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

Sick Ada

I don’t know where it came from, this idea for a story about a little girl who likes cicadas.

Except that I was a little girl who liked cicadas. I am a grown-up who loves them; I’ve written about this many times.

Anyway . . .

In my idea (that fell into my head when I was actually thinking of other things), a little girl is having a hard time adjusting to her parents’ separation. It’s connected to a change in seasons when she can’t hear cicadas anymore. Perhaps she will find some shed cicada shells and ponder the emptiness where a living thing used to be. Or how one outgrows things. Maybe she’ll even think that her parents have outgrown their love for her. I am not sure yet of all the meanings and connections; I will have to write and let the story grow and breathe on its own.

I do know, however, that the little girl becomes ill. Is it terminal? Not sure yet. She goes to the hospital. It’s winter. As she’s falling asleep, the heater in her room sounds like cicadas rattling high in the summer trees. It’s a happy sound, this buzzing. She will wonder if dying is not so bad, really, if she can just keep hearing cicadas . . . and then she hears voices. Her mother and father are there with her in the room, together if only for a little while, united in their concern for their sick daughter.

Whose name is Ada.

Sick Ada . . . cicada . . .

That’s as far as I’ve gotten, just grasping at these gossamer images, the barest wings of an idea.

But I think it might like to become a real story.

That belongs to children, for they live at the mercy of adults and the world.

And, of course, to cicadas, which are always buzzing somewhere, and which represent many things, mostly good.

Seems I almost owe it to little sick Ada, waiting there in the wings.

Photo: Girl with cicada bug. Jose Hernandez. CC BY-SA

Waiting

We put the cookies in the oven

and we wait.

Good things take a while.

Don’t they.

Like Christmas and growing up.

Like wedding days

and having children.

Like heart-dreams coming true.

Like you.

It took a long time.

I had to wait.

My little boy had to grow up

and finally find your Mom.

It took a while

didn’t it

for you to get your dad.

Know what he told me?

“Mom, you’re getting a little girl

at last.”

So much of life is waiting, waiting,

it’s true

like my long ago-dream

of you.

So many books to read

and stories to share

and songs to sing

and places to go

and just to be

you and me.

So we put the cookies in the oven

and oh, we can hardly wait.

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. 

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