A matter of diet

Listening to a friend extolling the value of a high-fat, low-carb diet (“My sister-in-law, who’s had a weight problem all of her life, has lost sixty pounds. She looks great!”) got me thinking.

The conversation went something like this…

ME: It’s contrary to all we were taught, you know, with the food pyramid.

FRIEND: Right. That food pyramid is wrong. All those grains-!! The carbs-!!

ME: Well, in this heart-healthy era …

FRIEND: The diets cardiologists promote are NOT heart healthy. They’re detrimental. Dangerous.

ME: Hmmm … high-fat kind of amazes me, though. We keep being told that eating low-fat is healthy.

FRIEND: Low-fat is the WORST OF ALL. Take milk, for example. You’re altering it if you remove the fat. It’s supposed to have fat. Our bodies don’t recognize food that’s altered, they’re not designed to handle it, don’t know what to do with it besides convert it to sugar … plus, we’ve depleted important nutrients that we need from the soil …

ME: So do you take vitamins or supplements with this diet?

FRIEND: Yes. Boron, for example …

Boron?

It’s in borax. A cleaning agent. When I was a child, my family used Fab laundry detergent. The jingle, “Fab, I’m glad, there’s lemon-freshened borax in you!”—heavens, I haven’t thought of that in decades.

Boron, stuff of cosmic rays and exploding stars. Not overly plentiful in the universe or in the Earth’s crust, yet necessary to plants’ growth. Apparently it has a number of human health benefits, for everything from the brain to the bones to attacking kidney stones. But too much can be toxic. Plants will die, humans can be poisoned …

ME: It comes down to what each person needs, really. The same amount of anything could be too little for one person and too much for another.

FRIEND: Exactly. It’s a matter of finding what works for each person.

—And THAT is what got me thinking about a reading diet.

As someone who’s in and out of classrooms across grade levels daily, listening to children read, here is what I know: They don’t all need the same things. Some need a little supplement—the right supplement. Some need extra decoding or phonics support. Some need comprehension support (the point of reading is, after all, making meaning of it). Some are learning the language. Some have intensive needs requiring highly specialized support. Many need help with phrasing, with prosody, with CONFIDENCE … and what about vocabulary? ALL need to be read to, every day.

Reading is complex. Teaching reading is complex. There’s even an argument as to whether it can actually be taught, for readers essentially grow by … reading.

A healthy reading diet really comes down to this: What does each child need in order to grow? What is a balanced diet for this child? Too much or too little of a thing can be counterproductive. Potentially toxic.

All too often I hear students say I don’t like reading.

I sometimes ask students why but I know the answer’s partly shadowed by a much larger question: What’s being done to help kids WANT to read? To enjoy it, to love it, to stick with it? Allure is part of a diet, is it not? The pull of some promise?

Trends and beliefs about reading and reading education, like diets, are going to come and go. There will be clashes of opinion. Research is going to be (and should be) tested for validity.

And …

FRIEND: The Food and Drug Administration shouldn’t be one entity. There’s big money to be made by people not eating the right stuff and needing medication.

ME: Big money … cure-alls … why am I envisioning buzzards on a branch, poised to swoop in and devour?

[shudder]

Exactly what—or whom—is being devoured?

Photo: PlusLexia.com.

Of the earth

Midway through lunch, the din in the cafeteria is too much. The new boy brings his tray to where I’m standing:

Can I sit here at this table?”

It’s an empty table, save for my phone, closed laptop, electronic entry key, all the things I carried with me because I didn’t have time to put them in my room before this daily duty.

I consider his brown eyes, looking up at me. Pleading.

I consider his boisterous classmates and the seat he left behind.

“Are you moving yourself here because you feel it’s a safer place for you to be right now?” I ask.

He nods.

“All right. That seems like a good choice.”

His face breaks into a grin. He sits.

And the questions start: What kind of phone is that? Do you have a dog? Do you like Doritos? What kind do you like best? What’s your favorite color? Where are you from? How old are you, twenty-nine? Forty? Older?

How old are YOU? Eight? Did you move over just here to ask me all these questions?

He just smiles and takes a swig of his strawberry milk.

Then:

“Mrs. Haley, what’s your favorite snake?”

“What? My favorite SNAKE, did you say? Yikes—I don’t …”

Of course I am about to say I don’t like any snake whatsoever, but something in his expression stops me. “Um, do you like snakes?”

He nods. “I like pythons.”

Heavens. I refrain from telling him about a man I saw on the news this week. He happened to find a boa constrictor in his couch and had no idea how it got there or from whence it came.

He’s watching my face. A keen observer, this child. He’s waiting for my response.

I could say I like green snakes, but I don’t. I could say I like black snakes because my granddaddy said they eat rats and mice, so don’t ever kill a black snake. I think about the copperheads Granddaddy killed on the dirt road where his barefoot grandchildren ran in the summertime. I think about the coiled baby water moccasin I found in front of the kitchen cabinets when my first son was just three, and I how I was about to pick it up, thinking it was an odd piece of rope . . . until I almost touched it. And saw its eyes. Or that time I was cleaning the attic and discovered a complete shed snakeskin; I nearly knocked a whole new exit in my ceiling, trying to scramble out of there . . .

I DO NOT LIKE SNAKES.

But this boy with the strawberry mustache is waiting. His eyes are shining.

And then I recall a little creature lying across my sidewalk a couple of weeks ago. So little that I thought it to be a large worm at first; it was the same pale tan. I noted a faint pattern of scales on it. Could it be a snake? I looked it up. It was. “Smooth earth snake.” They are shy; they live mostly in the dirt around trees and bushes. I’d just had all the old bushes around my house pulled up. Apparently this little fossorial serpent was disturbed, or even damaged, as the equipment pulled away deep, tangled roots. For whatever reason, it crawled out in the open only to die there on the sidewalk. Who knows, maybe it was just trying to get to safety.

—Poor little snake. The only one I’ve ever mourned.

I look at the boy. He’s new here. He’s been uprooted.

Perhaps he did come to this table for safety, after all.

Even as I begin to speak, I think of earth and geosmin, the organic element in soil that humans can smell to something like the trillionth degree (we can detect one tablespoon in three Olympic-size swimming pools) and why that should be, unless it’s because we were meant to live close to the earth, that we came from the earth, and to the earth we will return. A curious kinship with that little snake. With all living things.

“My favorite snake is the earth snake. It’s very small. Have you heard of it?”

He wants to see a picture, so I do a search on my phone just as it’s time for classes to clean up and go outside for recess. To run, to play, to breathe the fresh air, to enjoy being children . . . how well I remember.

The silence in the cafeteria now is too much.

Photo: Smooth Earthsnake. Cygnus921. CC-BY

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.