Wishes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”  

Serpentina splendor

Chelydra serpentina, or common snapping turtle

The dogs raced along the backyard fence, barking and growling like fiends at something on the other side. My husband, upon going out to investigate, hollered with equal parts glee and shock: “Come see this! You won’t believe it!”

All I could think was It had better not be a snake.

No, but close.

Meet Serpentina.

The dinosaur turtle.

Okay, not really dinosaur, just the biggest snapping turtle I’ve ever seen. In my yard, in the clover. With algae growing on her shell.

And her head.

I am really at a loss for words to describe her. Monumental. In size, and in her likeness to stone.

And tell me this tail does not scream dinosaur to you:

My family gawked, marveled, shuddered until we could gawk, marvel, and shudder no more. We let our visitor be. I went inside the house and watched from the kitchen window. After a few short minutes, she began zipping—okay, not really zipping, but crawling a whole lot faster than I imagined a turtle could—along the outside of our backyard fence. Periodically she stopped, leaned up, put her front feet on the fence, and stretched her neck impossibly long (think brontosaurus). Down she dropped again to resume her steady clip.

She’s trying to get to the woods behind our backyard, I thought. The fence is blocking her.

Yet when I turned away from the window for a moment, she vanished without a trace.

I felt oddly bereft.

I mean, it’s not like she’s a snuggly sort of creature.

Several days later I read in a local news article that a record number of snapping turtles appeared in our area en masse, looking for places to lay their eggs.

Nesting, they were.

Old Serpentina—I don’t even know how old she is, she just looks like the ages, a fossil from the dawn of time—her sense of urgency was real.

Maybe that’s what sort of spoke to me, without words. Mother to mother. Living being to living being. In my recoiling was a stab of appreciation; my sense of wonder overruled my impression of fearsome. And somehow, in all of it, lurked a twinge of sadness for which I have no explanation whatsoever.

When Carol Varsalona extended a recent invitation and challenge to create digital inspirations for her #SpringSplendor gallery, I thought of Serpentina. She came along in spring, all right. She’s not what I had in mind at all. I had a beach sunrise in mind. A sprig of wisteria. Beautiful things.

But Serpentina has, you must admit, a splendor all her own.

So, my tribute:

Snapping turtle - Copy

Untoward grace

in algae carapace

seeking with care

a place

to lay new life.

 

—My best to you and your splendid babies, Serpentina.

I kind of hope I get to see them.

Coaching metaphor

During recent professional development sessions on “Coaching the Coach” at Ocracoke Island, the facilitator charged participants with finding a metaphor for coaching.

We were to take a photo. We would write to it.

There were no other parameters.

Ocracoke is a tiny place full of narrow, twisting roads, quaintness, legend, and mystery. It has around a thousand inhabitants. In tourist season one has to drive with extreme care as the streets become clogged with pedestrians, horses, bicyclists, golf carts, and cats (the island has a rampant feral cat population). The word island might as well be a synonym for enchantment or mystical; a sense of these hang in the air along with the salt. Sort of like expectancy.

When I first saw the grove of trees—predominantly live oaks—on the corner lot of a house converted to a bookstore, I thought: What a restful place. It has its own particular allure. While there are larger live oaks, individual, ancient giants, elsewhere on the island, these smaller trees grow together, toward one another. I read somewhere that live oaks focus their energy on growing out, not up; perhaps this is especially important in a place where ocean winds continually carve the landscape. These trees survive hurricanes. They flourish in salty places.

The early May afternoon was hot; the sun blazed overhead. I noted the profuse shade under the trees. They stand leaning inward, reaching to one another, as if intentionally collaborating to benefit all who enter their realm of existence. No one tree stands out. It’s a joint effort. I walked into their proffered coolness, this respite, this shelter, envisioning how their roots are deeply intertwined, that they draw collective strength in their mutuality. They are anchored together. That’s part of how they endure. A foundation from which to grow, branch out, and sustain their own lives and others’.

There is more, there is always more, to a metaphor, for it knows no parameters, either. It can keep on going and going, changing shape, developing new layers in new light. It’s supposed to, just like learning. Like life. I just choose to stop here.

For now.

Coaches, teachers

gathered

in rapport, mirrored

growing together

toward one another

is strength

and refuge.

For all.

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.

Knots

Last week was my spring break.

From school, anyway.

I spent almost the whole of it cleaning my house and purging stuff that should have been pitched long ago (which I vow to do every time I watch Hoarding: Buried Alive, chills crawling up my spine, icy fingers squeezing my heart). As I worked through closets, drawers, cabinets, the garage, I actually felt lighter myself, like a ship might feel when its ballast is tossed overboard. Of course I thought a lot, wrote a lot in my head while I worked, metaphorical stuff like we don’t often get to lighten our own burdens and decluttering is not just liberating; it’s healing. Basically all sorts of take-charge-of-your-life analogies, for that, in essence, is what I was doing, reclaiming my life from a surfeit of junk.

Until the knots.

I was on such a roll in the garage, once it was cleared, dusted, and swept (it’s much larger than I remembered), that my eyes fell upon the dog’s leash which hangs on a peg by the door.  It’s a moderately heavy chain, as Banjo, our yellow Lab, is an enthusiastic, massive beast, pushing 100 pounds.

There were knots in said leash.

This irritated me.

To an inexplicable degree.

My husband usually takes Banjo out in the mornings, and our son, Cadillac Man, will do it later in the day. How can they just let the leash get knotted like this? Are they going to let it go until it’s one giant ball of metal and of no use whatsoever? Do they know how lazy and uncaring this looks? 

Those were—alas—my thoughts.

Being on an organizational rampage, as it were, I couldn’t just wait for one of them to undo these maddening knots. In fact, I didn’t even think of waiting for them. If you want something done . . . I wanted the knots out, right then, so I set about it.

It was harder than I expected.

Chain links, especially tightly-knotted ones, don’t “give” very easily. I thought about my many tangled necklaces, how I sometimes poke a needle through the tiny chains until knots loosen enough for me to pull them out. I would need a tool. Say, a flat-head screwdriver.

At first, poking the knotted leash with the screwdriver did nothing.

I poked harder. 

Stabbed, to be precise.

Still nothing.

I discovered—well into an hour of beating at the first knot, my determination mounting by the moment—that if I also twisted at the knot while I struck it, the one link holding up the works would finally shift, and then the knot could be worked out.

The second knot came undone much faster.

The last knot was nearly the death of me.

I went for the WD-40. I WOULD GET THIS KNOT OUT.

Between a liberal coating of oil and my manic chiseling, voilà! A knot-free leash! After two hours of intensive focus. This was the highlight of my day.

Which is actually sad, in retrospect, but we won’t dwell on that now.

I hung the lovely straight leash back on its peg in the garage, admired it proudly for a few minutes—how it glinted in the afternoon sunlight, seriously—and then I went inside the house to plot my next attack on another project.

Consumed by my various missions, I didn’t think to mention the leash to my family that night. The next morning, I got up early and remembered, so  . . .  I will just take Banjo out myself. 

The very thought of using the nicely-untangled leash made me irrationally happy. I got dressed, put on my shoes, bounced out the door, reached for the leash, and . . .

THE KNOTS WERE BACK!

ALL THREE OF THEM!

“ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” I shouted.

Banjo cowered.

I collected myself enough to rub his belly and console him.

After taking care of the dog, trust that I hunted my husband down. There he sat in his chair, watching TV, sipping  his morning coffee.

I marched right up to him.

“DID YOU PUT KNOTS BACK IN THAT DOG LEASH?”

He looked at me like I’d lost my mind (highly probable, at the moment).

“Yeah, I put them back!”

“I spent two hours yesterday getting those knots out! Do you know how hard that was? I even had to use WD-40!  You couldn’t think to ask WHY the knots were suddenly gone? You just go and put them back without bothering to say anything?”

“I need those knots! They help me hold onto the chain better!”

I stood very still, many more unspoken words withering in my brain. My husband has arthritis. It often affects his hands and wrists. He also struggles with depth perception, having lost an eye three years ago. It never occurred to me that the knots had a purpose . . .

As if right on cue, Cadillac Man drifted through the living room in his pajamas and mad-scientist bed-hair (he is letting it grow).

“Hey,” he said. Then, after considering our faces: “What’s going on?”

My diatribe degraded into more of a lament: “I spent two hours yesterday getting the knots out of Banjo’s leash and your dad put them back in.”

“I need those knots!” my husband reiterated. “I was glad you put them there in the first place,” he told our son.

Cadillac Man raised his eyebrows. “I never put those in. I don’t know how the chain got like that.”

His father: “What? I thought you did!”

I sighed.

For it doesn’t matter how the knots got there the first time, even if I was right in my original hypothesis: they happened and kept happening because no one stopped to fix them.

What matters is this: That our worst knots in life occur from a lack of simple communication and our utter failure to see from a perspective other than our own.

The next morning, the knots were magically gone again. I thought my husband had relented, perhaps, or taken pity.

But no.

Cadillac Man undid them.

“I’d already told Dad I would take care of Banjo, so he doesn’t need those knots.”

I cannot say who’s really right or wrong anymore in this whole knotty scenario, only that it’s best to move on . . . and bless that boy.