Writers Take Flight: My Forever Books On Writing

When I work with a group of teachers I often find myself asking the question, “Raise your hand if you are a reader.” And the room soars with eager waiving hands as I look out and see the sheer pride that comes with this identity as  reader. If I wait a bit they turn to each other and automatically start talking about the books they have read, are reading or want to read. As teachers we are, for the most part, comfortable in our identities as readers.

images (1)Then comes the second question, “Raise your hand if you are a writer.” Immediately the tenor of the room changes and small hands start to make their way up and then just as quickly glide  back into their wing holds. Very few, if any, hold their hands as highly or as proudly as before. Even those who DO write are reticent to give themselves up as “writers”. Even when I soften the question and ask, “how many of you write?” there is great reluctance and the murmurs sounds something like, “Well…I keep a journal” “Ummmm, I do like to write poetry.” And slowly I begin to see people coming out of their self-imposed closets of shame and trying on this new identity as “writer”.

Perhaps this is because writing is like nothing else  we teach. Writing is generative in that EVERY thing about it comes from the writer, whether it is the answer to a prompt or a fantastical story from beyond, it is the writer’s words on the page there for anyone to come and poke, prod and make fun of;  where as anything else we teach we are interacting directly with something, be it a novel, the scientific process or numbers. Writing does not provide this safety net. It is the writer, the blank page and the words of the writer. That is IT!! Donald Graves always used to say that sharing your writing is akin to getting naked in front of everyone. It is THAT personal.   (But I don’t mind saying that I will choose words over nudity at this soaring age of 50!)

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Photo Credit to: .flickr.com

So here are my “forever” books on teaching writing that I will always hold near and dear to my heart but more than that they are books that really changed my thinking or gave flight to my beliefs.  It was hard to narrow it down to five because we almost NEED these books more than we need any other books because the teaching of writing is always the first of the three r’s to be let go. It is the adopted step child that never seems to get its’ due and I believe a big part of this is because we have teachers who do not identify themselves as writers…yet!   I would argue that we need writing in our schools more than ever. Information is cheap. Everyone can find anything at the touch of a keystroke, but communicating that knowledge in a clear, concise and interesting way is something else completely.   I just have to start with the great “Don’s” of UNH in the names of Murray and Graves.

86709243I first met Don Murray at Young’s restaurant in Durham, NH. He met me there after reading some of my work. He showed up with a bound collection of quotes, writing ideas and the famous laminated latin phrase, “Nulla dies Sine Linea” (Never a day without a line) of which I still have as a keepsake forever. Murray in his suspenders sat across from me and talked about what I had written and then asked, “What is this really about?”. He was the most down to earth person I had ever talked with about my writing. He was encouraging and questioning and an amazing listener. The day he came to my house and asked me to “name that poem” was a story I still hold dear and tell to this day. (See earlier post Ramblings on Lobsters, Testing, Brownstones and Poetry over the John ). From his Boston Globe columns (some of my all- time favorite works of his) to his writing handbooks I would have to say that Expecting the Unexpected is top on my Murray list!

“We must allow-no, encourage-our students to make use of language to explore the inner and outer worlds each is driven to explore. And when students have found their territory, they must search it with the language-and the language skills- they have, not what we wish they had. Once they start grappling-on the page- with the meanings they need to discover, we can help them see how the traditions of form and language help clarify thinking.” Because, “Writing is not thinking reported, it IS thinking.” (Pp.102 – 110 in Expecting the Unexpected)

5157S3BDGBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Then there is Donald Graves, a former minister who when he would speak in his gentle voice, the room would instantly get quiet.   I would have to say the book that I grew up with and stuck with me the most is the brown Bible, WRITING: Teachers and Children At Work.  It that maps out the original work done in Atkinson, NH where Graves brought to Elementary school, The Writer’s Workshop from a college model. The major shift was removing the teacher from the front of the room and putting the students in charge of their own processes.

“The directive, pushing teacher began to move back from her position of control so that she could return control and responsibility for the writing to the child.” 

This was revolutionary and changed the way everyone taught forever. In the words of a dear friend and colleague, Karen Atherton, “Why do what they (your students) can do better?” It is tried and true still to this day. It is a book that should be on every Writing teachers shelves.

510ZF8P39CL._SX375_BO1,204,203,200_Wondrous Words by Katie Wood Ray HAS to be at the very top of my list. Sure I had implemented the Writer’s Workshop for years, but it was really Katie’s ideas about “reading like a writer” that changed the way I taught writing forever in that it helped me find authors to ground me when I was “winging it” with kids.  And while this idea has been adopted, stolen and borrowed by so many, I really believe it was Katie who brought it to the forefront and mapped out how she used this lens to make the teaching of writing more concrete and accessible to all. This is ABSOLUTELY a life changer, forever book on my shelf! And while I want desperately to add a Katie quote here I realize that once again, this book has flown away and been temporarily (I hope!) adopted by someone else!! I invariably lent it to someone and it never found its way back to the nest. (If  you are who I lent it to please return as soon as possible!!) I love this look, the smooth feel of it, the color, the content and absolutely everything about this book and see that my shelves are bare without it!

In The Middle by Nancie Atwell is one of those books that I have seen sustain the test of time. There are very few from my “generation” of teachers who have not leafed through, dog-eared and tried on Nancie’s teaching in some way, shape or form.

“As a writer I tell stories so I may understand, teaching myself and trying to teach others through the actions and reactions of those “people” on the page.”

516kWKLsADL._SX378_BO1,204,203,200_In the Middle reads like a  collection of stories, of teaching stories, that invite you into Nancie’s classroom, to sit down beside her and her students and see what it “feels” like to teach responsively. One of the greatest days in education was the day she was awarded the Global Teacher Prize (http://www.globalteacherprize.org/winner) as it gave credit to all of those out there fighting the fight to teach children and not curriculum. Thank you Nancie for all you have done!! It gives us all hope.

Finally I include, Minds Made for Stories by Thomas Newkirk and while you may think I am brown nosing here to include Newkirk and only Newkirk on both my reading and writing lists, be assured that they made their way onto both lists because they deserve to be here.

9780325046952Tom writes books that make me think and if I am totally honest here I find these books are becoming more rare as time goes on. Not to say there are not some great professional books out there, but so many of them are not new! They are simply re-hatched from old ideas, but are often missing the meat, or the theory behind them. Perhaps I have just been in this for too long, but I always know Newkirk will prod my thinking and in this book he does just that.

At a time where we have narrowed writing down into 3 major categories of narrative, persuasive and informational, Newkirk argues that narrative; stories are at the heart of all writing because it is through story that we are able to make sense and comprehend what we are reading. This is a MUST read for anyone stuck on the Common Core flight to writing hell!

“Voice is a constant, a human presence, a sensibility, a character, a narrator and guide. Only in a phone book or the equivalent do we get information “raw”. But in sustained writing, any information is mediated by a teller, and that teller is part of the reading experience, just as a tour guide is part of the experience of visiting Monticello. When that teller is hidden (often the case with textbooks) or undetectable we have trouble sustaining a reading. The more we sense this human presence, and feel attracted to it, the more willing we are to stay with the text.” Pp 38

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Photo Credit: thewritelife.com

What all of these books have in common as I look back at them is that they invite teachers to write and to “see” themselves as writers. While this may sound strikingly obvious, it is one of those simple things that makes the biggest impact and so with these books under your wing, hopefully you too will find the courage to let go, raise your hand high and proclaim your identity, “I am a writer!”.

 

Let Them Write!

Good Morning. It’s me again, re-establishing my ritual of waking and writing which went to the wayside in a year of grief.   The get up and go to research and write just came and went and thusly my writing has gotten downright rusty. (Please pass the oil!)

Judy Garland, Jack Haley, Ray Bolger Film Set Wizard Of Oz, The (1939) 0032138

I mean it. I have attempted to put together a cohesive blog many times since my last one and what I have put out is not pretty, but there is a certain freedom in churning out crap or what Anne Lamont, in Bird by Bird, refers to as “shitty first drafts”.  It is also what Peter Elbow refers to as low stakes writing in this article.  (Thank you Vicki Vinton for this gem!)

http://www.edinaschools.org/cms/lib07/MN01909547/Centricity/Domain/484/Elbow%20High%20Stakes%20and%20Low%20Stakes.pdf

It is just writing for the sake of writing, thinking and learning. I have lived with this knowing I will  get through it and start to find my way back into my writer’s space. It is, after all, part of the process and I honor that over product.  Right?

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I preach the holy heck out of getting kids to write everyday, but now I have seen the frazzled fruits of my lazy labor as I struggle to find words and ideas that will come together into a piece that interests me. And yet we have no problem asking kids to write on demand without daily practice. We want them to perform and score perfectly on high stakes test, but we don’t take the time to let them practice.  We don’t allow them the time to write without that pressure and those high stakes.

And it is in the time I take to practice that time becomes timeless.  When caught in the zone of imagining what might be next, in putting words to paper time just simply disappears as we are in the “zone” and don’t bother us when we are there!!.

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Ding!  A text from my son, Zachary, “ I may have just written the best two paragraphs of my life.” What? (Is this REALLY from Zachary? Texting home from college about writing?)

Second text  “We were told that we could write a short story about anything.” End text.

Ding, Third Text, “I am having so much fun with it.”

Let me see this fun!  Yes, in these texts are expressions of sheer joy.  (Who has been trampled by the big bad scary lion named rigor in education)  So I asked him to send it to me and it was honestly one of the darkest things I have ever read of his. In it I could sense the intense sadness he experienced with his recent break up with his first  girlfriend. It was riddled with long, drawn out sentences that were so effective in creating the suspense he was after. And after only 2 paragraphs I wanted to read more. Check it out!

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Now mind you this is one of those RARE moments as parents and I was just so happy and excited for him. Even in High School, when given the reigns of choice this kid can just write. And he writes well. (In my humble opinion of course) And he does so without being an avid reader.

Zachary blows that myth of “writers have to be readers” right out of the water. Sometimes we make those sweeping general assumptions  that just don’t hold true for every kid. Zach is one of those kids. I was one of those kids. I was not a reader when I was younger. You could find me out in the woods somewhere creating imaginary houses of sticks and stones or frolicking among the beaver dams or even in my room playing school.  It was my sister  who always had a book with her, preferably a Nancy Drew. In fact my only form of “reading” was my cherished collection of Ranger Ricks, a nature magazine with brilliant photographs that I could fawn over for hours and stop in between to play a hide and seek game. I read short paragraphs, but did not have what we refer to as “reading stamina” today.

I believe there are other kids of “reading”.  Perhaps we are readers of the world.  Could it be that my time spent in my imaginary worlds, pretending to be someone else and creating characters that I would “act out” in my homes made of stick and stone were fodder for future writing?  Or are those acts of imagination a form of writing in their own right?  If writing is about playing with words in worlds then perhaps it can also be done outside the pages of books.  But do we even stop to consider or ask how our kids are thinking anymore?

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Fast-forward to now and I am always reading several books at a time; one or two for work, a novel and even a dose of daily poetry.   You see we hold all of these beliefs to be true, but never stop to honor what each person IS doing!! And in the midst of all of this it takes so much NOT to get caught up in it.   Walk away from the madness. Walk away!

Photo Credit:pelicanbookstore.com

And of course there is response. Zachary texted because he wanted some kind of feedback. I blog to ignite feedback and start conversations. We write with purpose if we know there is an audience or even a potential audience.

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Photo Credit: www.cindyhayen.com

And in all of this there is a sense of honoring the individual; honoring the process or even more deeply, trusting and enjoying the process.  Believing that it will take us where we want or need to go. One word at a time we discover things we never knew we were thinking or feelings who show up in disguise. Writing, for me, is a joyful and heady experience that is somewhat different every time.. On my shelves are  books “on writing” and while I love reading those, ultimately I enjoy being an observer of my own process and seeing how totally me it really is. There is no one way to BE a writer. It just is. It just means you write. If you write therefore you are a writer.  High Stakes, myths and expectations be damned!  Let them write!

Mother and Daughter and Leukemia: Writing Heals…

I have been talking about a writing project with my daughter Emma for years now about our experience with leukemia.  Today she sent me this piece and instantly I thought about  piece I had written and submitted to the This I Believe website.  My idea is to put our writing together matching our stories as seen through each other’s eyes.  The reason we haven’t done this is because I am reticent to open up my vault of pages to her.  I always protected her from whatever I could and yet she will be 21 in June.   We both have done so much healing through our writing and our audience would be other families experiencing illness.

These pieces also make me think about what the world would be like if we saw each other as others see us.

Love, Laugher and Leukemia

By Mother

I believe in the power of change. I believe in going with the flow and embracing flexibility, fear, not knowing and inspiration through the process of change. I believe we cannot wait to do what is best because all we may have is today. I believe in passion and inspiration and impulsivity. I believe in intuition and improvisation as we work each moment to make it matter. I believe we have one life and one life only. This is not a dress rehearsal and so we must strive for every moment to count. I believe in joy, laughter and fun. I believe we can have all of these things as we embrace the process of life that is forever changing whether we like it or not. I believe there is so much in life that we cannot control that we should strive to make the very best of the things that we can! I believe that life is hard, but stories and laughter and connections with others make it worthwhile. And even though I believe all of these things and more, I still have to make an effort to do all of these things myself whether it is in each day, each hour or each moment. I believe we are here not to forget, but to work to always remember how lucky we really are. And that, my dear friends, is not always easy.

January 20, 1997, Emma was diagnosed with leukemia at the tender age of three and a half. This was the day I was redefined in ways I would never be able to comprehend. That day I left my class of 5th graders and never returned to the classroom as a full-time teacher. That day I was no longer a “normal” mom attending story hour. Playgrounds and swings were replaced with hospital hallways and medical procedures. Play dates and monkey bars were replaced with visiting hours and IV poles. That day leukemia moved into our lives and refused to leave. It set its big ass right down on the couch, cracked open a beer and settled in for the long haul. You could feel his presence when you walked in the door. He was there and whatever I tried to do I could not get him to leave fast enough. It was out of my control. There were days I never showered, days I thought I could not bear the suffering of my curly red-haired, pudgy handed baby and the absence of my 8 month old Zachary. But I did. I just did.

And after four and half years of living in fear, the unthinkable happened. Yes, the unthinkable does happen. Emma was 6 months to being declared “cured” when she relapsed. Yes six lousy months away from freedom and we found ourselves again put in the shackles of a diseased life. It was unbearable. Any ground we had made was gone, forgotten, as new protocols, names of chemotherapies, and the new idea of radiation to her head and spine were thrown at me I could not dodge them as I lodged myself into a corner in of a dark room at Mass General hospital and I just cried, rocking myself back and forth, back and forth knowing that I could not, would not be able to do this again. This and more. I could not do it. I knew it. But I did. I had no choice.

And for every platitude that was thrown at me in the name of comfort I can only reply. God DOES give people more than they can handle…trust me…this was too much. I am NOT a better person for having experienced this. I liked myself just fine thank you before this all happened. I am just a different person. We all have shit. It just comes in different forms. What we don’t have is control. It is not in our power. And as much as we want and yearn to think we have control the truth is that we just don’t. What we do have is the power to embrace each moment for what it is. In the same way we must treasure each individual for who they are and not who we want them to be. We must have our eyes open at all times so that we don’t miss the beauty that resides within the shit.

I can still see my beautiful bald baby sitting in the oversized hospital bed wearing her blue and white silk panda bear pajamas smiling over at me and telling me our new favorite show was on. I would laugh and settle in next to her as we watched those chosen ones run through the aisles of a mock grocery store and try to find items faster than their opponents. The show was as ridiculous as our lives had become, but being with her in that moment was a reality I was comfortable with. I had to accept that I myself could not control the cancer, but I could try to have some control of making it a better journey, to roll with her emotions, to laugh together, cry together, play cards for hours on end, do crafts, read and anything else you can imagine doing. And eventually…very eventually we settled onto the couch and pushed leukemia over and made room for ourselves on that couch too. It was not easy. But we did it.

And so this story that has been written. This story that defined me for so long, for so many years, it not my story any longer… It is a part of my history. It has been written. It is done. And so we move forward to the next story that is unwritten and the one after that knowing that we are all going to die. It is just a fact and looking death square in the blue eyes of my Emma I know this to be true. So we might as well laugh, create new stories, cry, go with the flow, take risks, be free, love, live and try to accept what life has to offer…if even for just a moment.

Emma, 8 years old with Dr. Weinstein and Patricia.

Emma, 8 years old with Dr. Weinstein and Patricia.

Luxury, Laughter and Leukemia

by Daughter, Emma

“Don’t tell Daddy,” I whispered, leaning forward to slip the words in her ear. The plump red strawberry was clasped between pudgy fingers like a jewel. I brought it to my lips, and the juice squelched as I bit down, slightly sour, but mostly sweet. Strawberry bliss in fluffy white heaven. My temporary heaven: an oversized bucket of cool-whip fresh for the dipping. Mom smiled, and I giggled, giddy. It was the first thing that tasted right in days. The container of ripe red strawberries lay entangled in the hospital sheets beside us. I licked my hands, sticky and pink, destroying the evidence. We were all alone in the white-walled hospital room on the seventeenth floor, the beeping pagers and shuffling rush of the doctors shut out by the thick wooden door. I leaned in close to her, ignoring the tug of the IV in my chest, and whispered, “Don’t tell Daddy!” At three years old, my mom was already my best friend.

We are “freakishly close.” My mother and I. I tell her everything, which I realize is odd for someone my age. We like to call ourselves the Gilmore Girls. It’s us against the world. Sure we don’t have the hundred- mile-an-hour banter down pat yet, and I still haven’t acquired a taste for coffee, but there’s no doubt there are similarities. I am the over-achieving, school-obsessed Rory, and she is my totally-awesome, life-loving Lorelei. We treasure our cozy pizza and movie nights, and dream of seeing the world together.

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Crunch. Crunch. Crrrunch! The snow beneath my feet is unpredictable, supporting my weight in some places, and in others collapsing completely. Our mission: to cross the tundra that is the Exeter soccer field. It is slow going. With every other step, I find myself up to my knees in snow. Even our golden retriever, Ruby, isn’t enjoying her walk as much as usual. She plods behind in our footsteps, leaving the difficult work to us. Deceivingly steady footfalls give way to sinking collapses. Step by step, side by side, we start out on our expedition.

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At three and a half years old, I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. I underwent chemotherapy and went into remission, where I remained for nearly five years. I relapsed the summer after second grade. To completely eradicate the mutilated cells from my body, I had multiple surgeries, weeks of radiation, and barrels of Gatorade-colored chemo injected into me. I spent countless hours at Mass General Hospital, and for almost every one of those hours Mom was at my side. Like I said. Me and her. Against the world.

As long as she was there, and as long as the visits didn’t involve the “dizzy medicine” or too many unexpected tests, the overnight hospital stays weren’t that bad. I remember telling Mom this once before chemo treatment. She looked at me quizzically. “Really? Why?”

“Because, I feel like, when I’m there, everyone sort of treats me like I’m a princess,” I replied.   And it was true. My favorite nurses, the child life specialist who worked in the playroom, even one of the cooks that frequently delivered my meals and snuck us extra desserts. But most of all, Mom made my experience in the hospital better than bearable, special even. We lived there for much of the time, and she turned it into strange home, splattering the room with color. Those overnight stays were almost like secret getaways where I got exclusive time with my favorite person.

I guarded this time together fiercely. My dad constantly offered to stay with me in the hospital so that my mom could spend more time with my baby brother and sleep in her own bed. But, I was stubborn. She was my knight, jester and beloved queen. She knew the drill. And we had secret traditions to uphold.

Mass General closed-circuit TV only had about ten channels, half of which were news. In the morning, cartoons were on PBS, but at night the options were much more limited. Mom and I learned to love the most absurd shows, such as Supermarket Sweep. Late at night, after Dad and Zach had left, along with the majority of doctors and nurses, Mom would curl up next to me in the dark, and we’d watch fools race around grocery stores for money. It was just one of the little luxuries of life stuck in the hospital that we discovered, just the two of us.

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When I tell people that I had cancer, I feel as if I am just asking for their pity. And yes, it was horrible much of the time. Needles, surgeries, nausea, radiation, head rushes, losing my hair, feeling weak, being unable to walk, extremely high fevers. But, I know that I would not be nearly as close to my mother as I am today if we hadn’t gone through those experiences together. No matter how hard I try, I can’t fathom a life without her by my side.

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“So, I don’t think you’re allowed to leave me next year,” Mom exclaims. Our march through the tundra isn’t getting any easier. The vast white plains seem to extend for miles ahead. “This means I’m going to have to live alone with just boys!” She looks over at me, pausing to give me a disgusted ‘they-have-cooties’ face. I chuckle.

“Yep” I reply. “I feel bad for you.” My foot plunges through the top layer of icy snow to yet another unseen hole in the ground. We are following the paths of two previous explorers, thinking it must be easier to follow in their footprints.   The trails run parallel behind us, but out ahead they begin to diverge slightly.

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I am not my mother. So many people after meeting us insist that we look exactly alike. But I don’t see myself as my Mom. Whereas I fantasize about fame, glam, and changing the world in one fell swoop, she is happy pleasing herself and the people around her, helping one person at a time. I prefer fantasy and sci-fi, and dreaming up new worlds, while she prefers memoirs and realistic fiction. However, she sparked my love of books and writing to begin with. She taught me that I have a voice worth hearing.

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One night when all four of us were home together, our parents put me and my brother to bed. Feeling better than normal, I was bouncing around the bathroom and in the hallway with Zach before Mom and Dad made us retreat to our own rooms. It was the usual routine. Dad would lie with Zach while he fell asleep, and Mom would rub my back, usually until she fell asleep. She sang to me. Jonathan Edwards and Carole King were my lullabies. Her words would fade to whispers as she drifted into dream world.

On this night, before she turned off the lights, I rolled over and looked straight into her soft, blue eyes. “Mumma?” I asked. “Am I going to die?” The question had just occurred to me for the first time, and surprisingly, it didn’t scare me. But I wanted to know, and, no older than four, I looked for her guidance as I had with everything else. I knew she would have the answer, just like she had the answers to all the rest.

“Do you think you’re going to die?” She looked right back at me, never flinching or looking away.   Her voice was tender, inquiring, soothing. She was asking me, I realized. And suddenly, the power had shifted over to me. My opinion mattered, in this moment, more than anything else. I had the last say, and my reply truly was the right answer.

“No.” And I didn’t.

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I was absent for most of third grade, worn out from treatment, infections and trips to Boston. Even when I did make it in, I hardly ever stayed for the entire day. When I was home, I lived on the green woolen couch in our wine-colored living room. I watched endless hours of mindless television, too tired and queasy even to read my favorite books. Nancy Drew and Harry Potter – the mysteries remained unsolved.

The pile of schoolwork next to me grew higher and higher. I looked at it with disgust, as if I was staring at my own weakness. Used to being one of the smartest in the class, I had no idea what any of those handouts and worksheets were about. Dad encouraged me on the days when I didn’t go to school to try and make a dent in the pile, and I tried. But the lessons in the books were impenetrable, and my endurance never lasted long. Everything was different in my world. I was losing control. Even my room seemed like a distant memory. Dolls left untouched, and toys left unorganized. One time I crawled to the top of the stairs and cried. I was helpless and worn and everything in my own home seemed foreign, every task like work.

“Listen to your body.” Mom would say. I knew best what I could do, and therefore I had the last say. She gave me the power to stand up and speak for myself. I let the pile grow; resting was the first priority.

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Throwing down my hundred-pound backpack, I made the house shake. Mom asked how my weekend looked, and I replied with the usual complaints and a long list of things to do. It’s the first week of winter term, but it feels like I never left. So much to do. So little time.

She looked at the backpack, bulging at the seams on the floor, and then up at my worn face. “I dare you, at some point before you graduate, to get a bad grade in a class.” Then she said, “Let’s take the dog for a walk in the snow.”

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My mother is a free spirit. As my dad says, when he first met her she was a “granola.” Long, frizzy, dirty-blonde hair and baggy, earthy-toned clothes. She’s known since she was a toddler she wanted to be a teacher, and her passions have always been literature and writing.  Although her hair is shorter now, and her clothes blend in a little better, my mother is still pretty much a hippie. Our house is filled with words: books, framed poetry, and wall hangings that say “believe,”“hope,” and “intend.” Peace signs and angel cards, heart-shaped rocks collected from the beach, and cairns. She is powerful and very opinionated.   She isn’t afraid to share, argue and defend her claims before eventually agreeing to disagree. She believes in the power of intention; that if we just believe in something enough, it will happen.

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“They’re slobs! And they’re going to drive me crazy! Who am I going to complain to once you’re gone?” Her voice is shrill, and slips even higher at the end as she pulls her foot out of a particularly deep footprint.

“I know, right?” Part of my sarcasm is lost as I call back to her. Her face has turned red from the effort. Our different routes have spread several feet apart now, and up ahead the crusty powder is almost untouched. The paths already trodden have all but disappeared. It’s up to us now to pave our own ways.

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The hospital was an unanticipated safe-haven for us. Mom was less worried about something going wrong, and for me, the contrasts between sick and healthy became less apparent. When I was there, I could concentrate on getting better. I didn’t have to compare myself to my former self, or to others around me. In the hospital I was still weak, but no one saw it. Within those walls, I was normal, or better than normal, a princess.

I hated food. Another one of the glorious effects of chemotherapy is that it changes your taste buds. I lost half of by body weight. My favorite foods, pizza included, tasted simply wrong, and time after time, I struck out. I would have sudden epiphanies, when random meals or snacks would become obsessions. That one thing I hadn’t tried – it just might be the one thing that still tasted the same. Pasta with cheese and butter, goldfish (which my uncle went on a wild goose chase to find in Boston), chicken pot pie, and humus replaced pizza, grilled cheese, and peanut butter and jelly. Mom did whatever it took to get me to eat. Even if it meant strawberries and cool whip for lunch. I was the princess.

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The princess sometimes had to leave the tower.   Unlike the seventeenth and eighteenth floors that had become familiar and which were filled with smiling faces waiting to please me, the waiting and pre-surgery rooms on the lower floors of the hospital were scary. None of my little comforts were allowed in this cold, swift-moving wing. The moment we got there we were swept into a changing room where I had to strip off all of my own clothes and replace them with a stiff hospital gown that left me cold and exposed. My parents had to wear alienating blue scrubs and masks. The room down the hall was filled with machines, and abnormally tall hospital beds. Once I was placed on top of one, I was trapped. And everyone and everything whizzed along around me. The colorful bears and balloons painted on the walls were more creepy than comforting. A preschool gone wrong. Mom’s concerned eyes and liquid voice were my only consolations.

I despised the anesthesia and the entire prepping process. I was hysterical in my fear. I knew what was coming and I never got used to it. An alien doctor pulled up a stool and a syringe and ejected fluid into my IV that sent my head spinning. The medicine immediately vibrated the insides of my brains. Mom’s voice and firm hand in mine began to fade as I squeezed my eyes shut and struggled to remain conscious. I was leaving her, and there was nothing I could do about it. Washing away, it was all I could do to keep her there. I called out to her, begging for her to help me, to come to my rescue like always as I slipped away. “I’m diiiizzzzyyyyyy….!!!!”

I would awake from those artificial slumbers in a completely different place. The nurses once again were smiley and eager to provide ginger ale and saltine crackers. The happy bears were gone, and the world was no longer in a hurry to send me away. Post-op was filled with new faces, new setup, and new wallpaper. But she was still there by my side. I always came back, and she was always there waiting. Her tired face flush with relief. Her soft fingers laced with mine. When the groggy left my head, we started talking about the shopping trips that we would take after. Wherever I wanted to go. The Christmas Tree Shop was my reward.

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I had a lot of nightmares when I was sick. I would wake up in my room at home, and have visions of giant alien monsters coming to get me. Sweaty, my heart pounding, and frozen with fear, I would scream and scream down the stairs, calling out for my Mommy, my savior. Enclosed in her arms, nothing could go wrong. I was safe from all the nightmares and from harsh reality as well. Vanquishing the monsters and returning to peace.

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“Wanna Gee-Gee?” is a common question in our house. We own all the seasons, and have watched them all the way through multiple times. We plop down on the couch, and snuggle up under a blanket, our toes still cold from the walk. I switch on the DVD player, and we start belting out the theme song. “If you’re out on the road, feeling lonely and so cold…” She shivers as she takes a sip of hot tea, and we both smirk as we catch each other’s eyes.

It still hasn’t hit me yet that I am a senior. Although I am definitely beginning to understand senioritis, I haven’t really started thinking that much about leaving next year. I guess I am in denial. Although I spend the majority of my time on campus when school is in session, I am still a day student, and in many ways a homebody. I have left home before, for summer camp, and I know that I can make it on my own. I know I can carry the huge backpack around day after day. She has taught me to be strong. Still, I am afraid to leave her, to venture into the white unknown alone. My consolation is knowing that when I return, she will always be there, waiting. “Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all I’ve got to do is call, and she’ll be there.”

 

Emma and I on her 16th birthday.

Emma and I on her 16th birthday.

You got the MOVES! Writing Non-Fiction with Voice, Choice and Clarity in Creativity

“Your assignment for today class is to write your state report in the voice of a snowman.”

“ A snowman?” you ask.

“ Yes, a snowman.”

ImageThis was simulated out of a conversation I had recently with a 3rd grade teacher where somewhere along the line someone thought it would be a creative idea to assign all 3rd grade students to write their state research reports in the voice of a snowman.  A snowman?  Yes.  A snowman.

“A snowman?” I asked.  Yes, a snowman.  What does the voice of a snowman sound like?  I wonder, as distant memories of Frosty’s voice pop into my head, “Haaaaaappy Birrrrrthdaaaaaay!!!”   What do snowmen have to do with state reports?   What if you have the state of Hawaii or Arizona where snowmen do not reside?  Would it be a melting voice?  A snowman?  Yes, a snowman.

And then to top it all off the report was to then be written in the shape of, yes, you guessed it, a snowman.  ImageNow call me crazy, but wouldn’t it make more sense to have a state report in the shape of the state the report is on?  Or perhaps just simply shapeless unless the writer chooses to make the report in any shape at all?

Wherever this idea came from, one must recognize that its’ intent, I believe,  was to allow for creativity in writing these reports.  My hunch is that what got in the way of this good intention was inexperience in writing,  the writing process  and how creativity can be discovered and is easily accessible to all writers through the study of authors and illustrators in ways that make sense for the writer and the purpose of the writing project. So many of us grew up without any writing instruction at all and many feel uncertain about how to teach writing.  Most teachers see themselves as readers but very few will identify themselves as writers.

So this 3rd grade teacher, Ashley and I decided to begin the journey encouraging students to create their own books on the states they were studying.  We began this unit of study with an introduction to a non fiction book called,  A President from Hawaii where we asked the students to read like writers and envision how they might use some of these techniques, or MOVES in their own writing. Image I read, did some thinking out loud, but not much before the students began to identify the many moves made by both the writer and the illustrator while Ashley charted their thinking on the white board next to us all.

As usual I found myself marveling at the kids “reading” of this text.  Amy recognized that the illustrator used a variety of techniques which included a background image that was either watercolored or collaged and then actual photographs and images were layered on top of that.

Joe saw that the photographs were delicately framed in bamboo, but not on all pages.  When we wondered why the illustrator might have made that move Michael wondered, “is the bamboo only shown on those pages where there were natural scenes in the background where bamboo really grows?”  And in looking back we identified that it was shown on the images of mountains and beaches,  but not on the pages that showed cities.

Shane talked about the bold words.  Michael noticed  how the information was embedded within the text.  I wondered going into the class if this book had enough moves in it, but of course they went deeper than anticipated.

Next, I shared a variety of non-fiction texts and asked them to take some sticky notes and do some noticing with a partner and then come back to the larger group and share one on the moves made by either the author or the illustrator that they might try.

I like this word, move, because it is more accessible to students, teachers and even non-writers.  In most professional texts these “moves” are referred to as craft, and the goal is to identify the different”craft” used by an author.  I myself I have used the word craft in my teaching but often found it did not resonate with those who were not engaged heavily in the process of writing already.  And by all means if “craft” resonates with you and your students then stay with it.  Katie Wood Ray’s description of Craft in her book, Wondrous Words is beautiful.  I am always seeking alternative ways in for writers.

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Photo Credit: craftidea.info

The word, Craft, carries with it a sense of “crafty” in that it is something that is part of an artistic process and that some are better at it than others, or that some have a “gift” for it.  Those with that gift are “writers” and those who were not lucky enough to be born with an affinity for “craft” are not writers.  Craft can be a loaded word in that it also has an underlying assumption that there is a “right” way to make the craft. (See paper plate snowman) One teacher explained that because she didn’t know what craft was that it automatically distanced her from writing and made her feel even more inferior.  She did not see herself as a writer and the idea of craft did not help her to move away from that identity.

The process of identification  is a critical one when working with writers.  Once someone actually manifests the idea of “I am a writer” then all things begin to change, as they “see” themselves as writers they find the confidence to play a little more, to worry a little less about doing it “right”, and discover the freedom to explore and try on some of the moves of others writers.

“Moves” seem to be more available to some.  Identifying these moves actually moves writers closer to that place of identification.  Anyone can try out a move.  In asking students (be they 3rd graders, 33 year-olds or 63 year olds) to try a”craft” is something that some cannot identify with.  Trying a move in your writing  is like trying a dance move.   It takes out that ethereal sense of “writer” and brings it down to earth, making writing available to writers of all shapes and sizes.

When the students regrouped to share their findings, their books were loaded with sticky notes and “moves” they would like to possibly try.  Each set of partners shared one move that impressed them the most.  The possibilities seemed endless.

So when I returned to that classroom I was eager to find out what had transpired over the week and what I found when I walked in was a very busy writing workshop with paper and scissors and computers and crayons and markers and pencils and busy writers abound.  There was a buzz in the room and so I began conferring to find out more.

What I discovered was that the “move” most decided to try was to write their reports in the “voice” of something significant from their chosen state be it the state bird, produce or in the Hawaii report in the voice of the waves.  I had to laugh  because this project started with the idea of voice and seemed to be ending here as well.  The idea of personifying something from their state took on a life of it’s own so much so that the narrator from Alabama, “Fuzzy the Peach” actually “visited” the narrator, the Cactus Wren, state bird of Arizona, on the pages of the Arizona book.  So now these kids were learning not only about their states, but about the states their classmates were studying as well.  They were collaborating and sharing ideas and admiring each other’s work and ideas during the process, finding an immediate audience with authentic feedback.   One gets an idea from another and it snowballs.  It was infectious.

I also noted how all of  the writers were in such different places and stages and that for some, the gift of time to really work on an illustration with incredible depth and detail was appreciated. “I love making this book!” Josh told me.  When I asked him why he said that it was fun, relaxing and enjoyable to show his information in a book.  I could see from his writing alone that it was not something he excelled at as his letters looked young and his words were far and few in his research, but by focussing on what he loved about his state of California, the sports teams he was creating the most detailed images in the room.

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Image Credit: inkygirl.com

I also realize having the eyes of the occasional observer are different eyes than those of the teacher who has a list a mile long of things to get done with her students and that handing that time over, even when we know it is valuable, can feel too long or too free or too unproductive.  Fortunately, this young, intuitive teacher, Ashley, understands and sees the value in what each child is doing and how individual the process of each student is.  It takes patience. Then it takes more patience. It is not easy for every student and there are always those who struggle, those who seem to be wasting time and those who are not engaged.  It takes time and it takes a great leap of faith and trust in ones’ self and the kids themselves.

Finally, I noticed was how sacred the oaktag  was to these kids.  Some cut theirs into smaller pieces to make more pages, others just talked about how lucky they were to be using such expensive paper and how it was different than any other “paper” because it was so sturdy and perfect for book-making.  One girl stroked the smoothness of the tagboard telling me how she just LOVED the feeling of this paper.

ImageAll of these things, all of these tools, all of these conversations, all of these moments are part of being a writer, of the writing process of a working Writer’s Workshop.  It is messy, it is chaotic, it is time consuming, but it is organized chaos where the voices, choices, creativity and sounds of the writers are front and center and the snowmen, well, they are out where they belong, on the playground.

Divergent, College Apps and Mindset all Rolled into One, or Not

We find ourselves in the tortuous waiting period, when college applications are floating amongst the millions, while we sit in waiting for the big envelopes (you hope!) or the small letters to arrive in the mail.  Will he or won’t he.  What else could we have done to increase his chances in the big world?  Will he have the opportunities and choices that he needs to make his life one where he can maintain his passions and earn a living doing what he loves?  What if he doesn’t get in?  What if he does?  What is right for him?  Does he even know?

ImageI am currently submerged in the Divergent series, and already this college process seems so similar to the “Choosing Ceremony” in this book where at 16 one must decide his or her fate forever based on what faction he or she chooses.  If that 16 year old chooses a faction other than where they were raised then they lose their families forever.  It is a life or death kind of decision.  There is no going back.

And if I am feeling this way, I can only imagine what all of these kids are feeling.  One of Zach’s friends even said to me,  “I didn’t realize that my choices as a freshman and sophomore would influence and impact the rest of my life.”  Already he spoke of regret and wishing he could do it over and yet when I really pushed him on the subject and asked him if he really would have done it differently he realizes he could not or would not have done so.

ImageAnd then I realize that I am buying into this whole thing when really I need to change my mindset and believe what I have always believed about kids and education and what matters.  Carol Dweck, in her book, Mindset explains,

“For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life?”

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.”

She goes on to say,

“I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves—in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? . . .”

But wait, there is another way to see.

“There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.”

“Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.’

I love the idea that one can always grow and change and learn more, that “the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development” and that what we do with that hand is what matters.

The rub is that our world and the world of applying to college is grounded in a fixed mindset, a black and white world where a person’s only way to “show” who they really are is through numbers, and stats and one essay.  It is the ultimate in trying to “prove” that you are worthy of a higher education.  It emphasizes what Dweck is arguing against, “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them.”

This flies in the face of who Zachary really is, a person of possibility where anything he sets his mind to he will make happen or as Dweck writes, ‘everyone can change and grow through application and experience.’

Those reading my son’s applications cannot see him as he sits and studies how to create the perfect ski ramp considering angles and pitches and speed.  They cannot see the constant tinkering her does around his passions and how all consumed he becomes.  That he believes anything is possible or as Dweck writes, “they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.”

Nope, the college application is the result of a fixed system where certain numbers are king.

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Zachary, 5 years old.

But if I truly believe in what Dweck is trying to say then no matter what happens in this process Zachary  will have choices, hands will be dealt and regardless of that hand he can and will grow from it all.  And while I believe this does give me some relief, if I am totally honest, I cannot wait for the process to come to an end, to know what is in hand and to move from there.

 “I believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another.”             ~  Divergent

Bad Raps: In Poetry, Social Media and Of Course, The Common Core

Poetry and Social Media have both had their share of bad raps.

The poetry of our (collective) past was often presented as something that was only available to those chosen few who may or may not find the many levels of hidden meanings tucked in between the lines.  Every time I bring poetry to my teachers, there is a group squirm in the room as everyone shifts in their seats and falls back into their past experiences with poetry.

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You will find poetry nowhere unless you bring some of it with you.
– Joseph Joubert

Poetry was not available and many hold fast to the belief that it still isn’t.  But thanks to modern day poets such as Billy Collins, Mary Oliver and even those of old such as e.e. cummings, poetry can be accessible to all.  With a little patience and practice some even come to enjoy poetry.

We just need to shift out of our old habit of thinking we “won’t get it” and realize that what we take from the poem is enough.  It may just be the sound of the words or how they are arranged; it may be a line that strikes the soul, or an adverse reaction to an image.  Whatever it is, it is for us.  Poetry can move people to their own “edges” if you will, asking them to work and think a little bit more and little bit harder, what does that mean?

“Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary.”  Khalil Gibran

Social Media has also gotten a bad rap, especially when we are having conversations about our youth.  And while we might be concerned about the growing evolutionary thumbs of this next generation and their inability to communicate face to face without a device are worthy concerns, there is the upside to this wonderful world of technology.

One is the meeting of poetry and social media I encountered these past couple of weeks as poetry swept it’s way onto Facebook and flooded my feed with fabulous poets and poetry.  The way it worked was simple.  Read a poem posted by a friend and if you liked that poem they would send you a poet and you in turn posted a poem by that assigned poet.

I can only wonder how many hits poetry.org and other such sites got this poetry month.  It was a treat to go onto Facebook wondering what poem or poet you would see next.  It was also interesting to see what new poets might come up.  And even if the poem was one I knew, it was nice to be revisited by old favorites.  Some even went so far as to research their assigned poet, posting photos and biographical information as well as a poem.    There were side conversations about how many poets some knew and how thrilled others were to be introduced to new poets.  Others felt “out of their league” but quickly immersed themselves in  finding the perfect poem.  Some began the process of identification as one who likes and dare I even say might consider writing poetry.

I can’t tell you how many poems I added to my poetry folder for future teaching!  There was  a crazy wonderful poetry community created through social media with people across the country that never would have been possible without social media.  It was, if I may say so myself, pretty damn cool!

And then we come to the Common Core where poetry is not mentioned, named or listed in any categories in the entire document.  And while the intent was not to eliminate poetry, that is the interpretation of many.  Schools are reading this document as a curriculum even when it clearly states that it is NOT!  But the subtle, or not so subtle message underlying the omission of poetry is that what is not listed will not be tested; therefore precious time will not be wasted teaching it.  Schools without Shel Silvserstien, Prelutsky, Roald Dahl, A.A. Milne, and Sharon Creech will be very sad places.

While I realize you have all heard me rant and rave on about the CCSS nation wide hold on education, I do not believe I have given it’s history justice and so I direct you here to a link where Diane Ravitch lays out the history of the Common Core and it’s daunting predecessors.

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Diane Ravitch

I believe this history gives context to why we are where we are and how incredibly insipid it is.  I believe anyone who has any stock in the public educational system needs to read this.  I would like to see this article go viral.  The more we know the more we can begin to understand what is at stake.

And so I leave you with my assigned poet (by the fabulous Children’s poet, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, who you must check out at this link) and the words of ee cummings:  enjoy, savor and just take it in for what it is, let it linger on your tongue for the sweetness that it is and nothing more or less.

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e.e. cummings

 

 

E. E. Cummings (1894 – 1962)

I Will Wade Out

i will wade out
till my thighs are steeped in burning flowers
I will take the sun in my mouth
and leap into the ripe air
Alive
with closed eyes
to dash against darkness
in the sleeping curves of my body
Shall enter fingers of smooth mastery
with chasteness of sea-girls
Will i complete the mystery
of my flesh
I will rise
After a thousand years
lipping
flowers
And set my teeth in the silver of the moon

And as the world goes, I read this post to my daughter, Emma and she reminded me that her choir in High School sang this poem as composed by Eric Whitacre.  Love the connections!  And while we don’t have a recording of her choir, here is a youtube link to another choir singing it.  Glorious!

I Will Wade Out

Stories and More: A Daughter’s Encyclopedia of Her Dad

There are so many ways to tell a story.  We just had an intimate celebration of my Dad’s life for those who knew him.  It started with cocktail hour and then it was story time.   I heard so many stories about my Dad that I had never heard. I loved hearing about his life as a boss, a friend, brother-in-law, Bumpa and of course as a father.  In the words of Eben Alexander in his book, Proof of Heaven he writes, “A story–a true story–can heal as much as medicine can.”

So how was I going to talk about Dad in 10 minutes or less and really give a sense of who he was to me?  I was thinking about the text, “Days With My Father” which started on line and is now a book, but that did not exactly capture what I was hoping to do as it only reflected the end of his father’s life.  I wanted more than that.  And then I thought back to the last time I wrote about my Dad, using Wallace Steven’s, “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”.   I wrote up 13 Moments with Dad and took it to the service.

ImageI only got through maybe half of them, but then as I went back to the piece I didn’t like it.  I envisioned something different and then I remembered the book, The Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.  If you have not read this book then it must go on your list to be read.  I scoured my shelves and re-worked the piece again.  I am thrilled with the possibilities and so I will share a few of them and they are rough. There are so many that have yet to be written, but this is where I am now and I am still struggling with each subtitle as well as how many to write.   Yet another piece of writing that is never done, but is just done enough for now to make my point here on this blog, that writing and thinking takes time and that honoring where our students are in that moment is priceless.

And again, while I realize this is a very personal piece on an educational blog and even somewhat self-indulgent, I have come to realize that living a literate life is very personal and that we need more of these personal connections to allow us to see each other, face to face.

So here we go…

A Daughter’s Encyclopedia of Her Dad

A for Always

“You need to leave the hospital right now, ”Dad’s voice echoed, quiet yet firm.   After 13 days of never leaving my leukemia-ridden 3 and a half year old Emma’s side, she was overdosed in one of her surgeries. My Dad was the first to arrive and he was the only one who told me to leave.  And so for the first time I left.  Dad drove me home to see Zachary and spend one night out of the hospital.

What I have come to realize after his death is that no matter what Dad had my back.  I just knew that if I ever needed anything he would have been there and just knowing that keeps you from ever really needing anything at all…

“This too shall pass”, my Dad’s words of wisdom he shared with me when in the throes of Emma’s illness.   And eventually it did.

B for Best Friend

My best friend, Krissy stopped by to say goodbye on her way to her new prep school hours away, Northfield, Mount Hermon.  As we stood in the driveway sobbing together and lamenting our impending separation she said, “Why don’t you come too?”

And so I went and checked out the school, knowing that we did not have the money for me to go to private school, but interested to see where Dad had also gone when he was younger.  (That was a story we all knew too well.  How he hitchhiked there 3 times and begged them to accept him and yes, they finally did.  “It changed my life,” he would say. )  Did I need my life to be changed?

He walked into my bedroom, pitch black and through the darkness he just said,  “If you really want to go to Northfield, we will figure out a way to make it to happen.”  And then he left the room.

I did not go.  I didn’t need to go.  I think I just needed to know I could go.

C for Call

I picked up the phone to hear Dad’s voice. “I haven’t seen you in a while.”  And I would tell Dad what I had been up to and he would listen and respond.  One day I was telling him the latest woes of parenting and he stopped me and said, “You have raised great kids.”  Again I was left silent.  The man of few words was speaking… and he was saying something from the heart.  “No, I mean it.  They are great kids.  You have done a really good job with them.”

What he could not see were the tears running down my cheeks as I flipped the bacon and then Mom got on the phone.  Per usual at that point he would make his exit and say with sarcastic contempt, “Well I will let you two talk for the next few hours” and he hung up.

And what he needs to know is that he too has raised 3 really great kids.

D for Dancing

I made my Dad do a Father Daughter dance at my wedding.  My mother had often lamented at the lack of dancing and nights out on the town with my father.  He resisted the idea of that dance, but just like one day when I came home from college and hugged my parents and forced my Dad to hug me back, I forced him to do that dance with me.  Not only did he dance, but he even did it with a smile.

But you must know that dancing with my Dad was more like standing in the middle of a floor where there was music playing and making slight shuffles to the right and to the left.  Rhythm was not really involved, but even standing there as he held me in dance position, right arm up left on my waist was enough.  And Mom, I don’t think you missed much not making those nights out dancing with Dad!

E for Employee

As a new summer employee at my Dad’s newspaper, The New Hampshire Business Review, I was excited to finally be a bigger part of the family business.  I envisioned learning the ropes of journalism and seeing what made a company tick.  I was assigned to work for my sister under the term “data entry”.  Day after day of entering information and categorizing it.  God forbid I actually ask a question of my beloved “boss” as she would look at me in disgust and say, “I already told you how to do that!!”  Never before had I felt like such a peon in a job.  Even waitressing was easier than trying to fit into this very tight system that had been established so many years ago where I quickly realized that being a family member only meant there were higher expectations of you and no family bennies whatsoever.  In fact, it began to seem like being family was more of a curse than a blessing…at least at the office!

One day while I was sitting in my Dad’s big black chair and spinning around like I used to when I was little I opened his top drawer to find a pen and instead I found a one and a half inch stack of checks.  My gut sank as I looked to see that the check on top was made out to Don Madden.  As I flipped through them all the same name appeared over and over and over again.  A flipbook of Don Madden checks and the implications that he was paying everyone else made me gasp.  His investment in this business ran deeper than I had ever realized.

I finished that summer and never complained again.  It was my last time working at the paper.

F for Faces

Hey, do you see the face?”  Dad would ask as he pointed at a picture, a painting or even out the window at a tree.  Whereupon we would all look and sometimes we might see it and others we would have no idea what he was seeing.  He “saw” things that others did not see be it in the visual, looking out the window or into the future political arena.

Since my Dad’s death I have started to “see” faces everywhere!!  I am taking an intense course to become a yoga teacher and in that course we are studying anatomy and all through the lessons I see faces.  Faces on ovaries, kidneys with eyes staring at me and then the profile of a young man peering out of the liver.  Every time I see one I say hello to my Dad and am forever reminded that we must look, look and then look again with an open mind and you never know just what you might “see”.

H for  Hugging

Hugging.  From that day forward every time I saw my Dad I hugged him.  Over time he came to expect it and dare I even say that he might have even leaned in first once or twice himself!  He was an interesting hugger, more of a leaner really, but still I didn’t care.  Some say huggers are buggers, but eventually they give in and realize that hugging isn’t so bad after all.

I for Indulgence

“Daddy, will you PLEASE do your Donald Duck voice?” we would plead for hours on end and usually the answer was no.  To this day is amazes me how few times we actually heard it and it was something that tickled us pinker than pink as we would laugh and laugh.  What was it that kept him from wanting to do it more?  To indulge his kids just a few more times and yet if you think back, it made it all that much more incredible when he did it.  “Less is more,” he would say if he was helping me with my writing.  “Less is more”

L for  Late

Driving home after curfew one night in the yellow bumblebee I devised a plan to pick up some speed down Page Road and then cut the engine and drift into the driveway with the lights off in hopes that I could “sneak” in and not be discovered.  As I turned in, the car slowly moved towards the barn, activating the sensor bathing  me in bright light.  Damn, I thought as I began to open the car door and realized there was movement all around.  As I looked closer I realized I had coasted into a sea of raccoons.  Big raccoons, little raccoons, raccoons swarming the car and coming towards me.  I slammed the door and began to scream, “Dad!!”  “Dad!!”  Of course he couldn’t hear me and so I layed on the horn.  Eventually Dad appeared in his boxers and shooshed all the raccoons away, saying, “Get outta here ya saps!”  As he was getting rid of them I made a dash for the house.  He followed me in and said, “You’re late.”

M for Moving

“I am calling to check in with you because we looked at a house in New London and well, I just wanted to be sure that you were okay with that.”  I paused in disbelief.  Was my Dad actually calling to ask me about their life decision?  The silence lingered and he said, “Are you there?”  “Yes Dad, I am here.”  “Well, you and your mother spend so much time together and well, I just wanted to know what you thought about us making this move.”

“Do what you need to do Dad, and I will be fine.”  And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me that our relationship had shifted so dramatically over the years but that I hadn’t even realized it.  The older he got the more he said and the more he said the more I listened.  I am so glad they lived nearby for 10 years.

S for Swearing

Dad announced as we sat on the lime green carpet during a major heat wave in 1975 that we were going on a family vacation.  Lisa, Jamie and I screamed and shouted with joy as visions of Disney rides and beaches and pools danced through our heads he said we needed to pack as we would be leaving at 4 in the morning just to get a good head start.

We woke at 4 filled with Christmas morning anticipation and settled ourselves into the blue paneled station wagon.  Lisa and I settled into our makeshift bed in the very back complete with blankets and pillows and Jamie in his own bed in the middle seat with the cooler.  Little did we know that we would never get out of the car except for the occasional bathroom break and over 14 days and 4,000 miles later having seen all of Newfoundland and even Labrador.  Oh the stories from that trip!

It was the first time I ever heard Dad swear as he got back into the car at a random gas station as Mom was handing us snowballs and candy bars to keep us quiet and we were fighting over them and anything else from being in such a confined space for too long when Dad snapped and yelled, “All you kids do is fight, fart and swear!”  I remember thinking…did Dad just say fart?

T for Tomasen

My name.  Thank you Dad for making up the most incredible, bestest, most awesome name in the world just for me.  Something about having my name always made me feel like I was different.  (It also helped that Lisa was actually a tiny bit jealous of it too as I was jealous of most everything she had, especially that incredible cassette recorder she had in Weare, but I digress!)  What I love most about my name are all of the stories it has generated.  As a man of stories, and as a great storyteller I would imagine you might have thought, what kind of name would bring great stories?

 W for Wondering

“I would like to come over, there seems to be something wrong with my computer.”  He would arrive, laptop under his arm, and I would pour the coffee as he would begin to describe in detail just what was or was not happening with his laptop.  We would sit together and I would map out the steps, write them down and he would thank me profusely for being so patient with him.  “We always knew you would be a teacher,” he said.  “The hours you would spend in your room with all of those imaginary students, we just knew you would be a teacher.

During one of those visits he told me that he was ok with dying.  He talked and talked and told me that I was  the “listener”.  I didn’t know what to do with that information today as I wonder…years later…if he would have said the same thing on the day he died.

So, as you can see there are many pieces missing, many in process, and just a sampling of an attempt to remember the stories of my Dad.

ImageJeff Wilhelm in his book on narratives tells a story about a decision-making process one of his kids was making and asked this question, “Which decision will make the best stories?”

My Dad’s life in stories was what he would have hoped for.  Of that I am sure.  What I am not sure about is how many stories are still out there, untold, about my Dad and about all of those students we work with.

We are only as good as our stories and honoring those should be a part of our daily work with students, whether reading them, writing them and absolutely always celebrating them. Period.  I mean, in the end, what else is there really?