My book bag

Bookbag

Everywhere I go, my customized book bag is a topic of conversation.

First of all, it’s literally a BOOK bag, sending the message “I’m a reader.”

Then people realize what the “book” is about. A play on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, my book bag bears the title “Magical Worlds and Where to Find Them.”

Opening a book, for me, is akin to Newt Scamander opening his suitcase – we step in and walk through magically expanded worlds. Whatever the book, it’s a passport to the minds and souls of other people, where I find myself reflected not always as a writer or thinker but as a fellow human being on the common, complex journey of life.

That’s the message I want to send to my young students, who are frequently in raptures over my book bag: Read. Expand your world, your mind.

My book bag actually sends more than one message:

Bookbag spine

It’s an homage to my favorite fantasy writers and the worlds they created, old and new.

Much is written and debated, perhaps, on the importance of reading fantasy. Here’s a favorite quote on the subject:

The problem with people who are afraid of imagination, of fantasy, is that their world becomes so narrow that I don’t see how they can imagine beyond what their senses can verify. We know from science that there are entire worlds that our senses can’t verify. 
-Katherine Paterson

The magic is a draw, certainly – in regard to Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, who wouldn’t want to experience singing stars and merfolk, a centaur, talking animals? Who wouldn’t want a chance to feel the tingle of the box of dust from the lost island of Atlantis and ride on the back of a huge owl? Truth is, the bigger, deeper exploration is not the mysteries of the magical world but the real workings of the human heart – we read fantasy to escape our world, to live in another for a time, and all the while we’re looking into a mirror. This is where our thinking truly broadens – in understanding self, then in pushing the parameters of possibility.

Dr. Seuss said:

Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.  

The lines between the fantasy stories we love best and the world we live in are much blurrier than we realize. It’s where the impossible and possible merge – who’s to say where all the boundaries really are?

Which is fun, sometimes even comforting, to think about.

So everywhere I go, I carry a little fantasy, a little magic, with me.

Via my book bag – a messenger bag, indeed.

Bookbag back

slice-of-life_individual

Committing assumicide

Through the window

Through the window sepia. Jo NaylorCC BY

Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.
Isaac Asimov

This quote brings a little girl to mind.

She shows up in my classroom early for her reading intervention group. I am hunkered over my laptop fighting with a SMART Board activity I’ve created on word families.

“Hello,” I say, without looking up, frowning at my screen and the uncooperative technology. “Come have a seat. The others will be here in a few minutes.”

She sits right next to me, a small warmth at my elbow. “What are you doing?”

I sigh. “Trying to fix this activity for your group to play – it will be fun. Something’s not right, though. I’m trying to figure it out.”

She watches while I attempt to cut a word from one side to paste on the other. Unsuccessfully.

Even as I fight the program, I wonder what she is thinking.

She struggles terribly in all academic areas, an ESL student with processing issues beyond the language barrier. She is soon to be tested for disabilities.

“What is that line in the middle?” she asks.

“It’s a dual screen – two screens instead of one.”

“Oh. You are trying to move this word to here?” She points from one side of the screen to the other.

“Yes. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” I say in exasperation. I glance at the clock – I should have caught this problem sooner! “I’m going to have to quit now – I’m out of time. Your group will have to do something else instead.”

Without removing her eyes from the laptop, my student reaches over, clicks on the obstinate word, then drags and drops it on the other side.

“There,” she says, matter-of-factly.

I stare at her. “How did you know that? Have you seen a SMART Notebook before?”

She shrugs, laughing at my expression. “No. Just a try.”

The group was able to play the interactive word game. That day my little girl was a much more willing participant, with considerably more confidence.

The outcome could have been quite different. In my frustration, it would have been easy to answer her questions with Oh, never mind. It’s too hard. I could have thought, There’s not much need of my explaining. You won’t understand.

Had I done so, I would never have known that she had this ability, that she could “see” what to do with the new software when I couldn’t.

I would have committed assumicide.

It happens every day.

Teachers assume that students who struggle in academic areas struggle in all things – and thereby limit the students further. Although the thought may never be verbalized, it lurks in the mind: They can’t do that . . . so surely they can’t do this . . . .

A friend of my family was born with cerebral palsy. His father was an avid golfer who decided early on that he would treat his son as if he didn’t have the disability. As soon as the boy was big enough, his father started teaching him the game.

I have often wondered how many eyebrows were raised at the time: What is that man doing? His child can barely walk or dress himself – why in the world would he teach him something requiring as much precision as golf? That boy will never be able to hit the ball! I wondered if some people may have been angry over the injustice.

If so, they eventually learned that they’d committed egregious assumicide.

The boy grew up living and breathing golf. He remains a local expert on the game with a room full of trophies won in multiple tournaments, long after his father had passed away.

Yes, that’s right – a room full of trophies in a precise game like golf, when the two halves of his body don’t work together for him to climb stairs and his hands shake when holding a cup so that it can only be partially filled, lest he spill the contents.

When I needed a fast P.E. credit one summer to complete my teaching degree, the only thing available, to my great chagrin, was golf – and this extraordinary man coached me through it. I have page after page of his painstakingly handwritten notes and drawings on “the fundamentals of golf.”

When I was growing up, my parents had the In the Wind album with Peter, Paul and Mary singing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” As a child, I loved the three-part harmony and haunting lyrics:

How many times can a man turn his head

And pretend that he just doesn’t see? 

Maybe it’s not always a matter of not seeing, but seeing wrongly – seeing the deficits, not the potential.

For the teacher, what isn’t working too often overshadows what might. Sometimes we see but don’t act because we don’t know what to do, or because we believe our efforts won’t matter. We assume we are defeated before we begin. Sometimes our focus just isn’t where it needs to be when worry, exhaustion, fear, discomfort, directives, even the need for self-preservation and validation, occlude our vision. Sometimes it’s hard, in the throes of teaching – and of living – to stop and breathe, to listen, to see, to let go when we’re so focused on whatever it is we are trying to make happen. Accordingly, we close more doors than we open – for ourselves as well as for others.

We assume, and something dies.

I decided at the end of eleventh grade that I wanted to go to college. Higher education wasn’t talked about at my home, wasn’t encouraged. The general expectation is that I would keep taking courses like business typing (which I bombed, miserably) to become a secretary.

I needed to take several college prep courses in twelfth grade even to apply for college, and the college prep English teacher wouldn’t let me in his class.

He had the reputation for being the hardest teacher in the school. He reluctantly met with me, frowning over my transcripts. “You haven’t taken the prerequisites for this class or demonstrated that you can handle this caliber of work,” he commented, handing the transcripts back.

“Y-yes, sir, I know,” I answered, trembling. “I hadn’t planned to go to college until now.”

He eyed me over the rim of his glasses. Piercing blue, absolutely no-nonsense eyes.

“Tell me why I should let you into my class.”

“I’ll work hard. I can do it,” I said.

He sort of snorted. “A lot of students before you thought they could do it, too, and transferred out of my class, even when they had prepared for it.”

“Please.” It was all I knew to say.

He shook his head. “I am doing this against my better judgment,” he grumbled, and signed my special permission form.

That year I encountered the great poets, studied sonnets, wrote so much about the spider in Robert Frost’s “Design” that my teacher noted at the end of my interpretation: Exhaustive analysis! I memorized and recited – in Middle English – the first thirty-four lines of Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. I hung on my teacher’s every word about London during the time of the Black Death; his descriptions were so vivid that the images remain clear in my mind to this day. For my final paper I wrote about the function of King Claudius in Hamlet – and when our teacher announced that four students tied for the highest score on the paper, I was one of the four.

He returned my paper on the last day with this comment: “For someone who had to have a special conference to get in this class, you have done remarkably well. You have surpassed expectations.”

All of which leads me to believe that the First Commandment of teaching should be Thou shalt not commit assumicide.

Perhaps it may even need to be the First Commandment of humanity.

slice-of-life_individual

Deeper than data

Moonrise

Moonrise. magnoidCC BY-SA

Papers are spread across the conference room table. The projector shines a graph – a student’s reading assessment history – on a screen. Discussions center on interpreting the erratic data points on a trend line in relation to the aim line toward a goal, the rate of improvement, and whether or not this student is a retention candidate.

A colleague turns to me: “What do you think? You’re the literacy person.”

I consider the numbers, the color-coded risk categories, where this child falls in all of it.

“I don’t know,” I reply. “I haven’t heard this child read.”

Silence. Eyes are on me.

“I need to know what exactly this child is doing during reading, how the child approaches it, feels about it, what the actual strengths and weaknesses are. Until I do, I cannot say what I think. Data is information but it doesn’t tell the whole story, only little pieces at specific points in time. I have to listen to the child.”

I leave the meeting to do just that.

The child is eager to read and turns out to be highly accurate, reading slowly and deliberately; the time that it takes this child to finish reading is why a high risk is indicated on some measures. In fact, the child can read and fully comprehend text above grade level expectation. The only enemy is time, and that’s only an issue in assessing. The desire to read, the ability to self-monitor, and an obvious work ethic so early in life will take this child far.

I think of Brené Brown, professor-author, who says: “I am a storyteller. I’m a qualitative researcher. I collect stories; that’s what I do. And maybe stories are just data with a soul.”

Data is the dust jacket; behind it there’s a story, and in the center of the story is a little soul.

It takes another soul to reach it.

I listen to another child reading with great flow and prosody, to discover that this young reader isn’t making meaning beyond the surface of the text – and struggles a bit even to retell what’s explicitly there. This child, whose data looks near-ideal, “in the green,” is of far greater concern. Supports need to be put in place immediately or this child will fall through the cracks.

On paper – on the dust jacket – this child looks just fine.

A few months ago, as I was printing data reports in the computer lab, I saw a young man walking with a class down the hallway. Subs are getting younger and younger, I thought, gathering my papers and returning to my room to begin analyzing them. Two colleagues joined me at my table.

The young man came into my room, smiling. “Mrs. Haley, do you remember me?”

I look at him. A little face, frowning over a book, springs into my mind. “Yes, I do! Goodness, you’ve grown up!” Mentally, I am counting off years – Good grief, how long have I been doing this?

Turns out he’s not a sub, he’s a high school volunteer. I breathe a little easier about the passage of time. He was one of my first intervention students at this school.

“I am planning to go to college to teach,” he says with a grin. I marvel at his poise. He exudes young professionalism.

“Really? What do you want to teach?”

“Reading. In fifth grade. I think I can help the kids love it. I really didn’t love it until I was in high school and suddenly I couldn’t read enough – I read all the time.”

I am awed. “That’s amazing! I am so glad to know. The kids need you. What a great role model you’ll be.”

One of the colleagues at my table asks: “Was there a particular teacher who inspired you?”

His face – once so little and serious, nearly scowling as he sat at this very table – lights up with a beatific smile.

“Yes. Mrs. Haley.”

My colleagues’ eyes tear up. I cannot even blink, cannot quite process this.

“But – you said you really didn’t enjoy reading until high school,” I manage.

“It took a while,” he laughs. “Reading was hard for me when I was little. I didn’t think I’d ever be good at it. You were the one that gave me the confidence, the one who said I could do it. I kept trying.”

Behind the data is a story. Behind the story is a little soul. A precious one.

Sometimes we never know how the story unfolds once the children go on. We only play a part for a little while, but how priceless is that tiny window.

If data were the whole story, I wouldn’t be a teacher, wouldn’t be writing this now. My parents didn’t go to college; one didn’t finish high school. The odds were against me. But my parents bought books and magazines, my grandmother read to me long before I went to school, and teachers challenged me all along to strive for more.

Another meeting, another table strewn with papers. I stand up. “I have to go now. It’s time for me to read with a student.”

This student and I read every day, if we can. He struggles with vocabulary but his primary issue is lack of confidence – he doesn’t want his peers to hear him.

I am running late. When I find him, he tries to hide a smile.

“I thought you forgot,” he says, as we settle at the table.

“I was in a meeting,” I explain. “I had to leave it.”

Pure astonishment is on his face. “You left a meeting? To read with me?”

“Well, yes. Your reading is important. Let’s get going.”

He looks at me, wide-eyed. “I can’t believe someone would do that.”

“You’re more important than the meeting,” I say.

He smiles in spite of himself.

And he reads.

I listen.

slice-of-life_individual

Celebrate today

Dogwood

Dogwood. JenniferCC BY

The first day of April – glorious. A sky as blue as it ever gets, hardly a cloud to be seen. Dogwoods and redbuds, bare just days ago, flowering profusely. On the breeze, the scent of blossoms, almost like perfume – winter daphne, I think.

All marking the end of desolation. Nature composes a theme of renewal with color, fragrance, amber light and birdsong.

At the close of the day, I celebrate its beauty. I celebrate the inherent message of hope with the arrival of another spring. Even the news carries a rare inspirational story about a man opening his front door to find his dog, missing for four years, back home on the porch. He sat down and the dog put her head in his lap – what an emotional celebration that must have been.

Today is also the first day of National Poetry month. I have recently discovered a lost booklet of poems that I wrote as a teenager. All things considered, this particular poem struck me as one appropriately celebratory  – winter is over, spring has returned; a lost dog has returned home; my lost poems are found.

I wrote it when I was sixteen. Back then, I called it “Yesterdays.”

Yesterdays are gone

Leaving nothing but memories behind

And, if meant to be, a chance for tomorrow.

So weep no more

For what once was,

For it may be

Once again.

Celebrate today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three cheers

Candles

Three is a magic number. Alan LevineCC BY

I love the sound of chimes.

I always have.

There’s something magic in those ethereal tones, something stirring, uplifting, echoing the fairy world, whispering of good things and better yet to come, hinting at happily-ever-afters. Perhaps this is why chimes sometimes play at the end of weddings, their light, airy sound signifying the beginning of a new, hope-filled chapter, the turning of a page.

Come to think of it, when I was little I had read-along books with audiotapes that chimed when it was time to turn the page.

The telephone on the kitchen wall of my childhood home was avocado green with a six-foot cord, and instead of ringing, it chimed. Visitors always said, “There’s the doorbell,” and we always responded, “No, that’s the phone.”

I never knew of anyone else’s phone that chimed like mine.

As a teenager my pulsed quickened at the sound, because I was sure the chiming meant someone was calling for me. It often was. I stretched that cord at least another two to three feet, enough for me to sit on the bed in my room and talk with the door closed. Yes, on the cord.

My smartphone is set to chimes now. When it rings, the melodic tones are like strings of tiny silver plates in the wind.

Perhaps no chime has given me as much pleasure as that of my WordPress app, however.

For me, that’s truly the sound of celebration.

I’ve heard this chime so often in the past month, denoting likes and comments on Lit Bits and Pieces during the Annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers. The chime has come to represent the warmth of this community, the connection of minds, hearts, and kindred spirits, reiterating the power, the magic, of words. I am a first-time slicer and the words of others have borne me far in the completion of thirty-one posts in thirty-one days.

This is the thirty-first post. With it, I cross the finish line – my first cheer.

The WordPress chime also proclaimed two other milestones, two days ago:

Lit Bits 50

I hit the 50-post mark. My second cheer.

Lit Bits Anniversary

Lit Bits and Pieces turned one year old on March 29th, along with my first post. Cheer number three.

When I started Lit Bits and Pieces a year ago, I asked a friend to give me feedback. The friend said: “Hmmm. What’s your niche? Your target audience?”

I said, “I don’t really have a target audience in mind. I just want to write whatever I want to write.”

The friend looked skeptical.

I added, “It’s for human beings.”

To you, Dear Reader, I leave three parting thoughts on this Lit Bits and Pieces celebratory post. Chimes play for you, somewhere in the wind – I hope you hear them as you read:

  • Do, or do not. There is no try. -Yoda
  • Inspire. That means be a life-breather of ideas, tiny notions of stories. – Avi
  • Write.

 slice-of-life_individual31-day-streak-with-border

 

 

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

Suncatcher

Sun angel

Sun angel. Sheila SundCC BY

 Into each life some rain must fall
But too much is falling in mine
Into each heart some tears must fall
But some day the sun will shine
Some folks can lose the blues in their hearts
But when I think of you another shower starts
Into each life some rain must fall
But too much is falling in mine.

-Allan Roberts

Yesterday morning the sun beckoned from among striated clouds, streaking the sky with silver and gold. Birdsong – it’s a brand-new spring. The scent of fresh-cut grass from the day before lingers, and nothing takes me back to my childhood and my father quicker than that sweet green fragrance.

Even as the sun shone, a soft rain pattered down.

In my heart, in the hearts of my community, too much rain is falling.

Yesterday we buried a young lady who grew up here, was one of us, was an only child and grandchild. She was a college freshman, eighteen, a year younger than my second son, his childhood playmate and lifelong friend. She went to church with us all of her life, sang in the choir, and was beautiful. She caught the light and scattered it like a faceted gemstone quietly scatters tiny, vivid rainbows on objects close by.

Death, when it comes suddenly to someone so young and full of promise, can only be likened to a great ripping apart.

She is ripped away.

The church was full and overflowing an hour before the service. People stood around the walls of the sanctuary, packed the fellowship hall, lined every hallway on both sides throughout; a huge crowd waited outside because there was no more room.

My husband officiated. He was at the hospital the day this child was born. He ended the eulogy with a little twist of Shakespeare: “Good-night, sweet princess; and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

As the crowd walked to the burial site, the sun shone for all it was worth. The clouds were gone; a warm breeze ruffled dresses, suit jackets, hair.

Even so, the rain will fall within us for days and days to come, yet it doesn’t mean that our little suncatcher won’t keep catching and scattering the light in the quiet way she always did. More light than ever is reflected in the myriad drops of rain, like iridescent droplets of diamonds quivering with celebration that she lived, that she was a gift.

She will always be.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

 

O. Henry

O. Henry grave 

Fall comes early in Asheville, North Carolina. The air is chilly when I get out of the car at the cemetery to visit the grave. I think of winter coming, of Christmas, of this writer’s most famous work. I take a picture, marveling at the coins spread over the gravestone. As I turn to go, a frigid wind gusts, scuttling leaves over the ground and across the driveway.

Leaves . . . I remember that story.

O. Henry’s headstone is covered in coins, mostly pennies, which usually add up to $1.87 –  the amount of money that Jim and Della had at Christmastime in his famous short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” This shortage of money is why Jim sold his gold pocket watch to buy combs for Della’s beautiful hair, and why Della cut and sold her hair to buy a platinum fob chain for Jim’s prized watch. Their sacrificial love for one another has made the story an enduring classic.

There is another story of O. Henry’s that I love almost as well.

I remembered it as I planned to write “Oh, Henry,” yesterday’s post about my son’s dog. I should write about O. Henry next, I smiled to myself. A little word play with the titles. How enticing.

That’s when I thought about the fallen leaves blowing over the writer’s grave.

I scrounged up my old paperback copy of O. Henry’s short stories and reread “The Last Leaf.”

In this tale, two young artists live in a three-story Greenwich Village building. One of them becomes sick with pneumonia. She watches the leaves dropping from an ivy vine against the wall just outside of her window, convinced that she will die when the last leaf falls. To her astonishment, the last leaf hangs on through high wind and rain. To make a short story shorter, the leaf remains because an old artist in the building crawled up a ladder in the dark of a raw November night and painted it on the wall with the vine. The girl begins to recover and the old man, Behrman, dies of the pneumonia he catches from being out in the weather while painting that night.

The old artist had always wanted to paint a masterpiece and never pulled it off – but the last lines of the story have the roommate telling the recovering girl about the leaf: “Didn’t you wonder why it never fluttered when the wind blew? Ah, darling, it’s Berhman’s masterpiece – he painted it there the night the last leaf fell.”

Self-sacrificial love at work again – but there’s more to it.

That leaf symbolized hope, sparking the desire to strive, to overcome. The old artist’s small gesture inspired the young artist to keep living.

This leaves me thinking, in the course of our days as teachers, as writers: Are we not the artists who paint the pictures of possibility, of hope, in the minds of others? Do we spark in others a desire to strive, to reach for what’s beyond their grasp, or to hang on only long enough until this, too, shall pass?

Our masterpieces may never be world-famous; they may be as simple as knowing the right word, the right idea, the right vision, the right story, and sharing it when it is most needed. Inspiration leaps from one heart to another, creating something to hang onto, outlasting high winds and rain. We may never see the full effect of our work, but that’s all right.

We paint the leaves where we can.

I close my old paperback book.

O. Henry, I am so thankful you were here.

 

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

 

 

 

 

Oh, Henry

Henry playing dead

Henry, playing dead.

Henry is the latest addition to our family.

He belongs to my oldest son, who’s come back home to live temporarily.

Henry is a Pit mix. His coat is a shiny, smoky gray with white markings. He has a tiny underbite, as bulldogs do. His eyes take in everything – he is incredibly perceptive of moods and every move we humans make. If he thinks someone is angry, he creeps over to his crate and goes in.

He is meek, the gentlest, most affectionate dog; he never seems to get enough belly rubs. He puts one paw up on your arm when you pet him. He is always ready to play – he brings tennis balls to us and drops them in our laps. If we’re too slow in responding, Henry nudges the ball closer to our hands.

If we fail to give Henry the attention he wants, he lies in the floor and plays dead. Poor neglected creature!

On the second night home, Henry hopped up on my husband’s and my bed, where he settled himself Sphinx-like, quite majestically, looking at us as if to say: “This is where I shall sleep henceforth. This is my place.”

And so it is. Henry snuggles deep between us every night, often sleeping with his head on my leg.

My husband tells our son: “Henry is our dog now.”

Our son rolls his eyes. “Yeah, sure, Dad.”

Henry has been used to living in an apartment, so having a big backyard where he can run around is an absolute joy to him. He’s in dog paradise.

One morning our son went to call him back in and Henry was gone.

Someone had left the gate open.

A stab went through my heart – I could hardly breathe. This is our boy’s beloved dog, he brings him here, and we lose him. 

Our son had adopted Henry from an animal shelter.

He was a stray.

“HEENNNNNRRRYYYY!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. I ran outside in my pajamas, not caring if the neighbors woke up to see. “HEEEEENNNNNRYYYY!”

After a couple of heart-wrenching minutes, our son found Henry on the front porch, looking guilty. Once inside the house, Henry slunk over to his crate and lay down, looking at us with the whites of his eyes showing.

Oh, Henry.

We are so thankful that you’re here.

 

Henry

Henry making himself at home.

 

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer