Archive for November, 2009

I have a writer and journalist, Leslie, coming to work with my students after school once a week.  They love it, having a “real writer” come and talk to them.  Sarah, who writes long stories about invented hybrid animals, shows her a new piece of writing every week.  The all have their hands in the air, waiting patiently to tell the writer something, or ask her something. Hairo begins with, “I have _three_ questions…”  They hog her attention.

We are working up to taking a trip to the zoo to interview the zoo professionals.  (Did you know they feed the tigers bloodscicles in the summer?  And yes: they are exactly what they sound like.)  Yesterday, Leslie interviewed me, asking me three questions.  She and the kids took notes, trying to catch everything I said. It was a practice in learning how to write in a personal shorthand, in catching what is important, in follow up questions. They compared notes afterwards, and Leslie showed them her note-taking sheet, so they could see how she shortened words, and scribbled quickly.

The second question they asked was, “What is your earliest childhood memory?”  I remember the green trailer we lived in, the one with the mirrored living room walls.  My bedroom was immediately off to the right. I had a Holly Hobby toy box, and a small wooden bed. (I have a photograph of me sitting on my bed, in Bert and Ernie slippers, so I can remember what it looked like.)  My parents used to let me have Christmas lights strung around my bed year round, and I kept my bottle as long as I wanted (through kindergarten.)  I must have been three in this trailer, because I started going to kindergarten there, and I went to kindergarten when I was four.

I have some bad memories there, too.  My earliest memories of my parents fighting are there, and I fell out of a window once, and I hated going to kindergarten.  I also have a really scary memory of my mom, where she pretended to be blind, to see what I would do.  I panicked, of course, and cried, and finally figured out that the inside of the phone book had important numbers.  When I figured out that I could call someone for help, she reassured me that it was just a game.

As I was walking to the train this morning, I was thinking of that bedroom, and the little wooden bed in the picture, and the Holly Hobby toy box.  I remember jumping on the couch in front of the mirrored walls, to my parents’ music (Rolling Stones for sure, and Joan Jett maybe?  Whatever people were getting high to in 1980). I began to believe in elves in that trailer, a belief that lasted for years.

My first childhood memory is an image, of the light of Christmas lights, and the pink bed from the photo, and my Fred Flintsone bottle, and some sharp sherds of being desperately afraid, and waiting for Hector and Victor (the elves) to come to my pillow at night.  This is hard to put into a sentence or two, for a practice interview.  I talked about the bed, and the bottle, and the Christmas lights.  More than a day later, I’m still thinking about that trailer, and my four-year-old self.

I wonder where those memories are– are they in the deep fatty tissue in my brain?  Do they get renewed, or created whole, when I look at photographs from that time?  Would my mom remember that awful blindness game?  When I think about Hector and Victor today, is the old memory re-varnished, or is a new experience: me walking to the train, thinking of the elves?


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I went to a benefit last week, in my capacity at my journal.  It was incredible, an amazing evening, I was moved to tears, inspired, and made lots of great connections.

When I walked into the very famous, architecturally wow setting, though, I flinched because I was ever-so-slightly underdressed.

Actually, I didn’t “walk into” the venue.  A man in “dinner clothes” saw me coming up the walk, and opened the door for me.  He even had a carefully handlebarred mustache.  Did he grow it because he knew he’d be pulling the tab on a pop-up storybook dinner every evening? Or did he have it, which led him into this job?

As the door swung open, I saw first golden glasses of champagne. It looked more yellow than I remembered, and the platters swung towards me in pleasing arcs.

I had taught all day.  At home, I thought about the event. It was to benefit a group that trains and fosters teens who live in conflict areas, to dialogue with other teens from the same area, but from the “opposite side.”  For example, white and black kids from Johannesburg, Catholic and Protestant kids from west Northern Belfast—where there are apparently still walls that separate neighborhoods.

I thought: young people, dialogue, interfaith stuff, charity, education.  I knew I had to dress up, but it didn’t occur to me to dress like I would for a formal evening wedding, for example.  In sum: I did not wear a dressy dress with stockings.  I wore a pretty dress, in a slinky material, with slouchy little leggings underneath (not tights, but again, slinky like.)  I wore a moss colored jacket over the dress, and topped the whole thing off with a hand-embroidered scarf from Palestine.  I wore my black Mary Jane crocs down, but had some gold flats in my bag. (They’re actually my wedding shoes, and I need to break them in.)

I should have worn one of my black dresses, with stockings, and some fancy jewelry that I have. No hand-embroidered anything, and not so many layers.

After the champagne, I noticed who was there, and what they were wearing. I saw many very slender older ladies, in shoes whose names I know from magazines, but cannot spell from memory.  In knit black dresses with trim jackets.  I saw young women with shiny, shiny hair, and chic little bags.  And the photographers!  They were all sidling around behind everyone, in opposite arcs from the passed hor d’oeuvers, snapping away at people smiling at each other.

The first time I ever felt undressed was in the 8th grade.  My English teacher, Mrs. Van Winkle (who had gone to school with my grandpa and taught my mother and all my uncles, and would go on to teach my sister and all my cousins) took me, as a treat, to St. Louis to the Fox Theater, to see a production of The Nutcracker Suite.  At the time, my dad was still laid off from the coal mine.  I hadn’t had new shoes (nor had my classmates) since the first lay offs.

I had dresses and many skirts. Despite my unchurched parents, Sugar Camp Missionary Baptist Church had been picking me up in the church van every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening, for years.  I also loved to wear skirts to school, and had slightly fancier dressed from yearly Christmas pageants at school, and singing competitions. In hindsight, I should have worn one of those dresses, some tights, and some shiny black shoes. It was winter, after all.

I had never been to a play, or anything with live music, and had rarely been to St. Louis.  For some reason, I thought that white pants, with white shoes, with no socks, would be just the most elegant thing.  Perhaps _Miami Vice_ influenced the white pants and no socks with shoes thing.  I definitely felt very elegant and “city.”  For the top, I wore a turquoise sweater. I parted my hair on the side and curled and hairsprayed my bangs.

We went in Mrs. Van Winkle’s car. It was a Lincoln Towncar.  It had leather interiors, maroon.  And I noticed that it was much less bumpy inside than any car or truck I’d ever ridden in.  Later, my dad did ask me what the inside of the car was like.  I sat in the back seat, so perhaps Mr. Van Winkle came along with us, although I don’t remember him.

The Fox Theater is incredible.  I can’t remember how interior design critics describe it.  Think: lots of gold, gilding, high baroque, tiling, cabochon jewels in every cranny. Sweeping staircase, drapery, ornate carpets.  Even now, I find it gorgeous. But twelve-year-old me?  It was the fanciest, most rich place I’d ever been. It was like every glamourous ball I’d ever read about, better than two dozen Little House on the Prairie town-bought Christmas presents and a party for the Little Women girls thrown in.  It was the kind of party the master of The Secret Garden would throw.

Other little girls were with their families.  They had on Christmas dresses with cute little wool coats–red and black and grey–over their dresses.  Oh, I had refused to wear a coat that night. All I had was a denim jacket, and it didn’t match.  My parents, typically, didn’t insist.  I hadn’t ever yet been in a suburb, and hadn’t ever yet met the kind of people who had dress coats, or who took annual family trips to The Nutcracker.

It’s hard now, looking back, to separate what I felt when I walked into the lobby, with what I know now about suburban middle-class St. Louis, or what I have experienced about the kinds of families that take annual family trips to the ballet.  And I definitely know about and have a “dress coat.”  But I knew, when my white shoes stepped onto that gorgeous carpet, that I had worn the wrong thing.

I had already felt the cold air on my ankles and legs, and reassured Mrs. Van Winkle that I wasn’t cold, on the way from the car.

Soon, though, I was in my seat, the lights went down, and I saw my first live performance. I pretended Mrs. Van Winkle was my mother, and I had a very fancy bedroom at home.  All the way home, I pretended this, and fell asleep in the car imagining that I rode in it all the time.

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I read the most disturbing thing yesterday in a friend’s LiveJournal post.

(Actually, the _most_ disturbing thing I read yesterday was that one half of all children in this country will at some point in their lives be on food stamps.)

But then, I was reading my friend’s LJ entry, and he described the following scenario:

He has a FB friend who he has defriended once because they don’t share views, and FB Friend sometimes posted the kind of stuff he’d rather not read. But FB Friend re-friended, with the awkward, “Did you defriend me?” so to keep the drama to a minimum, he keeps her as a friend.

FB Friend knows someone in real life who is getting an abortion later this month. FB friend has been posting status updates, calling the woman out by name, like the following: “Jane is getting an abortion on Nov 15th!! PLEASE PRAY!!!”

In his LJ comment box, I told my friend, “You should defriend that person. Not only is she publicly shaming someone (very unChristian like, in my opinion) but if anything–God forbid–happens to this woman after her abortion or on that day, this ‘friend’ is culpable.”  I also told him that he should copy her status updates to the local Planned Parenthood, police precinct, and ACLU.

I personally have very strong and deeply conflicted and emotional opinions about abortion. And I think that it doesn’t matter, in this post, whether or not I think it’s moral or should be legal.  But I think that it is a legal, medical right, and in this country our medical histories and rights are strictly protected by law, and to be private.  And we all have the right to exercise our legal, medical rights without being open to threats or publicly shamed.  My friend’s FB Friend is doing something akin to crying “Fire” in a crowd, and it’s really irresponsible, and immoral.

I ranted to Matt for a while, and then consoled myself by imagining the comments I would write on FB “Friend’s” wall when she makes those posts.  Like, “Christianity is about mercy, not shame.”  “Jesus would never endanger someone he didn’t agree with.”  “Those who incite judgment and violence do not inherit the earth.”

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30 Poems

I never did write a good poem.  When I was in fourth grade, I got into a haiku phase, and wrote a notebook full of them.  My beloved Mrs. Johnson inked red praise in every margin.

In college, I finally took a poetry writing class with David Clewell, our poet, and fine teacher.  I had gotten into playwriting (and can talk about how the restraint of only writing dialogue is something sestina-like, perhaps) and never had room for an “extra” writing class.  But learning about poetry by writing it, with Clewell, was something each of us did, in turn.  And truly: what I learned there changed how I see language, and changed even how I teach poetry now.

In that entire semester, I wrote probably one poem that is worth anything, and we wrote one a week.  I really believe that anyone who loves poetry should take a class like this– the familiarity we have with song lyrics, and writing short messages, makes us feel that anyone could probably write poetry.  (Untrue.)

My soon to be brother-in-law is a poet, and has taken up an interesting challenge: to write a poem each day this month; he’s blogging them.  I have some friends who really get into Nanowrimo, and some who wouldn’t do that for love or money.

For me, I wrote best when I had consistent criticism, a read-through of a growing play, to hear if the dialogue was true, or if I was veering too on the nose.

I admire the idea of writing a poem a day, of writing something every day, of spending time crafting as one has time, and then saying, “Done, for today.”  I imagine Andrew’s blog growing new poems like those rows of chrysalides, sized tiny to almost-moth.

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E. cannot sit still.  He cannot stay quiet.  After my first two hours teaching him, I was sure he had some form of verbal and physical Tourette’s.  Some stimulus (which I’m unable to predict mostly) will send him leaping from his seat, across the room, or table shaking, or in and out of closet darting.

He is very likeable, when he’s not driving you crazy.  He loves performing arts.  He’ll see me of a morning, and call out, “Miss!  Do I have you today?!  Acting!  I want to _act_!”

In fact, no group of students will allow him in to do a scene with them.  In fact, he would not be able to sit still with them long enough to prepare a scene.  Somehow, though, when the groups are performing, his body will become still.  He will sneak as close to the performers as possible (often in the cloak closet), crouch on the floor, and cover his mouth, grinning, watching every move and hanging on every word.

He drives his classmates crazy, and angry.  He will not be quiet, even when I’m showing them examples of real sets from the internet, and showing them costumes, and make-up ideas.  He will not sit still, even when I’m telling them about love juice— they will plead with him, yell at him (“Be _quiet!_ I can’t hear her!”) and try to push him into his seat so he’ll stop running around and bothering them.

Once, when I was trying to talk to him–close, telling him one expectation that I thought he could process–he climbed up the radiator and climbed around and above the filing cabinet, to duck a pipe on the other side and run away from me.   He longs to be permitted to leave class to the bathroom, or for a drink of water.  Alas, his advisor will not give him “bathroom tickets,” and so he can never be dismissed.

His classmates have been working on “I Am” poems, and thinking about themselves as part of their community and how they can consider history by checking out their own perspective.  I found this piece of writing in the teachers’ lounge.  It is the longest piece of writing I have ever seen Emmanuel write–the most I’ve gotten out of him ever is one paragraph, not counting the “apology letters” he writes when he is in time out.  (“Dear Miss H.  I am sorry I disrupted the class.  I can contribute to performing arts by ACTING and being good.  I am ready to come back to class and get a Meets for the day.”)

This unfinished essay says so much, and makes me wish I could do more.

“Final Draft/My timeline

One day in 19– of November 26. I was born.  I was born in at 12:37 am I don’t remember anything.

When I turned 1 I learned how to walk and everybody called me cute.  When I turned 2 I learned how to talk a little bit like saying cookie, shut up, mine, and mommy and mama.

When I turned 3 I learned how to eat by myself I was learning how to sribble srabble and spit at the floor and roll on the floor.  When I was 4 I learned how to talk really really good but I stutterd sometimes.

When I turned 5 I learned how to get and sit on the toilet and do my business.  Oh yeah when I was 4 my baby brother Dennis was born.  When I was 5 I went to _____ Elementary school.

When I was 6 I went to 1st Grade I was the student of the month.  When I turned 7 I was in the 2nd Grade I was the High Honor roll and perfect attendence and citizenship.

When I was 8 I was in 3rd Grade that’s when I started to be bad.  When I was 9 I was in 4th Grade and all I got was perfect attendence and I was bad and got suspended 27 times and 6 superintenet.  When I was 10 I was m ”



I don’t know which teacher graded the essay, but all she left was a smiley face, in gray felt tipped pen, in the left margin.

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