The bottle

Today I have a literal “found poem.” Meaning not one derived from another’s work but as in finding it while going through folders from previous school years and unearthing poetry I’d modeled for students on writing around an object. I remember taking three objects with special meaning to me so the kids could choose which I’d write about.

They chose the bottle.

Which I found after my grandfather’s death, visiting the farm where he was born. It was the second and last time I walked this piece of land. The first time, my grandfather, grown old and frail, walked with me. Ten acres of fields bordered by trees is all that remains, but he showed me where the house once stood, and the barns, and the henhouse … all gone without a trace now.

Except for some long-buried treasures.

In the old days, farm families had a trash pile. What wasn’t burned away with fire, or washed away by ages of wind and weather, or destroyed by perpetual tractors and harrows, might be swallowed by the earth until the earth is ready to give it back.

I wasn’t expecting such a gift the day I walked alone, mourning my grandfather.

So, I told the students, as I prepared to draft, when you write about an object you might also consider the feeling the object triggers in you. For me, with this bottle, it’s wonder. I want to incorporate a sense of wonder in this poem.

And so I wrote for them, and they enjoyed making artistic suggestions (they wanted it to rhyme):

Granddaddy is gone
And I walk his old farm
How he loved this place
This wide-open space
Nothing now to see
Where barns and house used to be
Just an empty field
After harvest’s yield
Cold breeze blows
Through my heart, it goes
When I spot in a bit of grass
Sunlight glistening on—glass?
I momentarily forget my hurt
As I dig it from the dirt
—a bottle, imagine that
No telling how long it sat
Buried deep in this ground
As the as the years circled round
Whose hand touched it last
In that long ago past?
Clear glass, heavy, yet small
Cracked but unbroken, all in all
What unseen secrets must it hold
This bottle of stories untold

It holds untold stories, all right. I’ve not determined exactly what tincture this old bottle actually held. The faintest embossed image of a root, almost worn away, remains on the front. A health tonic, likely. I know my grandfather had a sister who died of diphtheria at age three, in 1907. I doubt the bottle is that old but I have visions of my great-grandmother nursing her ailing children and tossing that empty bottle onto the trash heap…

Sparking me to attempt a didactic cinquain:

Bottle
Antiquated, weather-worn
Eroding, cracking, enduring
Poured out for healing
Elixir

Or maybe a double reversed etheree:

Empty of that for which you were fashioned
vessel of life-blood for veins long ceased
drawn from roots to nourish my own
cold glass clasped in hands now still

spooned in mouths now silent
elixir fully
poured out, consumed
every drop

gone
cast off
forgotten
swallowed by earth
kept year after year
without ceremony
lying silent, eroding
enduring seasons, weathering
cracking but enduring, determined
to remain clear with your story obscured.

—oh, little bottle.

How I wish you could speak.

He loves me, he loves me not

Today I am revising a fun memoir I first wrote as a model for a fifth-grade class. Given the choice of a time in my life when I was happy, sad, angry, afraid or embarrassed, the kids voted for “embarrassed.”

What fun it was to watch them alternately cringing and writhing in their seats—but also laughing.

*******

As soon as the dismissal bell rang, I shot down the hall, through the doors, and to the crosswalk in record time. I could hardly wait to get home from school: My grandma had called that morning to say that my present should arrive in the mail.

I’d been thinking all day about what my present might be. Was it a latch hook kit, or a Mystery Date game? I’d been wanting those forever. Maybe it was those books that I heard some middle-school girls whispering about and which titles I kept mentioning as potential gifts, as I was dying to read them, but so far no one had gotten for me yet. Last year, when I was ten, I still read the Little House books and wished I was Laura to the point that my mother made sunbonnets for me, but of course I’d become too old for that now … most of the time…

I ran the whole way home, slowing only when I got a stitch in my side. At last I reached the steps of my own house. I took them two at a time and barreled through the front door into the living room.

“MOM, I’M HOME! DID MY PRESENT GET HERE?”

“It’s on the coffee table,” said Mom.

Sure enough, a large box wrapped in brown paper sat beckoning from the table. In ten seconds I had the paper off, trying to imagine what fantastic thing Grandma had chosen for me.

I threw the box lid on the floor and yanked away the tissue paper inside.

For a moment, I wasn’t quite sure what I was seeing.

Clothes.

I was okay with clothes, but …

This was a shirt with some kind of huge design on it. I picked it up. When the shirt unfurled, the design turned out to be a giant daisy with a bright yellow center and enormous petals covering the entire front.

Ewwwww!

Mom said, “Oh, that’s nice.”

But that was not all. Oh no, that was not all.

Something was glowing at me from inside the box. A color so bright that it was practically blinding, a shade close to a French’s mustard bottle.

Somewhat fearfully, I lifted the glowing yellow thing out of the box.

Shorts.

A bulky pair of shorts that matched the daisy shirt.

Shorts made of thick polyester that would never wrinkle in a million years, an unsympathetic fabric that scratched against my skin.

I detested polyester.

I couldn’t pull my thoughts together. Was Grandma serious? Surely she wasn’t playing a joke on me! Didn’t she understand that I was now eleven, not six?

Mom said, “How cute, a little shorts set. Look—there’s still something in the box.”

I wanted to say I do not want to know, and I do not care, this is the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen in my life, but I quietly reached into the box one more time, as the last wisps of my hope withered and died.

In a flat pack of cellophane lay a pair of knee socks.

KNEE SOCKS.

They were white. Each had a daisy on them. One sock bore the words “He loves me” and the other sock was emblazoned with “He loves me not.”

“Now, that’s unique,” Mom commented. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

“Mom! I can’t wear this! Can I ask Grandma to exchange it?”

“Absolutely not. Your grandmother took time to pick this out especially for you and to get it in the mail so that you’d have it on your birthday. You will keep it and be thankful.”

“Well, I’m not going to WEAR it!”

My mother’s eyes went dark, flashing like warning signs. She stuck out her chin, reminding me of a hungry bulldog that just had its food snatched away. I even detected a slight growl:

“Oh yes, you WILL wear it. You will wear it tomorrow and we’ll take your picture for Grandma.”

“I’m NOT wearing this to school, Mom! No way!”

The next morning, I trudged slowly, miserably to school in the hideous daisy outfit, socks and all, while Mom watched from the front steps with her arms crossed over her chest. She’d checked my bookbag to be sure I hadn’t snuck a change of clothes in there.

People could probably see me coming for miles, wondering what this unearthly glowing object could be. I kind of hoped I would get run over on the way to school, or that I would magically come down with flu, but my mother would still make me wear this so I might as well get it over with.

The snickering began as soon as I stepped into my fifth-grade classroom. The girls took a quick look at me, looked at each other, and erupted with uncontrollable giggles. The boys just stared, not even bothering to look away.

No one wants to be stared at in this way.

The cutest guy in my class, Allen, finally said, “What in the heck are you wearing?”

Why, oh why wouldn’t the floor just open up and swallow me? I couldn’t even think of a reply.

All day, when I passed by classmates, I heard little comments: “Here comes the flower girl” and “Has she figured out who loves her or loves her not yet?”

As I was getting up to sharpen my pencil, my left sock snagged on the side of the desk. When I snatched my leg free, a long thread pulled out.

Now I had to walk around with a long string dangling from my “He loves me” sock.

I could not endure any more. At lunch, I just wanted to sit by myself in peace. But when my classmate Vincent realized that the cafeteria was serving fried fish, he came around with his brown paper lunch bag, asking the rest of us if wanted ours. Vincent always did this on fish days; he took the greasy bag of collected fish home to his family.

He plopped down on the seat beside me. “Hey, you want your fish?”

“You can have it, Vincent. I’m not hungry.”

“Thanks! What’s the matter with you?”

“Geez, Vincent, isn’t it obvious? You can see what I look like today. Haven’t you heard what everyone’s been saying?”

“Not really,” said Vincent.

He did look a little confused.

“This is the most embarrassing day I’ve ever had! My grandmother sent me this ridiculous daisy outfit for my birthday. I can’t believe she thought this would be a good present. I hate it! I feel stupid.”

Vincent shrugged. “It ain’t that bad.” He took the fish off of my tray and put it in his grease-stained bag. “At least you got a grandma who loves you.”

I stared at him. He was smiling and happy, even though he wore the same brown shirt to school almost every day. He never seemed embarrassed. I thought about his family who’d be eating the unwanted lunches of fifth-graders for supper that night. Funny Vincent, the class clown. He made everybody laugh, including the teachers, even when they tried not to. It all came together in my mind, just then, how Vincent didn’t dwell on himself; he thought about others and tried to make them happy.

That’s what my grandma always did, too.  

Tears of shame stung my eyes.

“You’re right, Vincent. She does love me. She’s the best.”

“Anyway, happy birthday!”

None of my other classmates had said that to me.

I had an inspiration:

“Hey, Vincent, do you want half of my cinnamon roll?”

“You kidding me?”

And we sat sharing my cinnamon roll until lunchtime was over, with Vincent making Mmmm! Mmmmm! sounds and me swinging my leg, long string swaying gracefully through the air, daisy and all.

Photo: Macro daisy. Brandon Martin-Anderson. CC BY-SA

When I was death

Seems it’s time for some fun … here’s a memoir initially drafted and revised over several days in front of fifth graders, who chose the topic from several I gave them. Today I dust it off with an appreciation, greater than ever, for the power of improvisation …

*******

Mom hung up the phone. “That was Diane’s mom. There’s a costume party at church and Diane asked if you want to go.”

“YESSSSS!” I shouted.

“That’s what I just told them.”

I loved dressing up. I used to do it for book reports in my fifth-grade class. Once I was Aslan from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which was really fun, except that my tail kept falling off. How exciting to have another opportunity to be someone or something else! What will I be? Maybe I can talk Grannie into taking me shopping for a gypsy costume, or maybe a cowgirl …

“Here’s the thing,” Mom went on. “They’re coming to get you in about an hour.”        

“Oh, no!” I cried.  “I don’t have a costume! What will I wear?”

Mom smiled. “We can think of something.”

She had improvised before. When my sister and I were maybe six and eight, we went trick-or-treating dressed as a little old lady and a little old man. Mom found a flowery dress for my sister and suspenders for me. She drew wrinkles on our faces with a brown eye pencil, dusted our hair white with baby powder, and even sketched a little mustache above my lip. When I saw the photos later, I didn’t recognize us; I even asked, “Who are these short old people?”

Now Mom went down the hall to the linen closet. She came back to the kitchen with a white sheet.

“M-o-m-m-m,” I moaned, “that’s lame. I don’t want to be a ghost.”

“Who said anything about being a ghost?”

She somehow twisted the sheet around me until it looked like a long white robe. She pinned the part around my arms so that I had long, floppy sleeves. She followed me to the bathroom where I looked at myself in the mirror.

“What am I supposed to be?”

Mom said, “You figure it out.” 

She walked off and left me there.

“MOMMMMMM!”

I could not go to the party like this. I didn’t look like anyone or anything; I just looked silly. This was worse than being a ghost.

In the mirror, I contemplated my long brown hair, which came to my waist. What I could I do with it?

Suddenly I wanted to look really creepy. I grabbed Mom’s comb and hairspray. I teased my hair until it was wild and looked like I’d never combed it a day in my life. Kind of cool, but not enough. I fetched my watercolors from my room. Back at the bathroom I painted big, black circles around my eyes. Better, but I still didn’t feel finished yet.

Mom came back to check on me. “How’s it going?”

“Ok. I need something more. I don’t know what.”

Mom studied me for a minute, then disappeared from the bathroom. She returned with a bottle of white shoe polish. “This might do the trick!” She proceeded to sponge my arms, hands, face, and neck with the shoe polish. The thick white liquid dried fast and started cracking. My skin looked like old plaster beginning to flake off. It was awesome, like a zombie or something.

My sister came to investigate. “What in the world ARE you?”

“You better watch out,” I said in a raspy voice, holding my hands up like claws in the air. “I am DEATH.”

“Whatever.” My sister rolled her eyes. “All I can say is you look better than usual.”

“Get out of here!” I snapped.

Right then, the doorbell rang. I ran to throw it open: My friend Diane, of course, looking very beautiful in a fancy Snow White costume. She even had short black hair like Snow White with a red bow tied in it.

She stared at me for a minute. “What ARE you?”

“Death,” I replied. “Bye Mom!”

When we got to the fellowship hall at the church, I saw princesses, cowboys, astronauts, cheerleaders, football players, Superman, and a mummy. All night long these characters came up to me, asking, “What ARE you?”

“Death,” I said.

“Coooooool,” they all nodded, except for the mummy. He said, “That’s weird. Death is something that happens. It’s an event. Not a person. How can you be Death?”

“You’re a mummy,” I told him. “You figure it out.”

I had fun creeping people out with my wild hair and my crackly skin, which someone said looked “ancient.”

Then some grown-ups worried that the shoe polish might not wash off.

Uh-oh. I hadn’t even thought of that … had Mom? How long would I be stuck looking like this?

I was worrying about it near the end of the party when my name was announced for having the best costume. Unbelievable! No one but Diane knew that I had slapped this together at the last minute, without any kind of plan. You never know what you can do until you have to. Then I went bobbing for apples and not only did I win that contest, I set the record for the fastest time: one second! I held my breath, dunked my head in the freezing water, pinned the apple to the bottom of the tin tub so I could get my teeth in it, and came up with it so fast that my long hair flung cold water across the crowd, making all the costumed characters scream and laugh.

“Hey, Death, hey, Death,” they called, “your scary face just got washed away!”

I was just me again.

And secretly glad.

Photo: Ghost (cropped). TCtroi. CC BY-SA

The kitten’s song

My favorite teaching moments are those when classroom teachers have invited me in to model the writing process. This occurs a lot less than it used to, as writing workshop in my district has been replaced by a curriculum with embedded writing. I’ve been remembering those moments lately. I miss walking in with a list of ideas for students to choose from. I miss drafting and revising in front of them while they ask questions and make suggestions regarding artistic or stylistic choices. I miss hearing the flood of their own ideas, their own experiences … and sharing mine with them through writing. Perhaps that’s what led me to go back and reread those mentor texts.

The writing of this one was, to me, the most memorable. I wrote it over several days for a fifth-grade class studying memoir. I explained that one way to make memoir come alive is to pick a moment of strong emotion and pull the readers in so that they feel it, too. I asked if they wanted me to write about a moment from my life when I was happy, sad, embarrassed, angry, or afraid.

They were tough. They said: “A time when you were sad. Make us cry.”

Okay …

They chose, from the topics I gave them, ‘the sick kitten.’

And so I walked back into my memory, and wrote.

Here’s “The Kitten’s Song,” with a bit more polish at every writing (for revision is never really over, is it).

*******

Free kittens – take one.

I saw the sign propped on a chair at the entrance of my college cafeteria. A disheveled guy—another student, I guessed—stood there holding a cardboard box. I hurried over to look inside:

One dark little ball of fur.

“Is that the last kitten you have?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “No one wants her because of her tail.”

“What’s wrong with her tail?”

The guy scooped up the kitten and showed me her backside. She didn’t really have a tail. Just a stump.

“What happened to her?”

“She was born this way. The only one in the litter like this.”

The tiny black creature sat looking up at me with big yellow eyes. She meowed.

Poor little unwanted baby.

There was, of course, only one thing to do:

“I’ll take her!”

I named her Moriah after a magical black cat in a wizard story, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

When she was nine months old, Moriah had seven kittens. Some were solid black, like her; the others had gray and white stripes. The three boys had long tails but the four girls had stumps like their mother.

All of the kittens were beautiful to me. The day after they were born, my mother and I were admiring them when we realized something was wrong.

In the bed I’d made out of a low box lined with a soft blanket, Moriah lay nursing her babies. The smallest kitten, the runt, had been pushed away by her bigger brothers and sisters. This tiny ball of gray and white fuzz rested at the side of the box by herself. When I picked her up, I saw a big open sore where her tail was supposed to be.

“Mom!” I cried, showing her the raw place. “Look at this! What happened?” A horrible thought entered my mind. “Do you think something did this to her? Did Moriah —would Moriah — bite her kitten’s tail off?”

Mom shook her head. “Gracious, no. I think the kitten was just born like this and we didn’t notice until now. Looks like her tail never finished forming. Could be spina bifida. It happens to human babies sometimes, when their spines don’t seal all the way. It’s probably because of Moriah’s tail defect, as she’s passed on to her daughters.”

“Will it it heal?”

“It might. We’ll have to keep an eye on it.”

“Poor little thing,” I mourned, stroking the kitten’s head with one finger.

I tried to help. I put the kitten in the pile of her brothers and sisters so she could get to the milk. They still pushed her away. I moved the biggest kitten, who loudly complained, and put the runt kitten in his place, but she didn’t try to nurse.

“What are we going to do, Mom? If she doesn’t get any milk, she’ll die.”

Mom said, “Bring her to the kitchen. I’ll get a medicine dropper.”

I came to the kitchen and sat at the table, holding the kitten. She weighed no more than an egg, just a soft warm spot in my hand. Her day-old eyes were still closed. Mom washed the medicine dropper we used when we had earaches, then she took some milk from the refrigerator and warmed it in a pan on the stove.

The kitten purred in my hand, a pleasant little vibration, and I suddenly felt that she needed a name.

If I name her, maybe she’ll get well and strong.

I was trying to think of a name when Mom handed me the dropper filled with milk.

“Feed your baby,” she said.

The dropper seemed too big for the kitten. When she opened her pink mouth, my heart leaped with hope, but she only made a cry, the tiniest cry I have ever heard in my life, so small that it was hardly a sound at all.

“Mom, I can’t do it.” By now my hands were shaking.

“Give her to me,” said Mom.

My mom could fix anything. Once she rewired our oven all by herself. She made a lot of our clothes and took in sewing for other people. She could mark patterns on fabric, cut it to precision, and every piece turned out exactly right. As I watched that tiny gray-and-white kitten in my mother’s capable hand, I was sure Mom could get her to take the milk.

I remembered a song then, from a movie I watched with Mom when I was little. The movie was her favorite, The Sound of Music, and this the song I loved best:

 Edelweiss, edelweiss,

every morning you greet me.

Small and white, clean and bright

You look happy to me.

Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow,

bloom and grow forever …

It’s about a little flower that grows on the Alps of Austria where the movie is set, but for me, in that moment, the kitten became Edelweiss. It was a perfect fit. As Mom tried to get the kitten to drink from the dropper, I sang the song over and over in my mind like a prayer:

Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow,

bloom and grow forever …

The milk only ran down the sides of the kitten’s face. When I looked at Mom, her mouth was set in a straight line. A tear rolled down her cheeks like the beads of milk on the kitten’s.

After a minute, my mother said, “She’s already gone.”

“NOOOOO!” I wailed. “Keep trying!”

“It wasn’t meant to be, honey. She was too sick.”

We held her for a moment and cried.

I wrapped Edelweiss in one of Daddy’s white handkerchiefs and buried her in the backyard. I found a nice rock in the yard with a flat surface and painted a little white flower on it. I put it on the grave and cried there a long time, for Edelweiss, for everything that has to die. Moriah came to sit on the ground beside me, a warmth at my side, purring deep and strong. She looked up at me with winking yellow eyes and all I can imagine is that she was saying Thank you.


Many years later, I wonder about that rock, if still sits in its special place, if the sun and rain have erased my painted flower. In my memory, the kitten named Edelweiss hasn’t faded. She stirs whenever I start thinking life’s not fair. I remember how she purred. You look happy to me … I don’t know if that is strange or not. I just know that Edelweiss, who only lived a day, is somehow part of me, always.

Whenever I hear her song, I remember.

*******

Photo: Kittens 001. Bryan Price. CC BY-SA

Cadillac man shares his writing!

A few days ago, I wrote about my son, the Cadillac man. I call him this for his lifelong love of the brand, especially his grandfather’s 1989 Sedan de Ville, which was bequeathed to him. I wrote how the Cadillac man hates writing and only did what was necessary all through school, to my despair.

Sometimes the smallest things shift the universe in mighty ways. During my month-long daily Slice of Life Story Challenge, Cadillac man read my blog post from our dog Henry’s perspective and was inspired, for the first time in his twenty years, to write a story.

“I wonder,” he said, “if I can write a post from Nik’s perspective. To see if I can actually do it.” 

He DID do it.

Then he said, of his own volition (wonders never cease!), “Mom, you can put it on your blog if you want to.”

Here’s what you need to know: Nik is our very old dachshund. We got him as a puppy when Cadillac man was only four. The old man in this story is my husband (“WHAT?” my husband howls with laughter—he’s loud, all right—”Old man? Really?”). The boys are Cadillac man and his big brother. Then there’s me.

Note the recurrence of Darkness. Cadillac man says to tell you that for Nik, “the Darkness” is being confined to a crate, the worst thing of all to him. The “something wrong” is my husband’s diagnosis of ocular melanoma two years ago, resulting in the loss of his eye. 

Today, I celebrate my son’s writing. Again I say: When you finally show up for the writing, the writing shows up for you, and gets you through. 

Published with permission from Cadillac man:

Nik’s Perspective

“Nikolaus, get back on your bed!”

The old man was screaming again. This was nothing unusual. He always seemed to be screaming at something. Whether it was at the people in the glowing window, or in the box he holds to his head, he screamed at everything. I don’t even think he’s angry most of the time; he just seems to be perpetually screaming.

The difference now is that I can barely hear it.

In January, I celebrated my sixteenth birthday. Sixteen years of life, celebrated in one short day.

When I was born, the first Human I had was an elderly lady, not much older than me in human years now. I don’t remember much about her, but I remember the Darkness. The closed-in Darkness that haunts me to this day. I still have to endure it occasionally, but it’s nothing like it was. The Darkness was always there; it enveloped me and I couldn’t leave it until the mesh door was opened, and back then it was only open for eats.

My first vivid memory was when I met them. The loud old man, the (then) teenager, the (then) toddler, and her. Oh, how I loved her. She always filled my bowl just right, she always gave the treats I loved, and she was the warmest lap to nap on. She was also the one who took me to the white place, which was almost as bad as the Darkness. The white place was where these humans poked and prodded me and gave me the needle. But if I was a good boy, which I always was, she, the teenager, or the toddler would give me a treat.

Most of my time was spent with the two He’s, the teenager and the toddler. I vividly remember nights spent curled up in their arms. Those were the warmest places. I felt safe there. I’ve seen the teenager grow into a man, leave the home, make a life for himself, and come back. And I saw the toddler grow into his 20s. I saw him through every hardship, every death, every break-up, and every victory. I remember his long sleepless nights as he stayed awake holding me for warmth, as I am a very warm dog. I remember the sudden screaming at night that would scare me to death at first, but I got used to it and eventually learned how to wake him up when it happened.

I remember all the other associates I had over the years. Some left to find other families, and some left when their time down here was no more. There was Duke, the tough yellow one with whom I worked the first six years of my life, until heartworms took him way too soon. There was Toby, who came after Duke, who was a bit older than me. He was a great partner until he just didn’t wake up one morning. There was Phoebe, Godiva, Tex (I’m not convinced he was even a real creature of this earth). There was Natalie, whose tenure here was ended after an altercation left me with a bloody nose.

Then came the dark day. I don’t understand exactly what it was; perhaps I never will. All I remember was the loud old man coming home, looking defeated and unsure. I remember being in the big room with the glowing window, which wasn’t glowing at that time. I couldn’t understand what was going on, but suddenly the whole room fell completely dark, like the Darkness had gotten control of the Humans. I knew there had to be something wrong with the old man. I had never really liked him. He was loud and scary. But I knew I had to do the right thing. I spent that whole day curled up next to him, which I rarely did. He seemed so calm and so quiet that it worried me.

The old man is back to his old self again, with the exception that I don’t think he can see very well anymore. But for that matter, neither can I.

My only way of finding out where I am or who I’m with is by smelling. I can’t find my bowl on my own anymore, but every morning they still fill it just right, and I eat every bite. I can’t walk up the steps to the room where I sleep, but the toddler-now-20-year-old still carries me up there every night. There are two other associates who do most of the comfort and protection work for me. There’s Banjo, the loud boisterous one who stays outside and protects from intruders, and Henry, who stays inside with me and tries his best to make me stay in my bed, even if it gets on my nerves. They both will carry my torch of comfort and protection long after I’m gone, I have no doubt. The Humans are in good hands with these two.

These humans were my life. I spent years as their comforter, their walking partner, their protector, and their friend. They saved me from the Darkness that could’ve endured my entire life. And as I sit here, just waiting, all I can hope for is that I saved them from their Darkness, too.

-Nikolaus Haley, expert red dachshund

The Valentine

Broken heart

Broken Heart. David GoehringCC BY

Here’s a mentor text, a modeled memoir originally written for a fifth grade class a few years ago. It’s a true story from my own fifth grade year. These long-ago events etched themselves on my young heart as they unfolded. Some of the minor details are fuzzy, but I remember the intensity of these moments. I see every classmate’s face; I recall every name, although I’ve opted to alter all but my own for a comfortable anonymity in the face of hard truths.

For it’s a hard slice of life.

Today I dust off that Valentine’s Day I’ve never forgotten, reinforce it with a bit of word-glitter and glue, and give it to you  . . . 

On a cold but sunny February afternoon, my fifth grade class gathers on the kickball field to choose teams. The two captains flip a nickel to decide who’ll go first; my friend Shannon wins. She and Davy stand side by side for a moment, scrutinizing the rest of us as if they are drill sergeants and the rest of us are boot camp recruits.

“Allen,” says Shannon.  Allen is always the first pick because he’s a go-cart racer, competitive and very popular. He likes to win.

Allen jogs over to stand behind Shannon.

“Jon,” says Davy.

I think, That’s kind of surprising.

Jon came to our class late in the fall. He used to be the last pick for our teams, since he wears big, thick glasses and doesn’t seem very athletic. At first the boys called him Four-Eyes and the girls said he looked like a little old man because of the way he hunches his shoulders up to his neck most of the time, in addition to the bowl-style cut of his hair. We really don’t notice him that much any more, as Jon is so quiet. When Davy calls his name, Jon trots in his stooped-over way to stand behind him.

“Fran,” says Shannon, after a pause.

YESSSS!” I whisper. I take my place behind Allen, who gives me a high five.

I love kickball. Next to jacks, it’s my favorite game to play with the class—these are really the only two games I’m any good at playing. Once when I slid into home plate I peeled up a whole strip of turf in my shoelaces, but I was safe!

The captains continue choosing players, until only one girl remains.

Eloise.

She, too, is new to our class, arriving just after Christmas break. Eloise is unusually tall, taller than Shannon, who’d been the tallest girl in the school until now. Eloise is as big as a grown woman. Her brown, frizzy hair puffs out from her head like a cloud. It flutters when she walks. One of her front teeth is chipped. Her eyes are the color of the summer sky, and at the moment, they’re a little teary.

Davy sighs: “All right. Eloise.”

Eloise scurries to the end of Davy’s line, looking at the ground.

During the game, Eloise tries with all her might to run and kick the ball, but she misses and loses her balance. When she falls, we can’t help laughing. Eloise, her face pink, gets up by herself and runs to the back of the line once more.

I don’t know what makes me keep my eyes on Eloise, and why I began wondering what it must be like to always be picked last, or to hear other kids whispering things like Neanderthal and  Amazon, never when Mrs. Peterson might hear. I try to imagine how embarrassing it would be if I was too big to be comfortable in the classroom desks and if regular girls’ clothes wouldn’t fit me. I am already clumsy, which is why I’m not good at most sports. Except kickball.

What would I do if no one wanted to sit by me at lunch or went the long way around my desk, the way we do to Eloise?

Watching Eloise with her face turned toward the ground, I suddenly don’t feel like laughing anymore.

Back in class, after a stop at the water fountain, Mrs. Peterson passes out sheets of Manila paper.

“Today, Class, you will write the first letter of your name in cursive on the paper and turn it into an animal or a design that represents you.”

Mrs. Peterson’s first name is Felicia; she holds up  her paper to show how she’s turned her cursive “F” into a giraffe.

Everyone gets to work. Except me. I am stumped for how to turn my own cursive “F” into anything artistic. I have trouble making a cursive “F” in the first place. Everyone says my “Fs” look like “Ts.”

I have no idea what to draw.

To waste time, I get up and sharpen my pencil. I pass right by Eloise’s desk, where she’s bent hard at work. On her paper, she’s written a large, elegant cursive “E,” the fanciest one I’ve ever seen.

She’s turning it into the open wing of a bird.

Before I know what I’m doing, I blurt: “Oh my gosh! That’s beautiful, Eloise!”

Mrs. Peterson comes to look. “It’s lovely. Why don’t you show the class?”

Eloise, looking alarmed, shakes her head. Her fuzzy brown hair bobs like ocean waves.

“May I show them?” asks Mrs. Peterson.

Eloise nods, turning pink again.

Mrs. Peterson holds the paper high. “Just look at what an amazing artist Eloise is, everyone.” She turns slowly so all can see, the way teachers do with pictures in books.

“Oooooo,” breathe my classmates.

Someone says “Wow.”

Eloise’s pink face glows. She smiles, revealing her chipped tooth; her sky-colored eyes sparkle.

I want to freeze this moment for Eloise, and for myself, to capture it for the wonderful and powerful thing it is, but it is quickly gone, and the next day at lunch when she knocks her milk carton over, we all laugh at Eloise again.

Even as we laugh, I feel bad inside.

What’s the matter with me? Why do I laugh when it doesn’t feel right? 

After lunch, Mrs. Peterson gives a speech:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, as tomorrow is February fourteenth, you may bring Valentines to exchange. Listen carefully: If you bring Valentines, you will bring one for everybody in this class. Do you understand?”

Her dark eyes stare right through us.

“Yes ma’am!” we answer in unison.

We know why she makes this point.

Eloise knows, too, and keeps her eyes on her feet.

I’ve already got my box of Valentines and can’t wait to give them out. Inside my box there happens to be a bonus Valentine; I’ve never seen one like it before. It’s about five times larger than the other little cards. It has to be unfolded several times to show the gray, fluffy dog decorated with silver swirls all around. The dog holds a big red heart in its mouth, which reads You are special. This big Valentine is just too beautiful to give away. I am keeping it for myself.

The next day, Mrs. Peterson makes us wait until after lunch to distribute our Valentines. We have to open them together, all at one time.

“Hey, thanks for the candy!” Shannon tells Allen.

“Cool—gum!” says Davy, even though he has braces and isn’t supposed to chew it.

Just then, Eloise cries out. It’s a loud, terrifying sound.

Everyone turns to look at her.

Everything just freezes.

She’s sitting at her desk with her hands over her face, sobbing.

No, I think. Tell me someone hasn’t given her a mean Valentine. Or put something gross in her bag.

Then I recognize, from several desks away, that open Valentine on Eloise’s desk.

The fancy silver dog, the big red heart, the message. You are special.

“Who gave you that?” someone demands.

I walk over to read what’s written at the bottom of that most beautiful card:

Your friend, Jon.

Obviously, Jon’s mom shops at the same store where my mom shops, since we have the same box of cards.

Unlike me, however, Jon has chosen to give his best card away.

To Eloise.

She continues to wail, but we all look from her to Jon, who’s sitting slouched worse than usual at his desk. His face is a darker shade of red than Eloise’s has ever been. He won’t look at the rest of us.

“Oooooo!” says one of the girls.

A boy starts chanting: “Jon and Eloise, sittin’ in a tree . . . ”

But something new is happening here; the energy in the room is changing. This isn’t the regular boy-likes-girl situation. I feel it.

So does Allen.

“Hey, stop it, guys!  Leave him alone!” Allen gets up to stand by Jon.

Mrs. Peterson  is there, too. She places her hand on Jon’s shoulder, her wide brown eyes glimmering with tears. “You, young man, are a noble person.”

I don’t know exactly what “noble” means, but I know that Jon, all of ten years old, is the biggest hero I’ve ever seen.  My emotions swirl inside me like the silver designs on the card—shock at Jon’s choice, guilt over not treating Eloise better, sadness that I hadn’t been the one to give so freely. I look at Jon, the boy new to us this year, who’d endured teasing, too, until he faded into the background in a way Eloise can’t, and I know I want to be like him. Today he isn’t in the background; today he’s the champion of us all. Today he taught us—or at least me—the power of kindness and selflessness, to forget yourself and help someone else.

Perhaps that’s what “noble” means.

I want to be as noble as Jon. I want to help Eloise. So after Mrs. Peterson calms her down, I go to sit beside her.

“You can make Valentines prettier than these, Eloise, the way that you draw.”

“Maybe.”  She shrugs, her face splotchy.

“Don’t you live in my neighborhood?” I ask. “I think I’ve seen you walking that way after school.”

“Yeah. I know where you live. I’ve seen you playing in your yard with your sister.”

“We could walk together sometime. If you like,” I offer.

Eloise looks at me. She smiles. I think of the elegant E-bird she drew; I imagine it stretching its wings just now, preparing to fly high and far in the wide blue sky.

“Sure,” she said. “I’ll walk with you.”

So after school, that’s what we do. We walk together.

Home.

Roadside treasure

Spock & Kirk

Star Trek Monthly Magazine Poster Book (cropped). Joe HauptCC BY-SA

The following is a narrative/memoir written several times with students in grades 3-5. I wrote a bare-bones version in front of students, then revised to model the vast difference of “showing, not telling” by adding detail and dialogue. “I can see it all happening!” the kids always exclaim, as the narrative comes to life. Yesterday’s eclipse brought this piece back to mind – the fascination with space, the many hours I spent watching and playing Star Trek when I was the age of these students. During the writing process, the kids ask countless questions. My favorite moment is when they realize what the story is really about.

I shake the device in my hand before I flip the lid and press the button to speak. “Do you read me, Spock?”

Nothing, not even static.

I pull the antenna out as far as it will go. I bang on the device a couple of times with my fist. I shout into it: “COME IN, SPOCK!”

My sister pokes her face from around the corner of our house. “This really ain’t logical!” she calls. She’s not even holding the device up to her mouth.

I sigh.

My sister is eight, I am ten, and we are tired of playing Star Trek. The batteries in the communicators we got for Christmas have quit working, and it’s no fun for Captain Kirk (me) and Mr. Spock (my sister) to keep yelling messages to each other across the yard, which has just one decent tree. There’s only so many pretend worlds we can explore when it all looks the same, with nowhere to hide from alien life forms.

My sister meets me at the street in front of the house. We leave our useless communicators behind in the grass and sit down on the curb as ourselves, not Kirk and Spock anymore.

“Let’s walk to the 7-Eleven and get a Slurpee,” says my sister. She likes the straws with the spoon on the end. She plays with them more than she drinks her Slurpee.

“I’m broke. I spent my last fifty cents on cinnamon Now-and-Laters and green apple bubble gum day before yesterday and it’s all gone already.” Our dad can’t stand green apple bubble gum. He says it stinks but I think it’s delicious, even though it turns my teeth and tongue green. “Do you have any money?”

“Nah, I thought you did,” says my sister, kicking at the grit beside the curb.

“Not anymore.”  I wish I had some green apple gum right now. I stretch my legs, which are getting long, out into the road. If a car comes, which isn’t all that often in our neighborhood, my sister and I will pull our legs up to our chests until it goes by.

I look down at the edge of the curb where it meets the street, at the little loose rocks lying there. I see a stubby twig and pick it up to write my name in the dust when I notice tiny chunks of pale blue-green glass. I wonder where these came from. Someone must have thrown a Coke bottle out of a car and shattered it.  I push the pieces around with the twig, inspecting them – they don’t look sharp. Time and weather, maybe, have smoothed away the roughest edges.

“What would you do if you had a million dollars?” asks my sister.

“I don’t know.” I pick up a bumpy chunk of the glass and roll it around in my hand; it sparkles in the sunlight. “Maybe I would have a horse and a big house. Maybe I would travel all over the world and be famous. What would you do?”

“I’d give some to poor people for their kids to have toys and bikes and then I would get me a bunch of dogs. What is that?”

I show her the bit of glass in my hand. I smile: “It’s an aquamarine. March’s birthstone. If you were born in March I would give it to you but since you weren’t, I will sell it for thousands of dollars.”

“Hey!” My sister is half amused and half irritated. “Look here—I got my own aquamarine!” She plucks up another bit from the curbside dust.

Suddenly we’re both on a wild treasure hunt, crawling along the curb so fast that we’re scraping our knees. We find bits of brown glass; we say it’s topaz. Green bits are emeralds, my birthstone. The clear ones are diamonds, of course. We can’t find any sapphires, my sister’s birthstone. We forget that this is trash, just pieces of bottles tossed out because someone else didn’t have the manners to put them in a trashcan. In no time we have amassed enough jewels for a princess, maybe two.

The sun shines warm on our backs and a couple of cars go by, slowing down, almost stopping, as they pass. Maybe the drivers are nervous about two girls crawling so close to the street or maybe they’re just trying to figure out what we are doing there in the dirt, but the quartz in the pavement winks at us, glinting like gold, and I know my sister and I are rich beyond compare. We are not afraid to pick our jewels out of the dirt, because dirt is just part of the world, and right now, we own the world.

Broken glass

Broken glass, curbside grass. Orin ZebestCC BY

slice-of-life_individual

The escape artist

Yellow parakeet

Yellow parakeet. IMG_3172. lobo325CC BY

Yesterday’s post, Just the Right Word, was about writing realistic fiction with a third grade class. I modeled taking an event from one’s one life – a slice of life – to create a work of fiction. As a child, I had a yellow parakeet that frequently escaped his cage (the part about the window in this story is true!). “The Escape Artist” was composed over the course of several days with the class making suggestions during the process, some of which strengthened the story profoundly.

Enjoy. 

Tweety Bird sat inside his cage on his swing, rocking back and forth. He lifted one yellow wing, preened it, fluffed all of his yellow feathers, and went back to swinging.

As if he didn’t know Jake was watching.

“You don’t fool me, Bird.”

Tweety blinked his purple eyes at Jake and kept on swinging.

“Jake,” Mom called from the kitchen, “Did you get the mail for me like I asked you to?”

“No, ma’am,” Jake replied. “I’ll go now.”

As Jake left the living room, he turned back toward the birdcage. He shook his finger at Tweety:

“You better stay put. I’m going to figure out how you keep escaping from your cage.”

With that, he walked through the front door.

As soon as the door closed behind Jake, Tommy popped up from behind the sofa. He was wearing his Batman costume, mask, cape, and all.

Tommy looked to the left.

He looked to the right.

Tommy snuck very Ninja-like over to the cage.

“Don’t worry, Robin,” Tommy whispered to Tweety Bird. “I’m here!”

Tweety Bird chirped happily.

Tommy reached for the door of the cage just as the front door opened and Jake walked back into the living room.

“The mail truck is on its way down the street … HEY! TOMMY! WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING!”

Tommy twirled around and hurtled himself in one motion over the top of the sofa. He crashed onto the floor on the other side.

“Uggghhhh,” came Tommy’s voice from behind the sofa.

Jake stomped over to the couch. “You little dirtbag! You’ve been letting Tweety out this whole time and I thought he was doing it all by himself. Some mystery!”

“Acckkk…” groaned Tommy. “I think I hurt myself.”

“I don’t care!”

“And I haven’t been letting him out ALL the time. Sometimes Robin gets out by himself,” said Tommy, beginning to cry.

Mom, with her radar-hearing for crying, came into the living room from the kitchen.

“What’s going on in here?” she demanded, with her hands on her hips.

Tommy wailed louder. “I’m HHHUUUUURRRRT!”

Mom stepped over to Jake. “What did you do to your brother?”

“I didn’t do anything to him!” shouted Jake. “I caught him trying to let Tweety out of the cage! He’s been doing it all along!”

“Tommy, is this true?” Mom asked the sofa. “Have you been letting Tweety out of his cage?”

Loud sniffles echoed behind the sofa. “Maybe once or twice … and he’s not Tweety, he’s Robin!”

“He’s Tweety, you bonehead!” Jake rolled his eyes.

“Jake!” Mom snapped. “You used to like make-believe, too. Besides, Tweety – or Robin – has gotten out of the cage when you boys are not home, so it’s not always Tommy letting him out.”

Mom shoved the sofa over and pulled Tommy out from behind it. “Come on, let’s go have some cookies and milk, Batman. You too, Jake.”

Just as they turned toward the kitchen, a scratching sound came from the birdcage.

They turned back.

Right before their eyes, Tweety, clinging to the bars on the front of the cage, used his beak to lift the cage door so that it fell open.

Tweety looked to the left.

He looked to the right.

And he flew out of the cage!

“Fly, Robin, fly!” screamed Tommy, jumping up and down, his Batman cape flapping.

“Jake!” cried Mom. “Go grab a dishtowel! We have to catch Tweety!”

Jake ran for the towel. He came back and threw it at Tweety, who was squawking madly and flying back across the room in confusion. The towel landed on Mom’s head.

Tommy ripped off his cape – Jake could hear the Velcro – and swiped at Tweety, who was now flying rather low. Tommy missed. Feathers floated through the air as Tweety flew high again.

Jake stared as Tweety flew as hard as he could across the living room, right toward the huge picture window with a view of the trees in the front yard.

Oh no, Jake thought, he doesn’t know that’s a window! He thinks he will escape to the outside!

Just then, Tweety smacked into the window with a sickening SPLAT. He slid down the glass and landed on the floor.

“NO!” shouted Jake!

“Tweety!” cried Mom.

“ROBIN!” screamed Tommy.

All three of them rushed over to Tweety’s crumpled yellow body.

Tweety’s eyes were closed.

He’s broken his neck, thought Jake. Hot tears stung his eyes.

Then he noticed that Tweety had opened one purple eye.

“Robin, you’re all right!” shouted Tommy, jumping up and down.

“Shhh, let’s be calm and quiet,” said Mom. Very carefully, she picked Tweety up.

Tweety promptly bit her hand as hard as he could with his beak.

“OUCH! Quick, Tommy, give me your cape!”

Tommy handed Mom his Batman cape. Mom covered Tweety, head and all, and wrapped the cape into a tiny bundle.

“Ok, escape artist, back to your cage you go,” she said, and she carried him over, put the bundle inside the cage, and shook gently until Tweety stepped out. She shut the cage door.

Tweety looked at them with his purple eyes. He lifted a wing, preened it, then climbed up the bars on the side of the cage to hop on his swing, like nothing at all had happened.

“I’ll have to get one of my ponytail holders from the bathroom to keep the cage door tied shut from now on,” said Mom. “We must keep Tweety safe.”

Tommy looked through the bars at Tweety. “Sorry, Robin,” he said. “It’s better this way.”

Tweety chirped. He swung back and forth on his swing.

Jake sighed. “At least he’s all right.” He looked at his little brother.

“You know, Tommy,” he said, “I have a Batman flashlight that I used for the Bat signal, if you want it.”

“Awesome!” said Tommy. “I can shine it on the wall behind the cage. I can still play with Robin.”

With that Tweety chirped loudly, flapped his wings several times, then held them out like a bat, just for a second, before he settled back to swinging.

Tommy and Jake stared at Tweety with their mouths hanging open.

“That’s one tricky bird,” Mom smiled. “You never know what he might be up to next.”

Tweety blinked his purple eyes and kept on swinging.

As if he didn’t know all three humans were watching.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

Just the right word

Ninja

Happy Go Lucky 393. D-KarissaCC BY

In the midst of writing realistic fiction with third grade, I am stuck on a word.

We are studying how using events from our own lives can bring fiction to life. I once had a yellow parakeet that kept opening the door of its cage to fly around the house. This is the basis for the piece I’m modeling for the students. My story concerns two brothers that the students have named –  it opens like this:

Tweety Bird sat inside his cage on his swing, rocking back and forth. He lifted one yellow wing, preened it, fluffed all of his yellow feathers, and went back to swinging.

As if he didn’t know Jake was watching.

“You don’t fool me, Bird.”

Tweety blinked his purple eyes at Jake and kept on swinging. 

“Jake,” Mom called from the kitchen, “did you get the mail for me like I asked you to?” 

“No, ma’am,” Jake replied. “I’ll go now.”

As Jake left the living room, he turned back toward the birdcage. He shook his finger at Tweety:

“You better stay put. I am going to figure out how you keep escaping from your cage.”

With that, he walked through the front door.

As soon as the door closed behind Jake, Tommy popped up from behind the sofa, wearing his Batman costume, mask, cape, and all.

Tommy looked to the left.

He looked to the right.

Tommy snuck very bat-like over to the cage.

The problem with that last sentence isn’t snuck vs. sneaked, alas. That’s a discussion for another day; snuck is acceptable and I like the sound of it here better than sneaked.

No, the trouble is with another word.

“I am having a problem with the word bat-like, ladies and gentlemen. Tommy can’t sneak bat-like over to the cage because, well, bats don’t sneak. The word doesn’t work here. I’m trying to think of a better word, but I’m stuck.”

Like a wave, expressions of deep thought sweep over the sea of little faces, replacing that of delight over the Batman image. Little brows furrow. These third-graders frequently seem like forty-year-olds; we were discussing once how drivers do not pay enough attention and this is why car accidents occur. One student sighed: “People these days . . . .”

“Maybe you could try cat-like,” suggests a student.

“True – cats sneak a lot. That’s much better, but I am not sure I want to mix cat and bat here. I mean, having Tommy as Batman sneaking like a cat? What do you think?”

Heads tilt. “Yeah, it’s not quite right,” agrees another student.

A hand goes up: “How about with stealth?”

All the heads turn toward this student.

I blink.

“Wow, that’s pretty impressive. What a great word. I could say Tommy snuck with stealth over to the cage. What do you think?”

Faces are contemplative. Another student: “What about Tommy snuck stealthily over to the cage?”

It’s not really grabbing any of us – I can see the doubt on their faces.

Stealthily is an amazing word. Here’s the thing. I want a word that really helps paint the picture in the reader’s mind, that really captures the movement Tommy is making so that the image is clear to the reader. It needs to be connected to a noun, something else that sneaks, something better than a cat.”

A boy’s face lights up: “I know – a Ninja!”

It’s magic, the way all the faces light up. “Yes!”

“That’s perfect!” I cross out bat-like and write Ninja-like:

Tommy snuck Ninja-like over to the cage.

“Can you see the action in your mind, exactly how Tommy is moving toward the cage?”

Heads nod vigorously. A couple of the kids strike Ninja poses.

“I have to thank you all for your help, because I never would have thought of using Ninja. It’s just the right word.”

The students, looking like young sages, get back to work on their own writing. The hum of their brains is nearly audible.

They make another artistic suggestion later on, as my modeled story progresses:

Right before their eyes, Tweety, clinging to the bars on the front of the cage, used his beak to lift the cage door so that it fell open.

Tweety looked to the left.

He looked to the right.

And he flew out of the cage!

“Go, Tweety, go!” screamed Tommy, jumping up and down so that his Batman cape flapped.

A hand: “Mrs. Haley, if Tommy is pretending to be Batman, he could pretend that Tweety is Robin. He should say Fly, Robin, fly!

“Yessssssss!” says the class in unison.

That suggestion changes the shape of the entire story, for it provides the motivation for Tommy, as Batman, to let Tweety out of the cage in the earlier scene.

“You, ladies and gentlemen, are extraordinary writers!” I am as excited as they are with this new layer in the narrative.

With knowing smiles, they bend back over their own pages, pencils in hands.

********

Here’s the Tweety tale in its entirety, should you want to read it: The Escape Artist

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer