Revolutionary fiction, revisited

Storming of Redoubt No.10

Yorktown, Virginia: Storming of Redoubt No. 10. Eugène Lami. 

I can taste the brine of the river, mingled with gunpowder and wood smoke from the Redcoat campfires . . . I know this shoreline, could walk it in my sleep, but it’s so changed, now, with the batteries, the cannons, the trenches. I can’t carry a lantern for fear of Redcoats seeing me. All I have in my hands is the sack for filling with potatoes. I slide along the ground in the dark, nearing the bank where the cave is set in the earth just below . . . 

The students are gathered on the carpet near my feet, looking at my writing on the screen of an interactive whiteboard, their own papers lying in front of them. They’re considering revisions to the opening scene I wrote while they watched.

To be honest, I am having to review a lot about the last days of the Revolutionary War in order to write this little bit of fiction. I’m tasked with helping the kids write their own story set during the Revolution, as a means of making the history “come alive” for them. As I re-read my writing aloud to the class, I’m already not happy with the reason my main character, Hannah, is going for the evacuated townspeople’s potatoes stored in the cave. Her family is in hiding during the British occupation of Yorktown, they’re nursing three wounded Patriot soldiers, they’re running out of food.

Maybe I should add that Hannah’s mother needs the potatoes to make a poultice for one of those wounded solders. Yeah, that would be even better . . . .

I explain that the next scene I want to write is Hannah getting in the cave, hearing someone come, hiding in the potatoes, overhearing Cornwallis telling his next-in-command that they will escape George Washington’s troops via the river. She will have to figure out how to get word to the Continental Army. Or to the French Army . . .

A boy raises his hand: “I have an idea for your story.”

“Great!” I say. “Let’s hear it!”

“You could have Hannah get back to her family and her friends in hiding and the older boys could disguise themselves as British soldiers to get through their lines.”

“That’s an awesome suggestion, ” I say. “I just might use it! Here’s the thing, everyone: for everything your characters decide to do, there must be a clear, believable reason. It has to make sense in context of the story.”

It is now time to hear their ideas, as they begin to write their own stories.

A few are willing to share with the whole group:

A girl’s brother is supposed to join the Continental Army but he’s afraid and runs away; she decides to dress as a boy and takes his place in battle.

As a Patriot family leaves town, outrunning the British Army, they find a British baby separated from its mother. The mother comes looking for it —”So,” I say, as yet a little unclear on how such a baby (maybe from a Loyalist family?) should be there, lost—”you know they’re on opposite sides, right? Would either take time to politely give a baby back to the enemy?”

—Emphatic nodding of heads; it’s the baby’s mother . . . .

I am picking up on a couple of developing patterns here. One: These fourth-graders are writing from the perspective of main characters who are children. Heroic, rather resourceful children. Well, that’s what I am modeling for them. And, perhaps more importantly: The adults in these stories seem to make remarkably empathetic, kind choices.

Despite a revolution, a war.

Maybe those were more civilized times? When warfare was conducted with etiquette?

Then a girl says that her main characters are a brother and sister whose dad is off fighting under Washington and whose mom is thrown in prison on suspicion of witchcraft. Then the British Army burns their town; the children have to figure out how to stay on the run and survive . . . .

—Never mind about ‘more civilized times.’

As she speaks, I can’t help mulling the true atrocities of war. How Cornwallis’ desperate plan to escape with his troops by river included leaving their injured behind. How deserters told the allied French and American armies that, to preserve food, the British army slaughtered their horses and threw the bodies on the beach.

I shudder at the inhumanity of man, then my mind suddenly reels from the image of dead horses lying on that colonial shoreline to one of greater horror, schoolchildren in America today, lying slain . . . less than 250 years later, THIS is what we’ve become?

“Stop!” I say.

The class freezes. The little writers look at me, quizzically.

“Sorry.” I wonder if they notice the tremor in my voice. “We’re writing fiction, of course, but I just need to know one thing: Are the children are going to be all right?”

—Or what’s a country for?

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis. John Trumbull.

 

The prelude to this post: Revolutionary fiction

Oddball gift

I watch them each afternoon, bringing odds and ends out of their bookbags.

They’re a pretty orderly group, these third, fourth, and fifth grade students seated in the auditorium for carpool dismissal, so I don’t tell them to put the stuff away. Instead, I take note of what they have in their hands.

Some of them are holding books and reading—a delight to my heart.

Some are doing homework—I don’t blame them for getting a head start.

Some are drawing—and I’m astounded by their artistic ability.

Some are writing, occasionally beckoning me to come over and listen as they read it aloud or to ask me a question, and I sigh: All’s right with the world.

Many are playing with slime.

They learned how to make it in science a couple of months back. The kids took the recipe home, altered it, and have taken slime to dazzling new heights. They bring their latest concoctions to school in Ziploc bags, plastic containers, even small glass jars.

First someone came with glow-in-the-dark slime, which, I concurred, is extremely cool.

This progressed to the creation of fluorescent slime. Then glitter slime; one sparkling turquoise batch reminded me of the ocean. Then a shimmery magenta glitter slime containing iridescent beads, which, I am not kidding, was beautiful; it was as supple and stretchy as any other slime. Fascinating.

But perhaps the oddest thing of all was non-slime: Some kind of ball being shaken by a girl. I could see green glitter swirling inside and something else floating . . .

I went over for a better look: “Is that . . . an eyeball in there?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the girl, giggling. She handed it to me.

I shook it, because, clearly, that is what one should do with a clear rubber ball filled with fluid, green glitter, and a garish bloodshot eyeball.

“Wild,” I laughed, handing it back.

And the girl said, “No, you can keep it.”

“Ummmm, but, it’s your, er, glittery eyeball . . . thing. Thanks but I would, ah, hate to take it from you.”

She grinned. “It’s okay. I have a whole bunch of them at home.”

I opened my mouth to ask WHY just as her number came up and she left me standing there holding this . . . object. The eyeball floated benignly in the fluid as glitter settled to the bottom. The bright blue iris stared right at me. So odd.

Oddball.

What possible purpose could there be for having ‘a whole bunch’ of these things at home? I wondered. Then, instantaneously: Yeah, there’s a story in that, for sure.

Furthermore, I have learned that when the universe gives you a gift—or when a fifth-grader gives you a glittery eyeball toy—you should just accept it.

And so this gift graces my desk at school, awaiting the moment of its destiny, when an eyeball floating in a sea of green glitter is exactly what is needed.

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Beautiful child

At a recent meeting of educators, I heard a woman speak of her child’s transition to a new school. The child came home bubbling with excitement on Day One:

“Mom, my teacher looks like me!”

This is the first time her child ever had a teacher of the same race, the woman said. In fact, she went on to say, with quick finger quotes for emphasis, her child was “the only ‘beautiful’ child in the class last year.”

I understood what she meant: Her child was the only one of their race in that classroom.

I’m a mom. I know the protective, fiery love for one’s own, above all else. A proverb comes to mind: “There’s only one beautiful child in the world and every mother has it.” This mom didn’t say there’d been a problem at the previous school but as an educator I know that a sense of belonging and identity are vital to learning. I know that every school and classroom should strive to value, support, empower, and celebrate each child (as well as the adults). For that is how children learn to value, support, empower, and celebrate each other. That’s humanity at its best.

Which is why, as a human being hearing these words from another, a mother and educator, I came away with one heavy, lingering question:

Aren’t ALL children beautiful?

The gesture

Pure love

Pure love. SurFerGiRL30CC-BY

Sunday morning at church. I took a seat by the aisle where sunlight poured through the stained glass window, where pale patches of pink, green, blue, and gold glimmered down the white wall.

In front of me sat a young man, a young woman, and a little girl, three years old.

The young man stretched his arm along the back of the pew, nearly but not quite embracing the young woman and child, just an easy drape of affection, of togetherness.

I could just see the top of the child’s head, two pinned-up pigtails coming loose, where his hand rested.

Then a chubby little hand crept up to pat his arm, once, twice, with all the grace of a ballerina. Two slow, deliberate, barely-discernible pats, before the dimpled hand disappeared again.

I watched, pierced by this silent message.

Maybe it was I love you. Or Thank you for being with me. Or quiet reassurance—I am fine, you are fine, we are fine together. Maybe even I’m here, you’re here, all is well with the world.

Such pureness of heart in that simple gesture. Such trust and confidence, such peace. How naturally it comes to a child, reaching out to someone else in benevolence, faith, and belonging.

And I mourned the incremental loss of it as we grow older, that it should fade like the colored patches of stained-glass light against the wall, that clarity of purpose should be obscured even as we accrue the words and language to better communicate our thoughts and feelings, that we should have to think twice about reaching out, or being the first to do so.

Two gentle pats, in them contained the original order and design of things, that together is the best place to be, that we are here for one another.

And so the children remind us.

Be

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Long may our land be bright . . . 

Be

I find a place where I can be

away from clamor

away from contention

away from conflagration.

A place where I can see

sunlight on the grass

on the trees

on the rocks

on the water

flowing on and on.

A place that invites me

to see the good

in myself,

in others,

to be the good

for myself

for others.

A place of recess

of stillness

of silence

where I sigh less.

Here,

for this moment,

I can

breathe

believe

and be.

Perhaps this is a strange Fourth of July post. It came together strangely.

It was inspired in part by two quotes from children’s television icon Fred Rogers in the documentary of his life and work, Won’t You Be My Neighbor:

  • Whatever happened to GOODNESS? To just being GOOD?” Mr. Rogers, a man of faith who spent five decades helping others and building them up, asked this in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. He would live just seventeen more months.
  • Silence is our most underused gift.” In many segments of his program, Mr. Rogers was silent so that children could concentrate on what they were seeing. 

I thought about children. About seeing our country, our world, through their eyes. 

I remembered the photo of my first son contemplating the autumn countryside from the doorway of an old grist mill when he was just three. He grew up to be an American history teacher.

A sprinkling of our patriotic songs and lyrics returned to me, like sea spray on the breeze. America the beautiful. Land that I love. Land of the noble free. Crown thy good with brotherhood. Home of the brave. Home sweet home. 

All stirring me to ruminate on beliefs and believing, on building up versus tearing down, on how, if all voices are shouting, no one’s being heard.

The word clamor came to mind and it somehow strung everything together—whatever happened to goodness and silence is our most underused gift and children and faith and long may our land be bright—like beads on a string.

So today, for a moment, I find a place away from the clamor. In the dawn’s early light and within myself.

To reflect.

To be.

And believe.

Still.

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.

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. 

slice-of-life_individual

The song

Grandma's organ

I love Granddaddy’s and Grandma’s apartment. The walls are knotty pine and the floors are made of a different wood; they shine under Grandma’s braided rugs.  There’s a booth curving around a table in one corner. It makes me think of the ice cream shop where we sometimes go for milkshakes. This booth is where Granddaddy, Grandma and I eat supper. Sometimes we have jelly doughnuts or apple turnovers for dessert; Grandma is very fond of apple turnovers and so I am I. There’s an odd, glass-less window between the bedroom and the “front room,” as Grandma calls it. I call it the living room. Grandma has curtains on this weird window and I can remember, dimly, my aunt holding me in her arms on one side as Grandma pulled the curtains apart on the other, crying “PEEK-A-BOO!” We all dissolved with laughter. A fancy ashtray with a curved handle that’s either a ram or a goat – some horned, leaping  animal – stands on a tall, thin pedestal beside my grandfather’s worn leather recliner, but no one ever smokes here.

Many wonders exist in this cozy place, but one of the prettiest is Grandma’s organ.

It’s made of polished wood, with curved legs. It stands gracefully against the front room wall, under shelves of family mementos and photographs.

Grandma knows how to play it. She has a piano down home in the country, but it was too big to bring to the apartment. When Granddaddy went to work at the shipyard during the War, my grandmother had to leave her piano behind. So, he bought her this organ one Christmas. 

He knew how much she loved to play.

One afternoon she says, “I will teach you.”

I am nervous and excited at the same time – I have never touched this organ.

Grandma opens the top. She lowers the little stand that holds a book. She has a booklet of hymns and one of Christmas songs; she places the Christmas book on the stand.

“Watch and listen,” she says, her blue eyes soft and bright. “This is my favorite.”

She plays “Silent Night.”

She sings, and I know the song. I sing some of the words with her:

Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.

“Now it’s your turn,” she says.”See these numbers? That’s what you play with your right hand. These circles with letters are the chords – you play the buttons with your left hand.”

She takes my hands in her own. 

5,6,5,3 – Si – i -lent night

5,6,5,3 – ho – o -ly night

She puts my fingers on the right keys, pressing the white “C” major button until we switch – gracious! – to “G” and “F.”

I am very slow – it seems a lot to do at one time.

But Grandma guides me, and soon I have played a song.

A whole song.

“Now try it on your own,” she says.

I labor. My keys and my chords are not exactly in sync, but I play. I am playing the song by myself!

Grandma sings behind me. Her voice carries me on.

She hugs me when I finish; I smell her Avon Cachet cream, light and clean.

Her eyes glisten with tears, but she’s smiling.

It was the first of many lessons I’d learn from my grandmother. In those days before I started school, I thought the white major buttons sounded like a wedding; all the minor and diminished buttons sounded like something in haunted houses.

Pretty much the theme music of life – celebrations and dark, mysterious moments. Sometimes I would play the buttons by themselves, listening to the happiness and strangeness of the chords.

I made my own stories out of these sounds.

I realized, decades later, the legacy my grandmother left me: There was always a song of hope and faith in the heart to carry me through the darkest times. That being a wife and mother often meant sacrifice. She was the quintessential teacher, without being formally trained – my foray into the music she loved followed the perfect I do, we do, you do pattern.  She guided my fingers on the keys, my feet on the path, my heart on the things that matter most.

Above all, she believed in me.

There’s no greater gift to a child.

When I was in the sixth grade, I was invited to attend a summer program for gifted students in writing, drama, and photography.

My father couldn’t afford the fee.

Grandma paid it. “Children need to have a chance to do things that matter to them,” she said, with a startling ferocity.

Much later I learned that she wanted to take piano lessons when she was in her early teens and that her family couldn’t afford them during the Depression. A young minister’s wife, however, taught my grandmother how to play.

In everything I do, she’s still there behind me, singing, urging me on, never far away. She is gone, yet she isn’t; her song sings in my soul, in time with the beating of my heart. I am who I am because of her.

Today my youngest son – a college student and music minister – plays her piano and sings the old songs. Her organ stands in my foyer – the first thing that people see when they come to my home.

Her legacy lives, from generation to generation.

I often think how thrilled she’d be to hear my boy’s beautiful playing and singing. “Oh, how my Grandma would love to hear this,” I tell him.

Even as I say the words, I know she knows.

But I’m not a teacher

Encourage

He’d saved his own money to buy me a Christmas present. He told his dad he wanted to go to the bookstore, so his dad took him.

He bought me a picture instead of a book and watched with great pride as the clerk wrapped it.

“I got it for my mom,” he told the clerk.

“Oh, she’ll love it!”

He clasped it to his heart all the way home.

He burst into the house, calling, “Mom! Mom! I got you a present!”

His dad said, “Son, just put it under the tree. It’s for Christmas.”

“I want to give it to her now!”

“All right,” I said,  sitting down on the couch. My little boy scrambled up beside me. “I’ll go ahead and open it, if that’s what you want.”

He watched my every move as I unwrapped the paper and pulled out the matted picture bearing the quote: A teacher in wisdom and kindness helps children learn to do exactly what they thought could not be done.

I didn’t know what to say for a moment.

“It’s beautiful, honey,” I said, hugging him. “Thank you so much.”

“Do you love it, Mom?”

“I do … but I’m not a teacher.”

My son surveyed me with huge dark eyes that seemed far older than his six years: “Oh yes you are, Mom.”

At the time, I wasn’t even a college graduate. Teaching wasn’t on my radar. Thirteen years, a degree, and another baby later, I actually became a teacher. In all of those education courses that required me to describe my educational philosophy, I wrote: A teacher is an encourager, recalling that solemn little face, those big eyes, the absolute conviction shining in them. Children, sometimes, are the greatest of sages, the most profound of prophets.

Three more years, and the boy graduated college himself with a degree in history. “What am I going to do for a job?” he asked one afternoon, a slight hint of anxiety in his voice.

“Teach,” I answered, smiling.

He didn’t smile back. “But I’m not a teacher.”

“Oh yes you are, Son.”

Before the summer ended, he had a job teaching social studies at his old high school. When he went to set up his classroom, he cleaned out the cabinets and found old tests – including his own.

He also became a soccer coach, taking his team to the championships and winning regional Coach of the Year this past season.

We didn’t seek teaching; it found us. We’ve done exactly what we thought could not be done – we do it every day, all over again.

And every day is new, if not easy; every day offers wisdom, beckons kindness, invites us to believe in others, in ourselves, every moment a chance to create, to reinvent, to overcome. It can be done.

Encourage one another.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer