On September and scuppernongs

September in North Carolina means the return of the scuppernong grape.

It’s the state fruit. I first tasted scuppernongs as a child, standing with my grandfather under his arbor, thick leaves waving in the breeze, benevolent sun intermingling with cool shadow. The plain appearance of these grapes is misleading; the taste is divine. Richer than anything on Earth. Those thick, humble hulls contain ambrosia. And seeds; Granddaddy said just spit ’em out. It’s worth it.

Today’s his birthday. He’d be 114. As long as I live, he is, the scuppernong is, inextricable from September…

Every year, I await the return.

And savor it.

September, sovereign whose
Crowning glory is not of gilt but of
Unassuming mottled orbs,
Pendulous bronze-green
Pendants strung on knotted vine.
Elysian fields, perhaps, this black earth where my
Roots run deep, where my ancestors sleep.
Noble edict, “Be fruitful and multiply,”
Obeyed here to an extent only by divine design.
North Carolina’s soil stirred, responded, produced—
God alone infused the foretaste of heaven in its grapes.

With deepest thanks to the friends who know and bring me these offerings from their families’ old vines.

Thanks also to the inspirational Poetry Friday gathering at Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme and to Matt for hosting.

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.

Happy St. Patrick’s

Happy St Pat's

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Hailey E. HerreraCC BY

Last year on this day, I wrote about being St. Patrick’s granddaughter.

My grandfather, born in 1906 in the far reaches of Beaufort County, North Carolina, was named Columbus St. Patrick. (Read the post if you like).

You’d think our family would be Catholic, celebrating this day with the best of them, but we aren’t and we don’t. What a mystery, his having that name. Legend has it that his grandfather came to America from Ireland, but records are sketchy. One of these days I’ll have my DNA tested by Ancestry.com to prove how green my blood really is (it’s metaphorical, Mr. Spock. Although being related to you would be . . . fascinating).

I love Irish things. My wedding band bears a Claddagh. Hearing an Irish tenor takes my breath, stirs my soul, fills me with an ache, a longing. Whenever I visit New York City, I have to stop by St. Patrick’s Cathedral; I could stay inside indefinitely, savoring the profound beauty, the grandeur, the reverent hush. It’s one of my all-time favorite places. I adored Frank McCourt and met him years ago when he came to speak at North Carolina State University—it was snowing that night. Magical. I have a shamrock growing in a pot on my kitchen table and I even had an Irish Setter once. His name was Dublin. I grew up eating Irish potatoes grown by my grandfather or from the potato sheds of his farming community; Granddaddy’s pronunciation was ishe (for years I thought he was saying ice) potatoes. I’d love to visit Ireland.

I thought, to commemorate this day, that I’d post a lovely quote from St. Patrick and reflect upon it, maybe in verse.

This, however, is the quote I found, and for the life of me (remember the Irish keen sense of humor), I can’t find another one to top it at present.

So, Happy St. Patrick’s Day, one and all—with a special nod to Harry Potter fans:

Do you suppose it’s true, that St. Patrick was a Parselmouth, and his Muggle friends never knew?

~David J. Beard (1947–2016), tweet, 2012 March 17th

saintpatrick

 

Red rubber boots

red-rubber-boots

It is Sunday, the day my Granddaddy is off from work at the shipyard. It is the day we usually walk to the playgrounds behind the churches across the busy city street, my small hand clasped in his large one, as we wait for the traffic light to change. Today it is raining and we can’t go out. I sit by his recliner on the braided rug beside his feet – he wears black lace-up shoes every day – and sigh.

“What’s the matter, Duck?” he wants to know. Sometimes he calls me Duck, sometimes he calls me Pig. I do not know why. He just does.  It makes me feel warm inside.

“Granddaddy, the girls in kindergarten have red boots to wear when it rains. I don’t have boots.”

“Oh, I see. I guess you been wanting some of those boots?”

I nod my head and crawl up into his lap. “Yes, Granddaddy. For a long time.” His black leather cap is on the side table by the recliner. I pick it up and put it on my head. It smells like him. A little Vitalis and a lot of goodness.

He wraps his arms around me. “Tell me about these boots, what they look like.”

“You can pull them over your shoes … ” I begin.

He got them for me, of course, those red rubber boots that I proudly wore to school and stored on the bottom shelf in the cloakroom, beside the boots of the other girls.

At the time he got them, I did not know that his retirement was imminent, that within the year he’d move back home to the far reaches of eastern North Carolina, three hours away. I would only see him a couple of times a year from then on.

I grew up. I had children of my own. When I went to visit Granddaddy, I sat on the stool by his recliner, as close to him as I could get. He patted my arm. We sat this way for a long time, without any conversation, just being together.

“You remember them red rubber boots I got for you?” he asked eventually. His blue eyes twinkled at me. Every now and then, across the decades, he’d mention those boots.

“Oh, yes, Granddaddy. I remember. I loved them so much.”

He chuckled, patting my arm with his large, wrinkled hand.

He was retired for thirty years, living to be almost 93.

I had nearly forgotten the red rubber boots when I happened to see a pair at the store a year or so ago. They were so like the boots he gave me when I was five.

“Ah, Granddaddy,” I whispered. “You’re never far away.”

I bought them.

They protect me from the rain; they keep me grounded, connecting me to the earth that my grandfather loved, for he was a lifelong farmer even though he had to find better-paying work to provide for his family. The color brightens the gloomiest day. I wear my boots with deepest gratitude for a humble man who knew about sacrifices, great and little, fiercely proud that his blood flows in my veins.

I remember, Granddaddy. I always will.

slice-of-life_individual