The steering wheel

This is not the post I might have written today.

Woke in the wee hours to total darkness, power loss, Hurricane Isaias smacking the house, tearing at the roof. Isaias is purely physical. He has no voice, unlike the ghost-wind that moaned and mourned for weeks under our eaves with the advent of spring and COVID-19.

Yet somewhere in the darkness, despite the raging gusts, little frogs kept up a cheery chorus.

Not much to do but stay in bed and wait it out.

And fall back asleep. And dream…

I am driving a car that belongs to my father, I think. Except that it doesn’t look like any car he ever owned. Nice little SUV, dark gray. I am coming home from visiting my grandparents in the country. I reach the quaint part of the city where they lived when I was little, before my grandfather retired. I’ve always loved this place… but I realize just now that I can’t turn the car. The steering wheel is gone. How have I managed to come so far without it? The car begins to spin and slide; I’ve lost control of it, I fear it’s going to be hit, but somehow I get it to a safe parking spot by a curb. I will have to backtrack and find that missing steering wheel—how could I have lost it? How is that even possible?

I go (on foot? in the same steerless car?) all the way back to my grandparents’ home. They’re out in the yard, very busy loading and unloading big objects (equipment? furniture?) on some kind of truck. Grandma’s face is serious. She doesn’t have time to talk to me [should have been a major clue that I was dreaming, as this never happened in reality]. When I tell her why I’m back she just says the steering wheel is over there (she points) in the road. Seems I lost it on the very start of my journey home…

I go to reclaim the steering wheel only discover two things: This is a rather large steering mechanism but the actual wheel isn’t there… and the little old road is freshly-tarred and paved. It’s never been paved. It’s supposed to be gravel. Sure, it looks nice, stretching out smooth and black, but why would anyone pave these tiny, meandering back roads where so few people live? This is a lot of work and expense that isn’t really ‘better’, I say to myself. With mounting sadness, I run a short dash on this new pavement to see that my grandmother’s home placea small, white house with a porch and a tin roof, where Grandma and her seven siblings were born over a hundred years ago—is gone. An expanse of green grass is all there is to see…

And then I wake.

Loving symbolism as I do, I know the dream connects to having little or no control in life. We’re living through a pandemic. A hurricane rages. I work in a school and the return next week will be drastically different. Life plows on despite the loss of the familiar. Nothing looks or feels or works quite like it used to. We travel a strange road interspersed with shadows of the real and surreal. The world, and our existence, have been altered in myriad ways. But… to be without power is not the same as being powerless…

As I write, Isaias has moved on. There is no damage here, no trace of him whatsoever now. I could revel in this glorious day, the azure sky with occasional cottony clouds drifting by, the unidentifiable bird with long wings soaring high, cicadas resuming their buzzing in the still-standing trees from which they were not shaken…that sound being one that connects me more than anything to safety and my grandparents’ home in the eastern North Carolina countryside. I could employ here my one word for the year, reclamation… reclaiming the day, reclaiming life, even my strange dream-attempt at reclaiming that lost steering wheel in a vehicle that wasn’t mine…

But the power came back on and the TV is full of destruction in the northeastern regions of my state. Homes destroyed by tornadoes spawned by Isaias. People dead and missing (some were children, who’ve since been accounted for).

And I think instead that the road to reclamation is so hard, so strange, so littered with precious, scattered fragments of life, obstructed by such mountains to move. We can control so little.

When we find we are unable to steer, perhaps that is when we are being driven most toward one another. Reclamation, then, lies in our responsiveness. In our willingness.

So does, perhaps, our redemption.

Photo: The road back to Stevenage. Peter O’Connor. CC BY-SA

Take heart

Written while waiting for word from the governor about schools re-opening.

Suspended animation

upended education

sense of desolation

facing the fall.

What school should be

we cannot see.

Ill winds still blowing

so much not-knowing.

Separate, there’s a cost.

So much is lost.

But not all

in one fall.

Until the surging tide

should subside

virtuality

may be reality.

Enduring

assuring

we will outlast

passing shadows cast

in empty halls

on empty walls.

By decrees

or degrees

a calling

for not falling

is conversely

full of mercy.

Choosing heartache

over heartbreak

choosing to be stronger

being a little longer

apart.

By whatever decrees

by whatever degrees

however they fall

however we start

dear ones, above all

—take heart.

Photo: Heart. Glenn Lascuna. CC BY

We can’t go back

In the 1590s, Shakespeare penned:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried

Now is 2020: The year of our discontent. Heavy clouds of pain, anger, injustice enshroud our houses, our cities, our minds, our days. COVID-19 cases still spike, yet to reach their peak. Flocking to the oceans no longer makes for a “glorious summer,” with crowded beaches described as ‘Petri dishes’. Many people are still out of work; some have lost their entire livelihood. Stress levels are so high, my dental hygienist tells me, that offices are being flooded with people whose teeth are cracking from grinding and whose joints hurt due to anxiety-induced inflammation. America is a nation, if not indivisible, then certainly fractured, almost soul-split (anyone recall Tom Riddle and his horcruxes?) over the complexities of recognizing and amending institutional racism to something as simple as wearing a mask. We ask: When and how can we go back to school, safely? No one really knows, although plans are being made, submitted, approved. A greater question: How can we go back to school, to life itself, as it was?

We can’t.

We must not.

Now is THE time to be discontent with what was. With what is. A time to break down and a time to build up, to reinvent, redefine, reunite.

In light of everything, a litany:

We can’t go back
to what what works for some but not all
to ideologies and theories
over actual ideas and self-actualization.

We can’t go back
to wearing blinders
to plowing on
in the same mentally-furloughed furrows.

We can’t go back
to resurrect what we’ve killed
on the altar of systemic oracles
on the sudden late revelation
therein lies no salvation.

We can’t go back
from ages and ages hence
to tell the children we’re sorry
and to plead for retroactive grace.

We can’t go back
to repaint our story.
We can only begin
, here and now,
creating an inviolable mosaic
from our broken pieces.

A ‘thought mosaic’ of student reading interests at a Family Literacy Lunch event. Vitally important questions for educators and systems: How are students being honored as individuals? How much learning do students get to “own” vs. what’s delivered to them? Is greater value placed on conformity or creativity? On enduring or endeavoring? On internalizing and imitating, or imagining and innovating? Are students led to believe that their thoughts, ideas, experiences, perspectives, preferences, worries, hopes, and dreams have validity? How often do they get to reflect on these, express these, vs. being confined to and assessed on rubric responses to reading and writing prompts? Now’s the time for examining—microscopically—every standard, curriculum, practice, and program for the seeds they actually are in this organic microcosm of society.

Dragonfly

New day. Opening window blinds to a flood of sunlight. Glimpse of pines, grass grown tall overnight (how??), weathered wooden deck railing, old white rocking chair, large cement pots draped in long ivy vines, new tendrils waving, geraniums blazing green and red, interspersed with spiky brown starbursts—oh, time to deadhead.

Within moments, scissors in hand, reaching for exposed bones of skeletal blooms, crisping, decaying, red petals shriveled, let loose, bled away, spent…

—Oh! Hello. Didn’t know you were here, Dragonfly.

Swapping the scissors for the phone-camera…

How close will you let me get?

—Surprisingly.

You’re small. Maybe two-and-a-half inches. Not like the first dragonflies I ever encountered in my grandmother’s yard when I was a child. Enormous things, terrifying… “They won’t hurt you! They eat mosquitoes”… good thing I didn’t know the old Scandinavian folktales then, how dragonflies come to weigh people’s souls, doling punishment on the bad, stitching children’s eyes closed for telling lies. Instead I learned to see the beautiful in the strange. Living sticks of metallic blue, iridescent gleams against the sunlit grass, darting any which way, impossibly. Air acrobats. —You’re very still. Not blue but yellow with bold black stripes. Clinging to a deadhead. Wonder why. Can’t cut the dying bloom away, not while you’re on it, Dragonfly. Won’t disturb you.

Returning later: You’re still present, resting on a green leaf.

Why should this feel so reassuring?

Maybe because the symbolism of a dragonfly is usually positive. You’re said to be bringers of light, restoring joy when it’s waning. Just as those bright geranium blooms are waning. Many new buds are already evident. Growth from within. The ability to change, transform, adapt—that is what we humans say about you dragonflies, as you begin life submerged in water (most of your lives being lived there) yet you eventually take to the air and learn to fly. By then the time remaining to you is short. Seems you make the most of it. Maybe you are harbingers of the soul. Not in judgment, but in self-realization, mental and emotional maturity, acceptance. A call to wisdom. A recurring word for me, of late.

Whatever motif lies written in iridescent ink on dragonfly wings, my grandmother knew it was good: You eat mosquitoes. You will not hurt me. You’re helpers. Protectors.

Sitting so still, amid decay juxtaposed with new growth… an inexplicable stab of delight, vibrant little messenger from nature, oblivious of your mission, perhaps, of nudging, not judging, human souls toward our own betterment … oh, and do you know? Could you know? In human lore… geraniums represent unexpected meetings.

Sick Ada, part II


About a month ago I shared this idea for a story about a little girl who loves cicadas and who’s having a hard time dealing with her parents’ separation. The girl’s name is Ada and she becomes seriously ill . . . hence the title, “Sick Ada,” cicada . . .

The story’s been gestating for a while as there were so many things to flesh out: How old is Ada? Why are her parents separated? Who left, Mom or Dad? Why? What’s the deal with her cicada fascination? How does she get sick? Most of all: Where should the story begin?

I considered writing this scene first: Near the end of the story, Ada goes into the hospital, sick enough that her recovery hangs in the balance. It is winter, when cicadas don’t sing, but she hears the heater rattling in her hospital room and believes it to be cicadas. She decides she doesn’t mind dying as long she can hear them . . .

But I am not starting there, and Ada will not die because my friend Kathleen interceded, pleading for the little girl’s life.

Amid much encouragement and a few thinly-veiled threats (thanks, Friends!), here’s the first draft opening scene.

*******

The darkness began to change.

Strips of light glimmered between the blinds until a thin finger of sunshine pushed through, reaching across Ada’s rumpled bed to caress her cheek.

At its warm touch, she opened her eyes.

Morning.

Oh!

Ada sat straight up in bed.

It’s my birthday! I am nine.

She felt strangely old.

Sitting there in the grayness, Ada knew two certainties. Today the cicadas would start singing. They always started singing on her birthday; Daddy said it was their song of celebration for her coming into the world. He would sing to her, too, only this time it would be over the phone. He promised to call today. Next week when school was finally out, Mama would drive Ada to the airport, put her on a plane, and Daddy would be there to meet her when the plane landed. It would be her first flight.

Ada wondered if cicadas sang on the other side of the country.

The other certainty was that she wouldn’t get her biggest birthday wish of all, that Daddy would come home to stay.

*******

So, Friends, that’s how Ada’s story begins for now, rough as it is.

For the record: The cicada is an ancient symbol of change or transformation and the name “Ada” just so happens to mean “noble.”

Photo: Girl with cicada bug. Jose HernandezCC BY-SA

Writing your own story

I saw his shirt from across the crowded cafeteria:

Writing my OWN story.

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

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

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

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

I understood.

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

I never got to write with him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the shifting of seasons

Outside

in the blaze of summer

the barest hint of change

In the crescendo of cicada song

a whisper of waning

Almost imperceptibly

the shift begins

Inside

climate controlled

time suspended

Isolation

but not desolation

as inevitably, in life,

the shift begins

I walk the hospital floor

thinking that cicadas don’t know

Or do they?

Their song throbs loudest

in the summer sun that remains

This same sun that

casts shadows

where I must walk

also casts unexpected rainbows

at my feet.

September 1st

Morning glory

Morning glory. Toshiyuki IMAICC BY-SA

 In the half-light

the barest fog

wisps about the trees

silhouetted against

a colorless sky.

The stars have gone.

Stillness but not silence

just the faintest thrum

of summer symphony

by insects of the night.

The last long encore.

Cool expectant breath

of the dawn

before day is fully awake

like the rooster nearby

with his rusty, lusty cry.

Circadian rhythm. All is well, is well.

I stand

under the haloed half-moon

drinking in the glory

of life

 even in its transitions.

Even in

farewell, farewell, farewell.

What is literacy?

Museum of the Navy

Quarterman shipfitter looks at blueprints, 1943. Museum of the U.S. Navy

“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another and empowers them to achieve things they never thought possible. Communication and connection are the basis of who we are and how we live together and interact with the world.” 

International Literacy Association, 2018

On the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. In the face of changes in staff, in curriculum, in differing perspectives on literacy instruction.

I am defined by literacy. I’ve loved reading and writing all my life. My professional work is literacy: As a coach, I collaborate with teacher colleagues across grade levels on how to best teach English Language Arts in ways that meet the needs of all students.

When it comes to defining literacy, I rely on the International Literacy Association, for no two dictionaries, and hardly any two people, seem to have the same idea of it. Some believe it’s just reading and writing. But it’s so much more . . . .

In the ILA definition several things jump out at me, beginning with

the ability to interpret

in any context

I think of my grandfather.

Over a hundred years ago, my grandfather left school to work on his family’s little North Carolina farm. He married during the Great Depression. When tenant farming, sharecropping, and other odd jobs like painting houses weren’t enough for him to “make a go of it,” Granddaddy rode with men from his hometown to Newport News, Virginia, in hopes of landing steady work at the shipyard.

Granddaddy became a shipwright, responsible for helping build the keels of ships, less than a year before Pearl Harbor. When America entered World War II, production continued around the clock with the invention of a new thing: aircraft carriers.

He made his living; he took care of his own. He retired from the shipyard when I was five. He and Grandma moved back home and there I spent my childhood summers.

In the evenings he sat in his recliner while Grandma and I sat on the living room floor. She spread the newspaper out on the carpet, handed me the “funnies” section, and then she read the rest of the paper in a loud, clear voice to Granddaddy—his years around industrial equipment in the Yard had made him hard of hearing.

I eventually asked:

Why do you read the paper to Granddaddy? Why doesn’t he just read it?

He can’t, Dear. 

Why? Is something wrong with his eyes?

No, no. He just never learned to read, not much, really. He quit school in the fourth grade to help on his family’s farm, you see . . . .

I was stunned. This was the first time I’d known of anyone who couldn’t read.

It hurt my heart for him.

But I later learned that he could read intricate blueprints and build to those precise measurements. That’s what he did at the shipyard all those years.

It’s something I can’t do.

 the ability to identify, understand, interpret

using visual

materials across disciplines

and in any context

My grandfather was always a farmer first; he read the days, the seasons, the weather.

He read nature. When he and I came across strange worms gliding over his front sidewalk, he couldn’t identify them but instinctively knew to leave them alone. Decades later I researched them (land planarians) and learned that if he’d tried to crush or chop them up, every piece would have replicated and they would have destroyed the good earthworms that kept his garden so abundant and healthy.

Signs, symbols, meanings, he understood. Not in or from books, but from life. He possessed visual-spatial acuity. Keen intuition. He read the times in which he lived, comprehended that the way of life he and the generations before him had known was passing forever. He reached for better things. He worked hard. He collaborated with a lot of different people. The shipyard management eventually asked him to be a supervisor, and that’s where his courage ran out. It required regular paperwork. He declined the position.

My heart ached again, deeply, on learning that.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another

and empowers them to achieve things

they never thought possible.

That belief is behind everything I do with teachers and students.

The greatest man I’ve ever known indirectly taught me, years ago, that reading and writing are the keys to opening doors of possibility and opportunity. He also taught me that literacy is so much more, long before this digital age.

We have to be able to read words and ascertain their meaning, but our survival depends on more. We must be able to read the times, read people, read what we see, what we are creating. And make sense of it. We must interpret. That’s the entire, inherent value of reading and writing in the first place.

We must communicate well with one another, recognizing that each of us possesses different strengths, all of which are valuable to helping each other. Communication is the keel on which all good relationships are built. We must speak, but we must listen more, absorb more, understand more.

Communication and connection are the basis of who we are

and how we live together

and interact with the world.

My grandfather survived—his family survived—because of his clarity of vision and sense of purpose.  He knew he lived through unique times. In his last years he preserved his life experiences for future generations not by penning a memoir but by recording his stories on a set of audiotapes. I don’t think he ever knew just how unique, how extraordinary, he was. In my mind I see him now—thick white hair, plaid shirt, gray pants with a black belt, black shoes, his big, wrinkled, work-worn hands folded in his lap, leaning back in his recliner listening to my grandmother reading. In addition to the nightly newspaper, she read the Bible through to him each year.

And so, on the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. I think of the constant adaptation of teachers to the times and the changing tides of literacy instruction; of students, each of whom has strengths and gifts that may not be obvious at first. I think of their futures and know that clarity of vision and a sense of purpose are vital to their learning and well-being. To all of our well-being. I think of my grandfather reading complex blueprints and going forth to build something previously unknown in a vastly changing world. I think about life literacy as well as literacy for life. How we live together and interact with the world.

For, in truth, we are building the world.

*******

Here’s the story of Granddaddy and me encountering those unknown worms long ago: First do no harm.

Help

Help

“Help.” James JohnstoneCC BY

As I entered the darkened cinema auditorium, an attendant handed me a pack of tissues.

Foreshadowing at its best.

The tears come at various points throughout the viewing of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—the lovingly documented life and work of Fred Rogers.

Mr. Rogers operated from a profound wellspring of love and empathy for children. At the outset of the movie, he’s young, seated at a piano. The film is black-and-white. With his hands on the keys, Mr. Rogers speaks of modulations: “It’s fairly easy to go from, say, a C to an F,” he says, playing each chord. “But to go from an F to an F-sharp,” he models, “you must navigate all sorts of things.” He saw the new medium of communication, television, as a means of helping children navigate the modulations of life. Fears. Changes. Questions. Emotions. A country at war. Hatred. Not understanding. Divorce. Illness. Death.

I watched and listened with the ears of an educator and the heart of a writer. This is my work, too, I thought, only my medium is paper and pencil. 

Then, after having helped generations of children through the modulations of life, came 9/11.

Mr. Rogers, then retired, was asked to help, his voice, his presence, once again a ray of light, this time cutting through incomprehensible darkness. In the documentary, the sorrow is etched on his face. He spoke of being tikkun olam, “repairers of creation.”

With his words I saw the world in all its brokenness, violence, despair . . . and thought, It begins with the world inside us. Repair begins there, within each of us, before we can work on the world without.

I thought of children I’ve known through the years, finding their voices through writing, facing their fears, overcoming them, gaining strength and courage. Children who have suffered loss and grappled with it in their own words. I’ve read the haunting account of a child being tortured in another country and celebrating his new life in the United States. I thought it was fiction until the third-person changed to first near the narrative’s end; the teenager was writing about himself. A second-grader whose mother was remarrying and her fear: “Will my stepfather like me?” A fifth-grader lashing out at her mother in the very first line of her memoir over how many times they’d had to move, and how it hard it was to have any friends.

And with the words that came from within, anger eventually melted to forgiveness, fears pointed toward hope, insecurities gave way to confidence and validation. With the writing, the stories became those of enduring, of overcoming, of celebration.

Repairing within.

I thought about how some educators look at writing only as a means of retelling what you know from what you’ve read, or a standard to be delivered, assessed, and crossed off a list. No time for this “touchy-feely” kind of  thing . . . yet the one thing that best helps children understand themselves, the world around them, and their place in it, is writing. Freedom versus constriction. Discovering potential, seeing possibilities, problem-solving. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Why is the goal “college and career ready?” How about life ready?

For the modulations don’t end in childhood, do they, Grown-Up.

Mr. Rogers spoke of his own childhood and what his mother told him whenever there was a catastrophe, or news of tragedy, on the air; she said “Look for the helpers. There will always be helpers, even if on the sidelines . . . because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

Look for the helpers. Repairers of the world.

Then be the hope.

And . . . write.