Possumbilities

It was not a thing I expected to see while on a Chick-Fil-A lunch run.

But there it was, directly opposite the drive-through menu board for ordering: A possum in a tree.

First thoughts: What’s wrong with it? Why would a possum be out and about during the day?

Next thoughts: Where did it come from? Why is it here? Has the smell of food lured it? Did it somehow manage to cross the busy street? Or (I shuddered): Will it TRY to cross the busy street? What will become of it?

Then: I need a picture. I’ll have to write about this.

And so I left the drive-through with the possum’s image preserved in my phone. Before I pulled into traffic, I looked back at the tree one last time. The animal wasn’t there any more.

It’s hard, for a storyteller, to not know fate or destiny.

I wondered many things as I drove away: Will restaurant workers or patrons call Animal Control? What does Animal Control do in a case like this? Will some random person decide to shoot it, deciding it poses a safety hazard, or just for the sake of shooting it? I am not a big fan of opossums but I didn’t want harm to come to it. Maybe it was old, weak, confused, like a person wandering in a nursing home. Maybe it was a female with babies hidden in her pouch. One Sunday morning when I was coming home from church a possum darted in front of my car. “Dart” isn’t really accurate; it hobbled as fast as it could. A mother laden with knobbly pink and gray babies on her back. Four little faces with eyes looking right at me. I slowed; they skittered across the road to safety.

That time, anyway.

And so I remembered them as I drove farther from my drive-through possum, contemplating the whole gamut of what might happen to it. Then, thankfully, my fanciful side kicked in: It knew where the speaker was. Maybe the possum comes on a daily basis to place an order: “Twenty-piece nuggets, please. Don’t forget my ketchup.” With those little pink hands, it could probably peel the ketchup foil back for dipping. Maybe the famous renegade cows are initiating this possum for the next round of their advertising campaign to ‘Eat Mor Chikin‘. . .

Oh, I thought, children would really like that story! I wonder what THEY would write . . . ?

There was a time when I’d take the photo and my story right into classrooms, across grade levels, as a model for any kind of writing. Small moment narratives, opinion, informational (for I ended up researching why an opossum would be so visible during the day and guess what? It’s not out of the ordinary at all. I further learned that opossums have a natural resistance to rabies and snake venom. Imagine people shooting it out of the tree because they don’t know). As an intro I might ask students if they know that the opossum is the only marsupial native to the Americas and link it to the koalas and kangaroos in Australia; we might consider relief efforts and life preservation, for all life is connected.

I’d even use my possum for teaching poetry writing. My mind is playing, this very minute, with opposite and opossum and tree and see, with an atmosphere of fear, wishing for a safe place. . . and of course there’s the fabulous fun of writing fantasy. Perhaps this possum took Chik-Fil-A home to its family where the bigger possum kids are playing video games (it always appears in some students’ writing). Maybe the possum babies got their nuggets “to go,” eating them in their mother’s pouch, with the littlest one crying that it didn’t get a toy . . .

The possibilities—or, in this case, “possumbilities”—are endless.

Or were endless, in the days when we did those kinds of writing, in that way, before the advent of programs that “incorporate” writing via a series of formulaic steps with whole classes writing on the same thing for the same amount of prescribed time. When authentic process was valued above uniform product and the end results were all different, because students—humans—are all different. In the days when students asked questions they generated themselves, because they really wanted to know the answers, because the answers mattered to them. When mining their own experiences for meaning lit up their faces and exploring their own ideas illuminated their minds. When the most priceless gift of childhood, imagination, wasn’t constrained and when teachers were not conscripted to teaching writing this way (with some believing that it’s better because it’s “easier”).

—Not me.

I saw a possum in a tree.

And I wondered, knowing I’d write about it, to find out why I needed to write about it.

It’s not about knowing fate or destiny.

It’s all about seeing possibilities, great and small, without and within, following a thread of thinking, of feeling, of life, to see where it takes you.

In other words, not blindly driving through and missing possumbilities.

The book

I heard their whispers, and I shouldn’t have, because they were in line in the hallway. There are Rules, you know . . . .

Mrs. Haley!”

Mrs. Haley!”

Mrs. Haley!”

I looked around. There they were, not standing neatly in line but leaning out in varying degrees, trying to get my attention.

“What-? You all sound like a bunch of Parselmouths, hissing,” I said (Parselmouths being people who can speak snake language, for those of you not intimately familiar with Harry Potter, few though you may be).

Giggles.

And more whispers:

The books came! There’s one for you!”

“It’s wrapped”—

“Stop, you’re ruining the surprise!”

—I think somebody got elbowed, just then.

I taught a series of personal narrative lessons to this third grade class. I modeled my own narrative. They drafted theirs, conferred with their teacher, revised, conferred with me, revised.  They did every bit of the work, made their own artistic choices in both writing and illustrating, asked a lot of questions. At the last I coached each child through final edits.

Then their teacher compiled it all and sent it off for publication.

This week, the books arrived.

These writers couldn’t concentrate when I came to the classroom Thursday afternoon to talk about opinion writing. They wriggled and writhed like puppies at their seats.

Because a flat package, wrapped in bright jewel-tone paper, waited on the reading table.

The tag read Mrs. Haley.

“Soooo,” I said, “this is what all the excitement is about? Am I supposed to open this now?”

—They almost burst.

YES!”

YES!!”

YES!!!”

When I picked up the package, they gathered so close around me that I felt slightly claustrophobic. I had a fleeting sense of Gru in Despicable Me, being surrounded by  a sea of adoring Minions, countless giant eyes blinking in anticipation.

“Oh, wow—it turned out so well! It’s beautiful, everybody! I am so proud of you and your writing.”

They laughed, clapped, clamored, tried to tell me more stories about their stories . . . for they are, after all, authors.

I held the book to my heart, basking in the glow.

—They do not realize that they are the gift.

Salt and the stagecoach

Stagecoach

Western Stagecoach 08. Robin HallCC BY

The third graders were having a hard time.

“We’re writing pourquoi tales in this unit,” explained their teacher, “which have to be based on the students’ research of frogs. We practiced writing one together and now they have to write their own, but they keep coming up with stuff that doesn’t quite work. I’ll end up with twenty stories about ‘Why Frogs Have Eyes’ or something.”

She sighed.

So, as extra practice,  I agreed to come help the children write pourquoi stories on topics of their choosing. I modeled writing one of my own composition, “Why People Wear Shoes,” incorporating their artistic contributions along the way (my main character meets a talking owl and the kids said it needed to be huge so that my character could ride on its back, which greatly enhanced the story).

Then we brainstormed ideas that they might write about:

Why there are stars

Why there are oceans

Why the ocean is salty

Why zebras have stripes

Why there are colors (challenging!)

Or anything else in the universe that might make a sensible pourquoi.

“Remember,” I told them, as they settled on their ideas and started to write, “you can have fun with this. You can make animals can talk, you can make mysterious things happen, but your stories have to clearly explain why or how something is the way it is.”

When I returned the next day, the teacher said, “You’ve got to hear this!” She asked a boy to read his draft to the class. A quiet boy who hadn’t seemed especially interested in writing.

I sat down and listened. He’d chosen “Why the Ocean Water is Salty.” A man working in the mountains delivered salt to people in a stagecoach. Thieves threw a stick of dynamite into it, which frightened the horses. They drove over a cliff into the sea, where the dynamite went off, dispersing “billions of salt” throughout the water.

Oh, and the driver survives, retires, and decides he’ll just fish and hunt for the rest of his life.

He finished reading. His classmates applauded enthusiastically.

Must have been a full minute before I thought to close my gaping mouth.

“Amazing!” I finally managed to say. “What made you think of a stagecoach?”

“Well, first I wrote that the man was breaking up rocks on the mountain and hit one accidentally with his foot. It rolled down a cliff and knocked other rocks in, but then I thought, that doesn’t make sense. Rocks won’t make the ocean salty. So I thought about a stagecoach with salt in it. Then I needed something to explode in the water . . .”

—Makes perfect sense to me.

The moral of the story:

We can show them the stagecoach

but if we never let them load it as they please, 

they’ll drive only so far.

Set the wheels in motion,

hand over the reins,

jump out of the way.

See what astonishing routes they take.

Something to say

All you have to do is open

All you have to do is open . . . Mike HartnettCC BY

If you want to absorb rich dialogue, hang out at a hair salon. I keep thinking that a lively full-length play could be derived from the banter and candidness between a stylist and clients, with minimal staging needed. Conversations are not constrained; there are no boundaries, no topic is taboo.

I confess that I cannot help listening with writer’s ears every time I visit my salon. Not that I eavesdrop. Nobody whispers. It’s all just out there.

So it was, while waiting for my turn at a recent appointment and helping myself to the coffee bar, that I heard a woman with her head in the nearby shampoo bowl mention the word writing to her stylist (visualize how I froze, ears perked, coffee stirrer held aloft):

“My son never liked writing. He didn’t do well at all with it until he went to college. When I saw his first college paper, I actually said: ‘What? YOU wrote this? You didn’t get somebody to write it for you?’ But he’d really written it himself. I couldn’t believe it!”

They laughed together as the stylist lathered up the client’s hair.

I stirred half-and-half into my coffee, thinking: The boy finally had something to say.

I don’t know who he is, this college student. I don’t know where he attended school or anything about him other than those few sentences. But as I sipped my hot cinnamon dolce, I wondered about those statements.

My son never liked writing. 

What made that change? What drove him to pour the words onto the page and to hammer them into shape? Was this the first time he felt passionate about his topic, whatever it was? Had he ever been able to choose his own topic before, one that mattered to him? Did he have any authentic writing experiences in elementary or secondary school, or was it all formulaic, step-by-step, assigned for a grade? Surely this college paper was assigned, too, but apparently something new—within the writer—had given it life.

He didn’t do well at all with it until he went to college.

What was his process, or was it just real for the first time? Did someone in college give him feedback on his strengths, validate his ideas? Did he visit the campus writing lab for help with this paper? Or was there a professor who inspired him, stirred his interests, made him realize he had a voice and something to say, at last?

I caught myself sighing between swigs of cinnamon dolce. Why, why, why did it take him all the way to college to “do well” as a writer?

Maybe it’s simply freedom. His not being confined by what’s all too often considered “writing” in school, but being able to articulate what he really thinks, what he feels in the depths of his heart, and having a safe, supportive venue for communicating his perspective to a real audience, even to the world. Maybe he got a professor who loves to write, who showed the students how and why to write. All I know for sure is that SOMETHING was the game changer for this young man; even his mother was amazed. Could it be that someone finally believed in him? That’s where the true business of education begins—in throwing doors wide open, not in closing them. Learning and understanding are like coming from a stuffy closet into a living room, or from a comfortable living room into the whole vibrant outdoors.

Or the hair salon, where you can speak what’s on your mind, where someone listens and responds, where voices are not constrained, where there are no boundaries, and no topic is taboo.

Writing teacher rhapsody

Globe with gold suspended in water

Writing time.

Expectancy painted on their faces.

They know something’s coming,

just not what, yet.

But something.

Ideas.

Their own.

In this moment

I’m just the crossing guard

from the unit 

to the universe.

Ever expanding.

They do not know, yet,

that they’re made 

of the same stuff as the stars.

That the stuff without

is always calling

to the stuff within.

They are children

but not too young to discover

they’re oceans

containing more than simply

water 

and salt.

But I know 

there’s millions of pounds of gold

infinitesimally dispersed

throughout the oceans.

Here is where

those priceless grains 

rise to the surface

take shape

become substance.

Now is when they start spilling

onto the page

to shine

with a light of their own.

The whole of my task

is to stir

release

and be swept away.