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 ):
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 before—some 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.
“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.