I photographed the Statue of Freedom in March 2018. She stands in the Capitol Visitor Center’s Emancipation Hall. This plaster version was the model for the bronze one atop the Capitol dome. Like a mythological warrior queen, she wears a helmet, bearing stars and the head of an eagle. While the eagle’s power and fierce majesty have led governments, empires, and regimes throughout history to adopt it as a symbol, it’s those long eagle feathers that captivate me. To Native Americans, they represent sacredness and healing.Think on that symbolism awhile.
As an American on this Independence Day, freedom to heal, not harm, is my prayer.
Author Matt de la Peña led the first day of my district’s Teacher Summer Writing Institute and graciously offered to sign books during our break.
Here’s the conversation I had with him as he autographed Carmela Full of Wishes for me:
“I noticed the recurrence of Carmela jingling her bracelets throughout the story. I wondered if it symbolized something in particular, in connection with her imaginings.”
“There’s no hidden meaning,” replies de la Peña. “Carmela jingles the bracelets to irritate her brother.”
I laugh. “Because that is what siblings do.”
He nods. “She removes the bracelets at the end as an act of kindness to him. Here—let me show you my favorite page in the book.”
He turns the book around for me, displaying Christian Robinson’s intricate artwork: a papel picado (cut tissue paper) rendering of a father kneeling, a little girl in his arms.
“The book is really about the importance of family being together.” De la Peña’s face is solemn.
I run my fingers over the words. “Home . . . I am reminded of history, how slave marriages weren’t considered legal. Families were split apart and people didn’t care.” I look back to de la Peña. “But family is the foundation of everything.”
“Yes,” he says, his dark eyes sparking. “It is.”
This week in America, we observe Independence Day. We celebrate freedom.
It is a sanguine word. Bloodstained. By wars waged to win it, but also by the lifeblood of the people who call a nation “home.” In this freedom is also a consanguine word – for home is where the family is.
As de la Peña so poignantly conveys with Carmela’s mixed-status family. She’s a U.S. citizen, born in this country, wishing, waiting – dreaming – of the day her father will “finally be home.”
At the book’s close, as I look at the dandelion fluff in the wind, Carmela’s sky full of wishes, my mind sees white stars waving on a field of blue, fireworks showering a night sky. I recall that a hallmark celebration on the Fourth of July is family reunions.
And I don’t know why an old line of Kris Kristofferson’s insists on accompanying this vision: Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…
With artistic apologies, I can’t say that’s true in the context of nations and families and home … our hope and our humanity are still left to lose.
After a recent outpatient procedure, as I secretly celebrated waking up from anesthesia and not dying, my husband drove me home down the back country roads. Through the passenger window I idly watched winter-brown grass, trees, and old gray outbuildings zipping by, noted a small clearing with a tiny pond nestled in wood-strewn ground, an eagle sitting by the wayside—
We said it simultaneously, my husband and I: “THAT’S AN EAGLE!”
Just a quick impression, sitting majestically, facing us, huge, white head gleaming atop the dark body, not ten feet away . . . .
We were past it as soon as the sight registered on our brains.
“Go back! Go back!” I pleaded, grabbing my phone, opening the camera.
A sssskkkkrrrrttt! of a turn-around at a dirt driveway, and we were back in a flash.
It watched us, unmoving, as we neared, but when we slowed, the eagle grew suspicious. It took off. Within a millisecond, into the bare, gnarled oaks.
“No! Wait! Wait!” I cried, snapping as fast as I could.
We rolled a little farther, but the only good shot I got was of its back, soaring away.
Gone. I missed the moment. Failed to capture my encounter with the wondrous. I have never been that close to an eagle in the wild. I’ve hardly seen any free ones at all, in fact. I’ve heard them calling in their high, haunting, piercing voices, have seen one perched on top of a streetlamp, but never anything like this.
I grieved my loss: It would have made such a great blog post, too.
I got home, got into bed.
The image of the eagle wouldn’t leave my thoughts. It stayed, motionless, watching me. Cocked its head, affixed me with its eye, its penetrating gaze.
—Why wouldn’t you stay so still just a little while ago?
It ruffled its feathers. Kept right on staring at me.
So I looked it up.
There are few things I love better than symbolism, and few are better-known than the eagle: The national bird, on the Great Seal of the United States. Revered icon of ancient times, civilizations, people. Mascot to numerous sports teams—even that of the school where I work.
But this is what got me about the eagle:
It is a symbol of healing.
It is a symbol of transition, some element of life or creative endeavor, about to take flight.
—Dare I see it as a sign that all shall be well, that some new venture, personal or professional, lies just ahead?
It was just an eagle sitting by the wayside, as eagles surely do, somewhere, every day.
Only this time I happened to see it. In the blinking of an eye.
I blinked back at it.
So, I told it, you wouldn’t stay put for a real picture, but now you linger as a mental one. If you’re going to hang around portending something, then let it be my creativity and insight taking flight. Let it be about thing I love to do most—let my writing be courageous and free, with clarity of vision. Let it fly, let it fly, on and on, higher and higher.
Only then did the image fade; only then did I rest.
I fell asleep.
And woke in the morning, renewed, resolute.
No more missed moments. There aren’t moments to lose.
—I’m ready for whatever lies ahead. Lead on, eagle.
Every renaissance comes to the world with a cry, the cry of the human spirit to be free.
Today I am thinking of the twelve Thai boys trapped in the flooded cave with their soccer coach for over two weeks. They’re almost all rescued now; the world holds its collective breath for the news that the final boy is free, as well as the coach, to be saved last.
They wrote letters, the boys. To their parents, telling them not to worry, that they love them.
Parents wrote letters to the boys . . . telling them not to worry, that they love them.
The letters are now a celebration of life. Of freedom. Of overcoming those long, unimaginable days in the depths of the cave, at the mercy of an unpredictable sea, of hunger, of separation, of darkness.
Words of hope . . . for, as Alexander Pope wrote long ago: Hope springs eternal in the human breast.
Words of survival. I think of Anne Sullivan’s words on “the cry of the human spirit to be free” and how, as a teacher, despite the magnitude of the task, that it was uncharted territory, she reached into the depths of Helen Keller’s dark, silent, anguished world to give her a voice, to set her free.
Helen’s own words: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”
A freelance writer recently told me: “I teach writing to prisoners in North Carolina. It’s a powerful thing to see, someone with no voice suddenly having a voice. Despite all the restrictions, if you can write, you are free.”
The cry of the human spirit.
That is, above all, why we write.
For ourselves, for one another, for freedom, for hope.
Author Nic Stone shares her passion and insight with teachers.
I scribbled notes as fast as I could while Nic Stone spoke to the gathering of teachers yesterday.
Stone is the author of the young adult novel Dear Martin. She’s straightforward, funny, warm, and passionate about reading and writing. The teachers are K-12 cross-curricular educators from across my district who’ve chosen to attend our second annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute—an entire week dedicated to growing as writers and teachers of writing. As a co-facilitator of this event, I sat in the back of the room for the panoramic view: The writing guru, seated comfortably on a tabletop, delivering her wisdom to the crowd who eagerly awaited.
Here are my favorite words of Stone:
“Literacy is about collaboration. Reading and writing are collaborative efforts. We have to be able to talk to each other.”
“I wanted to write from an early age but it took me until age twenty-eight to really try . . . finding your voice is validating yourself and what you think and feel . . . READ what makes you think and feel.”
“Write for yourself first.”
“The beauty of writing is that it is always in your head.”
“You don’t have to write every day, but you have to develop the habit of writing.”
“Writing is solitary. Storytelling is collaborative.”
“Schools with the highest reading and writing successes are those where students have freedom to choose what they want to read and write about. Kids see each other doing it.”
“These are conversations you should be having in your buildings: Why do standards exist? What does it mean to be literate?”
“That you keep on doing the work without answers . . . that shows your amazing strength.”
“There’s no room for being wrong in American schools. Kids need to know it’s okay to fumble; it’s how they learn . . . they need a soft place to land.”
“Reading and writing can unpack fears.”
“There’s no better way to help students find their power, their agency, their validity as human beings, than in the beauty of books, in words, in writing.”
“The thing about research is how one thing leads you to another. Everything connects. Reading and writing are all about connecting. Our connecting to the world around us, our connecting to each other.”
“Emphasize the fun in research.”
“For authentic writing, voice is more important than grammar. Let students drop commas, play with punctuation, write run-ons, fragments . . . tell them they have to know the rules before they’re allowed to break them.”
“All first drafts are garbage. They’re supposed to be.”
“Do yourself and the kids a favor: Don’t grade first drafts. Assign a date to have students finish them. They’ll have a sense of accomplishment in just finishing. Then after a couple of days, have them go back and revise.”
“I finish writing a draft before I revise, or I’d never finish.”
“Do what’s best for you to get your work on the page . . . it’s just not in the first draft.”
“Your writing doesn’t have to be be good to get an agent. It has to be good to get an editor.”
“Always be working on something else. Always.”
“I’m amazed at the compassion I’ve developed just from writing books.”
“Writing is my life. I can’t not do it.”
Stone opened and closed our time together with three-minute timed free writes; the closing prompt: Now that this mess is over, I feel . . .
My final lines in response, in my journal: I feel validated in so many ways, as teacher, writer, human spirit.
For all of these connect.
Kindred spirits: My co-facilitators and I with Nic Stone.
See my post Write me for more background on the Summer Teacher Writing Institute and the value of teachers as writers.