wisdom has passed on to me along with it.

I look at her teenage photo, contemplating all that she will endure.

All that she did endure, and need endure no more.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
-Shakespeare, Sonnet 73

She loved as deep, as far, as long as she possibly could, with every ounce of her being. That is what I will remember most, her fierce, fierce love. It burns on, and on, and on, bright and warm, forevermore.

First, do no harm

land planarian

Land planarian. Pavel KirillovCC BY-SA

Granddaddy and I are walking around “the horn.” I am puzzling over why he calls this path “the horn.” When he says it, I know he means the journey from his house down the gravel road past the formidable, fairy-tale-dark woods with a tiny cemetery in the clearing, past unpainted houses in various stages of falling down, to the narrow paved highway and on around to the other side of this gravel road where, in a tiny screened-porch house, an old widow woman dips snuff, on past Grandma’s homeplace where her disabled brother lives alone and grows sunflowers that loom over my head, always turning their faces toward the sun, which is now obscured. It rained earlier in the day, breaking the blazing summer heat. The thirsty ground drank its fill; the rest of the blessed rain hangs invisible in the air, as heavy and warm as bathwater, and drips amongst the trees, where the birds are chattering against a background of crickets who think it’s night again, along with cicadas buzzing in such numbers that the earth vibrates with the sound. Granddaddy and I are on the last leg of “the horn,” passing his garden, a steaming, lush, leafy paradise that looks to me like an artist painted it with watercolors. We walk by the ditch bank where his scuppernong vines drape the trellis he built, past the line of pink crape myrtles curving along the edge of the yard, back to the sidewalk in front of the house where we started.

Granddaddy stops to get the newspaper from the box and I go on ahead— 

“Granddaddy!” I shout, for he’s hard of hearing, although Grandma says he hears what he wants to. “What is this?”

There on the damp sidewalk, headed toward the house, are three long worms, side by side. They are tan like earthworms, but many times longer than any earthworm I’ve ever seen. Maybe a foot long. Their skinny bodies undulate like snakes; they glide over the cement holding up their big, almost-triangular heads. 

Granddaddy comes near, leans down. 

I don’t know,” he says after a moment. “I ain’t never seen anything like them before.”

I’m stunned. Granddaddy has farmed all of his life, except for the years he worked at the shipyard. He knows everything about the outdoor world, has told many stories of the things he’s seen, like a fully-formed tree growing underground when he had to dig a well once. If he doesn’t know what these worms are, they are strange indeed.

I look up at his pleasant, wrinkled face, shielded by his ever-present cap. His crinkly blue eyes are thoughtful. I wonder if he’ll kill these alien creatures, chop them up with the hoe like he does the copperhead who dares enter his realm.

But he pats my back: “Let’s get on in the house, hear.” 

And so we do. I don’t see where these three hammer-headed worms go, and I never see them or anything like them again.

The worms resurfaced in my memory recently; I’d almost forgotten them. If the Internet had been around at the time, Granddaddy and I could have learned within seconds that these were land planarians—toxic predatory monsters that destroy the ecology of a garden by feeding solely on earthworms, the great garden benefactors that aerate the soil and add rich nutrients. Planarians aren’t native to the United States; they hail from Asia, so a remaining part of the puzzle is how they ended up in the far reaches of rural, coastal North Carolina.

This story isn’t really about the planarians, however. It’s about my grandfather, infinitely wise despite having quit school in the third grade to work on the family farm. A man who used the phrase “the horn” which I have just now learned is a mathematical synonym for a cornicular angle, which, yes, describes the country path we walked (new question: How did he know?).  My grandfather saw something he’d never seen before, these three worms. He analyzed them carefully. He let them live, not knowing they could do harm to his garden. Which ended up being the best choice, for if he’d smashed them or chopped them up, every piece would have grown into a new planarian. He would have thereby ensured the destruction of his garden and its bounty, which benefited his whole family. He would have, essentially, spread the poison.

The lesson I take away from this long-ago surreal encounter is First, do no harm. In pretty much any situation. Analyze. Evaluate. Proceed with caution and discernment. Consider long-range ramifications; if they cannot be known at the moment, forbear. Poison is often invisible; be wary of tapping into it, spreading it.

Point to ponder: What are the planarians of your own life and work? What threatens to destroy what’s valuable? To answer that, you must define the garden, the earthworm, and their relationship. I speak as an educator. As a wise old farmer’s granddaughter. For me, metaphorically, the garden is not humanity itself, but something which springs forth from the human spirit—organic, beautiful, beneficial. In a sense, teaching (or writing, as I clearly do that also; think about your own work and how it applies here) is about being the earthworm, aerating the growing ground, devoting yourself to developing the richness and nutrients needed for the collective good of those who follow, that they might also produce that which is beautiful and beneficial. Harm comes in the form of anything that would limit, stunt, or destroy this exploratory, creative, thriving growth process. Planarians attack and destroy their own kind for their own benefit. We don’t always know them when we first see them, for they resemble that which is good.  Not everything has a noticeably triangular head. Watch, analyze, evaluate, discern over time. Avoid blindly buying into the toxicity, the very thing that counteracts and defeats all your best efforts, and multiplying it.

First, do no harm.

To the children

writing in notebook

Writing. VassilisCC BY-SA

Dear Children,

I am thankful for you.

For your uniqueness, for your existence, for the lens through which only you can see the world.

I am thankful for your courage, your stories.

That you feel free enough to write about what you know, what you’ve lived, endured, and overcome in your young lives.

That you have the strength to share your early taste of loss—of pets, of parents, of siblings, of homes.

That you escaped abusive homes for ones where you could thrive.

That you left another country for mine—for ours.

That you learned from watching the failures and mistakes of others close to you.

That you learned to forgive others and even yourself.

That you learned to persevere, that you accomplished what you set your mind to because you kept trying.

That you faced your fears and came safely through.

I am thankful for what you teach me each day about listening, seeing, discerning, wondering.

I am thankful for the reminder that curiosity and questioning are natural, that creating something from whatever happens to be lying nearby is a hallmark of the human soul.

I am thankful for the beauty you bring to the world.

I thank you for daring to pour your hearts onto the page, for laboring at it, and for your truth.

I thank you for the unparalleled honor of reading your words, for the moments of laughing with you, crying with you, and standing in awe of you. For the privilege of helping you capture your ideas and communicate them clearly, of seeing you realize the power of your own voices. Of simply being on the receiving end of the important messages you have within you.

If I have inspired any of you, know that I am inspired a hundredfold in return.

Keep writing, Children, and I will do the same, for we owe it to ourselves and to each other—we need to read our stories as much as we need to write them.

I carry you and your stories, your abiding images, with me always.

Always believe in yourself, for I believe in you. In who you are now, in who you will become.

With love and profound gratitude,

your writing teacher

*******

Inspired by students I’ve taught and others whose work I’ve read.

Thanksgiving challenge: To whom are you deeply grateful, and why? Write this person a letter expressing your gratitude. If  your person is still living, read your letter aloud to them face to face or by phone. If your person is no longer living, read it aloud in a place that’s meaningful to you. Celebrate what this person has added to your life. Celebrate the power of writing and the transformative power of gratitude. 

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Letters

img_2699

It’s a neither-here-nor-there day in June, the middle of the year, not exactly warm but not really cool, either. The blinding noon sun makes for dark shade under the trees while an intermittent breeze stirs the new leaves, dappling the sidewalks with moving shadows. People come and go from assorted shops, crossing the cobblestone street. Their voices are muted, distant. I concentrate on guiding my husband’s steps over the uneven pavement. Still adjusting to having just one eye, he struggles with depth perception and will stumble, so he grabs hold of my arm. The restaurant where we’re headed for lunch is just ahead and I am fantasizing about the she-crab soup when I happen to glance to my left, and that’s when I notice something unusual.

There, nestled close to a house entrance, in the flickering light and shadows, is an old letter box.

I’ve walked here many times and haven’t seen it before.

It appears to be wrought iron, standing on a pedestal. Ornate. I can’t tell how old it is; probably a replica, fittingly weathered.

It captivates me completely.

I forget my soup, my husband; his hand slips away. I wonder what stories might surround this vintage mailbox.

I can almost see a woman in long skirts, shawl pulled tight in one hand, a poke bonnet enshrouding her face, a creamy parchment envelope clutched in her other hand. A letter to her husband, off in battle:

The garden is thriving. I’m putting up quarts of snap beans and pickles, and soon I’ll be about the fig and pear preserves. The cow is sickly, however. I don’t think she’s long to be with us. I pray that your cough is better than when you last wrote. I think of you every passing hour, marking them with determined delight, as each one that passes brings your return that much closer. Baby and I miss you desperately. You will not believe how she’s grown in your absence, or how like you she is, so full of confidence. It shines in her eyes, which are your eyes, always reminding me . . . .

Or maybe there’s a barefoot girl in a long white gown, loose hair rippling over her shoulders, sneaking from upstairs to leave a letter just before daylight, darting back inside before the roosters crow and before a young man on a horse clip-clops down the street. He dismounts, goes to the box, finds what he’s waiting for—a time and a place. She’ll be there. He folds the letter, tucks it inside his shirt pocket, against his pounding heart, just as he remembers he shouldn’t be seen here. In one swift motion, he’s astride the horse and down the cobblestone street, fog closing in after him.

Maybe there’s a portly, mustachioed man in an overcoat, golden watch chain glittering against his vest, retrieving a notification that all his investments are gone. He staggers back against the house, slides down, collapses in a heap on the sidewalk.

Or a black-haired boy in breeches mailing a scrawled envelope: Santa Claus, North Pole. He isn’t asking for anything for himself: Dear Santa, This year can you please bring my Christmas present early? It isn’t really for me. It’s for my Mama and Papa. My baby brother only lived three days and they’re so sad. I didn’t even get to play with him or teach him how to play ball or take him for a ride in the goat-cart. If you could, please, Santa, could you bring a new baby brother? Or even a sister? Or can you ask God to send one soon, so Mama will not cry anymore?

Or . . . .

“Are you coming or not? Why are you just standing there?” My husband has gone several paces without me and has had to come back.

“Oh!” I start, my reveries vanishing. “I, um, just wanted to take a picture of this old mailbox.” Out with my phone. Center, snap. Done.

“Okay. Let’s go. I’m starving,” I say.

But it’s not she-crab soup I’m now hungry for, or food at all. I am craving the character of people who knew how to persevere, who could not have imagined sending and receiving messages on devices within seconds and growing impatient even with that. People who didn’t have the entire world at their fingertips but who read the world in a different way, with a wisdom born of living close to nature. People who knew how to read one another, who knew what mattered most, who had to wait for it, who kept on living in the meantime lives that were far richer with much less.

For everything that is gained, I muse, how much is lost.

For a time, then, I leave the mailbox behind me, but it remains in my mind, an image even clearer than the one on my phone. It pulls at me like an ancient lodestone draws iron. Every time I pass by now I will have to look and make sure it’s still there. I need for it to be. I want to step into the silence, into the moving shadows, to discover what messages await me there, to marvel over whence they come.

slice-of-life_individual

Reformation

SONY DSC

Martin-Luther. Awaya LegendsCC BY-SA

On this day, 500 years ago, Martin Luther hung his list of protests against corrupt practices on the door of the Wittenburg Castle church, igniting the Reformation that would change the course of human history.

Reform. The idea is like a diamond glittering in the dirt. Not change for the sake of change, but for the sake of those who are suffering, oppressed, under excessive pressure.

I can’t help but think of public education today – the pressure on teachers, on students. The need for large-scale reform is too widely known to be a point of dispute. The trouble with attacking any huge, knotty problem is figuring out where to begin, then where to go next, without re-tangling what’s just been untangled.

What are the oppressive practices that need to go for true education reformation? It varies, depending on who’s asked and what personal or professional interests are at stake. Luther wrote ninety-five theses; I’ll spare readers and list my top five, although they’re not anything new:

  1. Standardized testing. Everyone knows – don’t they? – that scores do not accurately reflect a person or that person’s potential. It’s a data point at a fixed moment in time, not for all time. How many students come through the system believing they are failures because they didn’t measure up? How many teachers and schools work hard, only to be considered the same? In a country historically admired the world over for creativity and innovation, giving and living the test is the best we can do?
  2. Teaching reading and writing as separate entities – often sacrificing writing for the sake of reading. It’s a dichotomy that sends the subliminal, counterproductive message that understanding others is more important than understanding self, which is what authentic writing does for people. If we want the world to be a better place, it begins with understanding why we think and feel the way we do. Empathy and compassion are born from this. Write.
  3. Cutting the arts. The test alone proves that people are diverse learners, and the great emphasis on improving reading scores already limits student self-expression. Students who have trouble focusing are often extraordinary actors and dancers; they bring powerful interpretations to scenes, can read and create brilliant choreography. Some students, considered struggling learners, are constantly composing songs in their heads and can sing with startling expression, emphasizing all the right phrases. My son, who showed an affinity for music early in life, asks: “Why aren’t kids given a chance to experiment and explore in ways they really enjoy? Why aren’t their talents or their strengths maximized?” He endured his education. Today he has a job in the music field.
  4. Teacher education and professional development as we know it. Sigh. That’s what we typically do, isn’t it? Better, deeper preparation for the diverse learners and the demands of the field is critical. Ongoing professional learning needs to be practical, designed specifically for the needs of the children AND the teachers. If we speak of deficits and gaps – how about creativity deficits and vision gaps? If the hallmark of a great teacher is getting students to love learning, shouldn’t we first love ours? How about some inspiration? It’s a pretty big motivator (wouldn’t you say, Martin Luther?).
  5. Whatever the expectations, the requirements, the new layers of things that come along as purported magic bullets that will save everything, hold these two things utterly sacred every single day: The read-aloud and time for students to generate writing that means something to them. These are proven to lift the level of thinking – authentically, organically – which will never come through compliance alone.

What are your theses for true education reform? Today, in the spirit of Martin Luther, be bold. Speak your mind through the power of the written word.

And if you teach, teach on.

 

 

Trust

Child jumping

Едно, две, триии…(One, two, three…). Vladimir Petkov. CC BY-SA

I am eleven years old, standing at the end of a pier beside my uncle. He’s holding both of my toddler cousin’s hands as she jumps from the pier’s edge toward the murky green depths of the Piankatank River. She squeals with delight. Just as she dips, her father swings her back. She lands safely on the wooden slats, laughing. Over and over she jumps. Her feet never touch the water. 

I know the water is over her head. The biggest jellyfish I’ve ever seen are floating all around. We can’t even go swimming because of these ghostly orbs, larger than my head and so heavy that when I catch one in the crab net, it fills the net and I can barely lift it from the water. Hunks of the jellyfish ooze through the net, too, plopping back into the water.

I shudder.

I’ve composed a song in my head:

The Piankatank River 

Ain’t the place to swim

Because it’s full of jellyfish

And other things within.

I don’t even know what other things are within but I sense that they’re utterly treacherous. My toddler cousin’s reflection zooms out again over the shimmering, placid surface. Back she swings to safety.

“Why isn’t she scared?” I ask my uncle.

He smiles, holding tight to his daughter’s small hands. “She knows I won’t let her fall. She has no fear because she trusts me completely.”

My little cousin jumps once more, with wild abandon. Her face turns toward the sky as she swings backward, dangling from her father’s hands.

Her expression is one of absolute joy.

That image, that moment, has never left me.

He was enjoying her joy. Allowing her freedom to dare, to be a risk-taker, yet keeping her safe at the same time. Had he been less attentive, less vigilant . . . she might have gotten wet, or worse. I knew what dangers awaited, the harm that could come, and also that my uncle wouldn’t be doing this if he weren’t confident in his own strength. I marveled at his easy assurance and peace of mind. He wasn’t afraid, either.

Of myriad connections I can make out of this moment, the one that rises to the surface of my mind first is teaching. Creating the conditions for good learning to occur means letting children explore, dare, make choices, take risks, all stemming from a foundation of safety, an environment of trust. Children have to know they can take leaps and that their teachers will not let them fall, that they have nothing to fear.

For that to occur, we as teachers must  recognize our own strength and continuously strive on behalf of those entrusted to us. Teachers must be risk-takers, too. We must believe that we can get students safely from where they are to where they need to be, even beyond. Not just for now, this quarter, this year, this test – but by inspiring students to actively pursue learning for the rest of their lives.

It’s no small feat, when our own piers stand in the murkiest of depths. But we’re standing in the singular position that affects outcomes. What lies within us is greater than external forces. By far. We make the leap when we move from belief to action, from self-esteem to self-efficacy. Trusting others, trusting self, trusting in the safety of shared trust, strengthening one another, propelling each other forward. Professional trust isn’t holding on loosely; it’s everyone holding on tight, not letting go. When done with confidence, responsibility, and mindfulness, we develop a dynamic of grace, a synergy of poetry in motion – swinging out over the depths with our faces turned skyward.

The safe environment of will not let you fall. 

A paradox, really, that it takes a collective grasping of hands to experience the freedom, the joy.

slice-of-life_individual

Between the moon and New York City

Harvest moon

Harvest moon. patrick pearceCC BY-NC-ND

I have to get to work early. Several teachers have asked for help, and I need to prepare. It’s sometimes all or nothing in the life of a literacy coach.

I rue the hour, but I quickly realize a perk.

A gift, even.

Against the pre-dawn October sky, the full moon is enormous. Breathtaking. As I drive the back country roads, it looms just ahead of me, darting in and out of trees as I round curves

Oh, the Harvest Moon! So beautiful, I think.

The moon is oddly big and bright. I knew it was full when I woke up, as the bedroom was bathed in ethereal, silvery light even with the blinds drawn. There’s something deeply magnetic in its intensity this morning, beyond its size. I shiver. The first autumn chill is in the air. It’s the time of year when strange things are afoot, stirring the dying leaves, whispering of time past.

Do you remember.

Something dormant wakes with a jolt, rushes back – the electricity of being young, on the cusp of a major life event, with the unknown stretching before me. I’m like a racehorse at the starting gate, quivering with anticipation, ready to break free, to run for all I’m worth.

I blink, and the overpowering moon transports me right back.

I am nineteen and I believe I can be an actress.

I really do.

After several years of high school plays and local theater productions, plus a year of college theater courses to my credit, I’ve decided I want more than the traditional education route. I’m chasing a dream: I’ve applied to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

They’ve scheduled my audition.

In a rather surreal haze, I catch a train in my Virginia hometown to meet my older cousin, Dan, in Washington, D.C., where he lives. The next morning, we hop on Amtrak to New York.

I’ve been to the Big Apple once before, with my high school drama club. The proximity and height of the buildings almost suffocated me: “There’s hardly any sky to see,” I told a classmate. I then learned why it’s nicknamed The City That Never Sleeps. All night long I heard traffic, voices, sirens.

This time I know what to expect.  This time I am pulsing with energy, ready for my moment – a racehorse pawing the ground at the gate.

This train isn’t moving fast enough.

Dan is wildly excited about my audition: “You’re the maverick of the family,” he tells me.

I look at his earnest green eyes. For a moment, I fear I’ll disappoint everyone. Our aunt, our mothers’ unmarried sister, has given me a framed picture of a harlequin holding a rose, sitting on a crescent moon amongst stars in the sky. This reminds me of you, she wrote on the back. Somewhere between the moon and New York City.

Lyrics to “Arthur’s Theme,” of course. The song by Christopher Cross, subtitled “Best That You Can Do”:

When you get caught between the Moon and New York City
I know it’s crazy, but it’s true
If you get caught between the Moon and New York City
The best that you can do,
The best that you can do is fall in love.

My spinster aunt means it as an encouragement for me to do my best, believing I’ll succeed on the stage. I understand this just as much as I understand I’m not about to be falling in love.  At nineteen I am decidedly jaded. I don’t want a boyfriend and have secretly sworn off relationships. Guys my around my age, I’ve learned, are not to be trusted. I do not have time to waste on them.

“What do you have to do for the audition?” Dan asks, as the ugly backsides of major East Coast cities zip by the train windows.

“A dramatic piece and a comedy piece,” I tell him. “For the dramatic, Alison’s monologue from Look Back in Anger, after she’s lost a baby. For the comedy piece I’ve spliced together Babe’s lines from Crimes in the Heart. Dark, Southern humor. Really hilarious.”

His eyes glow. “You have to perform these for me!”

Once we are settled in the city, I do. It’s my final rehearsal.

Dan is delighted. “You’re going to make it. I just know it.”

I’m not sure, but I think I detect tears in his vivid eyes.

The hour comes. After a short conversation with Academy officials, I step onto the empty stage. There’s no spotlight. It all feels quite ordinary.

I give the monologues all I’ve got, full rein to the electric charge coursing in my veins – the best that I can do.

The faces of the Academy people are inscrutable. They shake my hand:

“Thank you. We will inform you of our decision by letter within a few weeks.”

I stumble back into the shadows of Madison Avenue where I barely recognize my cousin.

“How did it go?”

“Okay, I think,” I tell him, and only then do I realize how violently I’m shaking.

“I am so proud of you!” His smile is magnificent as he wraps me in a bear hug.

Now we can roam the fabled streets at our leisure. It’s January and utterly freezing, but we don’t let that stop us from going to the top of the Empire State Building where our carefully-styled hair stands on end in the frigid gale. In a tiny restaurant, I have my first cappuccino – a frothy, cinnamon wonder. At a nondescript shop we buy teal scarves that are at least four feet wide and about eight feet long. We loop them around our necks multiple times.

Dan says, “Have you noticed how people are looking at us? They think we are somebody – they’re trying to figure out if we’re famous.”

He is right. I catch our reflection in the shopfront glass – we can pass for ’80s pop stars.

That bright image is a freeze-frame. The rest of my memory curls like fog around the edges of it.

Dan was also right about something else.

A couple of weeks later, I pulled an envelope bearing the Academy’s return address out of a stack from the mailbox. My hands shook so that I could hardly open it.

I cried.

I was on my way to New York City for real. To live, to make my way, to do what I loved best.

I didn’t have a dime to my name or any idea how I’d manage to find a place to live in New York, come August; all I knew was that in the meantime I needed to keep performing. I went to the next community theater audition, for Whose Life Is It Anyway? I walked through the door and instantly spotted, across the room, sitting in a chair, the handsomest man I’d ever seen. Black hair, brooding dark eyes, classic features – if we’d been living in the 1940s, this guy could double for Tyrone Power.

He looked up, saw me, and smiled.

If you get caught between the Moon and New York City
The best that you can do,
The best that you can do is fall in love.

I was going to New York.

I didn’t want a boyfriend.

We both got parts in the play.

This was the end of January.

In May, he gave me his mother’s diamond engagement ring.

We were married in August.

The Academy said I had a year, if I wanted, to enroll.

Within the year, my young husband told me he was called to the ministry.

If you get caught between the Moon and New York City . . . .

There are Things Meant to Be and Things Not Meant to Be, I hear myself whisper.

At least, I think that’s myself whispering.

I blink – and here I am, three decades and two grown boys later, still married to the same preacher man, driving to work, pondering how to help teachers and students, while a magical moon dips in and out of the trees. I am in rural North Carolina, a far cry from New York City. Never made it to Broadway, except as a member of the audience.

But, as Shakespeare wrote, All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances . . . .

I wonder what Dan would say now about my being the family maverick. He’s been gone for years. His exit came so early; he died at thirty-four.

I drive on under the Harvest Moon, noting how the darkness is no match for its spellbinding brightness. I am flooded with gratitude for all I’ve been given, realizing that the autumn of my life has not even begun.

Yes, Moon. I remember.

And so I play my part – the best that I can.

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Parodial school

School

School. vazovskyCC BY-SA

Our people made that choice, the choice to go to Sameness. Before my time, before the previous time, back and back and back. We relinquished color when we relinquished sunshine and did away with difference. We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others.

– Lois Lowry, The Giver

 

They come to us just as they are.

That’s a good thing. Educators are to value student diversity, to see it as a gift in the classroom community – in fact, a teacher can be evaluated on this.

For children, we know, are not standardized.

They are living portfolios of experiences, abilities, thoughts, feelings, perspectives. They are unfinished stories, works in progress, masterpieces in the making.

Some know several languages. That’s diversity – a gift.

This doesn’t always show on a fluency assessment.

Some are born storytellers, song composers on the fly, wordsmiths extraordinaire, but only when speaking – not always when reading or writing.

Data points can’t capture innate artistry.

Some are engaged in tough battles, have greater mountains to climb – these kids aren’t from houses covered with vines who will go everywhere in two straight lines – yet there’s a nobility within them, born of courage, of gaining hard-won ground, more so than any knight of legendary lore.

Many of these are innovators. Because they have to be. The bulk of their energy goes not into conforming, but into coping.

Their diversity might blow the top off the charts while their test scores might lie at the other end of the spectrum. Growth is difficult to measure in a constant state of change.

So, one cannot, in the same breath, value diversity and mandate standardization. To celebrate Not-Sameness, yet to penalize schools and teachers for not attaining Sameness – what words are there for this dichotomy?

Paradox? Oxymoron? Mixed messages?

Bizarro World?

Parodial school.

That students have a right to a quality education is an unequivocal point. That the absence of order and structure invites chaos is understood. Conformity, however, doesn’t beget excellence; inspiration does.

This is the hinge on which the entire portal hangs.

For what is true for students is also true for teachers.

As a non-traditional age undergraduate, I encountered The Giver for the first time as assigned reading in a course. I subsequently wrote an essay on its imagery that the professor believed could be entered in the university’s research and creative achievement competition. At this event, I walked hallways lined with exhibitions from the medical and engineering fields, until a university official greeted me: “Ah yes, you’re representing the Humanities Department.”

“No sir,” I replied, shaking his proffered hand. “I’m representing Education.”

His expression was clearly perplexed. “We hardly ever get anyone from Education here.”

This, at a celebration of research and creative achievement.

My question remains: Why, in the unlimited universe, not?

The answer, I suspect, is that teachers don’t realize they have that power.

We must, in turn, keep a wise perspective of the things over which we’re gaining control and those we are relinquishing – squelching – in the process.

In the hearts of students as well as in their teachers’. 

 

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 need to know what’s going to happen to them. The age-old theme of good versus evil, making choices to preserve life or 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.

 

 

 

Roadside treasure

Spock & Kirk

Star Trek Monthly Magazine Poster Book (cropped). Joe HauptCC BY-SA

The following is a narrative/memoir written several times with students in grades 3-5. I wrote a bare-bones version in front of students, then revised to model the vast difference of “showing, not telling” by adding detail and dialogue. “I can see it all happening!” the kids always exclaim, as the narrative comes to life. Yesterday’s eclipse brought this piece back to mind – the fascination with space, the many hours I spent watching and playing Star Trek when I was the age of these students. During the writing process, the kids ask countless questions. My favorite moment is when they realize what the story is really about.

I shake the device in my hand before I flip the lid and press the button to speak. “Do you read me, Spock?”

Nothing, not even static.

I pull the antenna out as far as it will go. I bang on the device a couple of times with my fist. I shout into it: “COME IN, SPOCK!”

My sister pokes her face from around the corner of our house. “This really ain’t logical!” she calls. She’s not even holding the device up to her mouth.

I sigh.

My sister is eight, I am ten, and we are tired of playing Star Trek. The batteries in the communicators we got for Christmas have quit working, and it’s no fun for Captain Kirk (me) and Mr. Spock (my sister) to keep yelling messages to each other across the yard, which has just one decent tree. There’s only so many pretend worlds we can explore when it all looks the same, with nowhere to hide from alien life forms.

My sister meets me at the street in front of the house. We leave our useless communicators behind in the grass and sit down on the curb as ourselves, not Kirk and Spock anymore.

“Let’s walk to the 7-Eleven and get a Slurpee,” says my sister. She likes the straws with the spoon on the end. She plays with them more than she drinks her Slurpee.

“I’m broke. I spent my last fifty cents on cinnamon Now-and-Laters and green apple bubble gum day before yesterday and it’s all gone already.” Our dad can’t stand green apple bubble gum. He says it stinks but I think it’s delicious, even though it turns my teeth and tongue green. “Do you have any money?”

“Nah, I thought you did,” says my sister, kicking at the grit beside the curb.

“Not anymore.”  I wish I had some green apple gum right now. I stretch my legs, which are getting long, out into the road. If a car comes, which isn’t all that often in our neighborhood, my sister and I will pull our legs up to our chests until it goes by.

I look down at the edge of the curb where it meets the street, at the little loose rocks lying there. I see a stubby twig and pick it up to write my name in the dust when I notice tiny chunks of pale blue-green glass. I wonder where these came from. Someone must have thrown a Coke bottle out of a car and shattered it.  I push the pieces around with the twig, inspecting them – they don’t look sharp. Time and weather, maybe, have smoothed away the roughest edges.

“What would you do if you had a million dollars?” asks my sister.

“I don’t know.” I pick up a bumpy chunk of the glass and roll it around in my hand; it sparkles in the sunlight. “Maybe I would have a horse and a big house. Maybe I would travel all over the world and be famous. What would you do?”

“I’d give some to poor people for their kids to have toys and bikes and then I would get me a bunch of dogs. What is that?”

I show her the bit of glass in my hand. I smile: “It’s an aquamarine. March’s birthstone. If you were born in March I would give it to you but since you weren’t, I will sell it for thousands of dollars.”

“Hey!” My sister is half amused and half irritated. “Look here—I got my own aquamarine!” She plucks up another bit from the curbside dust.

Suddenly we’re both on a wild treasure hunt, crawling along the curb so fast that we’re scraping our knees. We find bits of brown glass; we say it’s topaz. Green bits are emeralds, my birthstone. The clear ones are diamonds, of course. We can’t find any sapphires, my sister’s birthstone. We forget that this is trash, just pieces of bottles tossed out because someone else didn’t have the manners to put them in a trashcan. In no time we have amassed enough jewels for a princess, maybe two.

The sun shines warm on our backs and a couple of cars go by, slowing down, almost stopping, as they pass. Maybe the drivers are nervous about two girls crawling so close to the street or maybe they’re just trying to figure out what we are doing there in the dirt, but the quartz in the pavement winks at us, glinting like gold, and I know my sister and I are rich beyond compare. We are not afraid to pick our jewels out of the dirt, because dirt is just part of the world, and right now, we own the world.

Broken glass

Broken glass, curbside grass. Orin ZebestCC BY

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